‘Hello?' Customer service starts here

Two hardware leaders talk about reviving telephone etiquette – and why it’s so needed.
HomCo team member on phone
HomCo associate Alex Lopez, receptionist.

You’ve looked up that important telephone number. You’ve set aside some of your valuable time – and found some much-needed quiet space to sit down and make that vital call.

You dial –

It’s ringing –

and then….

(One of several things happen.)

You’re hung up on!

You’re put on endless hold. <Cue that ‘hold’ music, set on forever loop!!>

The phone on the other end has been set down somewhere. <And never picked back up again!!!>

You’re transferred to a voice mail or into a phone system. <Never to be heard from again!!!!>

Sound familiar?

In retail, phone calls that get dealt with like any of those above can be soul-crushing to the caller, who is potentially a customer – and that can wipeout your hardware store’s sales opportunities.

HBSDealer reached out to two leaders in hardware, Todd Callan, COO at HomCo Lumber & Hardware, located in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Elliot Greenberg, owner and CEO of JC Licht, located in Addison, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago, to discuss teaching today’s “text-first” generation to revive the fading art of telephone skills.

Calling Mr. Callan

Todd Callan has worked at HomCo for 22 years, and for the past nine years serves as the chief operating officer overseeing all operations of the business. His family first moved to Flagstaff in 1973 to purchase a lumber and hardware store. Today the business serves all Northern Arizona, along with a few neighboring states. HomCo’s retail store is 50,000 square feet, and their lumberyard sits on 12 acres of land.

HBSD: Generally speaking, how would you describe customer communications in retail today?

Callan: “Online shopping has become a lot more prevalent than it was even three or four years ago, and the communications focus hasn’t entirely kept up with these growing demands.

“There needs to be ways of communication that aren’t in-person, like online websites, phone calls, and emails if need be. Slower responses are no longer as acceptable because of this changing environment, and everything needs to be quick and accurate.

“Miscommunications can also be deadly for a business, and with the growing online presence necessary for businesses, the waters become muddier, and communication becomes diluted and confusing if it isn’t focused on and refined.”

HomCo team
HomCo team, standing, from left: Dan Groth, CFO; Marc Braatz, special projects manager; Donn Merrick, contractor sales manager. Seated, from left: Christy Engle, store manager; Todd Callan, COO.

HBSD: Diving into details, what sorts of phone skill challenges did you find at your own operation?

Callan: “We’ve worked hard over the years to attain 100% engagement with our customers when they are physically present shopping in our store, so you can imagine my disbelief when I began monitoring our phone calls via Call Rail and realized that this same level of service was absent over the phone.

“Some issues we discovered were poor usage of language, improper tone and volume, customers being left on hold for long periods of time, transferring calls that never arrive at a destination, not taking messages when uncertain about customers’ questions, and never calling them back with an answer.

“Others included interrupting customers when he or she were speaking, not utilizing active listening skills, informing customers we didn’t have an item in stock when in actuality, we did, or even offering to special order items we didn’t have. This is literally thousands of dollars lost over these mentioned issues.”

HBSD: What new methods did you use to improve your team’s phone etiquette?

Callan: “Our marketing company, Mountain Mojo Group, set us up with Call Rail. Call Rail is a service that connects data points and lets us see why someone called – like if they called after clicking on an ad, or a specific page on our site – and helps us determine how we can better reach our market.

“If we don’t know why people are calling, or a better way to reach them, we won’t be able to target them effectively, and that’s information lost. We could lose a sale because someone was looking to purchase something we had, but we didn’t know they needed it.

“Call Rail can track common questions that customers call about, so that we can assist people better and faster. If we know common questions, we can train our employees on how to better handle those questions and assist the customers in an exemplary way that will keep them coming back.

“If we’re unable to assist our customers, less people will call, and that will in turn decrease our business. Being able to assist our customers with the answers that they need, and knowing how to answer their questions, is something that we aim for very highly. Informing our employees of how to help those customers efficiently is also something that the Call Rail system has allowed us to do.”

HBSD: What tips can you pass along to readers who want to improve their team’s phone skills?

Callan: “Communication is key. If phone etiquette skills are lacking, communicate this to the whole team. Make sure to explain what exactly is lacking, and the proper way to fix the poor communication. Bring up some examples, highlight the main issues, and provide the solution to those problems.

“Keep emphasizing the fixes, beyond the initial meeting, so that there is a consistent effort to change the poor behaviors. That consistent effort will really hammer in the changes that need to be done to improve the phone etiquette.

“Some specific issues we encountered and spoke about were specific word choice when answering the phone, tone, and enunciation. We like to ask ‘how may I help you’ so that the customer knows they’re in the right hands. Another important aspect is asking the customer if it is alright with them to be put on hold. Let the customer know that we’re working for them, and not the other way around. This helps strengthen the business-customer relations.

“Phone etiquette and speaking etiquette is an art that is dying off and needs to be emphasized and revitalized, so we aim to improve this skill and assist our customers more effectively.”

JC Licht phone training class
Recent Phone Excellence graduation at JC Light. Owner and CEO Eliot Greenberg is seated in the middle of the first row wearing glasses.

Calling Mr. Greenberg

Elliot Greenberg is the owner and CEO of JC Licht, which is celebrating its 115th year of operation. The company is a local, independent paint and decorating chain with 47 paint locations as a large Benjamin Moore dealer. The firm recently added 10 Ace Hardware stores to their mix for a total of 57 JC Licht locations in the greater Chicagoland area.

HBSD: What challenges are hardware owners running into with employee phone skills; and what challenges did you find specifically at your operation?

Greenberg: “With the boom and subsequent employment shortage, many of us are faced with having new and inexperienced employees.

“For many of our part-time younger employees, they do not have a ton of work experience. Do not make assumptions that they even have the basics of answering a phone down.

“Most young people have grown up in the informal world of texting and short cell phone exchanges. The days of having to call your friend’s house and introduce yourself to their parent and politely ask to speak with them are long gone.

“Don’t wait until they are on your sales floor to realize they do not have the very basic skill of clearly answering the phone. Give them a script. Make sure to include phone training in your onboarding and orientations.

“For JC Licht, it begins with having a universal, standard greeting. No matter what JCL store they call, a customer should always receive the same initial greeting, ‘Thank you for calling JC Licht (neighborhood), this is (employee name) speaking, how may I help you today.’ Recently we have also added a standard ending to every conversation which is ‘Have a JC Licht Day.’”

HBSD:  What new methods should hardware owners be using when looking to improve their team’s phone etiquette? And what methods have you used?

Greenberg: “Early in the pandemic with the uptick in business, we realized that for many new customers, the phone would be their very first interaction with JC Licht. Unfortunately, we also realized that our customer service level on the phone was not the same experience you would receive if you were in-person in our stores.

“Our team members looked at the phone as a distraction from their in-store responsibilities rather than as a huge sales opportunity. Our motto at JC Licht is ‘Make It Happen,’ and we are very proud that in almost every transaction we are doing just that. However, that was not what was happening over the phone.

“We quickly implemented a Phone Excellence course. It is conducted every Tuesday morning for four hours and each course runs for four weeks. Senior leadership attends every class so that we message to our team how important our phone interactions are to the health of our business.

“Slow it down and do not rush the customer off the phone. We focus on asking open-ended questions; always getting the customer’s name and contact information; never making assumptions; asking them if it is okay to put them on hold or if they prefer a quick call back if we need to research a product; but most importantly answering ‘Yes.’

“Instead of saying ‘no’ to a product we may not carry, say ‘yes, we can certainly get it for you, when do you need it by and what are you using it for. ‘We suggest substitutes if they are on a quick deadline, or offer delivery if they must wait for the product to come in. ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ Since the inception of the Phone Excellence course in 2020, almost 350 employees have cycled through, and we believe it has had a dramatic impact on our business.”

JC Licht store team
The JC Licht store team. Said Greenberg: “Listen, coach and implement small changes – but whatever you do, don’t minimize the impact phone interactions are having on the success of your business.”

HBSD: What tips can you pass along to readers who need to improve their team’s phone skills?

Greenberg: “Whether you have one store or are a large chain, put significant energy into your company’s phone interactions. The world is in a hurry and people are busy. They are going to call your store for a myriad of reasons to save time. Think about what your phone interactions say about your business.”

Parting words before we go

Callan: “Phone etiquette is oftentimes the first line of contact between customer and business, so it is not only imperative but vital that this first line of contact leaves the best of impressions upon them. It’s a make-or-break situation, and if that situation is handled poorly, that’s business you’ve lost right there.

“If the customer forms a poor judgement of the business based on the phone conversation, they have no reason to come in, so improving that judgement, assisting them quickly and accurately, will improve your business, just as it’s improved ours.

“Phone etiquette – and speaking in general ­– is becoming a lost art, with texts and emails becoming incredibly prevalent, so it’s important for businesses and their employees to practice those skills and hone them.

“Effective communication is almost a dying art, and when it fails, businesses will also fail. Focus on that, and people will appreciate you and remember you more than the business who doesn’t care to improve, or have their employees improve.”

Greenberg: “The phone might be the only shot you get with a new customer, so don’t blow it by undervaluing its importance. It could also be your unfair advantage against the big boxes. Call a big box, you get a recording.

“Getting an immediate answer and an actual person on the line might be the difference a hardware customer needs for making the choice to support an independent local chain.”

The messages come across clear: Improve your hardware store phone etiquette and you’ll stand out in the crowd; and you’ll improve your customer relations and bottom line – And we all hear that.