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5 Ways Businesses Can Improve Telephone Customer Service

February 5, 2019

by Riley Panko

Marketing Communications Manager

People value an efficient resolution to their issue and most dislike being kept on hold when calling a business. Reducing long hold times, using digital channels, and seeking outside resources like virtual assistants help optimize a business’ telephone customer service.

Updated April 27, 2022

With the rise of texting and online communication such as chatbots, it may feel like people don’t use their phones to actually make calls anymore. Yet, data shows that people most frequently use their smartphones to make calls.

Communication by phone isn’t going away, and businesses need to know how to provide effective and efficient telephone customer service.

Clutch surveyed 501 people in 2019 who called a business more than three times in a span of six months to learn what they expect from telephone customer service.

The data shows that consumers value efficient service and knowledgeable staff when they call a business. They found being kept on hold, rude service, and automated phone menus frustrating, leading to poor customer service opinions. 

Businesses can use this data to improve their phone-based customer service, including how to train their employees and which resources to hire, such as answering services or a virtual assistant.

Our Findings

  • Nearly 8 in 10 people rank an “efficient resolution to their issue” among the top three traits they value when calling a business, followed by knowledgeable staff (75%) and clear communication (65%).
  • Most people rank being kept on hold (57%) in their top three issues when calling a business, followed by rude service (52%) and automated phone menus (51%).
  • Fixing an issue (24%), asking a question (23%), and making an appointment (19%) are the most common reasons people called a business in the past six months.
  • People are almost as likely to share a positive customer service experience online (74%) as a negative one (70%).

1. Prioritize Efficiency of Telephone Customer Service

When customers call a business, they expect their issues to be fixed or their questions to be answered quickly. 

In 2019, nearly 80% of people ranked an efficient resolution to their issue as one of the top three traits they valued the most in a company's telephone customer service.

What Do People Value When Calling a Business? - Graph

The next two most valued traits were a knowledgeable staff (75%) and clear communication (65%).

To improve how customers perceive the efficiency of their telephone customer service, businesses should:

Under Promise and Over Deliver on Customer Service

First, a business can adjust customers’ expectations of efficiency by under promising and over delivering. This age-old advice applies to most methods of customer communication, including phone-based customer support. 

For example, consider a customer calling a business asking for a price estimate. If the business promises them a rate within 30 minutes but doesn't deliver for an hour, the customer will view the business negatively. But if the business promises them a rate in 2 hours, and delivers in 1 hour, then it will leave a positive and more efficient impression. 

A business may try to compete by marketing quicker service times, but the business will only harm its brand if it can’t actually deliver within the promised timeline.

Answer Simple Requests Using Text-Based, AI-Powered Channels

A business can answer some requests and questions quicker and more thoroughly using digital channels, such as chatbots powered by artificial intelligence.

Shep Hyken, a customer service and experience expert, speaker, and author, said chatbots work well for basic questions and requests. These can include:

  • Where’s my package?
  • I want to check my bank balance.
  • I need to change my address.
  • I want to check if I made a payment.

“You don’t need to talk to a human to answer those questions and often, it’s more efficient to do so with a digital format,” Hyken said.

Routing simple inquiries to digital, automated channels frees up resources to answer complex inquiries more efficiently over the phone.

Customers Expect More Efficiency on the Phone Compared to Other Channels

Customers will have different standards of how long they will patiently wait for an answer from a business depending on the communication channel.

For example, 42% of consumers expect a response from a business on social media within one hour.

Meanwhile, customers are only willing to wait 2 minutes or less on the phone with a business before hanging up.

If you are using resources so each communication channel has the same wait time, you may be using those resources inefficiently. 

Instead of a 10-minute wait for customer service on both social media and the phone, for example, a business will leave a better impression if there’s only a 5-minute hold on the phone and a 15-minute wait on social media.

Customers want efficient telephone customer service. A business should consider how it will set customers’ expectations and manage different communication channels.

Additional Reading: 'How to Structure a Multi-Channel Communication Campaign'

2. Reduce Customers’ Time On Hold

Since customers prioritize efficiency when calling a business, it makes sense that they rank being kept on hold as the most frustrating issue of telephone customer service.

More than half of people (57%) ranked being kept on hold as one of their top three most frustrating experiences with telephone customer service, followed by rude service (52%) and automated phone menus (51%) in 2019. 

What Do People Find Frustrating When Calling a Business?

To reduce phone wait times, conduct data analysis on customer service telephone calls to understand your business' strengths and weaknesses. 

Data your business should collect to audit telephone customer service includes: 

  • Time on Hold: Your business will only know if there's an issue with hold times by monitoring this metric.
  • Time of Calls: Does your business receive more calls at a particular time of day or on the weekend?
  • Types of Questions: What questions do customers most commonly ask? Does one department of your business need significantly more resources for answering calls than others?

Nathan Strum is CEO of Abby Connect, a virtual receptionist and telephone answering service provider. He explained the importance of data when it comes to understanding the resources a business needs to answer the phone efficiently.

“If [a business] can find a way to determine how long their customers are kept on hold and at what times, they might have a better understanding of how to staff or when to use an alternative service for the overflow,” said Strum.

If it seems like your business cannot keep up with customer communication without long hold times, your business may want to invest in answering services or virtual assistant services to alleviate the burden on staff.

