Top Tips to Improve Listening Skills on the Telephone

A person holds their hand up to their ear

Industry experts Christine Knott and Carolyn Blunt share their tips to improve contact centre listening skills, along with our readers.

How to Improve Listening Skills Over the Phone

Christine Knott, the Managing Director at Beyond the Box, shares her tips with advisors for how to improve listening skills on the telephone.

1. Stay Focused

Prevent yourself from being distracted by colleagues or external noises and concentrate on what your caller is saying.

It is also helpful if you, and the rest of the team, to avoid shouting across the floor to lower background noise, or to wear binaural headsets (if possible!).

2. Detect Emotions

Listen to the emotion in your caller’s voice. Does it match or endorse the words they are using?

If the customer sounds frustrated or upset, use empathy. If the customer sounds upbeat, try to hold onto that positivity by matching their tone.

3. Ask Questions

Ask questions to gain more information on points you need to clarify.

Use probing questions, like “when did this start?”, you can match them with a solution that is best fit to them.

4. Don’t Interrupt

You listen more effectively when you’re not talking, so refrain from interrupting your caller.

You listen more effectively when you’re not talking, so refrain from interrupting your caller.

Remember to let the customer finish what they are saying, interruptions may break their train of thought.

To find out more about training your agents to Improve Active Listening in the Contact Centre, have a read of this article.

5. Don’t Pre-Empt

Avoid pre-empting what your caller is going to say, chances are you will be wrong and miss some of the content of their conversation.

This content may include some information that can be added to the CRM system to help the next advisor, who handles a call from this customer, to build rapport.

6. Recap Key Facts

Summarise and reflect back to check you have heard the key facts and content of the caller’s conversation correctly. It also lets the caller know you have understood them.

Statements such as “What I’m hearing is…” and “Sounds like you are saying…” are great ways to reflect back and summarise.

7. Pen and Paper at the Ready

Have a pen and paper to hand and get into the habit of making short quick references to any questions you want to ask or points you wish to raise or comment on.

When your caller has finished speaking refer back to your notes and take action. If you are thinking of answers and responses whilst the caller is speaking, you are not listening.

8. Say it Again

If you are having difficulty listening, make the necessary adjustments. You might say, “I’m sorry I missed that last point. Please repeat that for me.”

It is better to ask the customer to repeat themselves than to guess what they wanted and pay for it down the line.

9. Watch the Stereotypes

Christine Knott

Christine Knott

Avoid stereotyping individuals by making assumptions about how you expect them to act and what you expect them to say. This will bias your listening.

Remember that each customer is different and assuming a solution that is right for one customer will be the right one for another is not a great example of customer service.

10. Be Aware of the Barriers to Listening

  • We think we’re right and the other person is wrong
  • We feel we have to provide help right away
  • We prefer to talk rather than listen
  • We are waiting for gaps or pauses to jump in with our response

And don’t forget to keep practising…

A diagram showing ten tips to improve your listening skills. 1. Stay focussed, 2. Detect Emotions, 3. Ask Questions 4. Don't interupt 5. Don't pre-empt 6. Recap key facts 7. Pen and Paper at the ready 8. Say it again 9. Watch the stereotypes 10. Be aware of listening barriers

Carolyn Blunt, the Managing Director of Ember Real Results, discusses what management can to do help improve listening skills on the contact centre floor.

11. Be Wary of Solution Based Thinking

Solution focused thinking is a process where the contact centre encourages advisors to focus on the resolution, because customers generally don’t wake up saying a “I want to phone a call centre” or “I want to send an email”. They’ve got a problem and it needs to be solved.

Experienced advisors will say “yeah I’ve seen this all before” and they’ll jump into a particular path of resolution. But, that might not be the right path for this particular customer.

So, this is where advisors should instead be encouraged to stop, check and think more openly. By doing this, the advisor may decide that for this particular scenario, the best course of action would be to take a step in a different direction.

12. Remember That Speed is the Enemy of Good Listening

There are occasions where contact centres will unwittingly encourage advisors to rush through calls, often through bad resource planning and metric choices, but some advisors will naturally just be wanting to “get through their work”.

This is where the contact centre needs to encourage the team to slow down, to breathe and to think about putting that focus on the customer. So, as Team Leaders and Managers, we need to really make sure we are facilitating that.

