Am I rude on the phone?
January 26, 2018 7:34 PM   Subscribe

How can I make phone conversations less awkward and uncomfortable? Examples inside.

I don’t love phone calls to begin with. I’m unfortunately a bit shy and I have always thought of myself as a better writer than a talker, but phone calls are inevitable and necessary for me, both personally and professionally. I wanted to present a few scenarios that have happened and ask how they could be improved.

1. My job requires a lot of customer service. Most of the time I am able to handle this via email, and it is preferable because it allows me to send a lot of different types of information in response to a client question including links, PDFs, and annotated screenshots to demonstrate how to do a thing. Inevitably, however, a handful of clients will call because they think they can get better service or outcomes regarding an issue (it is my job and my responsibility to help, and I like being able to offer good customer service, but this is almost never the case). These calls almost always begin the same way:

Me: This is koucha, how may I help you?
Them: Hi, this is [NAME] at [COMPANY].
Me: *waits for a continuation of the thought, which does not come* …how may I help you?

Is this rude? How do I make this easier? I am usually swamped at work when these calls come, and the sooner I help them, the sooner they can get their work to me (there are many deadlines which different clients respond differently to; there is a lot of cat herding) and I can get back to what ever else I was doing. Am I being expected to make small talk? For how long? I have talked to my supervisor about this once; her response was very specific to that particular call and that particular client, though it happens with most clients who call.

2. I have a project where I need to deliver a folio of information about company products to certain individuals twice a year. I have been in my position for not quite a year, so I have only done this project twice. The first time I sent the folios, I was thanked and no other information was requested of me. The second time a vendor asked for an enhanced version of the folios. No one in my office knew how to get this enhanced version, and the vendor and I went back and forth for a while with me trying to understand what the vendor wanted and if and how I could give it to them. I would never pretend to understand a client and I am not trying to play games with them. However, the vendor finally called me in a stated attempt to deal with the misunderstandings, but she left me with more questions than answers (I do not have direct access to the information in the folio; someone gives it to me and then I package for sending to people as requested). When the vendor asked me, “so can you give me this information?” I replied “no, I’m sorry, I’m going to need to research that and get back to you. I will let you know as soon as I have spoken to others in my office.” Which was the plain truth of the matter, and which I immediately did. However, the vendor replied that they no longer wanted anything to do with me and said that I’d spoken to them in a “clipped, manner tone” (exact phrase). I thought I would surely get in trouble for upsetting the vendor, but there was no response when I turned the communication thread over to the people in the office who do have direct access to the information in the folio and explained the situation. Nevertheless, it has cause a lot of anxiety, and I am not looking forward to the next scheduled folio delivery.

3. From an early age, my parents have directed me to not respond to questions about the whereabouts of my parents when on a call via the house landline, not even to relatives. Thus, the correct answer to “Can I speak to [MOTHER]?” when she was out or requested not to be disturbed has always been, “I’m sorry, she’s not available/cannot come to the phone right now, can I take a message?” This causes agitation among some callers who proceed to ask more probing questions about the parent’s availability, which I continue to not answer. Today a neighbor (with whom we have a cool relationship based on a number of factors and incidents over our history of living in the neighborhood) called to request a food item (this is common; they always want to “borrow” a cup of milk or something and give/do nothing in return) and asked for my mother. Usually I am at work but was not today; otherwise no one would have taken the call. I said that she was not available and asked to take a message. She asked if my mother was asleep and I repeated that she could not come to the phone at the moment. She then asked who I was, which I found personally annoying (we have been living next door to her and her family for nearly 30 years; I would argue that it is rude to ask a neighbor for food when you can’t be bothered to remember their name). I asked again if there was something I could do to help her. Her response was, “you don’t have to be so rude! Have her call me when she wakes up.” I emailed my mother regarding the request and the interaction; if my mother approves release of the food item I will bring it over, otherwise I want nothing to do with it. I am wholly disinterested in fighting with anyone over the phone and don’t know what I should have done differently other than to not take the call in the first place. I’m not good with snappy comebacks.

Thank you in advance.
posted by koucha to Human Relations (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
(3) is the easiest. Next time say "I'm sorry, she's not here." Now of course you have nothing to apologize for; and of course you are probably lying about her not being there; but - for entirely silly and unfair reasons - it is actually going to come across sweeter than "she's not available", which sounds a lot like "she's not interested in taking your call." This neighbor sounds like a PITA, and deserving of a swift dismissal rather than sweetening, but it's less agita for you to keep it nice.

(1): I understand you're in a hurry and I'm on your side here, but "how can I help you?" is understood to mean what it is, which is a request to get to the goddamned point already. So to spare yourself the agita, give it ten more seconds. "Hi Phyllis, how's it going?" Then Phyllis should give you five seconds or less of "good! How're you?"/"hump day already?"/"well you know Mondays!". THEN you agree with whatever she said and say "so what can I do for ya this morning?"

(2) never answer "no." Start with "yes", even if the rest of the statement is "yes, I can help you with that, but I need to get that information from the TPS manager, so I'm going to get right back to you as soon as I can." It means the same thing but sounds so much nicer.

Hope that helps!
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:42 PM on January 26, 2018 [20 favorites]

1. I would say, "Hi, [Name], How may I help you?" Repeating their name shows that you hear them, you are not just impatiently repeating your first line like someone with a script then you get right to the question - how can you help?
If for some reason, they start small talk - for example they ask about the weather where you are, or how you are doing, give a brief reply and then repeat your question with slightly different words. "It's been raining a lot here but it should be nicer tomorrow. What can I help you with today?"
posted by metahawk at 7:43 PM on January 26, 2018 [14 favorites]

Hi, human communications suck. I'm sorry, I have to take a lot of phone calls too (mostly placing) and I hate them too.

1) +1 to "Hi {Name} how can I help you? I would strongly prefer to call people and unload precisely what I need from them, but apparently polite people don't like that, so I experience this from the other side of the line. I'm trying to be polite and indicate I appreciate your attention, so play along and we'll all satisfy a social courtesy and be able to move on with our day.

2) This is weird but definitely challenging. I would say (in a somewhat intimate/personal manner, acting as if you have some relationship) "You know, I only compile all these TSP reports and send them out, I don't have access to any of the source material. I'm going to have to ask some of the specialists who measure the snails to make sure I don't give you erroneous information about the snails' antennae and their length of snail trails. I'll contact the specialists and ask them if they can get together the information for you - I'll get back to you tomorrow regardless of if I've heard from them." Make it clear you actually lack info to solve their issue and I think it would seem less withholding.

3) sounds like an arrant idiot. You're perfect with "She's not available" or "She can't come to the phone right now", responding back snippily confirms your impression she's a really difficult neighbor. You know who she is, though, so when she says "Is Martha there? I really need some coke!!!" you could respond "Hi Phyllis, sorry, Martha isn't available but I'll be sure to tell her you called." If she persists, I'd simply end the call (more or less politely your choice).
posted by arnicae at 8:09 PM on January 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I wonder if both 2 & 3 are cases where real problem was that the other person was frustrated with you and it came out as criticism. Certainly your neighbor said you were rude, not because you were (you weren't) but because he was frustrated (you won't promise to give him the food) and so he was rude (very) and insulted you. In #2, I imagine the customer was getting frustrated with the miscommunication and the fact that you couldn't magically solve the problem and the frustration boiled over. So, my hypothesis is that isn't really your clipped tone so much as their frustration. There are probably things a more experienced customer service would have been to do or say that would have calmed the vendor - things like start with "yes" not "no" as suggested above. Those are very specific skills that can be learned. As for the next portfolio delivery, if people start asking for things you don't understand, maybe you can either consult with someone or hand them off to right people sooner? It might reduce your stress, if nothing else.
posted by metahawk at 8:13 PM on January 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

As for the business calls, on this one:

Me: This is koucha, how may I help you?
Them: Hi, this is [NAME] at [COMPANY].
Me: *waits for a continuation of the thought, which does not come* …how may I help you?

The reason this appears to come off as rude is because you're taking that loooong pause and waiting for them to continue their thought. Don't wait. Just say, "Hi there, [NAME]. How can I help you today?" Also, I know it sounds dumb, but smile while you're greeting and talking to people. Studies have shown that somehow the person on the other end perceives you as being more friendly and you yourself will have a tendency to use a more friendly tone. It seems weird, I know, but years of working customer service type jobs have taught me this is true. You don't have to make small talk per se, but I've found that being genial and asking innocuous questions like, "So how's your day going so far?" really helps break the ice, so to speak, and immediately the person I'm talking to will either say "Great! How about you?" Or "Terrible! I need xyz info from your company or my boss is going to chew me out again." You can respond appropriately by saying, "Glad to hear that!" Or, "Yikes, let me help you get that info right away then." Then you do your thing and let them know when they can expect it.

Immediately, you'll be thought of as helpful and friendly rather than strictly business and "cold". I learned these types of tricks by observing my mom in action; she was both a scientist and a librarian and depending on who she was talking to and what info the person needed from her, she'd switch the tone and the precision of her voice accordingly. Some people want just the facts, others need a little verbal coddling.

