Megan Jones shares hints and tips on how advisors can bridge silence on a call to deliver the best customer service possible even in difficult situations.
Silence is a daily occurrence in every contact centre, wasting valuable time and compromising Average Handling Time (AHT) metrics.
Whilst building rapport is a great strategy for avoiding moments of dead air, there are a handful of other common situations where agents will need to think fast to stop silence from compromising the customer experience.
Here are some strategies to help agents bridge silence on a call – no matter what the reason.
Bridging Silence on a Call… When an Agent Is Busy Completing a Task
The need to look up information or wait for a different screen to load can create periods of uncomfortable silence, particularly when an agent is distracted for more than a few seconds and the customer is left waiting on the other end of the line.
Set Realistic Expectations About Upcoming Periods of Silence
One way to help overcome this – without filling the time with small talk and compromising the ability for the agent to complete the task in hand – is for the agent to let the customer know there’s about to be a period of silence and to be honest about how long it will take.
For example, “I’m just going to take a look into that for you and I’ll need to be quiet for 2 minutes, if you can please wait on the line” sets far more realistic expectations, is better than pretending “I’ll be right back”, and will be far easier to come back from afterwards – without compromising rapport.
To find out more about managing customer expectations, read our article: How to Set the Right Expectations on a Call
Offer a Running Commentary to Reassure the Customer You Are Still There
It can also be helpful during a brief period of silence for the agent to offer a running commentary to reassure them that they are still there, with regular updates such as:
- “I’ve just found your case on the database.”
- “I’m just waiting for your case to load.”
- “It shouldn’t take much longer now.”
- “Sorry, this is taking a little longer than I expected.”
- “Thank you for your patience, I’ll be back with you in a moment.”
Note, these comments don’t have to specifically explain what the agent is doing, the purpose is to avoid the customer having to sit uncomfortably “in the dark” for the agent to return to their conversation.
It’s equally important that these updates are statements and not questions, so as not to invite small talk and distract the agent from the task in hand.
Think Ahead and Keep the Customer Busy Too
Whilst an agent is busy in the background, keep the customer busy too.
Another way to bridge any periods of silence whilst an agent is busy in the background is to keep the customer busy too, if possible, as Sunil Parshotam, Service Standards Manager at UCAS, commented:
“Think ahead – is there any further information you may need from the caller later on that they could find during this time.”
Make Use of the “On Hold” Options
All of the above can help for short, anticipated periods of silence, but if the agent knows they are going to be busy for a considerable time, sometimes it’s best to revert to putting the customer on hold sooner rather than later.
This is a more comfortable way to bridge a period of silence than to leave them waiting on the end of the line for you to return, as Sunil Parshotam said:
“If you need more time to investigate or find out the answer to their question, check if the caller is happy to be placed on hold while you do this.
“Get all the information you need before placing them on hold if they are happy, so you don’t have to keep going back to them. Ideally, you’d only want to put them on hold once so the call flows as efficiently as possible.
“While on hold they can listen to music rather than silence, and if you have the capability, you can even play relevant IVR messaging to relay important information.”
For more information on how you can reduce the time a customer is on hold, read our article: How to Reduce Hold Time in Your Contact Centre
Bridging Silence on a Call… When an Agent Doesn’t Know the Answer
Confusion and uncertainty, particularly with new starters, can be another cause for uncomfortable silence on a call. For example, if an agent suddenly gets a bit flustered, goes quiet, or sporadically starts trying to fill the silence with “umm…”.
This will leave the customer feeling uncomfortable too and can really damage rapport, as well as waste time.
Remind Agents They Don’t Always Need to Know the Answers
It’s important that agents know it’s ok to not know all of the answers all of the time, as this will help avoid them clamming up and worrying about what their line manager might think – and instead focus on addressing the silence, maintaining rapport, and finding a solution.
Encourage Them to Pretend “It’s Only Their First Week”
Pretending they are a new starter can help an agent play the situation to their advantage, get some sympathy from the customer and keep them on side whilst they figure out what to do next.
Even if they’ve been in the role 6 months, there’s no harm in twisting the truth a bit if it helps give agents the confidence and space they need to find a solution and get the conversation back on track.
Note, this approach will be far more effective if agents are confident in their understanding of their escalation channels and where to find the information that they need. This could even be printed out for them to have to hand in the event of an emergency.
