(Editor’s note: This post was originally published in May 2018. It has been updated with relevant information and additional context)
In today’s world of indirect, text-based communication, many conversational skills are underdeveloped. However, the telephone is still a vital business tool, critical to both sales and customer service professionals.
To truly excel in these careers, sales and support reps must break with comfort and learn how to use the phone effectively. This means achieving a level of proficiency that’s foreign to many modern workers.
But even customer service and sales agents who master the necessary soft skills still need tools to realize their full potential. Understanding what’s possible (plus mastering communication skills techniques) will lead to more closed-deals and 5-star reviews.
Here are the phone skills customer service and sales pros should master, paired with modern technologies that make phone conversations better.
Sales skills and the tech to help them thrive:
You may be a smooth talker (maybe you could sell an iPhone to Larry Page), but all of your innate gifts could go to waste if your technology doesn’t help you showcase these talents.
Phone skill: Avoiding awkward silence
Sales people often worry about not knowing the right thing to say. What questions do I ask? How can I keep the conversation flowing naturally without awkward pauses?
The number one cause for radio silence on sales and/or customer service calls is insufficient training. With experience, sales reps will know which questions to ask, and support agents will know how to respond when a caller dials in with issues.
That’s why it’s vital to have a structured onboarding process for new hires.
For sales teams, a classroom-style product overview should be followed by a period where new hires shadow more experienced agents. This first-hand exposure gives new reps the opportunity to learn from observing phone skills in action.
Additionally, pairing new hires with a sales mentor gives them the opportunity to ask questions about a particular phone conversation in a comfortable and low-pressure situation. Eventually, these shadow-opportunities should transition into supervised live calls where managers can evaluate communication skills—such as building rapport—or telephone skills such as answering the phone properly.
But there will still be situations where sales professionals have to address hard questions and endure awkward moments. For this, volume is the only cure.
Especially when it comes to cold calling, nobody finds it natural at first. While going through the ramping period, new reps should be making dozens of phone calls each day (some sales managers say this number could be as high as 150 calls per day). As such, new reps also leave tons of voice mail.
Useful tool: Collaborative sales conversations
Two minds are almost always better than one. That being said, phone features which enable supervisors and colleagues to “whisper” advice or instructions could result in more closed deals.
To take advantage of call whispering, two agents must be on the call, but only one agent’s line will be audible to the lead. If the speaking-agent needs information, advice, or encouragement, the “whispering” agent can discreetly help them out. This feature has two main use cases.
1. During onboarding, new hires can approach phone calls confidently. They’ll know that their supervisors are there to support them if needed.
2. Sales directors will use call whispering to help close big deals. If a call is high-priority, it makes sense to put two top-performing reps on the call. Even if only one voice is audible, having the support of three minds will ensure no opportunities are missed.
Phone skill: Making a ton of sales calls
Sales is a varied profession combining the research skills of a PhD candidate, the conversational acumen of a politician, and the bullish mentality of a monster truck that crushes more responsible vehicles.
With this last point in mind, some sales positions rely on speed and efficiency to meet targets. More calls means more opportunities, resulting in more deals won.
Aside from technology, the best way to ensure a high call volume is to use a smarter schedule. Taking regular breaks (for example, the pomodoro method) can prevent burnout and keep sales minds sharp.
Useful tools: Click to dial, power dialer
Finding the right timing structure for your workday is important, but tools can help maximize productivity during your working periods.
Click-to-dial is a feature that eliminates the need to manually enter phone numbers. The technology is painfully simple to use: when a sales development representative finds a lead’s contact information, all they need to do is hover-over the number and click. At this point, if using a cloud-based phone, the app will open, and the number will dial. This process saves ~30 seconds per call and adds up to significant time saved.
For those who want to take efficiency into the stratosphere, a power-dialer will help you get there.
Lists of leads — and corresponding phone numbers — are automatically generated or manually uploaded into a spreadsheet. From there, the power-dialer will begin dialing each number. When a call ends, the power dialer will automatically move to the next line. This technology enables sales teams to potentially dial thousands of numbers every day.
Admittedly, these efficiency-technologies are impersonal, and their use-case should be examined closely before being implemented. For SMBs with a limited staff and a targeted audience, personalized interactions and due diligence are still the best “tools.”
