Tips for Overstretched Telephone Answerers


Customer care in social housing organisations has increasingly come to be associated with telephone response. As pressures on costs have grown, many housing associations have embarked on the call centre route with mixed results.

Many longstanding tenants who remember the older days or more personal face to face service are not happy with these developments and it is difficult to let go of the baggage of history.

Also many smaller organisations are requiring their frontline staff to multi task leering to higher stress as staff attempt to get on with their desk workload whilst also covering for colleagues and even other departments.

Human beings are not physically built to multitask where human to human interaction is concerned. We have two eyes which cannot look into more than one place at any one time. Also try holding two phone conversations at the same time with a phone in each ear!

Yet this is exactly what we are often being called to do at work- answer the phone AND deal with face to face visitor; email whilst chatting to someone on the phone. It isn’t easy, some people can’t do it, and it often creates stress.

It can also make for a poor customer experience of the organisation’s service.

Customer charter promises to answer the phone within 9 rings only make the stress worse.

It often manifests in the tone of voice of the employee, in their quality of their listening and even in the accuracy of their responses. Simply put, service drops as the level of stress increases.

Training needs to be directed here very carefully, not in basic telephone skills, or in insipid customer care courses, but in the skills of multi-tasking, in how to cope with pressure and also in proper induction at really creates commitment to customer care and an empathy with the core service.

The skill of acknowledgement is also key. People often perceive customer service largely as feeling acknowledged as a unique individual. People prepared to wait if the fact they are waiting is acknowledged authentically – crap music will not do that. Often playing people’s needs back to them to show you have listened and taken it in can win time if you can’t deliver on the need immediately. Acknowledgement is a really underused resource for housing associations under resource pressure. It’s about respect, listening and beeping seen to care for real.

Also one can train in the skills of listening and speaking. Become aware of our tone of voice and choice of words under pressure is a other vital skill. Any training needs to be practical and hands on. You can’t teach this with PowerPoint!

Finally learning to prioritise under pressure is also a critical skill – being able to let go of tasks, resequence and also to ask for support for colleagues. Identifying that an email is sometimes better than a phone call but also sometimes it is the other way around can prevent problems escalating. Some people hide behind emails. It eats up time in the longer run.

When we are overstretched, it is time to get truly smart, calm down, and become confident and conscious of what we are doing, and failing to do as well.


About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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