Managing Call Center Stress and the Bully Boss

By Darnell Lattal

When you look around your call center, do you see engaged employees, or do you observe a stressed culture that watches the clock and avoids managers who may demand even more from them? With a group of employees whose performance is constantly measured, it’s easy to feel stress, depending on what happens because of those measures. But what can be done to reduce your stress in daily activity?

Very similar events cause conditions of physiological arousal and psychological distress: anger, dread, and active avoidance of the stressors in a person’s life (including one’s boss, colleagues, or clients). The effects of stress contribute to many seemingly unrelated physical and mental health conditions. While the evidence for a causal link between stress and certain diseases are discounted by most medical professionals (cancer, for example, is rarely described as “caused” by stress), physical factors potentially indicative of stress at work include fatigue, inability to concentrate, withdrawal and depression, nausea, sleeplessness leading to disrupted decision making, and limited problem-solving abilities.

We are all about connections in our work, as this magazine’s name implies. The answer to our workplace stress is designing meaningful human connections in the workplace and incorporating them into the form and manner in which the work is done. Finding good connections and disconnecting from negative ones immediately reduces personal stress. While there is much a person can do at a personal level, the larger solution does not lie with the stressed worker but with the design by which work occurs.

When changes occur over which an individual has little to no input, the effects can be extremely stressful. Remedial efforts tell individuals how to cope, handle it, be more assertive, practice relaxation, engage in thought stoppage or redefinition, find a good personal and workplace balance, laugh it off, believe in oneself, and so on. Clearly, the expectation is that stress at work can be solved by the stressed worker. Look at nearly all articles on stress. They are typically about how the employee can do things differently: tips on how to relax, tips for managing, and tips for saying “no.” Articles rarely (if ever) address a root-cause analysis of what makes the workplace stressful in the first place. Feeling stress is a signal to take action, and that signal is not a bad thing. Good strategies for your physical and behavioral reactions to stress are worthwhile, but stress is not simply personal.

Stressed employees often respond to the removal or absence of reinforcement, be it social or a recognition of their worth. More times than not, positive recognition is replaced by coercion, threats, and fear. Such a “bully culture” reinforces managers who act like bullies. These careless conditions wreak havoc both on the employee and on optimal productivity. Anger in the workplace correlates with how workers are treated by their bosses. Of all the sophisticated requirements of leadership in American business today, managers are all too rarely held directly and meaningfully accountable for the destructive effect they have on their employees.

The effects of anger at work include:

  • A failure to attend to quality, productivity, and service
  • An underreporting of problems in hopes of avoiding negative feedback
  • Over-reporting success for fear of what truthful reporting will do
  • Lackluster interactions with customers and vendors
  • Teams that spread growing resentment when they perceive that they or their colleagues have been wrongly treated
  • Managers and supervisors who are often celebrated for getting the work done rather than for how it is done

The actions that help to reduce or eliminate anger lie in the application of the science of human behavior. Call center leadership must learn to appreciate how removing threats and fear from their work practices reduces worker stress, and how teaching bully managers new methods can increase conditions in which employees want to versus have to work.

Most bully managers have never been taught how to coach employees in a manner that conveys confidence. They lack clarity about how to achieve success through strategies that help the worker build needed skills. They often do not believe that each person’s potential to achieve good work is unlimited (including their own). If the corporate suites of America’s workplace understood the simple and astonishing power imbedded in rightly designed systems, processes, and relationships at work, stress costs would plummet.

Blame and shame are two games played all too well at work by many who lead others. These managers are doing what they have been encouraged by their superiors, either passively or actively, to do. This “do it or else” unthinking management practice needs to change. Managers must learn to carve mistakes in sand and success in stone with those they supervise.

It’s time to replace arcane management styles with the workplace of the future. The new role of management will take on many more properties of the mentor/coach role, which is earned through trust gained in their ability to bring out the success of others. Companies will measure the success of managers by how well the individuals they manage succeed. Relationships will become reciprocal. “I coach you; you coach me on how we, working together, set up success and how we all connect.” Managers will indeed reduce anger, depression, avoidance, and passivity at work if they build positively reinforcing systems and processes to guide the human connections they establish.

Darnell Lattal, PhD, is the president and CEO of Aubrey Daniels International.

[From Connection Magazine September 2013]

Self-Realization: A Key Ingredient to Effective Call Center Management

By Scott Ray

“We wait all these years to find someone who understands us, I thought, someone who accepts us as we are, someone with a wizard’s power to melt stone to sunlight, who can bring us happiness in spite of trials, who can face our dragons in the night, who can transform us into the soul we choose to be. Just yesterday I found that magical someone is the face we see in the mirror: It’s us and our homemade masks.”

