I work for a business that requires extensive customer service. This means we maintain a call center with trained customer service professionals. It's a job I respect every day and one I'm grateful that I don't have to deliver. Telephone customer service may look easy, but until you're responsible for navigating the world of tough calls, it's difficult to appreciate the kicking, blocking and sparring skills some customers have perfected.

Luckily, there are some proven moves for handling difficult calls and doing so in a way that keeps customers coming back. In this issue of Promotional Consultant Today, we share three specific moves, identified by customer service expert Kate Zabriskie, that can improve interactions with challenging callers.

Move One: Set the Stage from the Start

The first tactic is designed to help service providers end calls with long talkers when the conversation gets to the point where there is no additional business to be done.

Because you can't always identify a long talker at the beginning of a call, it's a good idea to start most of your interactions using this move.

Thank callers for dialing in and letting them know you are glad to hear from them. Then allow for a minute of chit chat. "Well, I sure am glad/sorry to hear that. What is it that I can do for you today?"

Now, if you ask, "How is your morning going?" and you're told, "fine," then move on to helping the caller. The person is probably not a long talker, but you won't know for sure until you test the water. Your expression of interest at the start of a conversation gives people the feeling you don't find them to be a burden. Communicating this is especially important in environments that serve a lot of callers who are routinely blown off by most of the people with which they interact.

Why does this tactic work? Long talkers almost expect you to rush the conversation and try to escape. But when you don't follow that pattern, these people tend to be pleasantly surprised, and they have less of an urge to try to keep you on the line. Showing genuine interest is a win-win for you and your callers.

Move Two: "No" Know-How

From time to time in the service business, the answer is "no." How you communicate this message can have a lot to do with how it's received. Here's how to employ "no" using a property management company as an example.

Scenario One: Someone is in a resident's preferred parking space, and there is no assigned parking in the complex.

Choice One: "Mr. Jones, there are no assigned parking spaces in your building."

Choice Two: "Mr. Jones, I hear you. I'd love to have an assigned parking space myself. Let me take a look at the lease for your building. Please give me a minute. Pause. Mr. Jones, the lease for your building does not provide for assigned spots. I know you like your spot, and I wish I could tell you it was yours and only yours, but I wouldn't be telling the truth if I did. At this point, you have to hope your favorite parking place is empty when you want it because it can't be reserved."

The second choice is preferable to the customer because while the "what" is obviously the same, the "how" makes a difference. Option two is a service-centric response for these reasons:

1. The service representative is repeating what she's been told; never mind that she already knows the building doesn't have assigned spaces. But by repeating Mr. Jones's complaint, she's showing she's listening.

2. Agreeing with the statement shows she connects with caller's desires. It doesn't mean she's going to change the rules.

3. When she pauses before breaking the bad news, she shows she is serious about the question and shifts the focus from herself to the lease. In other words, she's communicating that the disagreement is between the terms of the lease and the caller, and not the caller and herself.

Move Three: Suggest a Close

During telephone interactions, you don't have the luxury of body language, so you'll need to use a different move to draw calls to a natural close. Let's look at two examples.

Option 1: "Mrs. Jones, I certainly have enjoyed talking to you, and I don't want to tie up your afternoon. Let me go ahead and make a note that you called about this, and then I'll let you get back to your day."

Option 2: "Mr. Smith, I'm sorry I wasn't able to give you the answer you were hoping for. I certainly prefer it when that's not the case. Before we hang up, is there anything else I can answer for you?"

Each of those closes suggests the end is near, and each is tailored for a certain kind of customer. Option one would work well for someone in need of service and a friend. Option two is a good choice for situations where you have to say "no," and you want to reinforce the idea that you are empathetic.

Read PCT again tomorrow, with more tips for business success.

Source: Kate Zabriskie is president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what's promised.