By Ben Henry

Organizations must see to it that their telephone operators do their work via service standards written for them. Service standards define the minimal acceptable performance level in knowledge, skills and attitudes by service providers in order for them to be competent in the delivery of quality customer care. Service standards are important because they serve two purposes. First, they are a powerful way of shaping the image that your customers have of you. Second, they are a great management tool for measuring how well each person in your company meets the levels of service to which you aspire.

One needs to be very careful not to write vague standards. This is an example of a vague standard: "Be friendly to customers". Written standards must be specific. Standards tell service providers precisely and exactly what is expected of them. They do not have to guess about your expectations or make anything up. An example of a standard that is specific: "When answering the phone, answer by the third ring and say: "'It's a pleasure to serve you today. How may I assist?"

Because the actions in a standard are all specific criteria, they are observable and objective, which make them easy to quantify. What you can measure you can manage. Standards should be based on customer requirements and not just your industry standards. Fulfilling your customer's expectations gives you an advantage over your competitors.

Standards must be fairly enforced. Company-wide standards require that everybody from the CEO down should conform to them. Department-specific standards apply to everyone within that department, including the manager. So if you are the manager in charge of the telephone operators and standards have been developed for them, it means that when you relieve a telephone operator and you are manning those phones, you must conform to the telephone standards.

One more thing about standards is that the best standards are created by management and staff together, based on their mutual understanding of customer needs. You can't sit in an office, come up with some standards, then call a meeting of say, your telephone operators, and let them know that you have come up with some standards for them. Involving the staff in writing standards guarantees their buy-in.

Another thing is that everyone who answers the company's phone or is likely to answer it must know the standards. If you don't train people who relieve the telephone operator in the standards, then you are going to have them saying what "them feel like saying". Standards mean everybody says the same thing.

Below are some minimal customer satisfaction standards for telephone operators:

1. Smile when the phone rings, pick up the phone by the third ring, and maintain a smile on your face while talking to the caller.

2. Use courteous words and phrases when appropriate, e.g., "Please", "Thank you", "You're welcome", "How may I assist you?", "You've called the right place".

3. Use non-verbal communication ... smile, sit up straight.

4. Practice active listening by interjecting when appropriate with statements such as "I see", "I understand", "Yes", and "Uh-uh".

5. Use the IGO Principle for incoming calls - Identify the company, Greet the caller, and Offer assistance.

6. Before you put the caller on hold, get the caller's permission first; return to caller within 30 seconds; apologize for the inconvenience; and thank caller for holding. If caller does not want to be put on hold - apologize, ask caller for name/number, and offer to return the call or offer to take a message.

7. When taking and forwarding messages, do the following: write down caller's name; spell the name back to caller; write down caller's number; write down the date and time of call; write the message down; repeat message back to caller for verification; thank the caller; inform relevant staff member of the message.

8. Handle customer complaints professionally by using the seven-step approach to handling customer complaints - Listen, empathize, apologize, offer a solution, act on the problem, follow through, and check back. If you are unable to solve the problem, refer to your supervisor.

9. End calls professionally - thank the caller for calling and wish him/her a nice day; thank the caller for his/her business, if appropriate; offer further assistance; wait till caller disconnects his/her line before you hang up; and place telephone gently in its cradle.

Now, after you have trained your staff into these standards, you must observe, monitor and evaluate their adherence to the standards. People don't do what you expect ... they do what you inspect. If you train your people and forget to constantly monitor them to ensure that they do what they are supposed to do, you would have been better off keeping your money in the bank. People will not do what you expect them to do until you begin to inspect what they do. Believe me.

Ben Henry is Managing Director of Customer Service Academy of Jamaica Limited, Jamaica's and the Caribbean's foremost customer service consultancy. He is the author of two best sellers - "Quality Customer Care for the Caribbean", and "How to Become a World-Class Individual - 33 Strategies for Success". He may be contacted