I'm the idiot on the phone help line that can't help you
January 7, 2013 11:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm being forced to answer phones at work. I have NO clue and NO ability how to do this and I have to start NOW. How do I make this situation less horrible?

I switched jobs a few months ago. This is a public service job, which I haven't done except on a volunteer level well, ever. I don't mind working at the front counter, but I haaaaaaaaaaaate answering phones for anything. They told me I supposedly wouldn't have to be on phones much (yeah, right), but HAHAHAHAHAH no, looks like I will now have to be on phones for 6 hours a day, every or almost every day, the second they set up my phone account. The only reason I am not Happy Phone Lady right now is because they forgot that last one.

The worst way for me to comprehend anything is when it's told to me over the phone. I get horrible weird questions at the front desk that I can't answer either, but it's easier to find someone else to answer the question when I am not the only person in the vicinity stuck answering it. I do a lot better if I can see the conversation--i.e. talk to someone in person, or answer it over e-mail--and every time I have to call anyone for tech support help, the phone conversation goes terribly. I just don't get what the hell they are talking about ("you know, that little arrow at the bottom of the screen?" I don't SEE it, it's not there on my end....), and it's pretty useless. I usually end up kind of in tears after a phone conversation with tech support, or just plain hanging up on them, because I don't get what they are saying and they never seem to get what I am saying either. I hate those people. Now I am going to BE that asshole on the phone who can't help you and is obviously totally incompetent.

Adding to the fun, I have had very little training on phones. I'm talking about maybe 3 hours, total, done about a month ago and I don't ever know how to OPERATE a multi-line phone. And I know darned well that I don't know the answers to the hard technical questions, which I am told I will know after several years of doing this job. My supervisors know this about me and they absolutely do not care or think my lack of knowledge is a problem. "Just ask someone!" they say. "You'll do FINE!" No, I won't. I seriously don't know what other people are even talking about as they answer phones. And how can I just ask someone else what the answer is when literally everyone else is on the phone? No, I won't do FINE, plus this is the sort of job where an unhappy customer will start calling up the chain of command to complain about my dumb ass.

How do I make this situation less nightmarish? I seriously can't think of any way to make this better, what with the lack of knowledge, training, etc. And it's being sprung on me ASAP to boot.

(anonymized because it's a work question, of course)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Can you either have an experienced person sit with you or sit with such a person for a week until you get more comfortable. Sort of a training thing like the new waiters at a restaurant that follow the experienced hands around?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:56 AM on January 7, 2013

This sucks. However, you can:
  • Use the time until they set up your phone to sit/listen in on someone answering calls to see how they do it and
  • Memorize some stock phrases designed to slow down the stream of chatter from the callers and
  • Design a way to take notes (even a form?) to keep track of what the callers say and other pertinent stuff that will help you manage their mood and expectations, e.g., their names and
  • Ask the person or people you're shadowing (and observe) what the most frequent caller issues are and how to solve them so you can
  • Start building a solutions notebook (organized in a way that makes sense to you) with answers to common questions and
  • Learn how to use the phone system, including and especially, the hold button (so you can concentrate, look up the answer, breathe) and the forward button so you can turf the call to someone else.
Good luck!
posted by carmicha at 11:57 AM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would start by calming down. The phone is not some Orwellian device designed to inflict torture on the plebes. It's a tool that you have quite literally been using your entire life. If you go into with the attitude you have now, failure is a certainty.

To start, find somebody, I would start with your boss, to teach you the ins and outs of which button transfers a call, which buttons put the caller on hold, etc. Because with modern IP phones those are often all programmable buttons and are different everywhere. Sitting with somebody that does the job now for a few days to see how they handle things would help too. Instead of focusing on all the things that cause you to fail, figure out what things you can do now to help you succeed, and make it happen. It would nice if employers all had well documented and thought out training plans. But that is not how it works in the real world. If you want to succeed it is on you to figure out how to do so.