Phone skill: Personalizing conversations
Building relationships is essential to any successful sales operation. And as with any relationship, listening and remembering past conversations builds trust and respect.
How sales reps remember previous conversations with a prospect is up to them, but if an individual account will be contacted many times, it’s a good idea to take personal notes, as well as professional ones.
For example, if they’re in a different city, ask what’s fun to do around there in case you’re ever in town. Whatever they say, it’s probably related to their hobbies and interests and you can use that as a jumping-off point.
If they’re in the same city as you, ask for restaurant recommendations, or bring up something cool you’ve done or seen recently. These personal touch points can be referenced later on to build rapport and display empathy.
Useful tool: CRMs and software integrations
The problem is, sales reps can have hundreds of conversations every month. Inevitably, those meaningful talks you had with Gary, Melissa, and Lee will all blur together into one chaotic spiraling pizza gif.
Luckily, your cloud-based phone system makes it easy for you to remember everything about the person on the other line perfectly. Every call you make will be recorded in its entirety (unless you opt-out), and accessible online through a sharable link.
Furthermore, all team members — with permission — will be able to access the link as well. This proves to be an invaluable tool for follow-ups, lead nurturing, and new agent onboarding. Save the best conversations to teach the rookies how it’s done.
Phone skill: Staying accessible
In a perfect world, you’re by your phone and ready to have a personalized, engaging conversation with every prospect when they call. In the real world, however, there will be missed connections and voice mail. But this doesn’t mean you can’t still position yourself for success.
If done correctly, a helpful, personalized, and memorable voice mail can keep leads engaged until you’re able to call them back. A good message will prompt users to leave their name, contact information, and their purpose for calling. A great message will do all this and add a dash of originality.
Who knows, maybe you’re unable to get to the phone because your hot air balloon got stuck in a tree. You’re an engaging and magnetic sales rep — anything’s possible.
Useful tool: Mobile phone tech
The benefit of modern phone systems is that they’re on the cloud. Yes, that buzzword again, the cloud.
What this means is you no longer need a work cell phone to take your business wherever you go. Cloud-based phone systems that have a mobile app let employees receive calls to their work numbers on their personal phones.
The mobile version of your desktop phone application may not have 100% of the functionality available as in the office, but it lets top-performing sales people stay connected when stepping out to grab a coffee, working remotely, attending trade shows, or commuting.
Phone skill: Timing and knowing when to close
Good sales reps have a sixth sense. It’s an intuition for when an opportunity is too good to let sit even a moment too long. For SDRs, this means booking a demo the instant excitement, resolve, and momentum combine to let you hear those magic words: Sure, I’ll take a demo.
But scheduling that demo can be tricky, and prepared reps will take advantage of the opportunity to begin a presentation right then and there. Some sales teams are close enough (in physical proximity) to wave each other down, but tools can make this transitional process much smoother.
Plus, no sales rep knows everything. Tools, like easy call transfers, make team selling possible by including more skill and expertise in the sale.
Useful tools: Tag and transfer features
Perhaps you’re on the phone with a company’s tech director. They’re dissatisfied with their current product and ready to try something new, but they’re asking you all sorts of questions you can’t answer. In this situation, you could…
- A) Be honest and tell them you’ll get back to them ASAP with an answer
- B) Make up some quasi-facts and hope they’re technically sound
- C) Warm transfer the call to a member of your product team for a thorough answer
Answer A is moral, answer B is exciting, but answer C is correct — provided your phone system is versatile enough to handle it. The “warm” transfer means you’ll be able to speak with your colleague, privately, before handing-off the call. Give them the background and direction they need to help you close the deal.
In less urgent scenarios, always remember to tag calls with appropriate labels. These will help you organize and plan for any future contacts.
Support skills and the tech to help them thrive:
All-star customer service agents are empathetic, resourceful, and incredibly knowledgeable about the product. When powerful tools are added to the mix, these same support agents become nearly telepathic.
Phone skill: Anticipating customer inquiries
Competent and resourceful support agents know how to respond appropriately to a wide range of extraordinary circumstances. “Staying-on-one’s-toes” is, after all, an important part of the service industry as a whole.
However, generally speaking, practice makes perfect. Knowing the main reasons customers choose to reach out will expedite solutions and lead to higher customer satisfaction.
To know what types of calls are most common, it’s a good idea to keep track of the reasons for each outreach. Call tagging features make this process easier, but even a basic spreadsheet can help support managers learn where to focus training and support efforts.
