What is Active Listening?Most guides to Active Listening deal with in-person settings: councilors and face-to-face business transactions, for example. Since most of our interpersonal communication is done over the phone, answering service/call center employees require a slightly modified set of Active Listening skills.
In the context of a phone call, Active Listening means more than just hearing the words your callers say. It’s a skill just like riding a bike—and like riding a bike, it can be learned. Better yet, it can be learned with far fewer scrapped knees.
Picking out which bits of information are important during a call is a learned skill that you can only develop by taking calls. Those who say anyone could do this job don’t actually know what it entails.
Tone is (almost) EverythingNot being able to see our callers’ body language puts us at a huge disadvantage. We can’t see crossed arms, furrowed brows, or cranky frowns: all signs that the person is annoyed. But we can hear it. Sighing, grumbling, and short, clipped answers are all very easy to spot and point to an irritated caller. Picking up on little signs can help you modulate your own tone to make the call go more smoothly.
For example, answering a funeral home line is sort of like riding an emotional merry-go-round. The callers could be (and usually are) in a good mood. They’re making plans but nothing terrible has happened yet. On the other hand, they could be distraught because you’re talking to them on the worst day of their life. Someone they love has just passed away and you’re the first point of contact for the funeral home.
How do you tell the difference, other than the obvious? Yes, the caller will tell you why they’re calling…eventually. A good operator who’s listening to the caller’s tone will have an idea from the very start and can modulate their own voice to match the caller and keep control of the call.
Very important side note: don’t assume. The caller’s tone will give you a good idea of where the call is going to go, but not always. A distraught caller could be someone who just lost a loved one, or they could have just learned that their loved one, though not deceased, is not expected to live very long. Some have just lost a beloved family pet. Equally devastating, but wildly different scenarios.
Background NoisesThis is a fairly straight forward point, but listening to sounds beyond the caller’s words is an extremely helpful skill. Like Sherlock, you’ll pick up useful bits of information that will inform how you handle the call. As always, never assume (and don’t bring up the sounds you hear to the caller!) but listen for things like:
v Muted conversations
v Someone else in the room trying to get the callers attention
Each of these examples mean your caller is potentially distracted. Muted crowded conversations indicate the caller could be in a restaurant, or about to step into a company wide meeting. Not only are they distracted by the people around them, they may only have a limited amount of time to talk. Respect that, but if they decide to leave a message, make sure you’re extra careful about confirming their information.
(Side note: picking out telemarketer/solicitation calls is super easy once you’re used to them. I know before you even ask me if the, “Is the owner or business manager available?” question. I know you’re in a call center. I know what a call center sounds like. You can’t hide it, but most of the time I will still take a message if you leave one, because that’s my job!)
Confirm, Confirm, ConfirmThis can’t be stated enough. Answering services, as the name might imply, provide a service. We take messages and dispatch those messages according to the client’s instructions. Our messages have to complete, accurate, and typo-free. How do you do that without prolonging the call and annoying the caller? Didn’t you hear them say their name was Smith?
What? Smith? Spelled S-M-I-T-H?
NO! SMITH spelled S-M-I-T-T!
And this is where things unravel a bit. Don’t let that happen. I like to use what I think of as “placating phrases.” Quick little assurances that yes, I’m listening, and I want to make sure I’ve got what they’re telling me. These include (but are by no means limited to…):
Thank you. Let me make sure I have that correct. Do you spell your first name…?
I want to make sure I have your phone number correct. Is it…?
Let me repeat back what I heard to make sure I have it right…
I want to make sure I have this right. You said you’re calling for…
Your callers won’t notice these little phrases much on a conscious level, but they serve to reassure your caller that you’re paying attention. Confirmation is part of the listening process and smoothly inserting your confirmation phrases into the conversation will actually reduce the amount of time you spend on a call. Your caller will hang up confident that you’ve got their information correct and that the message is in good hands.
So remember: pay attention and engage your caller. Building those skills will lead to better call times, better messages, and happier (or at least more content) callers.