Then do your job to the best of your ability and go home at night knowing you did your best. You can't really do more than that and if your best isn't good enough, it's not good enough. You find another job, hopefully doing something you are better at.
posted by COD at 12:02 PM on January 7, 2013 [10 favorites]

As carmicha says and has laid out nicely. The easiest thing to start with is #1: have a notepad. When someone's done saying their bit, repeat it from your notes/recollection to emphasize the important parts. It gets easier with time and repetition.
posted by cobaltnine at 12:04 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you get "cranky" people on the phone, it's amazing how much an "I'm sorry" can do to improve the situation, even when you're apologizing for something that's not your fault. Maybe something like, "I'm sorry, but I'm very new at this job and I'm not quite up to speed yet. I'll make sure we answer your question, though."
posted by trillian at 12:05 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

After years of working in a call center answering technical financial services questions, I found that saying, "That's a great question! Let me see if I can find the answer for you. May I put you on hold a moment?" saved my sanity a lot. The caller is somehow pleased they stumped "the expert" and is proud they asked a challenging question. You get a moment to yourself to think about what they are asking and to find a resource for an answer (even if that resource is someone else).
posted by cecic at 12:06 PM on January 7, 2013 [13 favorites]

Find someone at your job who knows your phone system to train you. They are all a bit different but there will be a button to put the caller on hold, a button to open a new line, and a button to transfer the first person to the new line. There is someone at your work who can explain this to you--and if you have your own workstation, put stickers on the buttons if they're not labeled.

Write everything down as you're told it. You don't have to memorize it all. It's also usually okay to say "Can you repeat that?" or "I don't quite understand" or "I don't know the answer to your question, but I'll put you through to someone who will."

One thing that helped me when I first started working phones is to remember I'm not me, I'm an actor playing a person at my job. It's a role, and it has lines, and the things that people say to my character don't have anything to do with me, the actor. This way of framing can help a lot when you deal with irritating or aggressive people. Just have your lines ready and don't take it personally.

Also, yes, use the hold button. If you're not being recorded, it can be a nice way to get twenty seconds of breather.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:08 PM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I usually end up kind of in tears after a phone conversation with tech support, or just plain hanging up on them, because I don't get what they are saying and they never seem to get what I am saying either.

Tough love time: if this is something you are doing to people you are supposed to be helping (and not the other way around), this is really immature and you gotta do whatever you can not to do it anymore. You are an adult, and adults do not just hang up on people they are providing a service to. I am going to assume this is something you do when you receive customer support from someone else, though, but that's still a really shitty thing to do regardless, so think about how you feel when someone does that to you after you've been trying your hardest to give them the help they need and try not to do it anymore either. I get that this is hard, but this is so unprofessional and it's something you can definitely work through.

You could go back to your supervisors and be really frank with them. "I am concerned that I am not going to be able to provide the kind of customer support we are known for over the phone due to my lack of training. This is an area I need more support in. May I shadow someone with these skills already in place for two days so I can gain a better understanding of both the tech side of things and the support side of things?"
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:08 PM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Well, that's no fun being thrown in the deep end. Try to remain cool under pressure and find a way not to get flustered. It's ok not to know answers as long as you make it clear you want to help and can find the answers (obviously this won't alway be true at first, but you'll have to fake it). A few pieces of advice dredged up from long ago phone work:
  • "Emphathize, don't sympathize": you understand the caller's problem and their frustration, but their problem isn't the end of the world either.
  • Ask close-ended questions. You want to boil the problem down to its essence as quickly as possible, not hear every niggling detail of the caller's life up until just now. Help them get to the point without sounding like you're rushing them.
  • Be professional. Don't tell the callers about your troubles, don't let on about being overworked or overwhelmed, even if it's true. That's not their problem and it can turn a caller off.
  • Take notes after each call (or the next break in the action). Not only will it help if someone calls back or complains, but it's a good way to discern patterns and figure out ways to be more efficient or to fix things within the company.
  • Develop internal resources: figure out who is good with questions about Topic X, Y and Z and use them but don't bother them: ask questions when they're not busy or send via email so they can answer fully in their own time.
  • It's toally lame, but develop a professional-sounding Open ("Hello, this is Company X, Anonymous speaking") and Close ("If there's nothing else I can help you with, have a great day"). It feels stupid, but the bit of routine helps and makes you sound like you've been well-trained and are in charge.
In general, what COD said: you've made this into a huge disaster before it started and are self-sabotaging. You're not the "idiot on the phone", you're a person trying to help. If you weren't there, no one would be answering the phone. You matter.
posted by yerfatma at 12:10 PM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nthing COD, but I'd not go to your boss to show you how to work the hold buttons. Surely, there's someone there who can get you up to speed on the physical device. Then, write down the various responses that you need to give to people (May I put you on hold? May I take a message? and so on.)
And, yes, please drop the drama--it's a phone, not a Howitzer. Throughout your career, you will be given tasks and assignments on somewhat short notice and be expected to follow through. You're competent enough to get this job, and think how much better you'll feel about yourself when you master this assignment.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:12 PM on January 7, 2013

Find someone at your job who knows your phone system to train you. They are all a bit different but there will be a button to put the caller on hold, a button to open a new line, and a button to transfer the first person to the new line. There is someone at your work who can explain this to you--and if you have your own workstation, put stickers on the buttons if they're not labeled.

In addition to this, practice using the phone. Ask two coworkers to help, and practice putting them on hold, transferring their call, etc. And if you're allowed, until you get the hang of it, you may want to ask the caller for a call-back number, saying something like, "In case our call is interrupted, may I have a number to call you back?" That way, you're not stuck if you do accidentally hang up on someone while you transfer them.
posted by amarynth at 12:17 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh my goodness, anonymous, are you me? I think you are me. I think you are me in an alternate universe where I am working another job where I have to use the phone because this is exactly how I would be going through it oh my god. I do not envy you. I completely, completely understand where you're coming from.

At my last job I was a paralegal for an immigration lawyer, and I was #1 phone answerer. I was #1 phone answerer when I suck at phones AND I have to try to understand people's accents. At my current job, I am the one who has to make every call when something goes wrong. Need to track down a b and c for the xyz account? I am the one stuck on the phone for an hour and a half. Happened just this morning in fact. I manage to excuse myself from talking on the phone 98% of the time in my personal life, but at work it's pretty much unavoidable.

These are my tips:

1) Go slowly. Speak a beat slower than how normal people speak. It will keep you from becoming flustered.

2) Take notes! Even if it's a 60 second call, by the time I hang up I've forgotten the meat of the conversation. So I jot notes all the way through it.

3) Get the other person's name (and write it down). You can say, "thank you, Gertrude!" or "do you mind holding for just a moment, Gertrude?" or even "my favorite aunt was named Gertrude!" It's a little more human, 1, and 2, it will give you just a half a second more time to be able to process what you're talking about if you can slow the conversation down by repeating their name.

4) Apologize in a lighthearted way. Don't be afraid to apologize. Try a bit of self-deprecating humor. I've only just (after a year of working here) started to figure out this fancy schmancy phone system we have, and I'm still terrified I'm going to hang up on someone or drop the call. "Gertrude, I'm going to try to transfer you to the such-and-such department. We just got new phones, so I don't want to accidentally hang up on you--what's your direct line? [press a button] Oops, you still with me, Gertrude? ha, ha, ha, OK, sorry, let's try this again!" And so forth.

5) It does get better, I promise. I PROMISE. It took me MONTHS, but it's gotten to the point now where picking up the phone doesn't fill me with dread. I still don't like it, but it is, slowly but surely, getting easier.

Long story short, this sucks, and you're not alone. Just be bold, and don't be afraid to take as long as YOU need to take to do your job. Other people being frustrated is not your problem. Your problem is answering their question (or whatever) correctly. Take your time.
posted by phunniemee at 12:17 PM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

The worst way for me to comprehend anything is when it's told to me over the phone.

But if people talk to you, you understand them all right, right?

Try switching to your other ear (this is not a joke).
posted by Namlit at 12:18 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

You'll pick up the details of how to work the phone system with practice, but write everything down at first and type up a reference sheet with step-by-step instructions so that when you get asked to do something fancy like park a call and page someone, you can refer to your sheet.

Start compiling a list of commonly asked questions along with the answer, problems along with the solution, and the go-to person for various topics along with their extension. I used a two-column spreadsheet with topics alphabetized and added to it/updated it regularly.

Keep a notebook and a pen beside you so you can start writing when the caller starts talking.

