how to handle customers who just want to chat

A reader writes:

I am the “lead” of a customer service team (not in a supervisory or managerial role; I report to the manager, but report to her with ideas, problems and how reps are performing) of a company that provides services to older senior citizens. Part of our training is to teach our reps that seniors tend to require a little more patience as some are hard of hearing and some are a little grumpy. Our team does GREAT with this.

Something I had not realized until it became an increasingly larger problem is the fact that many of these older seniors live at home by themselves and have limited interaction with the outside world and are starved for some personal contact. They call us and sometimes and just want to chat. I am always happy to brighten a customer’s day by letting everyone take interest in them for a minute or two. But now it has reached the point where reps are on the phone with one customer for 20-30 minutes – trying to be polite and get off the phone but the customer keeps talking.

I called a meeting recently and tried a quick training tip to tell them if the call is lasting too long simply say, “Mrs. Smith, I hate to do it, but I have other customers waiting to talk to me, so I need to let you go.” This works great in the moment, and gets them off the phone 90% of the time – but our call volume has increased now because those customers CALL BACK to see if their rep has more time to speak “now that they’ve had time to talk to everyone.” We even have one lady that calls her rep twice per day “just to be sure everything is ok on her account – then starts talking about the weather, the news, the election, and any other subject just to stay on the phone with her.”

I am unsure how to approach this from here. I am stuck between brightening customer’s day by having reps be cordial and the reps being able to manage their time and getting their share of work done for the day.

Do you have any advice on how to handle this? From my experience, senior citizens seem to get their feelings hurt quite easily, and simply having to say “Mrs. Smith, I HAVE to go now” and hanging up offends them and they often don’t return as customers – something our company is big on – repeat business. But aside from that, my manager and I really don’t know what to do or how to handle this.

Oooh, so interesting.

I’ll say up-front that this is a bit out of my wheelhouse because I am all about ending calls efficiently and moving on to the next work item on the list … but I’m also all about getting clarity on what it takes to achieve your work goals, so maybe that brings it back into my wheelhouse.

Anyway, I think the first thing to do here is confront the fundamental question head-on and figure out how much time you’re willing to spend simply on relationship-building with these customers. A few minutes and then wrap up? Longer? My guess is that a few minutes is probably the right answer, but it really depends on what your business model is. So that’s the first question.

Once you have clarity on that, then you can arm your call reps with language to use to set those boundaries. For example, if a customer calls back a second time to see if their rep has more time to talk now: “Oh, that’s so kind of you! To be honest, I have customer calls coming in all day so usually don’t have much time to chat.” You can pad this however you want — “I can tell I’d love chatting with you if we did have the time” or “I loved hearing about your rice sculpture the other day but our phones are keeping us busy” or whatever, as long as you don’t think that’ll just be taken as encouragement to try back later.

Arm them with ways to repeat the message too if a caller doesn’t immediately get the message. For example: “I really do need to get this next call, but have a wonderful day.”

In general, with most people, you can actually be pretty firm as long as you do it in a really warm tone. There’s a big difference between “I need to end this call now” and “you’re so kind — I wish I had time to chat but our phones keep us busy.”

But the first step here, before you can script any of this out, is to sit down and really get clear on what the boundaries should be and whether it does make sense for your particular business to spend more time than most might on this aspect of things — and since it sounds like a pretty widespread issue, not just a handful of customers, I might also pull people above you into that conversation too, to make sure that they’re in the loop on how this gets decided.

{ 183 comments… read them below }

  1. Kate M*

    This is a sad issue, because I know a lot of senior citizens need people to talk to and are lonely. However, that can’t come at the expense of doing your job.

    Can you advise your reps to use you or your manager as an excuse? Could they use the line, “I’m so sorry, I’d love to talk, but my manager is cracking down on excessive phone time/limits our calls to 10 minutes now/got me in trouble the other day for speaking too long with customers”? There’s still the chance they’ll call back, but it might be enough to get them off the phone for the moment.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think the danger there is that you set up a reps vs. management dynamic in the eyes of the customers, and make management the enemy.

