I dialled the number in response to a message left 20 minutes earlier by the proprietor of an estate agency wishing to book a training course. (The names have been changed for the purpose of this article.)
“Aardvark and Co,” said a flat, disgruntled male voice.
“Hi, please can I speak to Alan Aardvark?” I inquired.
“He’s not in,” replied Flatboy Grim.
“Oh…I’ll call back later then,” I suggested.
“OK. Bye,” came the response, followed by an abrupt clunk as the phone was put down.
An interesting if frustrating experience, this call was a reminder that arguably the most powerful tool of our trade – the telephone – is too often in untrained hands.
In this example, the negotiator had no idea who the caller was. Fortunately, it cost his company no business.
But I could have been a potential vendor, recommended by a friend to use Aardvark and Company. Having been treated in such a fashion, a potential vendor would be justified in appointing a different agent, possibly costing Aardvark and Company thousands of pounds in commission.
It is almost certain that Flatboy Grim wasn’t deliberately trying to do his job badly. What is certain, however, is that Mr Aardvark would be mortified to discover that, having ploughed large sums of money into marketing to get the phone to ring in the first place, potential customers were being handled in this fashion.
On my travels delivering training and conducting consultancy work, I find that telephone skills are often below par. Estate agency clients typically estimate that between 60 and 90 per cent of new customers make initial contact by telephone.
It is critical to understand that this statistic means the majority of potential buyers and sellers will gain their first impression of estate agents without being able to see their sparkling offices, striking window displays and pristine staff. These new customers will judge the agent initially by how their call is handled.
Excellence in telephone techniques is a vast subject, but these points should be observed:
- Be prepared. Many of the mystery shopper telephone calls we conduct requesting property details to be sent are first met with “Hang on a minute..” or “Bear with me…” as we are then put on hold to endure Greensleeves or left listening to scrabbling sounds as pens are sought or computers switched on. Excellent preparation should mean that the taker of an incoming call is ready to deal with it without hesitation.
- A prompt response. Answering within three rings seems to be a sensible and recognised standard. Even when sitting with a client in an office, while colleagues are busy on other lines, a negotiator can politely break off and answer the call, explaining to the caller that he/she is unable to help immediately – but taking a name and number and promising a call back within an agreed timeframe – then obviously making that return call as promised.
- More difficult than it sounds especially if a sale has just fallen through, but customers like dealing with people who are enthusiastic in their work. A smile conveys that impression.
- Positive greeting. The words, tone and pace all need to be considered. Many companies adopt a greeting that includes the employee’s names and an open question such as “How can I help you?”
- It may sound obvious, but there are countless examples from our mystery shopper exercise of failure to listen. How about this recent classic…
“Hello, Bloggs and Co…”
“Hi. My name is Mr O’Dell and I’ve seen a property on the internet that I’d like more information on please.”
“Certainly, sir. May I take your name?”
Concentrate on the caller’s opening words, make notes and clarify any uncertainty. Ignore the distractions going on in the office and focus totally on the caller.
There are dozens of other points to consider when adopting excellence on the telephone, but just the few above would have helped Aardvark and Company in the event that the call had been from a potential vendor…
“Good morning. Aardvark and Company, how may I help you?”
“Hi, please may I speak to Alan Aardvark?”
“I’m terribly sorry, sir, he won’t be back in the office until tomorrow. My name is Simon. Can I be of any help in the meantime?”
“Well, you’ve been recommended to me by a friend of mine. I’m thinking of selling my house…”
“Excellent. Thanks for considering us. We’d be delighted to help. What I’ll do is take some details if you’re OK for time, and arrange and appointment for Alan to come and see you as soon as is convenient for you. Please may I take your name?”
Another instruction on the way, another future sale, another commission earnt…all because of excellent telephone techniques.