Cultivate a super-friendly voice and attitude on the phone. Makes it harder for people to yell at you. I use what I call my "kindergarten teacher voice" (very chirpy!) and always try to sound like I'm really happy the person called. I worked reception for years and now do phone support for a software product, and I found that the nicer you are (and if you can be genuinely sympathetic while the caller vents) it makes it really hard for them to be a dick to you.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 12:20 PM on January 7, 2013

But if people talk to you, you understand them all right, right?

Try switching to your other ear (this is not a joke).

Obviously I can't speak for the OP, but for me--I have perfect hearing, but I have a really hard time tracking conversations just by listening. I have to be able to read the person's face. If someone is standing behind me in person talking, I have the same issues. I don't know what it is, but I'd go so far to say this is A Thing.

Going slowly, taking notes, and repeating things is the only thing that helps for me.
posted by phunniemee at 12:21 PM on January 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

Cultivate a super-friendly voice and attitude on the phone. Makes it harder for people to yell at you. I use what I call my "kindergarten teacher voice" (very chirpy!) and always try to sound like I'm really happy the person called.

Oh yes! I left this out. SMILE while you're on the phone. It will naturally perk up your voice. (I have to remember to do this when I need something from someone but am very, very frustrated.) I'm not mad at them, I'm mad at the process. Smiling helps to mask the stabbiness in my voice.
posted by phunniemee at 12:23 PM on January 7, 2013

Say with a smile on your face (they can hear it in your voice): "I'm so sorry, I'm new, and I'm actually sure about the answer to that. May I put you on hold for a moment while I find out for you?" Don't make yourself crazy--let them wait. Take as much time as you need to calmly figure out either the answer to their question or the proper person to transfer them to.

It sounds to me from the way you worded things, and I'm extrapolating by comparing you to a couple of people I know, that you have a really hard time dealing with not knowing the answer to something. I just struck me that you don't get "weird" questions, you get "horrible weird questions." What makes them horrible? Unless you work at some kind of medical office and are getting gross graphic descriptive questions, I get the sense that it's horrible because you don't know the answer. Well even the CEO of a company doesn't know the answer to all the questions--they often have to get detailed answers from their subordinates. I have been the #1 phone answerer in places where I knew no answers and accidentally disconnected calls all the time, and a genuine laugh and self-deprecating apology was all that was ever needed. People understand.
posted by thebazilist at 12:24 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hey! I had to do this for a while and I super hated it, and I have the same problem with processing information over the phone. Here are some things that make it easier:

1. Stock questions. It depends on the nature of your callers/company, but for me it was: is this happening in other browsers? On other machines? What version of Firefox are you running?

2. People are so bad at describing problems. So: ask them how they got to where they are, and ask them where they want to go. (e.g. "What screen were you on before this?" or "What were you doing before this happened?" and "What results did you expect?") This keeps everyone focused on the problem, and it helps you to define the expected results.

3. Repeat things in your own words. If the person says, "I pressed the button and everything disappeared," say back to them, "I want to make sure I've got that right. You pressed the Submit button, and the two columns of information disappeared, is that right? Is there anything where those two columns used to be?"

4. "That sounds frustrating" makes people feel better.

5. Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know the answer to that, but I'm going to check into it and give you a call back in [x units of time]. Will that work for you?" Everyone says yes. Except for one time when a client said "no, I want you to stay on the line until you've resolved this," but she was a straight up bad person. Most of the time, people understand that it will take you less time to solve a problem if you have both of your hands and all of your attention focused on getting the answer.

This will get better. I was a lot like you when I started but ended up being pretty good. Our customers gave me good reviews not because I was the smartest person, or had the answers the quickest, but because they felt like I cared about them and their problem and that I would be their advocate. There are multiple ways to succeed in a position like this.
posted by punchtothehead at 12:33 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Relax. the good thing is No one expects the first person they call to be very helpful. Simply plan an exit strategy for every single call. "Gee Mr client I don't know the answer to that. let me transfer you to our in-house expert". Lather rinse and Repeat.
posted by Gungho at 12:38 PM on January 7, 2013

I've answered a lot of multi-line phones at a lot of horrible front desks in my day. Three hours training is quite a lot, in my experience, which doesn't mean of course that it's anywhere near enough.