–Richard Bach, American novelist

In my fifteen years in the in the call center industry, I have encountered many agents who have expressed similar feelings to those expressed by Mr. Bach. Perhaps not as broadly or intellectually stated of course, but they do look to their supervisory and training staff for help, guidance, and assurance as they seek to improve their individual job performance. When dealing with those tangible issues related to a given process or product, they need help from those possessing the knowledge and know-how to meet the requirements of the tasks assigned. Process improvement and product awareness are usually easy to identify and correct when things go wrong, but how do you manage behavioral issues? Interestingly, the answer often lies with the agents themselves and can be realized and addressed easier than you might think.

For standard information-based development, we create training curriculum, analyze results, evaluate accuracy and performance – and we even coach occasionally. When dealing with behavioral issues, however, we often miss the one area that makes effecting change more easily attainable. Helping agents become self-aware is often the key. Creating tools and infrastructure that help agents gain self-realization skills should be incorporated not only into your daily quality management routine but should be interwoven with your company’s messaging and values as well.

What exactly is self-realization? As defined by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it refers to the desire for self-fulfillment and the tendency for a person to become aware of his or her potential. Self-realization is the manifestation of the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything one is capable of becoming. Yet I have found that it is rarely used consistently in today’s call center workplace. We tend to lump behavioral patterns into our standard training practices instead of recognizing the value of addressing these issues individually with tools that do the work for us.

Let me explain: a few years ago, I was participating in a workgroup where we routinely recorded and evaluated our own call performance. Using call monitoring and recording software, I was able to experience my voice as my customer did, and it was an eye-opening experience. I couldn’t believe some of the bad communication habits I had formed over the years, but if I hadn’t experienced it privately, with time for reflection, it’s likely I would have resisted another person’s negative critique. After all, I have always had a wonderful “radio voice,” so how could anyone accuse me of having poor communication skills? My “homemade mask” was what I believed myself to be, not what I actually acted out. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t nearly as good as I had led myself to believe, and there was definitely room for improvement.

The key to my motivation was that these improvements were important to me personally, and I made it my business to work out a plan to address the negative nuances and behaviors that detracted from my message. No one had to coax or convince me; the evidence was indisputable and I expected better from myself.

I don’t think my personal experience was unique. Most of the people I’ve come to know in this industry have reasonably high expectations of themselves and expect to perform at a superior level. If we find that we are not meeting our own expectations, we will quickly address the problem; no one needs to do that for us.

Do you allow your agents to experience themselves and then come to your evaluation team with an improvement plan? If not, you are missing a great opportunity to form a unique bond between management and the folks taking care of your customers. You may already have the tools to put a self-awareness program in place, but the greater question is – will you make it a priority?

Here are some actionable tips to make self-realization a routine part of your agent-coaching practices:

Step 1: Evaluate Your Current Culture: On the road to helping your agents achieve self-realization, it is important to evaluate your current culture. Are you in an environment that is willing to accept change, do you have to force change, or are your agents actively seeking change?

Every environment is different, but in most instances this self-realization coaching format can be applied to your management and supervisory team, too. Take the time to do an internal evaluation of your call center and assess your environment.

Step 2: Give Your Agents a Chance: Self-realization is achieved by your agents when they are given the opportunity to hold themselves accountable in a non-hostile environment. Provide an environment where agents have the opportunity to self-assess and ask for open feedback.

Step 3: Define and Develop a Plan for Success: First, you need to determine your ultimate goal. My biggest piece of advice during this step is to let your agents be a part of the process. Take their feedback and suggestions and incorporate them into your plan. Remember to keep your agents’ goals aligned with the overall company objectives.

Step 4: Recognize Your Agents for Positive Growth: Positive energy feeds off a positive working environment. Publicize your agents’ achievements on a regular basis, and celebrate individual, team, and corporate successes.

Make self-realization and self-evaluation part of your contact agents’ goals for this year. I promise you, it will pay off. After all, remember that we are our own toughest critics.

Scott Ray is a customer advocate manager for Envision, a contact center workforce optimization solutions provider. Scott works to identify contact center needs and implement solutions to ensure ongoing performance improvement.

[From Connection Magazine May 2012]

Mind Your Business: Planning for Retirement

By Steve Michaels

Q. I am a baby boomer, and the retirement years are looming large. I have one to two years before I want to retire. Do you have any suggestions for an exit strategy?

A. Begin by finding out what your business is worth from a reliable source. Next, look at what you can do to improve the bottom line. This is not the time to purchase expensive equipment, but rather a time to cut any dead wood, do a rate increase, and trim your sails. You want your business to show proven profitable EBITDA figures for the past year. Call your attorney to set up any legal structures that might maximize profit and protect your assets. Also, give your attorney the name and number of a reliable broker who has your information and can proceed with the sale in case of your death. Finally, call any of your other trusted business and financial advisors for their guidance.

If your family is involved in the business, talk to your accountant to determine the best way to pass on the business. If you are going to sell it, mentally go through the sales process to see how the sale could affect you and your family’s tax position in order to maximize the sale proceeds. For example, if you are a C Corp, you will be double taxed, so this consideration should be taken into account when pricing your business. You will probably want to take a note back for consulting, as this will put more money in your pocket. Items like this will often increase the value of your business and should be considered before it goes on the market.

It is best to plan from a place of balance in your life where your business and personal matters are doing well. Emergencies such as poor health, financial issues, or family problems are not the time to make important decisions. Poor choices come from reactive decisions caused by stress, seriously undermining one’s retirement. Have a plan in place; then, if you do have an emergency you won’t be making desperate or questionable judgments.

Steve Michaels is a business broker with TAS Marketing and can be contacted at 800-369-6126 or tas@tasmarketing.com for questions.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2008]

Mind Your Business: The Power of Thank You!

By Steve Michaels

I have not received any questions for this issue so I will inject an old idea that has lots of significance and value. I was chatting with a good friend over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and the subject of gift giving for their grandchildren came up. I asked what their ritual was, and she said that she and her husband used to spoil the grandkids rotten with gifts every Christmas but after a few years of giving without ever receiving a thank you note, the ritual stopped. They even asked their children why the grandkids never sent them a thank you note, as they were taught better than that. The response was that the grandkids were too busy – too busy to send Grandma and Grandpa a simple thank you note after all the time it took to shop, purchase, wrap, and send them gifts.

We sold a rental home this year and the salesman who sold the house for us received a nice commission, but we did not receive a thank you note. Nothing. In the future if we sell any more property, guess who will not get the listing? On the other hand, we treated ourselves to a new car this year, and we not only received a handwritten thank you note but also additional notes throughout the year asking how we liked the car and if there was anything else they could do for us to be of service. Guess who will be greatly considered when we are in the market for another car?

Sometimes the smallest and simplest thing one can do to improve one’s bottom line is to thank someone for their business. At TAS Marketing we try to remember our clients, both the buyer and seller, with a gift or thank you note because when similar situations come up again, whom are they going to think of? Plus, sending thank you notes is just a common courtesy.

When you figure out the costs of adding a new client to your service and how easy it is to lose one, a simple thank you note does wonders.

I would like to sincerely thank all those we have represented over this past year. I would also like to thank those who called me with questions and allowed me to be of service – even if I did not make a commission – because I firmly believe in the old adage, “What goes around comes around.”

May the New Year be full of blessings, business, and a great bottom line.

Steve Michaels is a business broker with TAS Marketing and can be contacted at 800-369-6126 or tas@tasmarketing.com for questions. His website is www.tasmarketing.com.

[From Connection Magazine January 2008]

Happiness Starts with a Fulfilling Career

By Steve Michaels

“At least half of our waking hours are spent on the job and going to and from work,” says John A. Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “It only stands to reason that improving this major component of one’s life can lead to greater overall happiness.”

If your goals involve career change or advancement, you’re not alone. A poll by MyGoals.com found that starting a business ranked second only to losing weight as the most popular goal for 2007. Other goal accomplishments on the list were being financially independent or starting the search for a new job or business.

If you want to be happier and more successful in your current business or in climbing the corporate ladder than you were last year, you need some focus. With that in mind, here is a list of goals worth considering for prospective entrepreneurs:

  • Take risks: “You have to be brave and courageous,” says Beth Schoenfeldt, co-owner of Ladies Who Launch, an Internet-based consulting business for women entrepreneurs. “Do something that scares you every day and then push yourself to do more. You can’t play it safe or you’ll get run over by everyone else.”
  • Assess the market: A comment made at the recent ATSI Owners Forum was, “My product is like everyone else’s.” Discover the bottom line for your customers. What do they really want and need from a call center? Once you discover the real reason they need you, provide them with that service. Ask yourself, “What can I offer my customer that is different from my competitors?”
  • Look at your market: With the use of 800 numbers, T1s, and VoIP, the world is now your marketplace. Create an environment for happier, better-trained agents while reducing your costs by taking advantage of the home-based, virtual office in order to match or beat your competition. Hire competent, experienced staff that enjoys working from home. Besides the cost savings, you will be able to staff your operation when there is a workload, not when they are available.
  • Focus: Find a niche and serve it. Whatever segment of the industry you want to serve, such as funeral homes, apartment complexes, medical accounts, and so forth, know it and do it well. Become the expert in what you do.
  • Serve: Service is thinking about others and working on their behalf to deliver something they want, need, or value. Service isn’t about me, me, me.
  • Perform a career checkup. Lynn Brown of the outplacement firm Right Management in Parsippany, NJ says the start of a new year is “an ideal time to take a realistic look at where you are, where you expect to be going, and how satisfied you are with both.” Investigate the options available and ask yourself where you want to be in five years. “Start recognizing yourself as a financial entity that has to survive in the workforce for at least half a century,” says Brown.
  • Create a folder on your desktop at home called “Career Management” and take stock of your abilities, including any sales, operations, and business management. Realize that you don’t have to do it all yourself. You can hire the talent in areas where you are weak.
  • Update skills. Ask yourself,”Do I need to learn a new computer skill or management skill this year? Am I always learning and performing my job as a visionary for my company?”
  • Create Value through Innovation. “Helping your customers achieve their goals creates value,” stated Professor Gregory Carpenter at the ATSI Owners Forum. “Innovation begins with abandonment. If the way you operate just isn’t working, then abandon it. Innovation creates solutions.”
  • Balance work and personal life. If you neglect your children this year, you’ll lose that time and never get it back. New opportunities have emerged in the telemessaging industry where you “can have your cake and eat it too.” With VoIP, the virtual office, and the latest technological advancements now available and affordable in today’s marketplace, you can afford to stay at home and be there for your children when they arrive from school. Every individual has to ask themselves, “Am I doing what I need to do for my work and my family this day?  This week?” This month? This year?