3. Consider Calling Customers Back to Reduce Hold Times

Businesses must consider how they can reduce hold times to maintain customer satisfaction, including simple steps like calling customers back.

Hyken offered 3 tips to alleviate customers’ frustrations about being kept on hold:

Call Customers Back When They Reach the Front of the Line

People hate waiting with a phone pressed to their ear, not sure when a business will finally pick up. Customers may feel like they can’t accomplish other tasks while waiting on hold, and their frustration increases the longer they are stuck in limbo. 

Instead of requiring the customer to stay on the phone, businesses can use technology that automatically calls a customer back when it’s their place in line. Software solutions such as Fonolo can easily help businesses implement this option.

Offer an Option to Schedule a Call Back Instead of Waiting in Line

Your business can make hold times even more flexible for callers by allowing them to schedule a time to receive a call back. 

For example, if the customer will reach the front of the hold line in approximately 20 minutes, but that time isn’t convenient for them, they can schedule a time for the business to call them back in 2 hours instead.

“The technology allows for a better experience for the customer, who gets a little bit more control rather than just having to wait on the phone,” Hyken said.

Your flexibility shows good telephone customer service and support to the recipient. 

Show Empathy for Customers' Annoyance

People appreciate authenticity. 

Though businesses mean well with the message, “Your call is important to us,” many customers tense up when they hear the oft-repeated hold message.  

Instead, be honest and acknowledge with a message such as “We know you want to talk to an agent. Unfortunately, our volume is higher than usual. It’s going to be 20 minutes.”

Nancy Friedman, president of Telephone Doctor, a customer-service training company, also acknowledged the annoyance customers experience when they hear empty comments, such as “Hang on, I’ll be right back.”

“Tell the caller the truth,” Friedman said. “Tell the customer – ‘The information you need is on another computer, this will take me a minute or so. Are you able to hold?’ Tone of voice is critically important.”

Businesses should think critically about how they can reduce the time customers spend on hold. If hold times must exist, consider creative solutions to alleviate customers’ frustrations.

4. Stay Committed to Telephone Customer Service 

Given the needs and frustrations of customers, some businesses may consider shifting most communication to alternate, text-based channels. Yet, it’s important for businesses to remain openly available over the phone for customers.

Customers call businesses for a variety of needs. In 2019, people called a business in that six month span to fix an issue (24%), ask a question (23%), or make an appointment (19%).

Why Do People Call a Business? - Graph

Chatbots and texting can effectively answer certain requests, but many customers still require a personalized, human-centric approach.

“A cookie-cutter approach isn’t always the fix because people believe that their problems are unique,” Strum said.

It’s important for businesses to keep their telephone customer service available and efficient.

“How many times have you contacted or chatted a business about a specific issue and they send you a link to their FAQ page? Well, now you’re annoyed because you already checked that and didn’t find the answer or otherwise you wouldn’t be contacting them.” Strum said. “It’s frustrating for people who don’t think [their issue] falls into a certain category, even if in the end it might. They just want to feel heard and confident they found the right answer.”

Telephone customer service is still a critical communication channel for most businesses. 

Businesses should think creatively about how they can improve their customers’ experience on the phone and how they can integrate alternate communication channels to support telephone customer service.

5. Emphasize Creating Exceptional Customer Service

Businesses must commit to not only avoiding negative customer service experiences, but creating exceptional ones. After calling businesses, people are nearly as likely to share a positive experience as a negative experience online.

Nearly three-quarters of people (74%) were likely to share a positive telephone customer service experience, while 70% were likely to share a negative experience in 2019.

People just as likely to share positive vs. negative telephone customer service experience.

Some may be surprised by this data, since previous surveys indicate that customers are far more likely to share negative experiences than positive experiences.

Yet, Strum said that customers increasingly recognize the importance of good reviews for businesses.

"If people really appreciated doing business with someone, I think that they’re pretty likely to go and attempt to share that," Strum said.

While businesses should do everything to avoid poor customer service experiences, they should also go a step further and commit to pursuing exceptional telephone customer service, no matter what. While an average experience may not be shared, customers will share both positive and negative ones.

Businesses Must Optimize Their Telephone Customer Service

Customers keep speed top of mind when they call a business.

The largest percentage of customers say they value an efficient resolution to their issue when they call a business, followed by a knowledgeable staff and clear communication.

Customers find being kept on hold most annoying when calling a business. Rude service and automated phone menus also ranked highly as frustrating issues.

While alternate communication channels such as texting and chatbots can resolve some customers’ issues, it’s still critical for businesses to optimize how they communicate with customers on the phone.

Customers are almost as likely to share positive experiences with telephone customer service as they are to share negative ones. Therefore, businesses should focus on not only avoiding negative customer experiences but also pursuing exceptional phone communication.

Overall, businesses should continue to improve their telephone customer service to meet every customer’s unique communication needs.

To help your business with your telephone customer service, hire a call center for support. 

Additional Reading:

About The Survey

We surveyed 501 people in the U.S. who called a business at least three times in the past six months, and who encountered both real employees and automated phone menus during those calls.

More than half of respondents are female (55%), while 45% are male.

Respondents are divided by age: 19% are 18 to 34, 38% are 35 to 54, and 44% are 55 and older.

The survey included respondents from the Midwest (21%), Northeast (14%), South (38%), and West (26%). The remaining 3% of respondents’ locations are unknown.

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