Since my recent column about how the returned phone call is a lost art, I received several emails and even some phone calls about the subject. It seems that unprofessional phone manners are rampant in all industries, including collision repair.

So, I decided to call the doctor and get more advice about the topic that I can pass it on to our body shop readers. The doctor is Nancy Friedman, a keynote speaker/author and the founder and President of Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training in St. Louis, MO.
Friedman has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Today Show, CBS This Morning and Fox News and has spoken in front of groups of automotive professionals, including Big O Tires, Carstar,  Goodyear, Tuffy, Grease Monkey, Tire Pros, the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers and a wide range of other auto dealerships and automotive-related manufacturers. She’s been a featured speaker at SEMA for seven years and will be there this year again as well. Fittingly, I called Friedman on the phone and she called me back—promptly—for this interview.

Q: Hello Nancy. Why is there such a problem nationwide with people who don’t seem to know how to act on the telephone (or care)?
NF: Anyone can answer the phone effectively, if they’re properly trained. I don’t care what their title is; it does not matter if they’re the president or a tech. There are a lot of top-level managers out there who don’t know how to answer the phone. The problem is that most employers point at the telephone and tell their people to smile and be nice. They don’t put any emphasis on that part of their business, and untold millions of dollars are left on the table as a result. We believe in a simple phone answering approach and uniformity is crucial. I don’t care if you have 3 or 300 people answering the phone—you need to have everyone doing it the same way. Some companies are able to have 1–2 people answering their phones, but for small body shops, that’s not always possible. You would you hire a technician and not train them to do their job, so why not train someone on the phone? This is not surgery or rocket science and we do have some very useful tips we offer to our clients, but most of what I teach is just common sense. Most of the body shops we work with use our online training (, which contains a lot more than just how to answer the phones, such as conflict resolution, management skills, leadership skills—it’s a full-service training and any employee that has to deal with the public on even a semi-regular basis should go through this training.

Q: How bad is it, because I personally encounter bad phone protocol almost every day?
NF: No, you’re right, it’s bad. Before I go to speak at any company’s conference, I do some mystery calling, to find out how they answer the phones and sometimes I am surprised how bad it is. With many phone calls, your company has one shot to get that business and by fumbling that first interaction on the phone, it can cost you money and most of the time you’re not even aware of it.

Q: How about those companies that leave callers on hold for long periods?
NF: People ask us, how long is it okay to leave people on hold and we tell them that it’s not how long you leave someone on hold, but how you handle it when you’re busy. In the reality of today’s business world, people are going to have to be put on hold and it’s not avoidable in many cases. The important thing with people on hold is communicating with the person on the other end of that phone line. Let them know how long you think they will be on hold. “I have one other caller ahead of you and it should only take 2–3 minutes.” Full disclosure goes a long way, believe me. If it’s going to take longer, ask them if you would prefer to take a message and call them back. People get upset when they sit on hold without any updates or interaction, so if the person answering the call can check in, that’s preferred. But to say, “I’ll be back with you in a second,” well usually that ends up being a big fat lie, because nothing takes a second.

Q: How about my pet peeve, the unreturned phone call?
NF: People ask me all the time—Nancy, what do you think about people who don’t return phone calls or emails and I tell them—not much. With an e-mail, it’s even easier to respond. All you have to do is give them a one-word answer if you’re busy. It boggles my mind when I find out that some people never return phone calls. Assuming what people want is always a mistake, because you can’t find out what someone wants until you communicate with them. How many people have lost out on opportunities because they made assumptions and never returned a phone call? Countless.

Q: Some companies have their phone people using scripts. Do you recommend this?
NF: We used to give scripts to people to read over the phones, but we found out it really doesn’t work, because these people aren’t actors and it sounds too rehearsed. Plus, it’s scary for them to have to memorize it and we always want people to sound natural on the phone. So, we give them talking points and allow them to say it their way and it works very well.

Q: Give us a takeaway that we can use, Nancy—one tip that can make us to be better on the phone.
NF: The #1 mistake is that people are not friendly enough on the phone. It’s that simple. It’s not with just auto body shops, it’s across the country. But, once companies find out that there’s money connected to that phone call, people suddenly get friendlier. It  takes specialized training and a specific mindset to achieve, but once they realize the value in handling the phones properly, the light goes on! I tell people to start smiling before answering the phone, even if it’s forced smiling, because it improves the voice quality and energy to prevent emotional leakage. A phony smile is better than a real frown, I tell people. Negative audibles like the “big sigh” or verbally chewing gum are the first steps toward poor customer service, so continually let your customers know that you are “delighted” to help them first, to set the stage, before telling them negatives, if any exist.

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