The telemessaging industry is alive with opportunity. It is a business with recurring cash flow and can be run from an office or out of your home utilizing an affordable hosted system. Remember that you can have a fulfilling career while enjoying your life at the same time.

Steve Michaels of TAS Marketing can be reached at 800-369-6126 or tas@tasmarketing.com. His website is located at www.tasmarketing.com. Parts of this article were taken from, “Workers Can Keep Resolutions to Reach Top of Career Ladder” by Theresa M. McAlevy from The Record. Other comments and information came from this year’s ATSI Owners Forum.

[From Connection Magazine April 2007]

Do You Multitask?

By Rosanne D’Ausilio, Ph.D.

Does this ever happen to you? Do you feel overworked? Overwhelmed? Overtired? Most of us are busier than ever. We’re doing our jobs, plus sometimes the jobs of one or two gone-but-not-replaced colleagues — and doing it all with less support. The Institute for the Future finds that employees of Fortune 1,000 companies send and receive 178 messages a day and are interrupted an average of at least three times an hour.

How many of you take several calls at once, jockeying back and forth trying to keep each conversation separate (and remember where you left off each time)? Or how often are you on the phone with a caller, text chatting with another, and coaching your co-worker all at the same time?

“Do more with less,” is the unforgiving mantra of business in the contact center industry today. Make more decisions and get more stuff done — with fewer people and less resources. It’s reported in a study by the Families and Work Institute in New York conducted on 1,003 employees that 45 percent of US workers feel they are asked or expected to work on too many tasks at once. Is this true for you?

How do we do it? We become very good at multitasking. We do it everywhere — largely because of technology. But does this mean you have less time to do real work? How do you manage to stay sane in the face of these crazy demands?

A growing body of scientific research shows that multitasking can actually make you less efficient. Trying to do two or three things at once or in quick succession can take longer overall than doing them one at a time, and may leave you with reduced brainpower to perform each task. That is why most call centers have their agents take only one call at a time.

Research shows that multitasking increases stress, diminishes perceived control, and may cause physical discomfort such as stomachaches or headaches not to mention shoddy work, mismanaged time, rote solutions, and forgetfulness. Have you ever noticed that as you are working on one task – or one call, thoughts about another task – or the caller on hold – creep into your consciousness?

It doesn’t mean we can’t do several things at the same time, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without a cost. Our brains allow us to appear as though we can comfortably multitask. We do have an excellent filtering mechanism to switch our attention rapidly from one thought to the next. At the same time, rather than lose unattended thoughts, this mechanism keeps them active in the recesses of the brain. However, the more we juggle, the less efficient we become at performing any one task. And the longer we go before returning to an interrupted task, the harder it is to remember just where we left off. Multitasking diminishes our productivity and makes us work harder just to feel like we are barely keeping up.

No one solution works for everyone. Here are some actions to try:

  • Estimate the time it takes to complete a task. For instance, list the tasks you plan to complete during a four-hour period and write down how long you think each task will take. Then, time yourself. Find the percentage by which you underestimate, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
  • Write things down – offload what’s on your mind onto paper. Keep a pad of paper and pen by your bedside and write those thoughts that either keep you up, or wake you up, in the middle of the night. I get my best ideas in the middle of the night and write them down so I can get back to sleep peacefully.
  • Allow yourself to complete a task — the most productive way to work.
  • Remove distractions: close your door (if you have one), do not check your email, and turn off the ringer on your phone, cell phone, pager, and fax.
  • Schedule down time for yourself. Do something different – refresh your system so you return to work with a clean perspective and the ability to work more effectively.

Do these sound familiar? Many are techniques for de-stressing and rightly so. Multitasking is stressful. Technology can multitask endlessly. Humans cannot. I find it fascinating that while writing this article, I’ve been interrupted by phone calls, emails, staff, and my mind reminding me what is left in my planner to be done today!

