How to Master Business English Phone Calls
Can you guess the worst company in America?
The company that everyone hates, from customers to employees.
If you guessed Comcast, you’re right!
Comcast, the largest cable and internet provider in the United States, was voted Worst Company in America in 2014 in an online vote. It beat out other unpopular companies such as Sea World, Monsanto, Walmart and Abercrombie and Fitch. There’s even an I Hate Comcast Facebook page.
Their customer service is terrible.
Last year, this was confirmed when one of their phone calls was posted online and generated a lot of buzz (got attention). The customer service phone call, which has been played 5.9 million times, lets you listen to the last embarrassing 8 minutes of a 20-minute phone call.
To avoid that type of phone call, I’m going to share some valuable tips with you today about business calls, so you can successfully use English at work.
Phone calls can be scary because you don’t have time to write things down and prepare, like you would for a business presentation. However, there aren’t many new business vocabulary words to know, so I think you’ll find these phone calls are simpler than you might think!
Dialing into Business English: How to Master Phone Calls at Work
Answering the Phone
Most companies have this standard format to answer the phone:
“Good morning, thank you for calling [company name]. This is [your name], how many I help you?”
Pretty easy, don’t you think? Let’s break it down.
- Good morning
- Good afternoon
- Good evening
So, which one do you use?
“Good morning” is the easy one. Is it before 12:00 p.m. (noon)? Always use “Good morning” before noon.
“Good afternoon” is used—you guessed it—after noon.
The difficult part is choosing when to switch from “Good afternoon” to “Good evening.” Usually, you can switch to “Good evening” around 5:00 p.m.
Good morning: 12:00 a.m. (midnight) – 11:59 a.m.
Good afternoon: 12:00 p.m. (noon) – 4:59 p.m.
Good evening: 5:00 p.m. – 11:59 p.m.
Hopefully you don’t work these long hours!
Remember, this is a business phone call so avoid casual greetings such as hi, hey, what’s up, etc.
2. Thank you
Next, you can simply say “Thank you for calling [company name].”
Why do you need this step?
This lets people know they have the right number and that have called the correct business.
3. Your name
Then, state your name. This is helpful for callers to feel more connected to you.
This is [your name].
My name is [your name].
4. Offer to help
Lastly, ask how you can assist the caller.
Which is correct?
- A. “How may I help you?”
- B. “How can I help you?”
If you chose A, you’re correct! “How may I help you“ is the grammatically correct way to ask this.
Why? “Can” refers to ability. Can you help someone? Yes, you have the ability to help—so we don’t need to ask the customer this question. “May” refers to permission or options. In this case, we are referring to options. There are many ways you may help the customer, which is why you ask how, meaning in what way.
Step 1: Good morning/ Good afternoon/ Good evening
Step 2: Thank you for calling [company name].
Step 3: This is [your name].
Step 4: How may I help you?
You’re off to a great start. Here are ways to handle the conversation without turning into a Comcast-like disaster.
Handing the Phone Conversation Like a Pro
To hand business and phone conversations like a pro, the first thing you should do is check out FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Ask their name
To better assist the caller, ask for their name. We do this for two reasons:
- First, you can write down the caller’s name and refer to them by name for the rest of the conversation. This is very polite and shows great customer service.
- Second, if your company has a database of clients or partners, you can quickly pull up the caller’s file. This allows you to better understand their previous experience with your company.
How do you think we should ask for their name?
- A. What is your name?
- B. May I ask who is calling?
- C. Who is this?
If you answered B, you are correct! When answering the company phone, you want to be very polite.
A. “What is your name?” can be casual or polite. But at the beginning of a phone conversation, it is more appropriate to use “May I ask your name?” or “May I ask who’s calling?”
B. “May I ask who’s calling?” is the most polite and best choice for this conversation.
C. “Who is this?” is very casual and considered rude in a professional setting.
Sometimes, you have to give seemingly negative information. For instance, perhaps you can’t hear the caller or the connection is fuzzy. How do you tell the listener this?
The connection is very bad. Can you speak a little louder please?
The connection refers to your phone connection. This is when your phone connection is quiet, cutting in and out (service comes and goes in brief moments), or if there is a background noise.
