How Should We Address Callers?


Should we call our customers Sir, or Madam?  Should it be Mr or Mrs?  Or should we be on first name terms?

We asked our readers for their thoughts.

Get over the formality

The main issue for advisors using their caller’s names is formality. The advisor can often feel too informal if they use the caller’s name; preferring ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ instead. This can affect the advisor’s ability to build rapport.

It is the caller’s name that personalises that call from any other call they take that day. By not using the caller’s name, calls can come across as systematic and uncaring, particularly where the call is heavily scripted.

Equally, assuming to use the caller’s first name can appear too informal. It suggests over-familiarity and many callers, particularly those of an older demographic, have been offended if their first name has been used before giving their permission.

Ask the customer what they prefer

Sean Colledge

Sean Colledge

Our advisors are coached to ask for their caller’s full name, and then how they prefer to be addressed. This puts the onus entirely on the caller and ensures that they are given the opportunity to dictate how they are addressed.

As such, the advisor does not need to worry about being too formal or informal and often feels more comfortable using the caller’s name, knowing they’re unlikely to offend.

Sean Colledge, Training & Performance Manager, Office Response Ltd 

Never presume to use a caller’s first name

I am a firm believer that we must never presume to use a caller’s first name, unless they ask us to do so. It give does not give a good professional image of the company and having been on the receiving end of a call where this happened, I can assure you that I was annoyed.

Difficult to pronounce surnames

I have recently asked some of our trainee agents why they haven’t used the callers name at all during a call.  One of the reasons given was that if they couldn’t pronounce it; they were uncomfortable using the word Madam. This is common, especially with younger staff members. The word Sir does not seem to be an issue. I advised them to explain to the caller that they couldn’t pronounce the name as often the caller will then give you a first name.

Christine – Team Leader

It’s different for complaints and enquiries

For me personally it depends on what it is I am calling for.  If I am making a complaint to a company then I prefer Sir or Mr which I think demonstrates some regard for me as the wronged customer and I like to keep the conversation at a more formal level.  However, if I am calling to make an enquiry, give some information or to buy something I do not mind first name terms and a friendlier, more relaxed approach.

Vince

Only use first name for the under 50s

As a rule of thumb if the customer or prospect is under the age of 50 it should be fine to address that person by their first name. However, anyone middle aged and up should be addressed by “Mr. or Mrs. (last name).”

Steven Schwartz

Steven Schwartz

With demographics pointing to an aging population, the trend is clearly toward the Misters of the world. I noticed recently that when I call my phone company the Customer Service Reps always ask if they can call me Steven. Years ago when I was younger I would have said sure, but being 55 years old I don’t feel comfortable having a stranger address me by my first name. I always tell them to call me Mr. Schwartz.

Here’s the funny part of that story. I know it’s courteous to ask permission to call me Steven, but frankly it always comes out a bit contrived, almost pushy. I am not having a personal conversation, so why the need to call me Steven?

Err on the side of caution

So my best advice is this: If you know the age of the person you are speaking with is under 50, go with the first name.  If not, err on the side of caution. The bottom-line is be respectful.

Steven J. Schwartz, International best-selling author, @withtheSchwartz

Listen how they respond to your openings

Luke Clarke

Luke Clarke

In my contact centre I actively encourage my agents to make this choice. You can generally tell, from the way you are addressed by a customer, what is appropriate. Tone of voice is a big give away and listen to how they respond to your openings.

If you ask for their name and they respond with “Luke” then why not use that during the call, if they respond with “Mr Clarke” then use ‘Mr’ or ask them if they are comfortable with you using their first name.

If you train them in soft skills empower them to use them.

Luke Clarke, Client Services Manager, Novia Investment Services LTD

It depends upon the individual

Some customers wish to have empathy and build up a personal relationship, feel listened to and almost be given a verbal hug on the phone. Some customers wish to have as little contact as possible, they want quick efficient service without empathy or getting to know you questions. I think the way in which we should address our customers will depend on the individual and the type of contact centre.

Ask your customer what their name is

One of the best ways to determine if Sir, Madam, first name or surname should be used is to ask your customer what their name is.

If they automatically give you their first name and surname, you could use either as both have been offered.  If the caller only provides their surname then I would opt for the surname and not push further for a first name. If the first name needs to be asked for DPA reasons this can be gathered but may not be appropriate to use.

Take the lead from the caller

As the contact happens over the phone I would take the lead from the caller. In situations where someone refuses to provide a name, you can offer your name as this may soften the situation.  If the need arises to address the caller then Sir or Madam is all you have. It is the age of the customer and we need to deliver what they want, listen hard at the start of the call and the caller will provide you with the answer you are looking for.

A call centre team leader

At all times be respectful

When we contact a customer, we are representing a business. It is imperative to portray a professional approach to the customer, and at all times be respectful. Without knowing the customer’s age, addressing the customer by anything other than their title and surname runs the risk of appearing over-personal.

What does the customer feel comfortable with?

When it comes to sales, there can be a degree of familiarity with customers that can – where appropriate – consolidate and reinforce a strong rapport. I think that it all boils down to what the customers feel comfortable with; here, our agents are encouraged to ask what the customer prefers when they ask for confirmation of name at the start of the call.

The key is to try and make sure that customers are being treated in a manner that suits them. Generally, older customers appreciate the respect that ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ implies, and younger customers do not mind being called e.g. Steve, but this is by no means a cut-and-dry, one-size-fits-all solution.

Listening to customers will always get the best results and shows attentive call handlers.

Sean McIver

What do you call your callers?  Please leave your answers in an email to Call Centre Helper

Published On: 1st Aug 2012 - Last modified: 31st Jan 2018
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4 Comments
  1. I am under 50 and I find it extremely rude and presumptuous to be called by my first name by someone I don’t know. I usually ask them not to call me by my first name. I really don’t care about rapport, I am not calling to have a jolly chinwag, I am calling to sort out problems and the one and only thing I want customer services to do is sort out the problem and to sort it out quickly, efficiently and to my satisfaction.

    Rufus d 22 Mar at 9:32 am
  2. I do like it when people call me by my first name, although it really depends on who I’m interacting with. If it’s my bank teller, hair dresser or doctor, it just seems most appropriate to call me by my first name. On the other hand, if I’m having an over the phone conversation with someone I don’t really know or have just been introduced to, such as a call center rep or receptionist, I prefer that they address me by my last name unless, of course, I give permission later in the call. My pet peeve is that they do not address me as ma’am. Ma’am or sir are best used as a form of courtesy following responses such as “yes” or “no” but should never replace their name.

    Monica K 30 Aug at 6:33 pm
  3. I dont like being called by my first name; I think it is presumptuous.

    Anonymous 22 Jan at 2:43 pm
  4. Age is not the sole criterion. Even younger adults should be addressed by proper title and surname; first name basis is an informality which indicates closer acquaintance. As such, always ask before using first name. Better yet, in business context, don’t ask and don’t do it. Just use the formal approach. Always better to err on side of respect.

    Formality 6 Apr at 7:54 pm
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