      1. C*

        I think the warm tone Alison mentioned is key. I’ve worked with a lot of seniors, and tone is key in not coming across too harshly when needing to end the call. And as OP said, relationship-building is important here as you don’t want to lose their business.

      2. K.Muln*

        Customers will likely never have direct contact with management, so as long as customers continue to be happy with the service they receive from reps, what’s the danger in turning management into a bit of a scapegoat? If the customer is overall happy with the support they’ve received from reps (even if that support had to end after a 10 minute phone call and left little opportunity for idle chatter), I can’t imagine they would take their business elsewhere simply because the unnamed, unidentified boss of that lovely rep they talked to on the phone sounded a bit mean.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Well, because it’s likely to become “Company X is so awful to their workers … maybe I will try Company Y instead.” Or even just generally bad feelings toward Company X even if they keep their business there, which is bad for concrete reasons (like maybe they do less business with them than otherwise would) and bad word of mouth, but also for more intangible reasons (like now you have people out there who think your company is run by jerks).

          1. Elliot*

            This is interesting. I work with dementia patients and all facilities that I’ve worked with have encouraged us to blame upper management members who are not available. The reasoning behind this is that the relationship with the staff member working directly with the client is not compromised, and the client usually forgets that they’re upset with the upper admin staff before they see her again. I don’t think this would apply outside a medical/residential setting though.

        2. LBK*

          In general, I wish the “us vs them” image would go away. Yes, there’s places where it exists and there’s bad managers out there, but almost all managers came from the “us” before they were part of the “them”. I hate the idea that “management” is some shadowy conglomerate conspiring to screw over everyone below them rather than just a bunch of people trying to do their jobs, some of them poorly, some of them well, just like any other job.

    2. Shell*

      I think the problem isn’t in the moment though–the OP said they respond well to “I have customers waiting to talk to me” which gets them off the line 90% of the time. If the reps blame it on their manager I think it’s quite possible one of these customers will call back, ask to talk to the OP (or other supervisor on duty) and give them an earful, especially if the CSR couches it with “I’d love to talk to you, but manager forbids it.” I think setting the boundary as “I don’t have time to chat” (said nicely) would work much better than “I’d love to chat, but (mean) manager forbids it.”

    3. nep*

      In my view, no need to put out a message that might carry even a hint of negativity such as management cracking down on employees.

  2. Kelly F*

    I have no specific advice, but it’s important to also consider that older people can have more trouble getting the “hint” and that even if they do get the message, they might forget.

    And honestly, I think that the phenomena of older people calling in to complain about everything is also rooted in loneliness.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I agree with the loneliness. And so I would say: they may not forget at all. They are just trying to see how much they can get away with.
      I have such sympathy for them. But don’t lose sight of that; they know what they’re doing. Even when their feelings get hurt–they know what they’re doing.

      Repeating the same message—”I’m busy with work and cannot talk”—along with the softening, “I’m so sorry” (but NOT the “I wish I could” message; do not to anything to encourage your customers to think there is a personal relationship between them and the rep) is the way to go.

      If one person is a particular problem, it might be a good thing to always assign her a new rep every couple of days, so that she can’t start to think of the rep as someone she knows on any personal level. Or bump her to a “very helpful sounding” manager if she calls a 2nd time in one day.

      1. Career Counselorette*

        I definitely agree with this. I have a couple of older clients who don’t technically need to work, but will start a job search and gradually taper off job-searching in favor of just coming in every other day to be around people. One guy would want to meet with me weekly, and then he would do everything in his power to prolong our sessions; he finally admitted that he was less concerned with finding work now and that he just enjoyed “our chats.” Another woman roundly rejected every opportunity I sent her way, but basically ingratiated herself into the program and all of the corresponding free services; in the end I realized that she never intended to actually look for work, and other clients were starting to resent her for taking up time and resources. I find it sad that so many seniors are so isolated, but ultimately it’s not the role of customer service reps or service providers who are not case managers to give them different treatment than they would any other customer.

