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Sunday, October 23, 2011

The art of business phone calls: warm transfers

I've talked about the dying art of making outgoing business calls in a polite and clueful manner. Making intelligent use of the phone in a business context doesn't stop there. You have to treat your callers with care the whole time or they will think less of you.

There is a concept which a few places could stand to re-learn. It's called the "warm transfer". This is what happens when a call is escalated from front-line support to someone else. Done properly, it saves a lot of repetition for everyone. Here's how it works.

A customer calls in. They're having some problem with their web site. Front line support's usual tricks of bouncing Apache (or whatever) didn't work and they have to punt to someone else. At this point, they need to advise the customer that they are going to be transferred. They might say "I need to escalate this to one of our techs who will be able to assist you further. May I place you on hold for a moment?". Then they go off and find someone who's a good fit for the call.

From my perspective as a tech on the receiving end of the escalation, this is when I first hear about it. I get an internal call and they tell me the account number, the customer name, and the approximate problem as they understand it. Other details the customer may have already brought up are conveyed to me at this point: server number (if they have more than one), domain names, or anything else which might seem connected. I agree to take it, and they drop off for a moment.

Then they go back to the customer and say something like this: "Thank for you holding. I'm going to transfer you to Rachel now, and she will be able to take it from here. Thank you for calling, and just a moment please.". At this point, they push [transfer], dial my extension, and get me again, and usually it's just a simple "hi, here you go", then they push [transfer] one more time. This drops the call on me, and they're released to go take another call.

Now it's up to me. I pick up and say, "Hello customer_name, this is Rachel. I understand you've been having trouble with your web site www.whatever.tld on server 12345. Let's take a closer took and see what we can find out here."

This serves several purposes. First, I address them by name, which lets them know I have been filled in on who's calling, and they won't have to authenticate again. Second, I tell them my name, so now they can address me on the same level, and they have a personal reference point for resolving this issue. They could call back and ask for me if they needed clarification on something later, for instance.

Third, by reading back to them what we at the company have heard so far in terms of the problem, they can use that as a sanity check to make sure we're chasing the right thing. If something was misunderstood in the earlier part of the call with the front-line tech, such as the wrong server number, or domain name, or the type of problem, this is a free chance for them to flag it.

Finally, here's the magic of all of this. At the point where I got that internal phone call with the account name, server number, and the approximate type of problem, I started logging into the box. I had a headset on, so I was free to type full-speed with both hands. Odds are, I'd be on the machine and trying to duplicate the problem several seconds before the call was transferred to me.

In the case of something relatively simple and dumb that I catch right away (disk full? web log hit the 2 GB limit?), I might have the answer as I'm introducing myself to the customer. Then my introduction might also include "I just looked, and your error_log has filled up, and that's causing the problem here. Would you like me to set up log rotation and take a look at what's writing so much to it, or just delete the error log for you?"

At this point, of course, the customer thinks I'm some kind of wizard because it hasn't been long at all since they were talking to front-line support, and yet here it is, basically solved. They didn't have to repeat themselves or anything. They just had to chill on hold for 10 or 15 seconds while the original call-taker found someone else to help.

This is what happens when it goes well. Now let's look at the wrong way to do this: a cold transfer. This is where the original call-taker determines that it needs to be escalated, then they look up a hunt group or VDN or whatever, hit transfer, dial it, hit transfer again, and go on with life. Callers in this situation find themselves dumped on some unsuspecting higher-level tech and have to repeat everything: who they are, what their password is, what they want, and so on.

A cold transfer also defeats the parallelism, since there's no way for a tech to start logging in to a call which isn't even on their radar yet.

Even though we had pretty much established that warm transfers were the way to go, some people would try to drop calls on me on occasion. Fortunately, the call log does not lie. In that brief interval after they hit the last digit of the group/VDN and before they hit [transfer] again, it's an internal call from their extension, and it shows up in the logs as such.

It's been years since I did this kind of work, but some things you just don't forget. Treating your customers with care is one of them.