AKRON (May 13, 2002)—We live in an extraordinary time of instant communication, an era defined by instant paging, cellular telephones and electronic mail.
Sometimes I fear that the technology distracts us from the fact that basic telephone etiquette still defines a prospective customer's first impression of your dealership.
In this column, I'll emphasize some important phone fundamentals and suggest a technique that ultimately may im-prove the phone etiquette at your dealership or service shop.
Several recent occurrences have prompted this column's topic. For one thing, a colleague happened to remind me of a presentation we both heard more than 25 years ago. To make a long story short, we both expected the presenter to cover any number of business-improvement topics. We were shocked to hear him launch into an impassioned plea for solid phone manners.
At the time, it had only been a year or so since I marched into the professional workplace with a college degree. At that point, my experiences with business phone calls had been wholly positive. Unfortunately for me at the time, my impression of phone etiquette at automotive service businesses was largely negative. Worse yet, I took it for granted that auto service guys didn't know how to handle a telephone call!
So this speaker startled me by arguing that all businesses—large, small and in between; sophisticated work or simple trade—could better themselves by improving their overall phone manners. Not only did I believe and accept that auto service shops were universally incapable of handling the telephone, I assumed all non-automotive businesses were. What a surprise I got!
The presenter did a memorable job of carefully contrasting bad phone manners with good, and I never forgot those examples. What's more, I couldn't help but apply those examples to a variety of calls I've made this year to auto repair shops and tire dealerships.
The biggest gripe I have with these calls is the tendency of some personnel to guard the privacy of the boss as if he or she was Howard Hughes or Madonna. I used to answer the phone at some very busy auto repair businesses, and I realize there are plenty of people out there who'd like to sell you something. But I also learned that there are plenty of people with important, legitimate reasons for talking to the company's owner or manager.
For me, the key is to answer the phone with the tacit understanding that the caller could be someone very important. Whatever you do, don't sound pained at the fact that the phone has rung. Don't sound vexed as if it's another one of the myriad inquiries from the software, insurance, encyclopedia and shop-supplies sales people. They're a pain in the neck, but they're also a fact of life. In short, get over it! Accept it and sound cheerful anyway!
Sink or swim
A service shop owner/operator I know tried something that can only be described as the “sink or swim” approach to learning telephone manners and technique. His best technician cautioned him that he could no longer postpone carpal tunnel surgery. The tech, a trusted worker, was concerned about helping his boss cope with the temporary loss of a lot of labor hours.
My friend surprised this tech by telling him they were going to trade places. He donned a work uniform again, went back in the bays and sent the recovering tech to the front office. This boss gambled—correctly, it turns out—that the tech had the makings of a competent front-office person. Effectively, he threw the fellow in the water, and he learned to swim.
Although sometimes he had to interrupt his wrenching to coach this tech on front-office procedure, the experiment was a resounding success in cross-training. Now it's easier for this owner/operator to leave the shop because he's sure this tech can handle phone inquiries patiently and properly. Plus, the tech has an added appreciation of the importance of etiquette to the business' success.
Trading places like this wouldn't work in every business, and techs should certainly concentrate on wrenching instead of working the front office. But in this imperfect world we deal with, it's nice to have the additional capability when you need it.