Re: physically working the phone, someone should be able to show you this quite easily. if no one can, there's a good chance there are instructions stuck somewhere in the desk where the phone is, either the actual manual the phone came with or a binder of "how to do this job" tips written up by a former phone-answerer.

Absolutely take notes while the caller is talking, and you can ask them to repeat things, etc. You can go really slow. People don't like to be insulted or blown off but the vast majority of people won't mind if you're deliberate and make sure you get the right info. Being friendly and polite (and fake perky if need be) will help with this a lot.

If your boss told you it will take *years* to learn everything, they will also expect you to either transfer stuff you can't handle to someone else, or put people on hold while you find out the answer. If everyone else is on the phone, the caller will just have to wait.

Gungho is totally right that if you're the first person to answer the phone, very many callers will assume you are useless anyway. This is a weird sort of gift, because while they'll still get frustrated with you, their expectations will be really low.

You will probably never like answering phones, but you will get much more practiced at it, trust me.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:22 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

There has been some rather unhelpful advice here, from people who don't seem to realize the nature of the problem, that not everyone is equally capable in an official phone support role. I have similar issues when I'm forced to use the phone, and coaching hasn't really helped me very much.

But if it helps any, I kind of think our very discomfort with phone service has the potential of making us better at providing it. We're more aware of what a difficult problem audio-only communication is, and are more likely to make sure we're hearing customers correctly. Everyone has the kinds of problems we have, but we're cognizant of difficulties others brush over. We assume less.

There have been several times where, answering phones at Domino's, my insistence on making sure I understand everything the caller is asking, sometimes to the extent of sounding a little stupid (I always repeat the order afterward to make sure it's correct), has caught an ordering or delivery miscommunication before the food gets made incorrectly or sent out to a non-existent house. It's not stupid if it works.

So, take it slow, go step by step, don't assume anything you can help, realize that it's better to be accurate than fast, and recognize that your discomfort may paradoxically make you quite good at this task.
posted by JHarris at 1:28 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't ever know how to OPERATE a multi-line phone.

Find two coworkers that will let you practice putting them on hold, conferencing the other person in, sending them to voicemail, etc.

I do a lot better if I can see the conversation-

I'm unclear what kind of job this is, but if you're answering technical questions, is remote access (something like LogMeIn) or web conferencing an option? That way you see what the other person is doing on their machine (or vice versa) while you are talking to them.

I'm a visual person too, and I have poor hearing, so I can empathize. I would have to find another job if I were expected to be on the phone for six hours every day.
posted by desjardins at 1:30 PM on January 7, 2013

I was really scared of answering the phone at my new job, partly because on your first day, of course you don't know the answer to anyone's question and then this person is just hanging there while you're all flustered trying to find out.

I found it really useful to take down people's number or email and say "It's going to take me a few minutes to find an answer for you, so let me get back to you as soon as I can".
posted by nakedmolerats at 1:51 PM on January 7, 2013

When I temped, which mostly consisted of getting thrown onto unfamiliar phone lines with no training, I found the phrase "Please bear with me, I'm new," to magically soothe a lot of ruffled feathers. Mostly because you're asking *them* for a favor, which they can grant, which makes them feel good about helping you.
posted by telophase at 5:48 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

The best advice I got at my first job after college was that it's ok to say, "Let me get back to you on that."

Projecting confidence and assurance go a long way toward having a successful interaction. That is the hardest thing to train the people in my office to do. I have had the younger ones write down key phrases such as "May I ask who is calling?" and "Thanks for holding."

I have to guide customers through my company's website,and often I find it better to put my head down and close my eyes to focus on what they are saying.

Also, I don't like to repeat their name more than once, as it sounds disingenuous.

Good luck, and don't panic!
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:42 PM on January 7, 2013

Unless there is a specific policy forbidding it under penalty of death then take down all the pertinent information from the caller and call them back when you have a chance to get the answer to their question. If not then there is always a hold button on any modern office phone. As far as using the phone, demand training from your supervisors. I would not leave their office until they showed me how to use the phone in question. Otherwise I would learn the basic phone transfer button and start transferring all of the phone calls to them.
posted by JJ86 at 5:44 AM on January 8, 2013

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