I’m afraid I can’t hear you. Can you repeat that please?
Of course, you are not actually afraid. However, this is a common way for English speakers to give bad news. “I’m afraid I can’t hear you” is more polite than simply saying “I can’t hear you.”
Can you speak more slowly please?
I have to use this one all the time. I am also learning a second language and I dread (don’t look forward to) answering the phone–people speak so fast in their native language!
Can you hold please?
“Hold” is when we step away from the phone for a moment. This could be because you need to look something up or refer to another colleague. Either way, always ask the listener if it is okay to put them on hold.
Do you see a pattern? As a rule, every time you make a request, add a “please” at the end. Have you seen “Pirates of the Caribbean“? As Jack says, this rule is great because it is simple and easy to remember.
Now, how do we end the phone call?
Ending the Phone Call
If you resolved a problem, thank the caller for calling.
Thank you for calling [company name]. Have a great day!
If you need to contact the caller back, there are a few additional steps.
1. Get the caller’s contact information
First you’ll need to ask for their contact information using one of these phrases:
- What is the best way to contact you, by phone or email?
- May I have your phone number?
- May I have your email address?
If they choose phone, ask when the best time to contact them is. Many people prefer to have phone calls after a certain time in the morning and before a certain time in the evening (usually before 6:00 p.m.).
If they choose to give you their email address, make sure you spell the letters out to make sure you have the correct address. Vowels (A, E, I, O, U) are usually heard correctly but consonants sometimes need to be specified. An easy way to do this is to use names of cities, movies, celebrities, etc.
For instance, “Your email address is firstname.lastname@example.org? T as in Transformers, O, M as in Movie at gmail dot com?”
Note: The symbol “@” is read as “at” and a period “.” is called “dot” when saying an email address aloud.
2. Always repeat their information
Always repeat the caller’s name and contact information back to them! This is a great opportunity to make sure you have the correct information.
To confirm, your name is [caller’s full name] and your phone number is [caller’s phone number].
Make sure to get a 10-digit phone number, including the area code. A typical phone number format in the United States is XXX-XXX-XXXX, where the first three digits are the area code. You’ll also see (XXX) XXX-XXXX, with the area code in parenthesis before the 7-digit number.
To confirm, your name is [caller’s full name] and your email address is [caller’s email address].
3. State what you will do
Then, tell the caller what you will do.
For instance, “I will ask my colleague and call you back tomorrow.”
Or, “I will submit a report and call you when I hear back from them. It should be no later than next week.”
I always like to give a time (like “tomorrow” or “no later than next week” from the examples) to contact the caller by. This is very professional but also risky. If you promise to call them tomorrow, make sure you call them tomorrow!
Even if you don’t have the answer yet, you can still call and say “I apologize; I need a bit more time to resolve this. May I call you back on Thursday?” Give yourself enough time because if you push the date back once or twice, the caller will likely become angry.
Thank you for calling [company name]. Have a great day!
Step 1: What is the best way to contact you, by phone or by email?
Step 1.5: May I have your phone number/email address?
Step 2: Just to confirm, your name is [caller’s full name] and your phone number (or email address) is [caller’s phone number or email address].
Step 3: “I will [do XX] and contact you [provide a specific day or time of the week].”
So, where does Comcast go wrong?
It wasn’t the words, or vocabulary, it was the customer service representative’s tone of voice. He was condescending (talks down to the customer) and overall, did not solve the problem.
Do not make the same mistake! Many things can go wrong on a phone call. The connection can be terrible, you could be late for dinner or the customer can be very upset. But no matter what happens, always be polite and professional on the phone.
Also, smile! Research shows that people can “hear” the smile in your voice, even over the phone. These types of everyday interactions are what build relationships between businesses and their customers and partners.
If you’re nervous, don’t be! It’s completely natural, even for native speakers, to be nervous on a business call. If it helps, write down a few speaking points (like the steps listed above) to help calm your nerves and keep you sounding professional.
Joyce Fang grew up all over the United States and currently lives in Yokohama, Japan working as a freelance business plan writer and graphic designer. She has earned a Japan-focused MBA and has worked across almost every industry including finance, hospitality, retail and event management. She loves traveling, food, rugby, hot yoga and her dog, Gator.