While it may seem counterproductive to slow an advisor down, it leads to a situation like the tortoise and the hare.

While it may seem counterproductive to slow an advisor down, it leads to a situation like the tortoise and the hare. This is because if an advisor were to rush through the call, it is likely that the customer is just going to call back.

13. Consider Whether There are Secret Narcissists in Amongst the Team

It is often good practise to ask advisors to think about who is the most important person in a contact centre conversation.

Just because of their nature, contact centres tend to attract people to work in them who are quite chatty, extroverted and bubbly.

While this can be great and good energy is needed through the advisor’s voice all day, if they really like the sound of their own voice too much, then it can get in the way of their ability to listen to the customer.

So, although the team might be really knowledgeable, let’s encourage these advisors to just use a bit more pull communication. This is a strategy where the advisor asks lots questions, as opposed to push communication, which is to bombard the customer with information – whether they’ve asked for it or not.

14. Aim to Reduce Internal Chatter

Internal chatter is the little journey that people go off on in their minds, thinking about “other stuff”, because, in reality, we’ve all got “other stuff”.

This can include anything from “I hope my dogs okay” to “I wonder if my boiler will be repaired by the time I get home”. It is these thoughts that can be detrimental to an advisor’s listening ability.

One strategy to avoid doing this is to encourage advisors to have a “park pad”, which they can put notes into and then come back to them at the end of the day.

So, one strategy to avoid doing this is to encourage advisors to have a “park pad”, which they can put notes into and then come back to them at the end of the day. It’s quite a cathartic thing to do, as it’s a strategy that helps to empty the mind.

15. Play Listening Games

Practise makes perfect, so consider playing listening games in every huddle and every free team meeting, no matter if it’s a quick 30 second quiz question or if it’s an actual activity. It’s essential to keep listening at the fore of what the team does.

Try having a makeshift “kitbox” that allows the contact centre to build up a repertoire of activities that can be used and brought out when call volumes are lower than expected.

For examples of activities that can be added to the “kitbox”, read our article: Motivational Games for Call Centres

16. Eliminate Distractions

Quite often, contact centre operations have multiple systems – such as wallboards, on-screen communications and colleagues asking if people want a cup of tea – that cause all types of distractions.

These distractions may be influencing, how much are advisors listening to what the customer actually wants? Particularly if that call sounds just like those that have come directly before.

While some distractions are unavoidable, scheduling time to directly speak to the team, rather than repeatedly sending distracting emails, is one quick fix.

17. Remove Stringent Metrics

When contact centre target advisors on time-based metrics, like Average Handling Time (AHT), then they may find that advisors try to “speed-up” the process.

When the team are doing this, advisors start to skip through things, meaning that they may not be listening properly and rush the customer away.

So, contact centres have got to be careful that the metrics they use are driving the right behaviours.

Contact centres have got to be careful that the metrics they use are driving the right behaviours.

An example of a great metric to use would be First Contact Resolution (FCR), as this can help drive really good listening skills because we want to encourage people to make sure that customers not going to contact again.

18. Assess Background Noise and Headsets Choices

The construct of open-plan floors makes it quite difficult to listen closely to the customer at times, so contact centres often choose to consider the benefits of noise cancelling headsets.

Single earpiece, old headsets can be quite detrimental in terms of comfort, blocking out background noise and limiting distractions.

Wireless headsets are often the best option, so if the person next to the advisor is really distracting them and is being noisy, the advisor can get up move away, in order to focus directly on the customer.

19. Improve Resource Planning

If the contact centre has less advisors than it needs – whether that’s down to sickness, marketing sending out a campaign without warning or whatever – it creates problems that may impact an advisor’s listening ability.

When the contact centre is forced to deal with unexpected peaks in contact volumes, advisors can often be put under pressure. So, when an advisor is informed of this great queue of customers, it can be a distraction and advisors may start to rush calls, which may influence their listening ability.

20. Think About Effective Two-Way Coaching Conversations

Active listening needs to start at the top of the organisation and it needs to be remodelled all the way through. This is ideally done by having effective coaching conversations with the team.

Carolyn Blunt

Carolyn Blunt

These coaching conversations would ideally involve advisors coming into the session and saying, “I really want to work on…”.

If the contact centre can motivate advisors to do this, to consciously process where the gaps in their customer interactions lie, the contact centre can help to create a culture of learning. Having this culture will result in the team sharing tips with one another, to help improve listening skills.

To find out the other advantages of this culture, read our article: 8 Benefits of Creating a Culture of Learning in Your Contact Centre

Our Readers Tips

In addition to the expert thoughts of Christine Knott and Carolyn Blunt, our readers were also keen to send their suggestions for the improving listening in the contact centre.

We have narrowed all of these tips down and picked our favourites, which can be found below.

21. Recap the Call Before Saying Goodbye

At the end of the call, advisors should be asked to recap to the customer what they have done, what the customer needs to do now and will happen next to ensure they are clear.

Thanks to Michael

22. Monitor Questioning Quality

If questions are relevant to what has been said by the customer, then active listening has happened.

In my contact centre, we monitor questioning quality. If questions are relevant to what has been said by the customer, then active listening has happened.

In terms of empathic responses, if an appropriate response has been given to what has been said by the customer, again active listening would have happened.

Also, when it comes to overall call control and quality of reporting, notes made during After Call Work (ACW) should match what customer has said.

Thanks to Valerie

23. Encourage Self-Reflection

Self-reflection can be great. Before our quality analysts provide feedback on interactions, they encourage the agents to review their interactions first and consider:

  • What they thought went really well?
  • How they made the customer feel?
  • What they could have done differently or better?

Also, if the advisor exhibited a great listening skill, discuss with them the good practice that they could share with the rest of the team.

Thanks to Lenka

24. Create a Qualification That’s Based on Soft Skills

In our contact centre, we revisit listening and other soft skills regularly and use a customer service qualification that requires a demonstration of listening and communication skills. These include rapport, identifying customer needs, assessing expectations etc.

25. Focus on the Difference Between Needs and Expectations

Contact centres need to encourage advisors to use questions to draw out customer expectations and explore customer needs.

Being able to tell the difference between needs and expectations is key to developing excellent listening skills. What is needed by the customer is not always what is expected by the customer.

So, contact centres need to encourage advisors to use questions to draw out customer expectations and explore customer needs.

Thanks to Sarah

26. Ask the Advisors for Three Things They Know About the Customer

In coaching, when reviewing a customer’s call, ask the advisor what three things do they know about their customer.

Listening out for even the most random pieces of information about the customer can be helpful during an interaction, as it can be useful to know when building rapport and using small talk to avoid silences, when the line goes quiet.

Thanks to Stephanie

27. Save Each Email as a Draft and Proofread Later

Listening is not just important on the telephone. When replying to a member via email/letter, type it, read it through, save in your draft and come back later with a clear head. This process may allow you to see something vital that you have missed.

28. Consider the Impact of Good Posture

If the advisor is slouching, their enjoyment and voice will likely mirror this. Whereas sitting up straight will makes them sound more engaged and confident/genuine in what you are saying. The customer will definitely be more likely to feel as though they are being listened to.

Thanks Claire

29. Treat Each Caller as an Individual

Treat each call individually and fully focus on the customer. The team would ideally know to address the customer by name, build rapport, to put themselves in the customer’s shoes and provide low effort, unique, inspiring customer service.

Thanks to Kirstin

30. Focus on Reducing Staff Turnover

Turnover rates impact heavily on the listening skills of the contact centre floor. This is because there is inevitably a push towards product knowledge first and softer skills can get missed without good consistent peer to peer and other live call coaching support.

Thanks to Jarleth

Find out how to lower advisor churn, by reading our article: Top 20 Ways to Reduce Attrition in Your Contact Centre

Originally published in April 2008. Recently updated.

For more on improving listening skills in a contact centre, take a look at these articles:

Author: Jo Robinson
Reviewed by: Megan Jones

Published On: 18th Apr 2018 - Last modified: 17th May 2024
Read more about - Hints and Tips, , , , ,

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  • We have tended to find that background noise and distractions in the room are one of the biggest barriers to listening skills.

    We used dual ear noise cancelling headsets and this had a significant impact on the amount of background noise. also because there was less noise we found that agents tended not to speak so loudly.

    jamesportcullis 30 Apr at 14:42
  • Listening to the customers’ words is the point in understanding what kind of issue they are trying to describe .. and asking questions to make sure whether they were correctly understood by the agent is so vital … sometimes we presume that we know from the beginning what the customer’s case is about but we could be so wrong .. so then let’s people talk and agents listen !!!

