By Bob Miodonski
of Contractor's Staff

ST. LOUIS — Consultant Nancy Friedman, the self-appointed "Telephone Doctor," told members of Quality Service Contractors July 30 here that plumbers could be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars because of the way they handle phone calls.

"We treat our wrong numbers better than you treat your customers," Friedman said she told one of her clients. " Common sense is not all that common. More business is lost to poor treatment and to poor service than to poor product.

Call your office to see how your customers are treated."

Drawing a direct line between a company's training program and its bottom line, she recommended that QSC members instruct their employees to use the "ASAP" approach when dealing with an angry customer over the phone:

  • Acknowledge that the customer has a problem.
  • Sympathize with the customer.
  • Accept responsibility. "It is your problem if you answered the phone," she said.
  • Prepare to help; too often people are passive.

"We like it when people are nice. We'll pay extra for good service," Friedman said. "I believe in relationship selling, and I believe it's a lost art."

When answering the phone, plumbing companies should settle on a greeting that they like and then make sure that everyone who answers the phone uses it. It should consist of three parts:

  1. Buffer words These could be "good morning," " thanks for calling" or change with the season, such as "merry Christmas."

    Friedman added: "Calls answered without buffer words are perceived as cold and rude. 'Thanks for calling' may be better than 'good morning' or 'good afternoon' because people answering the phone sometimes get confused."
  2. The company name
  3. The name of the person answering the phone

"The three-part answer starts the rapport-building process," she said. "Don't use 'How can I help you?' It's not necessary, and you'll be interrupted."

Contractors who coach their employees on how to answer the phone should do so in person and in private, Friedman said. Critical words written in an e-mail "can be harsher than you ever imagined," she said. The coaching session should be done in private so as not to criticize the employee in front of co-workers.

Companies that eliminate "five forbidden phrases" when answering the phone will see immediate and positive results, Friedman said. The phrases are:

  1. I don't know. " It's your job to know," she said. "Say, 'Gee, that is a very good question, let me check and find out.'"
  2. We can't do that. "Replace it with, 'That's a tough one; let's see what we can do.' Difficult or impossible situations come into the office. Difficult usually means that you don't feel like doing it," Friedman said. "Impossible means it can't be done, like sizing a water heater over the phone. Be on their side; agree with them. Say, 'I wish we could tell you now but it's important that you get the right water heater.'"
  3. Hang on, I'll be right back. "Replace it with, 'Are you able to hold?' and wait for a response," she said. "There is an ocean of mediocrity out there and you can be an island of extraordinary service."
  4. You have to do this. "In sales, we take orders from callers, we don't give them," Friedman said. "Tell them what they need to do to get the job done. Don't tell people what they have to do."
  5. No. "Sentences are grammatically correct without the word no," she said. "You don't tell your customer, 'No,' at the beginning of a sentence."

Building rapport with customers happens not only over the phone but also in person, she said. Repair plumbers and techs are salesmen too and very important in getting customer referrals, which she called the lifeblood of service companies.

During a question-and-answer period with QSC members, Friedman offered the following advice:

  • "Be friendly before you know who it is on the phone. I have that written on a mirror next to my desk. We all know how important a smile is. I have a difficult time getting men to smile before they answer the phone."
  • "If you use an answering service, make sure they are answering the phone the way you want them to — they're your employees. Also, they should identify themselves as your answering service. Nothing is more frustrating for the customer than to describe their problem and hear, 'We're just the answering service.' I'd rather know that at the start."
  • "If your initial greeting is going to sound like a sequel to 'Gone with the Wind,' you're going to lose that caller."
  • "Never leave negative information on an answering machine when you make an outgoing call to a customer."
  • "The automated attendant on your phone system should always zero out to a human being."
  • "On your voice-mail greeting, tell people where you are — not where you're not. Don't say you're not there. They already know that. And don't say, 'I'll call you back as soon as possible.' Give them an idea when you'll call them back."