    2. Clever Name*

      I used to work at an airport, and my counterpart got to deal with all the noise complaints. One gentleman in particular called constantly. My coworker was really annoyed at first (after all, that airport had been around for over 60 years at that point) but then she realized that he was just bored and lonely. So she would chat with him for about a half hour when he called, and gradually the frequency of calls diminished. Granted, she was able to accommodate talking to him in her schedule (it was one of those jobs where we weren’t particularly busy unless there was an emergency, and then you were REALLY busy).

    3. Stranger than fiction*

      Oh my god this is so true. My mother spends most of her day complaining to anyone who will listen – her housekeeper, her doctor, the gardener, the mailman, the poor neighbor who’s just trying to get in their car and go somewhere…

    4. LJL*

      Is there a charity that can check in on these folks periodically? Our community has a wonderful group that will check on seniors, give them rides, help with light housekeeping, etc. Perhaps a referral to such a community group would be helpful for all.

  3. Sharon*

    I smell a great business opportunity for someone who wants a new niche call center business!

    1. Sharon*

      Need to amend myself… it maybe a better nonprofit idea because I can’t think of a good way to monetize this. But there’s certainly a need for some organization to provide this kind of service.

        1. Murphy*

          We have a new daycare facility here that’s in a seniors’ residence. The kids and seniors interact daily. The kids learn breast things and the seniors get their own mental stimulation. I think it’s genius.

          1. Gung Ho Iguana*

            That’s … an interesting typo. I can’t for the life of me figure out what it should be.

      1. ADL*

        We have a local non-profit organization in Houston that does daily senior reassurance calls to the same people, every day, 5 days a week, around the same time each day.

      2. Allison*

        You could charge per minute, it could be like one of those, uhhh, adult entertainment lines, but for more normal, everyday conversation. Patient millennials could make bank listening to elderly people talk about the Great Depression and how rude the bank teller was this morning.

      3. A Bug!*

        There are, here and there. Generally the biggest hurdle is getting volunteers on a consistent basis. If there’s any sort of senior-focused non-profit in the OP’s area, it might be worth checking with them to see if they operate a program like that, because it sounds like the OP knows a handful of people who would be perfect volunteers.

      4. Meg Murry*

        That’s why Meals on Wheels exists in my community – 95% of the time it’s not really about delivering food (many clients don’t even eat more than a tiny amount of it), it’s about having a daily check in for house-bound senior citizens to make sure they are ok and to give them some company.

        1. LCL*

          Is your local meals on wheels really daily delivery? My mom’s is every 2 weeks. If you live within the city deliveries are once a week. And they are awesome people!

          1. Aglaia761*

            My local Meals on Wheels has M-F delivery and offers frozen meals on the weekends. They have a bunch of other programs too, like a grocery shopper program, a phone friend program, pet food delivery, and I think something to do with housing renovations as well. Not sure if other Meals on Wheels offer the same things or not.

        2. Observer*

          In New York City, it got cut back to one a week or once in two weeks. It caused a furor over this very issue – which is why some Meals on Wheels funding got diverted to a “friendly visiting” program. It mostly works pretty well, and because the visitors are either social work inters who are not being paid (so only a supervisor needs to be paid) or volunteers, the cost is much less.

          And, before anyone screams about interns needing to be paid, it’s not true in the case of non-profits. And the interns learn a ton, even if they don’t have specially good supervision. And the programs that do have good supervision are really, really good learning experiences for the interns. (Learning both in terms of the work itself AND workplace norms.)

        3. PhyllisB*

          I volunteered with Meals On Wheels when I was pregnant with my oldest child. The people were so sweet!!! I always made sure to build in enough time to chat for about five minutes per. (That doesn’t sound like much, but five minutes of face to face chat was enough to make them happy.) When I was going on maternity leave I made sure they all knew why I was going to be absent. Every one of them begged me to bring my baby for them to see. I did, and it just thrilled them to pieces. A number of the ladies knitted booties and made bonnets, and a couple of the men gave me a dollar or a $2.00 bill for her. (I know what you’re thinking, I should not have accepted gifts, let alone money from them, but I did not work for MOW, I was just a community volunteer, and the lady who oversaw it told me this would likely happen, and it would be better to accept graciously than to hurt feelings.) This is what I did, and donated the cash to the program. This was the most rewarding volunteer work I ever did.

        4. Elizabeth West*

          I got looped in on this when I lived in a residential hotel in California–a very nice, well-maintained place that required a recommendation to get in. Obviously, I wasn’t a senior, but most of the people in the building were, and they had Meals on Wheels (or something similar) at holidays. Because I lived in the building, the managers would include me in the yearly do-you-want-a-free-dinner thing. I have to say, it was nice when I had no money to eat out and wasn’t invited anywhere for dinner to have a friendly person knock on my door with a hot meal and a smile. So I can relate to them.

          Also, I really don’t want to be in that situation again. So I’m hoping the rest of my life isn’t spent alone. Because I like to chat but I don’t want to bother people.

      5. Nikki T*

        My mother is a volunteer that calls other seniors. I have no idea which organization it is. She calls them once a week or to chat. So it does exist.

    2. TootsNYC*

      Someone used this once to get money from lonely men. He made up fake women who wrote letters to men and then asked them for money.

      Shankar Vedantam reported on it for “This American Life.”

      “So here’s how the con worked. Guys around the country signed up for a pen pal service. It would put them in touch with women they could befriend and correspond with. And then they’d start to receive letters.”

  4. AVP*

    In high school I had a part-time job as a political poll-giver (I was the person calling random people and asking questions! Fascinating but also boring), and this rings so true. It was impossible to get some people off the phone; they were really grateful to have someone to chat to for awhile and it was clear that they were mostly older and pretty lonely. We would ask a multiple-choice question and get a ten-minute response about why they liked this one guy more than the other because their deceased spouse said one thing BUT their son just got married and his new wife said this other thing, and how’s the weather on the East Coast? It’s rainy here in Michigan and…

    But it was so hard to get people to answer in the first place and the manager didn’t seem to care so we just let them talk for 20 minutes and then extracted ourselves as best we could (“well, I have a certain number of calls I have to get to tonight but thank you so much for your thoughtful responses!”) This one is harder because they can call you back, and they’re customers, whereas my contacts would just get a general number if they tried to dial us back (and this was before cell phones and caller ID were so common).

    Either way, ++++ to the suggestion that you can be firm as long as you keep the tone warm and polite.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      It’s a bit mean, but when pollsters or people selling things call our house (we’re on the Do Not Call list), my spouse deliberately starts chatting with them, to see how long he can keep them on the phone. When he takes a breath, they are usually happy to end the call without a sale or getting information, which was our goal too.

      1. Emily K*

        For what it’s worth, social research is not covered by the Do Not Call list. It only applies to telemarketing.

        As a social scientist I implore you all, if you like the idea that we can know scientific things about our society, to please participate in surveys when you can (it mucks with the data accuracy when too many people say no) and be nice and brief when you can’t :)

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          Hmmm, I’ll think about it. I’m sure it will depend on what kind of information they’re looking for. I’m the sort of person who uses friends’ grocery store rewards accounts (with their permission) to get the discounts as well to mess up their databases on buying habits.

          I generally don’t answer the phone at all, so at least on that end I’m not doing much damage. And I’ll refuse to answer a question rather than giving a false answer.

          1. Honeybee*

            I respect the opposition to data on buying habits, but I admit I don’t understand it. Corporations collect that information to try to improve the offerings and products they sell for consumers who buy them. Yes, it’s an effort to make more money – of course – but people can benefit from that too. As a basic example, I would much rather see sidebar ads from companies I would actually buy from about items I would actually buy rather than random scams and a collection of stuff I absolutely don’t want.

            1. Xarcady*

              Because when everything is targeted, you see the same things all the time, and miss out on new, different things that you might actually be interested in. Just because I bought a pink beret as a gift for someone does not mean that I want to see ads for pink berets for the rest of my life. I’m a floppy straw hat with flowers on it kind of girl, myself.

