The Obsolescence of Phone Skills

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A required read, in college, for me was the short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. It is primarily a sinister conversation wherein a killer manipulates a young girl into leaving her home and going with him. The writer uses radio and telephone communication as a way to fully deliver the import of the protagonist’s psychological captivity as she is repeatedly threatened with having the phone “pulled out” if she touches it.

While going over the text during our lecture, one of my younger classmates piped up:

“What does that mean—pull out the phone?”

Thus ensued an entire hour-long attempt to explain corded home-phones to 40+ students, a generation removed from the technology.

In childhood, I distinctly remember sitting next to the only phone we owned and listening to my mother explain proper phone etiquette.

The appropriate way to answer a phone:

“Hello, Farmer residence.”

How many times do you allow the phone to ring before you are being rude:

No more than 10—EVER.

How much time should be allotted between phone calls:

At least half an hour unless it’s an emergency.

The appropriate way to end a phone conversation:

“Thank you. Have a good day! Goodbye.”

As the advent of cellphones slowly (and then all at once) worked its way into the cultural and social fabric of our everyday lives the corded home phone was not the only thing to disappear. Children stopped answering calls and more importantly, without consciously choosing to do so, parents stopped teaching children how to answer or talk on the phone. Now, we have personal phones that sit in our pockets and are rarely, if ever, accessed by anyone other than ourselves. Taking this thought exercise even further, ask yourself—when was the last time you saw a child answer their parents’ phone? When my children were younger and they wanted to communicate with a friend I would allow them a few moments to text back and forth and coordinate play-dates. As they grew their phone use graduated to hand-me-down iPhones capable of texting and calling a select few family members. By the time they were teenagers, my window for educating them in proper phone skills had all but shut. The phone conversations they were having sounded short, succinct, wildly informal, and borderline rude to my ‘back in my day’ ears.

“What’s up!?” my child would say to a friend, “Yeah, whatever, just text me!”

In December of 2020, Vermont released data showing that the number of monthly texts had risen 7,700% in the last decade, culminating in a whopping 6 billion texts sent every single day in the United States. That number does not include app-to-app communications. Another study showed that 18–34-year-olds preferred texting to speaking on the phone. Now, putting aside, for a moment, the GLARING need to re-address texting processes within a dealership, the nature of modern communication is out-pacing the nurtured practice of phone etiquette. Our rising generation is not talking on the phone nor do they know-how.

As digital forms of communication rise the ability to professionally engage in an over-the-phone conversation is falling. Last month I had the less-than-appealing opportunity to coach my receptionist on her phone skills when our recorded calls caught her answering:

“Thank you for calling our dealership, who is this?”

In any industry filled with multi-million-dollar companies, there is no room for anything other than consummate professionalism on the phone. Bad phone skills can amount to thousands of dollars lost PER CALL. Despite our global love of texting, we still live in a world where the phone remains an essential component of customer service and sales, and live-person assistance is still the preferred method of communication for complex purchases.

As those of us with years and decades of experience in the automotive space move into managerial and director positions, we make room for the next iteration of our industry. I am confident that the coming paradigm shift will involve a robust digital framework the likes of which we have yet to conceptualize. Yet, this transformation comes at a cost that we are already beginning to witness. Phone skills are quickly becoming a depleting resource.

As a Business Development Manager–specifically in the area where I live–I often work with entry-level employees fresh out of high school. My training of these individuals does not begin with the CRM, it begins with creating conscious awareness of how to speak on the phone. Before I can talk about lead response times, equity mining, or customer profiles; before I can talk about pacing, mirroring, rebuttals, or leading questions I am more and more often required to train new agents on how to answer the phone, how many rings are appropriate, how many times you should call in an hour, and how to end a phone conversation. If we are to continue to offer continuity of message throughout the customer experience, we need to rapidly readjust the way we train on the phones.

Here’s an exercise:

Choose five dealerships across the country and call them at random. Ignore the agent’s ability, or inability, to sell a vehicle over the phone and simply listen to the way they carry a conversation. How did they answer the phone? Did they give their name? Did they initiate common pleasantries? Were there awkward pauses? How did they end the conversation? As a consumer, how would you rate your experience? After you’ve done this, call your dealership. Do you stand out above the crowd?

The answer is probably no.

In my training of new employees, I frequently engage in nationwide dealer shopping. From Washington to Texas to Ohio to New York I have heard the breakdown of conversation in nearly every dealership I call. This should be one of the easiest and most effective fixes in the industry, and yet we continue to brush it aside. We need to recognize that natural phone talent is a myth and nurtured phone talent is a skill. The first and last conversation a customer will have with your dealership is likely to be phone-based. We need to implement aggressive and comprehensive change if we ever expect to stand out above the dozens of other voices our customers hear while trying to purchase a vehicle.

According to certain studies customers only visit 1.6 dealers, which means if they are calling you, they have already chosen you. We spend thousands of dollars to move potential customers through the sales funnel, we shouldn’t be fumbling it. We critique our teams and say they are not capable of setting appointments have we considered it more basic? If phone skills are not taught in the home, it now becomes our responsibility to take up that task. The Pareto Principle states that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. This is one of those causes. When we fail to properly train our entire staff on the phone we are losing customers to the dealership that does.

Charity Ann
[email protected]