To find out more about how you can improve the knowledge of your advisors, read our article 14 Practical Techniques to Improve Knowledge Management
Bridging Silence on a Call… When the Customer Is Shocked by the Price
Another situation where agents may find themselves faced with silence is when the customer is told the price of something and it’s far higher than they anticipated.
Ask “Is That What You Expected?”
“When a customer hears the price, it may cause a silent reaction, and so the agent will ask things like “Is that what you expected?”, “How does that sound to you?”, “Have you been shopping around?”
“The agent will then use their price objection handling scripts to help move the call forward,” as Linda Davis, Head of Operations at AllClear Insurance Services, commented.
Bridging Silence on a Call… With an Angry Customer
Unfortunately, silence can also occur in situations where a customer is angry or upset, and it’s important agents know how to handle this in the midst of a complaint for the best possible outcome.
Allow for a Natural Pause After the Customer Has Made a Complaint
Not every period of silence needs to be instantly filled, especially during a complaints call, as Gary Kinsella, Head of Customer Services at Dignity Funerals Ltd, commented:
“Silence can be very powerful and I’m a big believer in using it in complaint calls. Often customers complaining have a script in their head and want to ensure that they cover off everything. Interrupting sometimes frustrates the customer and throws them off track.
“Let them finish what they have to say by allowing that silence. A pause will help the agent and customer know that it’s time to respond.”
Acknowledge the Silence – Don’t Ignore It
It’s then important to acknowledge the silence in order to move the conversation forward, as Mark McGill, Operations Manager at SSE Retail at Ovo Energy, said:
“In instances where the customer is angry, it’s sometimes better you allow them to get everything out. Finish with silence and be able to come in after the customer says ‘you still there?’ to say ‘Yes absolutely, I just wanted to understand your query in full. To recap x, y and z. I will be able to resolve this for you and will start with…’. Too often we antagonize the situation by coming in too quickly.”
To learn more about handling customer complaints, read our article: 21 Ways to Improve Complaints Handling in Your Contact Centre
Agents Need to Take Control of the Situation and Reassure Customers They Are Here to Help
Sometimes customers will also go quiet if they don’t like what has been said and perhaps haven’t received the outcome they were hoping for. In instances like this, it’s important agents take control in a calm manner to reassure the customer.
For example, by reminding the customer that they are here to help, apologizing that their concerns are causing them to feel this way, and suggesting that they can talk through the different options to find a solution to their query.
Tell the Customer “It’s OK if They Need a Moment”
If the silence continues, it can also help for the agent to acknowledge the customer’s silence and give them some space.
For example, the agent can tell the customer that it is ok if they need a moment and that they will still be there when they are ready to continue the conversation – with no pressure on them. They could even offer to arrange a callback at a different time.
Handle the Remainder of the Call With a Heightened Level of Sensitivity and Signposting
However, if a customer says they would like to continue with the call, it’s important agents do so sensitively and don’t just pretend everything is “normal” again, as Linda Davis said:
“Following a period of angry silence, the agent should be very aware that the situation is now sensitive, and deliberately slow down the conversation and fill any further silent gaps with additional signposting such as “I will shortly take your trip details”, “we are nearly finished”, and ”we are almost done”.”
For hints and tips on how to build rapport with angry customers, read our article: Rapport Building With Angry Customers – With Examples
Bridging Silence on a Call… When the Customer Is Experiencing Technical Difficulties
Sometimes neither party is to blame for silence during a call. Instead, the conversation is compromised by technical difficulties outside of their control.
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again….
It’s critical for the agent to acknowledge the issue as quickly as possible and try to fix it.
If the signal is bad on the line and there are periods of silence, and the agent thinks they may have missed important information, it’s critical for the agent to acknowledge the issue as quickly as possible and try to fix it.
For example, ask the customer if they are able to physically move to another location where they might get better signal, and then ask them to repeat themselves so that no information is lost.
It can also help if an agent takes notes during this time, so as to build up as comprehensive as picture as possible and make it easier to spot information that’s missing or been repeated.
Ask for an Alternative Phone Number
If the agent can still only hear the customer patchily, they could try asking for an alternative phone number to call the customer back on. Or the agent could also try transferring the call to one of their colleagues.
Suggest a Different Channel
If the issue persists, it may be best for an agent to cut their losses and switch to another channel.
The agent should be as clear as possible about their plans to disconnect the call (and hope the customer hears them) before using information in their Case Management System (CMS) to follow up with the customer via email instead.
For more advice on how to improve the customer experience and manage how calls are handled, read our articles: