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A high school student landed her first summer job, working in a drugstore. As she arrived at the store for her first day, the phone was ringing. Everyone was busy, and the manager asked her to please answer it.

"Good morning," she said in a cheery voice.

"Do you stock Bengay?" asked the caller.

"I'm not sure," said the new clerk.

"Do you have Pepto-Bismol on hand?"

"I couldn't tell you for sure if we do or don't."

"You don't know much do you, young lady?" said the caller.

"No, I guess I don't," the new employee responded. "In fact, when I said, 'Good morning,' I told you everything I know."

Obviously, this new hire had not been trained to actually help customers; there's no excuse for that. But that she was put in a position to potentially drive customers away was not her fault.

Responsible businesses understand that customer needs come first, and that staff must be capable of meeting them. Because so much interaction is dependent on the phone, let's start there.

Good phone skills are crucial for customer service. At least this young worker was cheerful, sincere and had a positive tone — three important ingredients in telephone communication skills. You also need to listen and try your best to understand the problem and resolve it as quickly as possible. Studies show that a call under five minutes is a success.

Enunciate your words and speak as clearly as possible. Give customers the time to vent any frustration. Don't interrupt them, as they can get more upset if they aren't allowed to tell their story.

And never argue with customers. The customer is not dependent on you or your company; you and your company are dependent on them. They bring you their wants, and it's your job to fill those wants. If that is not possible, be honest and explain what you are able to do, rather than focusing on what you can't.

Try to learn the caller's name and use it naturally in your conversation. Doing so reinforces that you are focused on them.

In customer service, your ultimate job is to leave the customer satisfied, so do whatever you can to make that happen and finish any conversation in a positive manner.

I don't know anyone who likes being put on hold. Although you may have to ask a client or customer to hold, it doesn't have to be frustrating for the caller. Here are a few courtesies that can make the wait time a little more tolerable for the caller:

Don't multitask. When you try to do two things at once, you'll be more likely to miss something important a caller is trying to tell you.

Ask before placing a caller on hold. Don't just tell customers to "please hold." Ask if they can hold. Wait until they respond, and then thank them. Don't tell them you'll put them on hold for "just a second." Instead, give them a reasonable estimate of how long you'll be away from the phone and why they'll be on hold.

Faster doesn't always mean better. Speed should always be second to carefully attending to a caller's needs.

Take notes. Don't rely on your memory. The next time your phone rings, let your customers know you mean business.

Mackay's Moral: Taking care of customers is taking care of business.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail