Telephone Etiquette for Small Business Owners

If you are the owner of a small business (i.e. 1-10 employees), then you will probably spend a great deal of your time talking with customers. Small businesses rarely have a customer service department, which means that the consumer’s impression of your company comes largely from the impression you give.

Have you given any thought to your telephone etiquette? Have you ever thought about how you talk with customers – from voice mail to quick conversations to cold calling to lengthy discussions? How you handle yourself on the telephone – especially if you do business with people who live outside of your area – may be the only reference your customers have for your company. That said, wouldn’t you rather it be a positive impression?

Telephone etiquette is often overlooked by business owners because they don’t think of themselves as salesmen. New business owners are consistently plagued by the idea that they own the business, and therefore don’t have to follow the rules that were expected in previous employment positions. This logic is backwards, however, because it is more important to adhere to polite and proper telephone etiquette for your own business than on behalf of someone else’s.

Remember that a telephone conversation might make or break a sale, which means that it is worth examining closely.

Outgoing Calls

When you call a customer or client, you must remember that your day is not the only one that is full. Your customers are just as busy and overworked as you are, which means that you might catch them at a bad time. After you’ve politely identified yourself – with your first and last name, your company name, and your title – ask if they are available to talk, or if you can call back at a later time. This automatically shows that you respect the time of your customer, and that you are willing to make arrangements to suit their schedule. If you are willing to accomodate them for a simple telephone call, how amazing will you be when they use your business?

If they say that they are available to talk, ask them how they are. It is such a simple, yet often forgotten, courtesy. Something familiar, such as, “How are you doing today, Mrs. Gordon?” is often preferable to something more formal because your customers want to believe that they maintain a personal relationship with you.

Outgoing calls should be handled as quickly as possible because, again, you are infringing on your customer’s time. Explain the reason for your call, instigate a response, and then tell the customer that you are sorry for intruding. Let them know that they can call you at any time with any questions or concerns, and leave your direct business line. Quick, polite phone calls are always preferrable to lengthy ones.

Incoming Calls

Anytime a customer calls your business, they should be greeted with a polite, friendly voice on the other end. If you work from home, never let your children or even your spouse answer the business line unless they have been schooled in proper etiquette.

How you answer the phone is a matter of personal preference. When a customer calls my business line, I say, “Thank you for calling Reynolds & Associates, this is Kay, how can I help you?” You can make your opening longer or shorter, but go with what sounds natural. If your greeting sounds mechanical – and tired, because you use it fifty thousand times per day – then your customer will feel guilty for even calling you. What you say is not as important as how you say it. Your tone should be upbeat and friendly, and you should sound as though you are not overworked, tired or under pressure for a deadline. The only people who exist when customers call are you and the customer. You might even want to change it up for each customer, uttering what comes naturally.

Inbound calls should be about what the customer wants. They have dialed your number for a reason, and you should never launch into information that you feel that they should know. Give the customer an opportunity to explain their reason for calling, and handle that issue first. If there is something else that you need to discuss with them, interject it into the conversation after you have satisfied their needs. This is most important with clients to whom you offer services – you are probably well aware of their project or account, and you might talk to them on a regular basis. However, they should still be treated as clients, and not as friends or associates.

Ending a Call

Whether incoming or outgoing, the end of a call with a customer is as important as your greeting. Always express a desire to speak with the customer again. I often end my calls with, “Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to contact me, Mr. Gordon. Please let me know if there is anything else I can help you with, and don’t hesitate to call back if you need anything at all.” Also, you should always use their name in the greeting – first, if you are familiar; last if you are not. Using their name lends a personal touch to the conversation, and leaves the customer feeling appreciated.


As a rule, I advise business owners and executives never to put a client on hold for another call. If you have call waiting, allow the voice mail to pick up the incoming call; if you have multiple lines, have someone else answer. Putting a client on hold to take another call shows that the initial customer isn’t as important as the one calling in. It disrupts the flow of conversation, and you never know who may be calling in. If the second customer has urgent business that will take a long time, then you will have to be rude to one customer or another. Don’t put yourself in that position.

If, however, you need to put a customer on hold for another reason – to check data on a computer, for instance – ask the customer if they have time to wait, and offer to call back when you have retrieved the information. Allow the customer to make that decision, which automatically scores brownie points for you. Remember, your customer’s time is as valuable as yours, and you should make every effort to convenience them.

Voice Mail Messages

No matter how available you try to be, there will be times when customers call while you are unavailable. For that reason, your voice mail should be set up professionally in an effort to greet customers.

My voice mail sounds like this: “Thank you for calling Reynolds & Associates. We’re unable to get to the phone at the moment, but if you’ll leave your name, your phone number, and a message for the appropriate party, we’ll get back with you as soon as we can. Our office hours are 9 am to 9 pm, Monday through Friday, Central Standard Time.”

You may want to include something like, “Your call is very important to us, and will be returned within one business day,” or something to that effect. More important than the message itself is the way that it is delivered. Your speech should be clear and friendly, and you should always thank them for calling.

Some business owners leave their cell phone or home phone number on their business voice mail so that they can be reached in an emergency. I prefer to wait until I have established a working relationship with a client before giving out those more private numbers, but it is a matter of personal preference.

Angry Customers

If you have been doing business for any length of time, you will invariably receive an angry phone call. Unfortunately, it is impossible for businesses to satisfy clients every time, and through no fault of your own, you may encounter an irate customer.

The most important thing is to remain professional throughout the conversation. Apologize for their dissatisfaction, and ask them what they would like to be done about the situation. If their request is not possible, explain the reason for your refusal and try to reach a compromise.

The best thing that you can do with an angry customer is to make every effort to solve their problem. If you know that you’ve done everything within your power to appease them, then you aren’t responsible for the end result. Never resort to slinging insults or to losing your cool because it will only reflect poorly on your business and given them further ammunition.

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