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I find it troubling that phone manners have deteriorated so dramatically. An experience my wife and I had the other week underscored the problem. My home computer clogged up. The machine slowed to a crawl, taking two minutes to open a Word attachment. My antivirus software was working properly, and the computer had plenty of memory. Clearly, something beyond my knowledge was taking place.

Like most men, I turned to the person I knew could help -- my wife. Vanessa called a local computer-service company that had advertised help services. Here's a replay of the conversation. And no, I'm not taking dramatic license:

XYZ: Yeah?

Vanessa: Hi, we're having some trouble with our home computer, and I have a discount coupon for your company. We live in town and decided to give you a call.

XYZ: (pause) What coupon?

Vanessa: It came in a coupon book distributed to our house.

XYZ: Oh, we haven't advertised in that for a long time.

Vanessa: O.K. Well, do you still provide home-computer services?

XYZ: Yes. I'm the owner.

Vanessa: Well, our computer is slow. Something is bogging it down when we open attachments and run programs. It's a Dell (DELL) notebook.

XYZ: Sounds like you're going to have to call Dell.

Vanessa was stunned and frustrated by the owner's reluctance to provide more help. Always very quick to take our business elsewhere when a vendor fails at basic communications skills -- living with a communications coach must be rubbing off -- my wife then called another service: Geek Squad, a division of Best Buy (BBY). The conversation went much differently:

Geek Squad: Hello. Welcome to Geek Squad. Can we help you?

Vanessa: (Describes the problem again.)

GS: We can help. Here's what we do, and here's how much it costs. Do you want this done immediately, or can we set up an appointment in the near future?

Vanessa: It's not urgent.

GS: In that case, let me process the information and schedule an appointment. It should take about two minutes.

The phone rep set up the appointment, gave Vanessa the name of the "agent" who would come to the door, and thanked us for our patronage.

SKILLS LACKING. Guess who got the business? The Geek Squad agent appeared at our house right on schedule, did a great job of communicating the problem to us, and fixed it. It made me a happier and more productive journalist. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, experiences with rude and unhelpful service providers occur all too often. By coincidence, a few days after the computer-repair debacle, I received a newsletter from my friend Rene Siegel, who runs High Tech Connect, a San Francisco Bay-area company that places freelance marketing and PR professionals with projects at major companies.

"We are amazed at how many calls we get from people who haven't mastered basic phone etiquette and can't articulate what they want," says Siegel. (Remember, these are professional communicators who call her!)

IT'S ABOUT ATTITUDE. "Some people whine incessantly, mumble unintelligibly, or simply drone on ad nauseam about their desperate need for money," she adds. Naturally, the candidates who lack basic phone skills never win positions with Siegel's clients.

Far too many business owners will spend hours researching the latest phone equipment and not a moment training the people who use it. As customer service grows increasingly impersonal, small businesses should seize the opportunity to use customer-service skills to distinguish themselves from larger competitors.

So after speaking with Siegel and other business leaders who have exceptional phone skills, I've compiled the following tips to help you make a splash on the phone, whether you initiate or answer calls on behalf of yourself or your business:

1) When leaving a voice mail, give your name and number up front. Follow it with a short message and then repeat your name and number at the end. This "sandwich" approach prevents listeners from having to listen to your entire message again if they miss your number the first time.

2) Keep your message short. Enough said.

3) Write key points on a notepad to prevent yourself from rambling.

4) Record yourself. Then listen to the tape. Do you speak too fast or too slowly, or mumble?

5) When possible, stand up when speaking to someone on the phone or leaving a message. New York City real-estate queen Barbara Corcoran once told me that standing helps her convey energy and enthusiasm. She recommends it to her agents, because it works.

6) Smile. It will improve the tone of your voice.

7) When answering the phone for your business, make the caller feel welcome. It's not hard to say something along these lines: "Hello, this is Bob Smith. Thanks for calling XYZ. How can I help you?"

8) Be helpful. The caller doesn't want to struggle like Vanessa had to when she called the local computer vendor. Volunteer useful information. Imagine if Vanessa's conversation had gone like this:

XYZ: Hello. This is Bob Smith. Thank you for calling XYZ. How can I help you?

Vanessa: Hi, we're having some trouble with our home computer, and I have a discount coupon for your company. We live in town and decided to give you a call.

XYZ: Excellent. We're thrilled to help our neighbors. You must have an old coupon, because we don't advertise in those books anymore, but I'd be happy to honor the discount. Please explain the problem.

Vanessa: (Describes the problem.)

XYZ: Yes. This is an issue many computer users encounter. It's probably not the computer itself but could be related to extraneous files, programs, and spyware that inadvertently got placed on your computer over time. Let me explain our fees and how we work. If it works for you, we will honor your discount and set up an appointment. It should take about two minutes to process your information. Do you have the time now, or should we reschedule a conversation at your convenience?

If the first businessperson had made just a few simple changes in the way he answered Vanessa's call, he would have easily won our business.

GAINING AN EDGE. In business, think of yourself as the presenter, and consider the listener your audience. Would you walk into a major presentation unprepared -- or take the time to prepare a friendly, clear, concise, and engaging talk?

Whether you're calling a prospect, leaving a message for a customer, or answering the phone at your place of business, remember that a phone conversation is an important presentation. Treat it as such, and you'll stand apart from your competitors.


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