    Ann@ 1 May at 17:12
  • Asking the right types of probing questions also help in listening, probing questions even though what the customer is saying me seem to be loud and clear, it may not be what he/she is trying to communicate. Ensuring agents understand the right questioning techniques and their uses is a big help to listening…

    Thelma 27 May at 14:14
  • This is a great article and I like the comment from Jamesportcullis.

    I want to comment on this article as a customer as well as a contact centre manager because I have witnessed everything I mention (visually & audibly) and I have been on the receiving end of the same as a customer.

    In my experience the two main factors in ensuring your employees’ listening skills are at the very best level is by first of all removing all distractions such as internet, email, desktop games and similar and make sure everyone answering the phone has a pad and pen. It is essential to be able to focus entirely on the customer’s voice and the customer file.

    Wearing a dual ear noise cancelling headset helps me personally; this can be complimented by ensuring everyone in the call centre knows not to distract someone on the phone – you all probably think this is common sense but you have no doubt seen someone today distract someone talking on the phone by asking what time their lunch is, saying goodbye, etc. Even the smallest distraction culminates in a weakened call experience and can be the difference between keeping/gaining or losing a customer.

    Call centre layout will also help, especially if you’ve adopted the use of call centre furniture with divides, etc.

    While most mobile phones are banned from most companies, how many times have you seen the girls staring in their handbags or the boys rushing to the toilets on a frequent basis? Again it’s common sense not to have a mobile phone switched on while you’re at work but how many times have you caught someone sending a sneaky text? As a matter of interest, if you think there’s no way anyone has their mobile phone on in your office, why not try the Bluetooth challenge? Just simply check the airwaves from your Bluetooth enabled phone or laptop – funny to see the whacky names of people, if nothing else…

    Distractions come in all shapes and sizes and there isn’t enough time in the day to list them all here.

    So to summarise: By removing all distractions and having team leaders and managers focusing some of their time and energy on these factors will enable customers to receive the very best attention from your employees.

    Darren Degiorgio 11 Aug at 16:30
  • Fantastic article!

    I find it useful especially to overcome STM (short term memory). It’s common in the call centre where people tend to ask “May I have your name again?” while customer has given their name at the begining of the call…

    Phoebe 8 Dec at 05:54
  • Thanks, the tips is very useful!
    It reminds me that LISTEN attentively should come first & it is very crucial if we want to HELP customer efficiently without asking customer to REPEAT the same info twice.
    Repetition will kind of like reflect the customer service agent is not attentive & still in “not ready” mode to serve.

    Jeremy Ng 8 Dec at 08:47
  • Listening to customer is a way to show respect to them and the “we care” attitude. We need to ask customer for info again if we are not sure rather then we make assumptions. It is important to let customer feel that we are listening not just hearing.

    Marv 8 Dec at 17:01
  • I am having a difficult time hearing my customers. I work for a bond company. We have the old standard black phones. I do not belive that our company will ever get a head sets for the office. Then the next best thing for me is to get some ear plugs. We do not have cube’s, I do not belive they are practicle for our office because many times we a have to interact together because we get more than one caller at the same time calling on one client. But your website does give me tips that I will impliment when I go back to work. Thank you.

    Sandy 28 Jan at 06:20
  • Thanks so much for all the tips & comments, i have really learnt from them.I am just two months old in the call centre and presently we are given training on telephone etiquette, what is a call centre, handling customers complaints et cetera.
    This article has really made me to love call centre work more.
    Thank you, Ruth

    Ruth Asuquo 29 Jan at 18:00
  • i am preparing for a telephone interview.This article is quite helpful and detailed.

    oluseyi 19 Feb at 20:26
  • i have just gained a position in a call centre and found these tips very usefull, thank you.

    samantha 8 Jul at 23:23
  • I agree about the name. If someone tells you their name it is important to remember it.

    Monica B 30 Aug at 18:03
  • my shift just got over but i found this article superb as an agent.iam going to follow all tips from tomorrow.added this page as favourites…thanks

    saurabh sundariyal 3 Sep at 20:43
  • pls,send me tips for improve listening power

    Rajeeb lochan parhi 5 Jan at 09:53
  • Great tips

    Dave 1 Feb at 21:30

    RAMYA 22 Jul at 09:53
  • thank you for all the above tips and hope to get more and more of it

    sanjay 13 Aug at 15:26
  • I hope you can send me some guidelines regarding how to improve inlistening.

    ernesto 7 Oct at 02:24
  • thank you.the tip to keep a pen and paper handy is nice however they are not allowed on the floor 🙁

    saurabh sundariyal 2 Mar at 21:59
  • Thanks for great reminders of paying attention and listening, and it applies to all jobs not just those in the call centre.

