2009 March: Phone it In

2009 March: Phone it InJust because everyone has a phone doesn’t mean they know how to answer it, especially when it comes to business.

Pizzeria operators know how important the telephone is to the success of their business because a larger percentage of sales is generated from phone-in orders. So, having the right person answer the phone can be crucial to a day’s bottom line. But, what qualities should that “right” person have? How do you keep customers calling in again and again? When a customer calls in to order a large pepperoni pizza on a busy Friday night, who do you want answering that call? How do you want your business to be represented?

Harris Eckstut, founder and principal of Eckstut Restaurant/Small Business Coaching and Consulting Services in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said that “although it isn’t essential to have one sole employee to answer the phone, it is essential — even critical — that the person (or people) permitted to answer the phone should have a great phone personality with a clear voice that is easily understood.

“By phone personality, I mean a fun person who is bubbly/ enthusiastic/ enjoyable to speak with; which, by defi nition, will promote higher check averages. Which is what good salespersonship, and the raison d’etre for being in business, are all about.”

Juanita Ecker, president of Professional Image Management in Troy, New York, said it’s definitely more professional to have someone whose main job is to answer the phone, but added that most companies simply aren’t able to do that.

According to Ecker, the ideal phone person is “someone who can give their undivided attention to the caller.” She also said acting rushed, even if the employee is busy, is not the way to handle calls — it sends out a negative message.

“It comes across to the caller as ‘you’re not important,’ ” Ecker said. Bill Stephens of Bill Stephens Associates in San Antonio, Texas, advises that the employee responsible for answering the phone be pleasant, interested, concerned and intelligent.

“They are not getting paid to speed talk –– they are communicators, so they must speak intelligibly and be easily understood,” Stephens says, adding that good telephone equipment should be used by the employee. He also cautions that a wireless phone and additional production duties assigned to the phone person can be disastrous.

“Give them back-up jobs, not timedriven, so they can stop and give their complete attention to the incoming calls,” Stephens said. “They should be naturally sales-oriented. You can force them to upsell, but if it comes naturally, the results will be very rewarding. Give them a specific item/items to sell and a commission on their sales. This could bring parity to the production and sales persons and the tipped delivery people.”

Ecker agrees that the phone person is the perfect person to upsell customers by suggesting options such as extra cheese, a liter of pop, or an order of garlic bread because the customer may not be aware of these menu offerings.

To find the ideal phone person, Nancy Friedman, president and founder of The Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training of St. Louis, Missouri, recommends interviewing the candidate by phone first. “That is how you can tell if they have a good telephone voice,” Friedman said. During an interview, she adds, a candidate should act out exactly what duties he or she will be performing on the job.

Friedman also said that it is extremely important, mandatory in fact, for the phone person to confirm orders. “Don’t just say, ‘yeah, I got it,’ ” Friedman says. Also, Friedman stresses the importance of a big smile.

“You can hear a smile,” Friedman insists. Putting people on hold should always be handled with consideration, according to Friedman. She suggests saying something like, “I’m going to check on your order, can I put you on hold?” Friedman said that the phone person should always tell the caller why he or she is being put on hold before it happens.

Ecker agrees that putting customers on hold should be done with kindness. “If you have to put someone on hold, don’t just say ‘I’m going to have to put you on hold, click.’ Ask, ‘is it okay if I put you on hold?’ It’s more courteous,” Ecker said. “And when you come back, always say ‘thank you for holding.’ Don’t keep a person on hold for too long, like 15 minutes, because you have a long line of customers. Help one or two customers and get back to the person on hold and let the customers in line know you’ll be right with them as soon as you help the caller. People hate to be put on hold because they think no one will get back to them.”

The ideal phone person may be out there ready to go, but more than likely he or she will have to learn a few things before the first official “hello, may I take your order?”

According to Friedman, the success or failure of the employee who is responsible for answering the phone comes down to training.

“The major problem is that young kids are not getting trained. Young kids, high school and college kids, want to be good. It has to be up to the pizzeria owner who says, ‘If you’re going to work at my store, you’re going to get a week’s worth of training, and not on-the-job training,’ ” Friedman said. “People think it is common sense and it’s not.”

So, the next time your phone rings with an order, be sure the person answering it is ready for the challenge. The great personality of an employee plus good training provided by the operator can result in the right phone person for a business who will keep customers calling again and again. ?

DeAnn Owens is a freelance journalist living in Indianapolis. She specializes in features and human interest stories.