Research shows that the ability to multi-task stems from a spot right behind the forehead. That’s the anterior part of the region neuroscientists call the “executive” part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex. When we assess tasks, prioritize them, and assign mental resources, the frontal lobes are doing most of the work. This same region of the brain is where we pull off another uniquely human trick that is key to multi-tasking – “marking” the spot at which a task has been interrupted, so we can return to it later.

However, the prefrontal cortex is the most damaged as a result of prolonged stress — particularly the kind of stress that makes a person feel out-of-control and helpless. The kind of stress, for example, that you might feel when overwhelmed by the demands of multi-tasking.

Such stress also will cause the death of brain cells in another region, the hippocampus, which is critical to the formation of new memories. Damage there can hobble a person’s ability to learn and retain new facts and skills.

When a person multi-tasks well, without errors or disastrous results, it is usually because one or more of the tasks engaged in has become automatic. For example, I can eat lunch and read the newspaper at the same time, because eating really involves no conscious thought.

In conclusion, just as multitasking has it’s drawbacks in business and personal activities, it can also be counterproductive and stress inducing in the call center. Look for ways to avoid multitasking to increase your overall effectiveness and quality.

Rosanne D’Ausilio, Ph.D., an industrial psychologist and President of Human Technologies Global, Inc., specializes in profitable call center operations in human performance management. Over the last 20 years, she has provided needs analyses, instructional design, and customized customer service skills trainings. Also offered is agent and facilitator university certification through Purdue University’s Center for Customer Driven Quality.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2006]

Gain a Competitive Edge

By Nancy Friedman, Telephone Doctor

Tight economy, reduced staff, and demanding callers: these days it’s extra challenging to satisfy and keep clients. It’s even more important than ever because customer loyalty is generally considered the primary means to retain clients, maintain profitability, and gain an advantage over the competition. It’s been this way for a long time; it’s just getting more attention now.

There are many ways to do better. Here are the top nine:

1. Know your product and services inside and out. Not being knowledgeable frustrates clients and their callers. An uneducated agent is semi-useless to a caller. Job knowledge is important in any position and call center agents are no exception; knowledge is the key ingredient to serving callers.

2. Believe in your product and services. Most of us know of a salesperson who has never had any formal sales training. However, based on a belief in the product and services, along with contagious enthusiasm, this person is a top seller. People love to buy from people who get excited about their products and services. Add that enthusiasm to strong training and just see how far your agents can take you. Don’t forget, customer service representative are sales people, too!

3. Walk the talk; practice what you preach. A Ford dealer would not drive a GM car. Similarly, call center employees need to use and understand their call center’s product or services before they can expect their clients to have confidence in them.

4. Keep your word. Companies spend thousands of dollars advertising their services and products. They boast that they’re the best and number one. However, just saying, “We guarantee our work,” isn’t enough. Clients need to know that you’ll do what you (and your advertising) say you will. Whatever you claim, make sure you keep your word. Plus, be sure all employees keep their word, too. Telling a caller that something will be to them in seven working days and then having it not show up is a creditability buster.

5. Return all calls and emails. It boggles my mind when a call or an email is not returned. There’s not an excuse in the world I could buy when that happens. Sure, some sales and customer service people get way too many calls and aren’t able to return them in a timely manner. Well, then have the call returned on your behalf! What about returning an email? How much time does that take?

6. Don’t ever forget who “brought you to the dance.” There are always clients who were with you from the start. They helped make your call center a success. They believed in you. A nice simple note once in a while is an ego booster to them and you’ll feel good about it too.

7. Make “no ulterior motive” calls. Every once in a while, drop a note or make a phone call to clients (and prospective clients) without trying to sell them something. Telephone Doctor labels those as “no ulterior motive” calls. They’re “just because” calls and they are welcomed. When was the last time you heard from a sales person or a company just to say, “Hi?” (See what I mean?)

8. Be in a good mood. All the time! Be the person that when the client leaves or caller hangs up the phone, they think to themselves, “That was a great call/visit.” What if you are not in a good mood? Then learn how to be. Remember one of our Telephone Doctor mottos: “A phony smile is better than a real frown.” Do you really think the first runner up of the Miss America contest is as thrilled for the winner as she says or shows? Talk about a great big phony smile!

9. Participate in customer service training programs at your company. Sure you know how to be a good customer service representative, but everyone can use a refresher. If there are no programs in place on customer service, ask for them. At best, you’ll be ahead of the competition and at worst you’ll be even with them! Customer Service is not a department; it’s a philosophy – for the entire company. Everyone needs to embrace it or it doesn’t work.

Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor, an international customer service training company, based in St. Louis, MO.

[From Connection Magazine December 2005]

Keys to a Positive Attitude

By Nancy Friedman, Telephone Doctor

Why do some people have such a great attitude and others a negative one? Well, we wondered the same thing and through our research we found seven keys that those with a positive mental attitude all share. How do you rate?

1) Choose Your Attitude in Advance: When you wake up, you have a choice. You can be in a good mood or a bad mood. You also choose your attitude. You can wake up and mutter to yourself, “This is gonna be a cruddy day,” or you can tell yourself, “This is gonna be a great day!” This choice is the start of a great attitude.

2) Visualize Success: Runners in the Boston Marathon picture themselves crossing the finish line. Picture yourself having a successful day. Self-visualization is a key factor in having a positive mental attitude. Will it work 100% of the time? I wish it would. However, by visualizing your success, you’ll be able to have a better handle on what does happen, and having a better chance of making it happen.

3) Demonstrate Humor, Energy, and Enthusiasm: We call these three items the magic ingredients. Without them, creating a positive mental attitude will be difficult. There is normally humor in every situation. Finding it is key. Sometimes you’ll need to stretch and dig a little deeper to find the humor in a situation. But once you do, you’ll feel so much better. Energy is important because without some energy in your attitude, you’ll be dragging behind everyone. Energy is closely related to the third ingredient, enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is contagious; let’s start an epidemic!

4) Resist Negative Influences: It’s a fact. When we have a negative experience with a company, we’ll tell more people about it than if we have a good experience with the same company. Many times, when you hear that someplace wasn’t very good, you’ll believe the person who told you and choose not to do business with that company. However, you may only be hearing half the story. Check things out for yourself. Especially if the negativity involves a person you work with or know. We’ve all heard negative things about someone we didn’t know and then when we had the opportunity to meet them ourselves, we find that they’re not as bad as someone had alluded to. In fact they might be nice, but you need to be the judge. Take negativity out of your life. Steer clear of those who drag you down and say negative things. Being around other positive people is a good start.

5) Be a Whatever-it-Takes Person: This means, be a problem solver. Life is going to put obstacles in front of all of us. How we go around those obstacles is key. There’s normally a good answer to every problem put in front of us. Dale Carnegie said it best. Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that can happen here?” Then move up from that.

6) Embrace Change; Expect it and Accept it: Some people are very good at handling change and some resist it. The major key to handling change is to accept it; deal with it. In most cases there’s little we can do to stop it anyway.

7) Be Grateful for What You Have: Many people have so much and yet those same people are often the ones that constantly complain. Why wait for some life-altering experience to be grateful? Be grateful, now.

These are the seven keys to having a positive mental attitude. Put them into practice and you will be amazed at the difference they can make.

This article is based on the Telephone Doctor’s video program “The Seven Keys to a Positive Mental Attitude.” Nancy Friedman is President of Telephone Doctor, a customer service training company in St. Louis, MO.

[From Connection Magazine November 2005]

“If You Know Your Party’s Extension…”

By Nancy Friedman

People often tell me, “I hate voicemail!” As we talk further, I find that it’s not really voicemail they hate, it’s the automated attendant. That dull, monotone recording that is supposed to “welcome callers.”

Is there anyone reading this who will disagree that the first voice one hears when you call a company sets the tone? Why on earth do companies put a dull, monotone, robotic message on their automated attendant?

In our recent survey of ‘What bugs you on the telephone?’, the automated attendant is now the second most frustrating ‘bug’ to the American public, coming in right after “being put on hold” which remains the number one frustration! So, let’s make sure that you don’t bug people in the way you use voicemail.

The Automated Attendant: The automated attendant is affectionately labeled ‘the groaner’ because that’s what most people do when they hear the lethargic, “Thank you for calling XYZ. If you know your party’s extension, please dial it now. Blah, blah, blah.”

If you’re the caller, it’s important to realize the moment you hear the “Th….” in “Thank you for calling,” you can normally press zero and bypass the dull, robotic, monotone introduction to the company. In most cases, you’ll reach a person. If you make repetitive calls to one person, learning their extension will expedite your future calls.

If you’re using an automated attendant at your company, please remember that you’re not married to the ‘voice’ that came with the machine. The greeting can be recorded to reflect the mood and style of your company, which by all standards should be upbeat, bright, and friendly.

So, one of the first things you need to consider if you’re using the automated attendant is to re-record the initial greeting that came with the machine. Have one of your bright, happy, friendly-sounding employees be your ‘voice of choice.’ Make it an ‘American Idol’ type contest.

The recording should be as conversational and friendly sounding as possible. Of course, it should be recorded with a big smile. Also, you might consider hiring a professional voice-over expert to record your opening message to your callers. It’s well worth it.

A friend of mine recently wrote her own automated attendant message and recorded the opening message to her callers herself. She made it sound as though you were on a theme park ride. Very clever! Part of the problem with the automated attendant is the dull, somber sounding voice. Call your own system and then ask yourself if that’s the voice that you want welcoming your callers. If not, re-record!

The Greeting: Do you feel as though you’re missing a few messages on your voicemail? It could be the way you greet your callers.  Your greeting to the caller needs to give useful information. If you’re using the standard: “Hi, this is Bob and I’m not here right now,” well duh, that’s not news. Re-think your greeting.

