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Tips for finding and training temporary telephone staff for the holidays.

by JAN LONDON


When customers call your shop to place their holiday orders, they need a friendly, knowledgeable voice on the other end of the line, and poorly trained temporary workers can be as detrimental to your business as not even answering the phones. Shops facing the good news of needing temporary telephone staff for the Valentine’s Day rush also face the challenges of how to train them and determining how much they need to know. How much time and effort do you put into temporary employees who may work for only a few days?
Temporary telephone sales staff don’t need to be able to process complex orders. Instead they need to be able to handle the basics, with full-time staff overseeing them, always readily available to back them up, says Greg Royer, president and CEO of Royer’s Flowers, with 17 stores in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Each of his stores usually hires about three temporary workers for the Valentine’s Day increase. Workers may be brought in for Valentine’s Day as early as Feb. 5 or 6, he says, and then they are available to do other tasks like helping to unpack and prepare containers or put together boxes when the phones aren’t ringing.
Having enough staff is essential. “If you don’t have enough people to answer the phones, you’re kissing away business or paying your full-time people overtime,” Mr. Royer assures. “Either way, you are losing money.”

Before the rush hits, here are 14 tips to help with finding and training temporary holiday telephone sales staff.

1. Consider using a temp agency to provide needed staff. While the agency workers may require slightly higher hourly wages, they are often better trained than workers hired independently. Plus, an agency will save shop staff from having to find the temporary workers, and it might offer the workers for a day or two of training at no charge.

2. High school and college students can be good choices for temporary staff members. They are likely to be more computer literate than older workers, they often catch on quickly to new things, they often need extra cash but aren’t interested in long-term commitments and they might be available for multiple holidays.

3. Retired people also can be good temporary telephone staffers. Many retirees often have good, old-fashioned work ethics, and like students, they might be interested in making extra cash without long-term commitments. And like temp agency employees, they’re likely available well in advance of the holiday for training, possibly at no charge.

4. Before training begins, always have a lesson plan. Don’t begin training temporary phone workers before you know what you want to tell them. Take the time to plan it, write it down and determine the order in which information will be presented. In addition to apprising them of your shop policies and procedures, holiday offerings and sales tactics, paint an accurate picture of what they can expect in terms of hours, activity levels and stress levels. Spend some time talking with these trainees to determine their level of experience and general knowledge.

5. Provide each telephone staffer with sales scripts, photos and pricing information for all of your holiday offerings. This will assist them in quickly describing the products and sharing information about them. Reassure the temporary staffers that if they don’t know something, it is appropriate and preferred that they ask a permanent employee instead of giving out wrong information.

6. If you have a computerized order-entry system, and if you encounter problems training temporary workers on that system, instruct them how to write orders by hand. Then give those orders to a full-time or trained employee to enter into the computer system. This option, although it ties up a full-time staff member, can prove more efficient than having temporary employees create problems with orders or your computer system during the busy holiday, when things need to flow smoothly.

7. Place temporary telephone workers away from the shop’s high-traffic areas. Make sure they have a relatively quiet area in which to work, and see that their area is equipped with enough supplies. Also make sure that they know how to get more supplies, when needed, without bothering other staffers or neglecting the phones for a long period of time.
The phones will ring often, so have a plan in place for the order of answering calls. Establish who will answer first, second and third. Answer all calls within two rings, and instruct all people who answer the phones to refrain from chewing gum or food, laughing or talking to someone else in the room.

8. If possible, structure it so that temporary workers will handle only basic orders. For example, if a customer wants to place a more complex order like a funeral arrangement, have the temp worker transfer that customer to an experienced staff member.

9. Instruct phone staff not to ask “yes” or “no” questions or use common phrases such as “Can I help you?” and “This is Susan speaking.” Instead, promote phrases like, “Thank you for calling Jones Florist, this is Susan. How may I help you?” The difference is subtle but impactful.

10. Encourage phone staff to find out the customers’ names early on and use them periodically during the transactions. In most cases, the appropriate way to address customers is by using formal titles. Tell temporary workers to say Mr., Mrs. or Ms. when addressing customers.

11. Train phone staff not to put callers on hold unless they ask permission first and then wait for the customers’ answers. Transferring calls or putting customers on hold can frustrate them. Studies have shown that callers become annoyed after waiting on hold for just 17 seconds unless the greeter explains why first. Tell telephone staffers to inform customers how long they can expect to be on hold. That information is especially important for customers calling long distance or using cell phones. Don’t say, “One moment please”; instead, say, “I’ll put you right through” or “Helen is assisting another customer. I expect her to be about five minutes. May I take your number and have her call you back within 10 minutes [specify a time frame]?”
With a transferred call, it also helps if the person receiving the call knows who the customer is and what he or she wants before answering, so instruct phone workers to get that information before putting callers on hold. Of course, the transferred customer should then be greeted by name by the person he or she is waiting for.

12. Coach phone staff to be tactful when discussing how much money a customer wants to spend. Educate them not to ask, “What is your budget?’ or “How much do you want to spend?” Those questions may lead customers to believe they are being interrogated so that the maximum price can be charged. Instead, have the salespeople ask, “Is there a budget or price range that I should be aware of?”

13. Teach phone staff to reiterate all information customers have given to ensure the orders and billing/payment information are accurate. A good phrase is, “Let me make sure I have everything correct. What you’ve ordered is ….”

14. Inform phone staff that when customers say “Thank you” to respond with “My pleasure” rather than “You’re welcome.” The phrase sounds more positive and expresses that they’ve enjoyed assisting the customers. When calls are winding down, make sure staffers thank the customers, repeat their names and say, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Thanks to Greg Royer, Royer’s Flowers, Lebanon, Pa.; Jeff Mowatt, business speaker, author and client services expert, Calgary, Alberta, Canada; and Teresa Lanker, assistant professor and coordinator of floral design and marketing at The Ohio State University ATI, Wooster, Ohio, for contributing their ideas for this article.

Jan Landon, a daily newspaper reporter for 18 years, is now a freelance writer residing in Overland Park, Kan.


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