Re: situation 2, fingersandtoes is exactly right. Never say "No" even if the answer is no. Always say "Yes, or sure." Let them know the timeframe they can expect their info and then deliver in that time or call back with an apology and update ASAP. In the case of the client who was so exasperating, you should ask him/her what specific info they need cause "I really want to help you, but I don't have enough info to source it out from blah blah blah." If they can't even articulate what they need, then I wouldn't worry about getting in trouble from your boss or whomever; they all know you're fairly new to this job and if someone else can provide the info they will help you find it.

Re: the third situation of nosy neighbor, I thnk you've been fairly patient with her, frankly. I would just let her know your mom isn't available, but you'll leave a message that she called. Click! No need for further conversation with this annoying mooch. If she wants to wait for your mother to return her call, she will, but more than likely, she'll just borrow whatever she needs from someone else. Honestly, your mom will probably be glad to be rid of her.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 8:16 PM on January 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

I used to teach phone customer service reps.

Me: This is koucha, how may I help you?
Them: Hi, this is [NAME] at [COMPANY].

I would try
You "Good afternoon, This is Koucha"
Them: Hi, this is [NAME] at [COMPANY].
You "Hi! Name, how can I help?"
Them: Well, I was hoping I could blah blah blah.
You: (Whether you can do it or not) I'd be happy to help! ......

Just jump in with something positive. Even if it's not your job. Saying you are happy to help doesn't mean "I am happy to solve your problems/do the thing you want to be done" It just means, hey, I will see what I can do to get you a step closer to where you need to be.

I worked for Verizon setting up business phone services. We would get calls from residential customers that needed to pay a bill or whose line was out of service. We never said- "oh we can't help you". We said "Oh I'd be glad to help" and we helped by getting them the right number and transferring them over to the people that could take care of it.
posted by beccaj at 8:49 PM on January 26, 2018 [15 favorites]

Doesn't really seem that you're doing that badly. nth-ing that on the first two minor changes will probably make you feel more in command: "Hi, so-and-so, good to hear from you, how can I help?" gets the conversation right to the point without the undercurrent of "why are you wasting my time?"

And bizarrely the response to "Yes, I can get it to you but I need to ask help from people in the office so it will be at least a couple days" is almost always warmer than "No, I can't get to you. I need to ask help from people in the office so it will take at least a couple days." Even though both have the same factual content.

Nosy neighbor I suspect wanted to know how long it'd be until she got called back and blurted out the nosy version of the inquiry where she interrogated you on your mothers whereabouts, rather than the reasonable "Thank you, might you know when can I expect to hear back?" If you recognize this at the time answering the question they want rather than the one they asked often side steps issues.

But I do think one contributing issue reading your accounts is that you are actually annoyed by some people on the phone and they are picking it up. You think clients should let you work in peace and your neighbor should get their own damn milk. You actually could embrace this--it's one way to get slightly fewer calls. But days when that's not the way you want to go, you will need to put in more effort than others at either not being annoyed or hiding your annoyance.
posted by mark k at 9:24 PM on January 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

2 and 3 are by their nature unanswerable. I have suspicions, but there is not enough information. That is, you are missing an accurate read on the situation, and can't provide it to us, so we can't help.

1 is easy.

YOU: [Greeting] [Ready for query]
CALLER: [Greeting] [Identification]
YOU: [Acknowledgement of ID] [Ready for query]

You are currently missing the component bold italics. That is what is making you seem rude on the phone. Your callers are not asking for small talk. Implicit in announcing who they are is a request for acknowledgement, which you are currently ignoring, in violation of convention.
posted by danny the boy at 9:29 PM on January 26, 2018 [15 favorites]

For example if you wanted to be very directed, you could do this:

YOU: [Greeting] [Request for ID]
CALLER: [Greeting] [ID]
YOU: [Acknowledgement of ID] [Ready for query]

Where the component above in bold italics is optionally implicit (and not verbalized). Thus:

- Good morning! This is Koucha in [department]. (Who am I speaking with?)
- Hi, this is [client] at [company].
- Hi [client]. What can I help you with today?
posted by danny the boy at 9:35 PM on January 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

Just wanted to second what LuckySeven wrote about smiling while you talk. It really does come through and takes the edge off when your wording is less than perfect.
posted by trig at 12:18 AM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is a skill you can and need to learn. Take a phone customer service training seminar. There are tons of them. They are full of good information like smiling while you talk and verbal communications protocols/tactics like the one danny the boy laid out. They'll give you ways to feel more in control, radiate warmth, get the information you need more quickly, and not frustrate your clients or yourself. You will get a chance to practice with others. This may seem hokey to you but this is a gap in your job skills training you need to fill - it's not just for customer service reps.
posted by Gnella at 2:42 AM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Examples 2 and 3 each have a person complaining specifically about your tone and manner. We can't hear that stuff but it matters a lot to people in real life. People are finishing phone calls with you actively feeling like they've been disrespected. I think you really need to work on this. Gnella's suggestion of a seminar in phone customer service is great if you can find/afford one.

If you have a friend or coworker that seems really good at this stuff perhaps they'd be willing to role play a few scenarios with you and demonstrate "phone call with clipped cold tone" vs. "same information conveyed in warm friendly tone." Maybe you could even record some of your phone calls, even just your end, and play them back to friend/co-worker and they could offer tweaks.

I know it can be frustrating to us no-nonsense efficient types, but just a few extra seconds spent on social lubricant can make worlds of difference.
posted by Jenny'sCricket at 3:16 AM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

#3 is the interaction that seems rude to me.

The neighbour called your house, probably wanting a cup of flour or something. You are an adult, and you've been neighbours with this person for 30 years. What you said would be fine if you were eight, but to me it seems like strange behavior for an adult. Much more polite would be to introduce yourself (not because she doesn't know who you are, but because she can't see you over the phone) then to make a bit of small talk ("How are you? How are you making out with these snowstorms? What a beautiful day it is today!").

If she asks for a cup of flour, the normal thing to do would be to say something like "Sure, I'll bring it over in a few minutes." It unusual for an adult living in a house not to be able to "approve the release of" a cup of flour. If that is indeed the case in your household, then a polite response might be something like "Well, you know how Mom's really particular about the pantry items! I'll have to pass your request on to her. She'll probably be able to get back to you this evening."

To be clear, I'm not claiming that you are obliged to be pleasant, or to give her the cup of flour, or anything else. But you didn't ask what you were obliged to do - you asked what was polite.
posted by MangoNews at 6:27 AM on January 27, 2018 [12 favorites]

I pretend to be nice and actually like the person I’m interacting with. I act like someone who actually cares about the person and situation that brought us together, even though once I leave work I don’t think about it or care at all. By pretending to be warm and fuzzy, I’ve actually become nicer, and have little jokes with them. It’s all so fake but it works. I also use an extra warm voice on the phone, fools them every time.

Sample of my BS-
Hey, have a great day, it was wonderful talking to you. I’ll get that widget manual rewrite to you by Thursday at the latest. I hope the rain lets up and your flea circus goes great this weekend! Gotta run, I’m just swamped today, you know how that goes, ammirite haha? (Said by someone who hates you and flea circuses but you don’t know that and never will)

After years of doing this my icy heart has melted and sometimes I find myself actually caring but ymmv.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 11:34 AM on January 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Re tone, there is a way to say 'can I help you' that really is a 'go away' (picture a stern shop assistant and unruly teenagers.)

Smiling really helps!
posted by freethefeet at 1:18 PM on January 27, 2018

Regarding question 2: I've worked in some form of support job for my entire career (tech support, business to business customer service, project manager, administrative assistant), and the number one rule that always, always, ALWAYS comes up whenever I have to go through a refresher training on how to talk to people is this -- *NEVER TELL SOMEONE YOU CAN'T HELP THEM UNLESS YOU TRULY CANNOT HELP THEM BECAUSE THEY'VE CONTACTED THE WRONG BUSINESS OR ARE ASKING FOR THINGS THAT VIOLATE COMPANY POLICY OR STATE/FEDERAL LAW*.

From what you outlined here, it seems that you get a little hung up on the accurateness of your answer. For instance, when the vendor asking you for help asked if you could provide the information, you could not provide it without doing some research, so the answer in your mind was a no because you couldn't deliver the info immediately. No is never the right answer in this situation. When someone asks for help and the first word you respond with is "no", people stop listening. You've already told them you're not going to help them when you lead with "no". Lead with something more positive. In my current role, I get asked questions every single day for which I do not have an immediate answer, often multiple questions a day. I say things like, "Yes, I'll need to research that, so I'll touch base with you by the end of day today" or whatever is appropriate for the scenario, or "Of course, but first I want to check in with my team to confirm some information so I'll need to get back to you". You tell them you're going to help them, and you buy yourself the time you need to gather the information they're asking for.
posted by palomar at 3:15 PM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

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