When your personal voicemail message greets the caller, you’re obviously away from your desk or on the phone. So use those very precious moments to be creative and give the caller pertinent information. No one wants to hear where you’re “not.” They need to know where you “are.”

Here’s a sample: “Hi, this is Nancy Friedman, in the sales department. I’m in a staff meeting until 3:00 p.m. Go ahead and leave a message. I do check messages often and calls will be returned. If you need me sooner, please call my assistant, Valerie, at extension 41 and she’ll find me for you. Thanks and have a super day!”

Most important on a greeting is to let the callers know when you will return. It’s nice to know where you are, but callers need to know when you’ll return. And it’s a good idea to always leave an escape valve. Otherwise, your callers are thrown into ‘voicemail jail.’ (Note: This particular tip does mean you’ll need to re-record your greeting daily. It is about an eight-second job that can be done from anywhere in the world.)

If you’d prefer not to do a daily recording of where you are, that’s okay too. Use a generic message. Start your message off with the positive: “Hi, This is Nancy in Sales. I am in the office all week and will return all messages.”

The phrase “I’ll return your call as soon as possible” is not necessary. It’s obvious. If you are one of those folks who just don’t return calls, then you’re fibbing! So if your voicemail greeting says: “I’ll return your call,” do it or don’t include it in the greeting.

Surveys indicate most people will leave a message if they hear you check your machine. Our surveys also show callers respond to a friendly, happy greeting much better than a blah, blah, dull one. So be sure you’re smiling when you record your greeting.

If you’re going to be out of the office for longer than a day, we suggest you let your callers know that. We’ve seen salespeople lose important clients because calls weren’t returned in a timely manner. They had left a generic “I’ll return your call as soon as possible,” and didn’t.

When you call someone and hear the “I’ll return your call as soon as possible,” you might consider zeroing out and finding out if the person is actually in the office. We’ve done that several times and found that the person left a ‘generic’ message but was in Hawaii for a two week vacation and didn’t bother to change his greeting or check his messages.

The Message: This is your opportunity to be great. Leaving a message on voicemail for someone is your electronic business card. You’d probably be pretty embarrassed to hand someone your business card with the wrong phone number, or one that was all messed up, wouldn’t you? Then why leave anything but a great voicemail message?

Remember, when someone goes out to lunch, to a long meeting or is gone for a few days and comes back to their office, they hear something like this: “Hello, you have 52 new messages.” Yours is somewhere in there. It needs to stand out. You have a lot of competition.

There are three kinds of messages to leave: poor, average, or great:

Poor Message: “Hi, this is Bob, give me a call.”

Have you ever had this one? You probably have. It’s maddening, too. Bob who? I know three Bob’s. And from where I’m calling, I’m unable to bring up his phone number. The poorest of the poor.

Average Message: “Hi, this is Bob, call me at 555-1012. I need to ask you something.”

So ask it – on the message you leave. Voicemail is asynchronous communication. Since so much information flow these days is one way, use your message to get the ball rolling, leave enough information to move a process forward. Chances are when the call is returned the answer will be included.

Great Message: “Hi, Nancy. This is Bob Smith, Acme Distributors. I’d like to get together with you to discuss the proposal I sent over the other day. There are some new ideas to talk about. I’m in and out of the office myself, but please call my voicemail and leave me a time we can meet, or call my secretary Debbie at extension 22, and let her know the time. Either way is fine. I look forward to seeing you. Again, it’s Bob with Acme at 555-10-12. That’s 555-10-12.”

The great message has all the meat necessary to do business. Plus, the phone number is repeated at the end, twice and slowly. Notice too, it’s clustered. We didn’t say 1-0-1-2. We used 10-12. It’s an important technique that makes it easier for the other person to remember your number.

Remember, the person you’re calling gets a lot of voicemail messages, so in order for yours to be ‘heard,’ be great – not average. Also, upbeat, friendly messages are far more apt to be returned first. So again, remember to smile when you leave a message.

Exercise your options. Various voicemail systems will allow you to play back what you recorded and offer an opportunity to re-record. Take that option. Don’t hesitate to use these options because it can save you a lot of aggravation.

Also, remember, sometimes people go on vacation and forget to say so in their greeting. Or their mailbox may be full. Check in with the receptionist and ask if the person is in the office, or ask the receptionist if your contact has an assistant you can talk with. Whenever possible, do leave a voicemail message, too. Since voicemail is obviously here to stay, we might as well make it work for us, not against us.

Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor, an international customer service training company, based in St. Louis, MO. Nancy is the author of four best selling books.