Useful tool: IVR technology and CRM integrations
Customer service representatives can better assist when they’re able to accurately anticipate why a customer is calling. Luckily, savvy cloud-based phone systems are built with this in mind.
For one, companies can set up smart IVR routing. This self-selection menu will let customers direct themselves to a qualified agent for faster service. By the time an agent’s phone rings, they can be confident why a customer has called and be ready with the resources to take action.
Also, the future of business tools depends on their ability to communicate with one another. Aircall and other “softphones” are constantly interacting with your CRM and helpdesk tools, like Zendesk, Hubspot, and Salesforce. Whenever a customer tries to contact your brand for support, their information (as well as previous interactions) will be visible to your agents, all before saying “hello.”
Context is everything, and a powerful CRM integration leads to faster resolutions and a better customer experience.
Phone skill: Hearing the full story
Your customers aren’t all Pulitzer prize-winning journalists. Many times, the who, what, when, where, and whys of an issue need to be coaxed-out on your end. Furthermore, most callers contact your team during a time of duress. It’s possible you may discover an error that they overlooked out of frustration. The right tone of voice coupled with active listening skills will help excited customers calmly describe their troubles.
Useful tool: Calling third parties on the customer’s behalf
In order to facilitate real-time troubleshooting on complex issues, your team can use a concurrent call feature. This lets agents dial-out to external numbers and conduct full conversations while the customer waits on the other line.
This feature can be especially useful in industries such as software, finance, and healthcare.
Pro tip: Don’t leave your customers in the dark. Periodically check in with them and provide an update on your end.
Phone skill: Introspection & self-reflection
The best support reps aren’t just knowledgeable, they’re genuinely empathetic. They’re able to take their own experiences as customers and apply that emotion when on the receiving end of a support call.
But applying this empathy is harder to do in practice than one might think. Support agents need time to self-reflect and determine how they would want to be treated as customers, and apply that same level of care to their work.
The problem is, it can be hard to step outside oneself. Managerial oversight and peer reviews count for a lot, but not everyone is skilled at taking constructive criticism and applying it immediately. Luckily, your phone system can help.
Useful tool: Call recordings and call ratings
It’s a near-universal truth that listening to recordings of your own voice can be an uncomfortable experience. However, there’s really no better way to “step-outside” oneself and hear reality as it truly is.
By scheduling regular call reviews between agents and managers, support teams can directly improve performance and service.
Operational insights will be easy to glean (e.g. Did the agent provide accurate information and foster a quick solution?). However, small adjustments in tone, pace, and overall telephone etiquette will also be detectable, though more difficult to correct.
Post-call surveys offer great opportunities for support teams to evaluate performance based on real customer feedback. This type of direct communication can be administered via phone immediately after a call has ended, or though native integrations. SMS and email are also popular — and less immediate — ways of collecting post-call feedback.
Remember to tag for easy analytics
Just like the sales use-case, a simple manual action can have large implications for your team’s overall success. Once again, call tagging is front-and-center.
Labeling the subject matter of each conversation takes about two seconds of extra effort, but makes data analytics a breeze later on.
When looking at a call breakdown by tag, you’ll be able to see why your customers are reaching out. This can lead to more appropriate staffing, as well as larger changes to the product or organizational structure of a company.
Phone skill: Keeping everyone in the loop
It would be great if a single support agent saw each ticket through from open to close. However, anyone who’s worked in support knows that some issues need to be escalated, particularly when they’re time sensitive.
When these situations arise, it’s important to let the customer know you’re working hard on the task at hand and making all efforts to contact the right individuals.
Useful tool: Smarter transfers
Single-touch resolutions are a key indicator of a well-run customer service team, but when transfers need to take place, good tech can make this transition quick and painless.
Sales teams aren’t the only ones to benefit from warm transfers — it’s always better to give your co-workers a “head’s up” before passing along an upset customer. Furthermore, features like call barging, can fulfill the same role as a transfer, but avoid the dreaded on-hold time in between.
In this scenario, a supervisor or colleague can listen to an ongoing call, and enter into the conversation when necessary. New ideas and expertise can be introduced without the customer waiting a single extra moment.
With the right tools, your company’s innate talents can grow and flourish right alongside recurring revenue streams.