    The following quiz shows just how shockingly little information we take in during a phone call. I admit I scored only 60% on the first attempt.

    karnail 24 Mar at 12:37
  • Hi,

    This is one great article.

    john 30 Mar at 14:28
  • I just took that quiz posted by karnail. I only got 50% on my first attempt, and considering I have an interview tomorrow to work in a call centre I think my listening skill need an overhaul. Great article.

    Quiz was –>

    Karl 6 Apr at 15:39
  • Listening is often depicted as a passive form of action. However, it is no less powerful. People who know how, and when, to listen properly can go a long way. I’d even go so far as to say that listening skills development can lead to a wealthier and more successful life!

    saroyo 16 Sep at 16:07
  • I think good listening is a life long learning skill, because emotions usually weaken what I have learned.

    Erich 21 Dec at 21:29
  • Fantastically crafted…The things mentioned in this article are actually obvious but oftenly forgotten by reps. I will use this as reminder to them.

    bridgette 1 Feb at 22:15
  • Great post, we agree that listening is really the key element here when talking to people on the phone. Remaining calm is also a bonus.

    Anon 14 Feb at 11:35
  • I am delighted to read this article on Listening Skills. It reminds me of my certification presentation as a CS Trainer for Centum Learning Ltd on topic Listening Skills.

    This is a topic that has featured in most of my trainings, and agents still fall short of some these tips. I will refer all agents and TLs to this web page for a refresher. Thanks.

    Philip 30 Mar at 15:27
  • Hi guys! I just want to ask some questions and I hope that I can get reply from anyone here soon. I’ve been applying in BPO industries these past few days, and unfortunately I always fail on the call simulation and operations interview because I easily get confused when I start to feel nervous.. I know maybe this is all because I still don’t have a call center experience yet. I really want to work and build a carrer in this industry. I failed more than 20x already in this industry alone. In just 8 months. It may sound funny but I already mastered how to pass the interviews and exams without sweat. 🙂 Until I met operations interview and call simulation this past few days. How can I overcome this? Please help me.

    Aries 8 May at 16:51
  • nice it might helpful and i will follow it thank you

    venatadeepak 19 Sep at 08:42
  • Thanq

    Bhanu 16 Nov at 14:08
  • its really an awesome article for the people working in call center industry.. this article is not just gonna help us in improving the listing skills but also in focus and confident on the call.. it also helps the agent in reducing the chances of a call going in wrong direction.

    Anonymous 15 Dec at 19:22
  • As I listen to the customer, I take notes and once they have conveyed their situation to me, I always start my part of the conversation with ” If I have this correct, you stated that ….” I find that this works real well for me. Also I know this sounds funny but I look at only one thing as I’m listening and it is an item on my desk. It keeps me from becoming distracted. Listening attentively to the customer is half the battle and one that is in your power to control. 🙂

    Tracy 28 May at 00:26
  • Listeneing is such an important factor of communication…. I find that if i had not listened effectively or had not documented the information that the member/client had given me at first, I find that i have wasted the member’s time and had not given him/her my full attention… I feel that i have disappointed the member and even myslef…So thank you for the heads up…This is incorporated in our everyday lives

    Melanie 10 Jul at 19:08
  • Listening is an ART.

    Hearing is what we do all day it is part of our senses.

    Listening, means that you do just that, you Listen AND Understand, they have to go hand in hand in order to provide the customer with the service or resolution that they are looking for.
    Listen & Understand what the Customer is saying: Giving Verbal Nod’s as and when appropriate.
    Summarise at the end of the Customers Call.

    Thank you for reading.

    Beatrice Upton 10 Jul at 22:55
  • Thanks Christine!!!

    This article is something that I needed, when I started searching for it. This will help me in making the call Center associates improve on their listening skills.
    Apart from this, I personally feel that improvement on active listening will surely help the other parameters as well.

    Prateek Abrol 25 Jan at 20:37