Debbie LeClerc had had several conversations with her Goldline technical representative.

“Her phone skills were very good, and she knew what she was talking about,”recalls the vice president of The Pool Doctor of Rhode Island in Coventry, R.I.

So LeClerc suggested if the woman were ever in need of a job, she should keep Pool Doctor in mind. Little did she know that a year and a half later, the same woman would appear in LeClerc’s showroom.

“I remembered her from our phone conversations,” LeClerc says,  “and I hired her on the spot.”

Nearly three years into her tenure, and the newest member of The Pool Doctor’s retail staff is working out quite well. In fact, the store’s sales associates wear multiple hats — one specializes in scheduling and taking work orders, another handles the accounts payable and receivables.

Nonetheless, everyone has one duty in common: As with many pool and spa retailers, all staff members work the phones.

So who’s in charge of the switchboard? What should they be telling customers? How much information should they know about the store itself? And what should those interactions say about the company? Here, a number of retail veterans discuss proper phone etiquette, and why it matters.

Who’s on the line?

Phones represent a retailer’s first line of defense. And you only get one crack at a favorable first impression.

At Leisure World Pools & Spas in South Burlington, Vt., every store employee takes turns answering the phones. Company president Tod Bessery says while he could always hire a receptionist,  “I think that would only frustrate my customers.

“Besides, I could never warrant having a phone-only person because all they’d really do is put someone on hold and transfer them to the right department,” he says. “We’re trying to give them that two-second answer.”

That’s why everyone who answers one of the store’s five lines — from counter staff to accounting personnel to the service manager — must be proficient in three areas: the phone, the Website and the internal computer system, which contains information on recurring customers’ pool or spa, as well as what products are in stock and what promotions may be ongoing.

Likewise, the phones at Central Iowa Pool & Spa in Des Moines, Iowa, are answered by whomever is on the floor at the time, whether it’s a service technician, a store manager or company president Mario Alba.

Here too, employees have access to store inventory when callers ask if a certain product is in stock. And staff meetings are held the morning before any sales or marketing events to inform the crew.

“It’s important for the service guys to be involved too, because if they happen to come across an old clunker in the field, they can mention that  we’re  having a sale,  Alba says. “The idea is to allow them to talk fluently about any promotions or new products we’re carrying.”

A quick fix

If one of The Pool Doctor’s retail staff can solve a caller’s problem on the spot, she will.

“For pump and filter issues, we can usually troubleshoot over the phone,” LeClerc says.  “And sometimes we can walk them right through it, and then we just got a customer for life. I just don’t feel right charging someone for a service call if it’s something we can fix over the phone.”

In addition, understanding the chemicals a store carries is critical when associates answer the phones.

At The Pool & Spa House, a five-store operation based in Tigard, Ore., employees constantly receive hands-on training using the store’s display pool, says retail operations manager Justin Kari.

“That’s our bread and butter,” he explains. “All of our retail staff knows about water chemistry and balancing. We’re here to help, and we want to convey to everyone who calls that we’ll get them the answers they need.”

Don’t quote me

All employees at Guiton’s Pool Center in Redding, Calif., have a basic knowledge of the store’s operation, and will quote a price on chlorine. But that’s typically where it ends.

The business does not usually give callers quotes on pool sales, “and generally I don’t want staff to quote or infer pricing on things like stoves, grills or other big-ticket items over the phone,” says owner Dale Simpson. “That information really should go to the store manager or salesperson. ”

LeClerc agrees, and only quotes prices for a few basic items.

And though she can give a range from time to time, she discourages the practice on service work too, preferring instead to look at the job before giving the homeowner a number. Her reasons are twofold.

“That way there are no surprises for us or for the customer,”she says. “But you also have to figure that if they’re just price shopping, they’re going to find it cheaper on the Internet before they ever come into your store. So I try to avoid it, as I think any professional should.”

Why it’s so important

Only 7 percent of verbal communication is understood from the words that are actually spoken.

Approximately 38 percent is understood based on how the words are stated (tone of voice); and 55 percent is conveyed through facial expressions and body language, according to research on the topic by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus at UCLA.

Given that visual cues are a non-factor over the phone, the manner of speaking becomes by far the most important aspect of customer interaction.

“The words that are chosen often aren’t as important as how they’re said and the tone that’s  expressed,” Simpson says. “So they should be both upbeat and attentive to the caller. I want those interactions to convey that we are professional, helpful, knowledgeable and willing to serve. ”

What’s  more, you never know how close that caller could be to a potential purchase, or what the caller may already think about the business.

“Maybe it’s more important than you realize, ” Bessery says.  “Someone who calls may be ready to buy a pool and they just want to see what you sound like, or see if you come across as legitimate or trustworthy. ”


Tip #1:

Eternal hold

Don’t place customers on hold for too long without checking back with them. Some business owners try to keep it under 30 seconds; others say a minute is OK. If you suspect the wait time will be longer, tell the customer before leaving the line.

Tip #2

Not my department

Experts maintain that everyone working for the company should be prepared to field any caller’s needs. At minimum, the employee should take down a phone number,   ask a manager for assistance, and call back promptly with the right information.

Tip #3

Can you call us back?

No! It doesn’t matter how busy the store may be, employees should never say those words unless they want to lose a possible sale. Besides, if sales associates can’t handle a call when things are hectic, what does that say about the business?


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