Call Control Techniques: Controlling a Runaway Talker on the Telephone

five people are chatting together and have a speech bubble above their head

No matter how good we think we are at communicating on the telephone and taking control of the conversation, there is always one caller who just loves to talk! Is it possible to control them?

Christine Knott of beyond the box tells us how.

Some people just never seem to come up for air. They could, as the saying goes, ‘Talk for England’ or any other country that would allow their representation.

The first thing to remember in such a situation is to be mindful that the person in question may not have spoken to anyone for some time, and the opportunity to do so could be overwhelming. My suggestion in this instance is to be aware and not offend them. Not that we would be aiming to offend anyone else either, of course, but it is something worth thinking about.

So how can we control the runaway talker?

Call Control Technique 1. Ask a question that will elicit information

When we want to encourage someone to talk to us we use open-ended questions: who? what? where? when? how? and why? Quite simply we ask a question that will elicit information.

For example:

‘Who am I talking to?’
‘What is the nature of your enquiry?’
‘Where are you calling from?

The list is endless and such questions help to speed up a call by giving us the information we need quickly and promptly.

There are some people though that:

  1. Don’t need open-ended questions to encourage them to speak.
  2. View an open-ended question as an opportunity to talk and talk and talk, volunteering more information than was requested and in some instances information that is too far removed from the topic of discussion to be of any use.

Take a look at our 21 Top Tips for reducing Average Handling Time and 31 More Tips for Reducing Average Handling Time for further advice for talking to chatty customers.

To take control of the conversation and limit the opportunity you give your caller to talk at length:

Call Control Technique 2. Use more closed questions

These are questions that will deliver ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers or specific information that you request.

For example:

“Do you want to recieve marketing and advertising from us?”

Closed questions reduce the opportunity for your caller to talk at great length and sometimes even digress. If necessary explain to the caller that you have to ask some questions requiring yes or no answers in order to complete the fact sheet. Word your questions accordingly so that you take control of the receipt of short answers.

“Is your enquiry about sales or service?”

If you are recording information as the caller speaks, short or one-word answers will help you enter the details into the computer or write it down as quickly as you hear it. If necessary politely request shortened answers so that you can enter them into your system as they speak.

Call Control Technique 3. Chunk the conversation


When we chunk a conversation it means we break it down into manageable parts. Big chunks are used for general ideas, the big picture so to say; small chunks are used for detail and precise information, the minute detail.

People who run away with conversations may be small chunkers, and consider the detail of all situations. In this case, if the details are not relevant to the call, keep the chunks of information as large as possible and avoid asking questions that would allow the caller to move to a small-chunk conversation.

The caller has been diverted from adding to the statement because the call handler swiftly moved to the next stage – booking the call.

Control the conversation so that it flows in ‘big chunk’ mode, but only if it gives you the information you need. Avoid the use of open-ended questions – which encourage small chunking.

To chunk up, or to take a step back from the details, look for the purpose and overriding point of the information you are being given and repeat it back to the caller.

For example: “What I’m hearing is that you are looking for a call-out. Thank you for the information you have given to me but in order to help you, all I need to know at this stage is that we need to arrange for an engineer to come out to you. We can get someone out to you…”

In this instance the conversation has been controlled by ‘chunking up’ up to the purpose or overriding point of the information exchange – the need for a call-out. The caller has been diverted from adding to the statement because the call handler swiftly moved to the next stage – booking the call.

For more information about chunking the conversation for customers, read our article on Call Control Techniques

Call Control Technique 4.  Runaway callers are sometimes experts at introducing new subjects into the conversation in order to prolong the call


If this is the case keep directing it back to the main discussion which will give you the information you need to resolve the call.

For example: if the person comments that your accent sounds southern and asks if you know a certain area, respond with something such as: “Ah yes. My family is from… but I don’t know the area well.”

You have responded but possibly cut off the next question. Anything less would probably be viewed as rude by the customer. Anything more could invite additional discussion. Your next statement should then be business-related (e.g., “Is there anything else I can assist you with today?”).

Call Control Technique 5.  Manage the conversation through questioning and through statements that let the customer know your objective is to serve customers


You might say, “I know you said you are going out this afternoon so I won’t keep you any longer. Thanks for calling and please let me know if I can assist in the future.” Imply that you are ending the interaction to benefit the customer.

When someone is talking and talking and talking to us and showing little sign of stopping we spend our time waiting to jump in and respond. During this waiting period we usually stop listening because our concentration is taken up with waiting for a ‘slot time’. If this is the case the conversation has suddenly become pointless! Do be aware that you may be missing key information.

We usually stop listening because our concentration is taken up with waiting for a ‘slot time’ to jump in. If this is the case the conversation has suddenly become pointless! Do be aware that you may be missing key information.

For more information about questioning techniques and conversing with a customer, read our article: Practical Tips for Effective Questioning and Probing Techniques.

Call Control Technique 6. Use the customer’s name

If none of the ideas above help you to interject in the call use the old faithful – the customer’s name. We love to hear our own names – it stops us in our tracks.

Christine Knott

For example: “Oh, Mr Smith, that has just made me think…”. The pause will allow you to take control.

Do be patient with those who clearly just want someone to talk to whilst being mindful that you have a job to do. Respect costs nothing but will go a long way to making someone feel special and retaining a customer through good service.

Christine Knott is MD of specialist training company Beyond The Box.

For more questioning techniques to improve customer service, read our articles:

Author: Christine Knott
Reviewed by: Megan Jones

Published On: 25th Jun 2008 - Last modified: 30th Apr 2024
Read more about - Skills, , , ,

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  • Old Chestnut – but not true, in observed conversations closed questions actually recieve a very similar level of response to open questions and as such are not as useful as people believe them to be.

    Having said that the rest of the article is reasonable enough.

    Nik Kellingley 21 Jul at 09:10
  • Phone controller that does a blah blah blah and apologies for keeping you on the line – “I don’t want to keep you.”… when everything is going well…

    tokjat 13 Aug at 17:48
  • My calls are timed and the callers often run away with the conversation. My instructions are to follow the script on my screen, and try not to interrupt, but find a way to take control of the call. Customers desire to tell me about the current experience as well as the last time they visited the establishment they are complaining about. It is stressful to the point of chest pain.

    Kate 8 May at 18:07
  • is keeping the conversation light hearted and interesting, or focusing the speaker while increasing the likelihood that he will express a more coherent message, or saving time and sparing unnecessary stress for both parties are those a communication tool used to bring the speaker back to the subject at hand if they stray?

    Mattie 24 Sep at 17:46
  • some callers are expert manipulators and usual techniques do not work. If one tries to redirect the call sometimes they become hostile and they may try to report you saying that you were rude or condescending. Call centers are very, very stressful places.

    Sadie .M 3 Sep at 03:36
  • Our calls are expected to be resolved in 8 or less minutes. I can usually do 5-7 calls in this time.
    One user knows me by name. Asks for me. Loves to talk and cannot understand simple instruction. He moves to introduce new errors or related errors and we are obliged to open subsequent tickets.
    He never updates his PC and always insists you wait on call for an hour while they update. You can tell him his ticket is already with second level support 10x in 10 min and he will still loop back like a broken record, as if the conversation just started, every 5 minutes. Its a call from hell and NONE of the suggestions above work for this user. I always get great reviews and kudos from him, and I ALWAYS get reprimanded when I speak to him.
    I am not allowed to tell him that I cannot help him, or that our time is up. It is one of, if not the most stressful part of my job.
    I hate managers that are too stupid to see past metrics. And that is EVERY one I’ve ever had in my 2 decades in this position.

    spoutinwyze 2 Dec at 16:37
  • I also have a Call Center Job, where the calls are timed. They are really pushing for us to do our calls so that at the end of the day you don’t go over 5.30 minutes. Some of the calls are for multiple members. If you take care of more then one on the call your time is blown and you can’t come back from it. If you do 10 members in 1 call, you are graded as though it was a single member call and you had no control. I agree with the above comment, and that Management is missing important facts of information. I literally have to post notes on my desk to not be friendly, not be engaging, not be polite. It is all about the time of the call. And that you asked all the correct questions. You don’t get graded on being anything else. MANAGEMENT, WAKE UP! YOU ARE ENCOURAGING BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE FOR NUMBERS! AND WILL PROBABLY LOSE GOOD CUSTOMER SERVICE AGENTS IN THE PROCESS.

    Barb Kaimann 16 May at 03:26