Voicemail Tips

  • Expect to encounter voicemail. Be prepared. Only 30 percent of all calls are connected to those you need to talk with, on the first try.
  • Don’t “wing” a message you’re going to leave. Be prepared. Have an objective. Know what you’re going to say. Messages without thought will sound amateurish.
  • Return all calls or have them returned on your behalf. There’s little value to having voicemail unless a message is returned. If your greeting says you will return all calls, then do it or remove the part that says you will.
  • Avoid leaving bad news messages on voicemail. Example: “Hi Nancy. This is the veterinarian’s office calling. Remember you dropped off Trixie this morning? Well….” (You get the picture.)
  • Ask for a call back time when leaving messages. A simple “I need to hear from you by such and such a time” can help. This is not a fool proof technique, but it does help. It gives direction to the listener.
  • Smile, smile, smile. And then, smile some more.

[From Connection Magazine October 2005]

Sealing the Deal Over the Business Meal

By Lydia Ramsey

Doing business over meals is a ritual that has existed for centuries. Taking clients to breakfast, lunch, or dinner has long been an effective way to build relationships, make the sale, or seal the deal. These business meals are essentially business meetings. Knowledge of your product or your service is crucial to the success of the meeting, but so are your manners. Too many people jeopardize an opportunity because they fail to use good etiquette on these occasions.

Here are a few basic rules to make the experience both pleasurable and profitable.

Know your duties as the host. You are in charge. It is up to you to see that things go well and that your guests are comfortable. You need to attend to every detail, from extending the invitation to paying the bill.

Plan ahead when you issue the invitation. Allow a week for a business dinner and three days for lunch. Be certain that the date works for you. That might sound obvious, but if you have to cancel or postpone, you can look disorganized and disrespectful of your clients’ time.

Select a restaurant that you know, preferably one where you are known. This is no time to try out the latest hot spot. Being confident of the quality of the food and service leaves you free to focus on business.

Consider the atmosphere. Does it lend itself to conversation and discussion? If you and your clients can’t hear each other over the roar of the diners and dishes, you will have wasted your time and money.

When you make your reservation, let the staff know that you will be dining with clients. If your guests suggest a restaurant new to you (perhaps you are hosting clients out-of-town), call ahead and speak with the maitre’d. Make it clear that you will be having an important business meal and picking up the check.

Confirm the meal appointment with your clients the day before if you are meeting for breakfast, or that day if you are having lunch or dinner. Things do happen and mix-ups occur.

Arrive early so you can attend to last minute details. This is the perfect time to give your credit card to the maitre’d to avoid the awkwardness that can accompany the arrival of the bill.

Take charge of the seating. Your guests should have the prime seats – the ones with the view. As the host, take the least desirable spot – the one facing the wall, the kitchen, or the restrooms.

Beyond being polite, where you seat your guests is strategically important. When you are entertaining one client, sit next to each at a right angle, rather than across the table. With two clients, put one across from you and the other to your side. If you sit between them, you will look as if you are watching a match at Wimbledon as you try to follow the conversation.

Allow your guests to order first. You might suggest certain dishes to be helpful. By recommending specific items, you are indicating a price range. Order as many courses as your guests, no more and no less, to facilitate the flow of the meal. It is awkward if one of you orders an appetizer or dessert and the others do not.

As the host, you are the one who decides when to start discussing business. That will depend on a number of factors such as the time of day and how well you know your clients. At breakfast, time is short so get down to business quickly. At lunch, wait until you have ordered so you won’t be interrupted. Dinner, the more social occasion, is a time for rapport building. Limit the business talk and do it after the main course is completed.

When you know your clients well, you have more of a basis for small talk. However, because you have established a business friendship, you can eliminate some of the chitchat when time is an issue. When you don’t know your clients well, spend more time getting acquainted before launching your shoptalk.

Sometimes you simply need to use your own judgment about when to get down to business, realizing that if you wait too long, your clients may start to wonder why they were invited. If you begin too early in the meal, your guests might suspect that you are more interested in their money than you are in them.

Keep an eye on the time, but don’t let your guests see you checking your watch. Breakfast should typically last an hour, lunch an hour and a half. Wrap up your business dinner in two to three hours, no more.

Handle any disasters with grace. With all your attention to detail, things can still go wrong. The food may not be up to your standards, the waiter might be rude, or the people at the next table may be boisterous and out of control. Whatever happens, make sure you are not the one to lose control. Excuse yourself to discuss any problems with the staff. Your guests will feel uncomfortable if you complain in front of or to them.

Limit the amount of alcohol you drink at the business meal. The three Martini lunch is mostly a thing of the past. However, cocktails and wine are still part of the business dinner. Since alcohol can lead to poor judgment, keep your consumption to one or two glasses. When guests are drinking liberally and you sense trouble, excuse yourself and discreetly ask the server to hold back on refilling the wine glasses or offering another cocktail.

Your conduct over the meal will determine your professional success. If you pay attention to the details and make every effort to see that your clients have a pleasant experience, they will assume that you will handle their business the same way. Before long you could have them eating out of your hand!

Lydia Ramsey is a business etiquette expert with over 25 years of experience helping others achieve success by adopting professional manners and the author of “Manners that Sell – Adding the Polish that Builds Profits.”

[From Connection Magazine December 2004]