              And just the principle that someone is tracking what I do. That information is out there. Who knows how it could be used?

              My siblings in the military don’t even use their debit cards to buy gas. Only cash. It’s untraceable. Not sure exactly why they need to be untraceable, but they are.

        2. Clever Name*

          I always respond to surveys, especially political ones. I want my erudite opinions counted! ;)

        3. snuck*

          Sounds good, but the reality (here in Australia at least) is that many of the market researchers are asking badly designed surveys, quite a number of them are actually businesses touting for business and using a survey as cover to get time and it’s ALWAYS at dinner time. The dreaded pause before the call drops in tells me I’m facing an auto dialler.

          So no. I just tell them to go away, and if they call back leave the line open to them on the kitchen bench.

          The rare time I agree to answer is when they state up front “I am calling from XYZ Market Research and would like your opinion on PQR topic” THEN I might say “call back in an hour after dinner” or “depends how long it is, I’m cooking” or whatever. But these calls are very very rare.

        4. ginger ale for all*

          I used to do telephone polls for university research and that job really changed my outlook on life and retirement. I once asked an 80 something year old woman her income level range and she told me the exact amount – $284 a month due to social security and this was in the mid 90’s. You can bet I started beefing up my retirement account after that. She said that she was lucky that a church member let her live in a garage apartment of theirs for something like $40 a month to cover utilities.

        5. Elizabeth West*

          I no longer have a landline so I don’t get any of these calls anymore. And I’m glad–I don’t often feel like talking on the phone when I get home at night.

      2. AVP*

        I always felt bad when I got parents with kids on the line as we were basically calling right around dinnertime (I think my shift was like 4 – 9pm) and I could hear them clamoring in the background. I always let those go quickly!

      3. pnw*

        Why not just use caller ID to filter out the calls you don’t want to answer. I rarely answer my landline.

    2. Mallory Janis Ian*

      . . . a ten-minute response about why they liked this one guy more than the other because their deceased spouse said one thing BUT their son just got married and his new wife said this other thing, and how’s the weather on the East Coast? It’s rainy here in Michigan and . . .

      This sounds like a typical response by my MIL to anyone opening any kind of conversation (business, social, survey, whatever) with her. She will talk anyone’s ear off! And I don’t think she’s even lonely. She and my FIL live half a block from my SIL and her children. They have company all the time, and they also spend a lot of time talking and visiting with their tenants when they do maintenance or rent-collecting for their apartment building. I think the expectation for social chit-chat, even in business situations, is just different nowadays than it was for them growing up. I’ve noticed that many older people, even those who aren’t particularly lonely, have much more chit-chatting stamina than we younger people do.

      1. Chatty MILs Anonymous*

        Are you me? My MIL will visit and constantly talk the whole time she’s here. As a mom of a 4 year old with a full-time job, that one hour of downtime in the evening is EVERYTHING to me, and she chats all the way through it. I could have a worse MIL I know, but I do a happy dance when her flight leaves.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian - Chatty MILs Anon2*

          I could be you! My MIL spent six weeks with us while settling a guardianship of her parents and getting her mother into a nursing home for Alzheimers care. She is very social and a lot of fun, but she takes up a lot of my mental space with constant chatter. She fills every silence with chat, chat, chat. I almost went out of my mind from not having any space for my own thoughts to be!

      2. Persephone Mulberry*

        That…Geico?…commercial where the guy is fighting off bad guys and his mom calls (“It’s really loud there! Are you taking a Zumba class?”) is funny because it’s true.

      3. Temperance*

        This sounds like my MIL, too. She’s just an extreme extrovert who LOVES talking.

  5. grasshopper*

    I’ve had to do something similar when speaking with people who have all day to chat while I can see my other line ringing. Your message was correct, but including the additional information of speaking to other customers allows the person the opening to continue the conversation at a later date.

    Just modify your message: “It has been a pleasure speaking with you, but I’m afraid I have to go now.”

    Think of it as a reverse sales tactic. Sales people always find a way to overcome objections because people usually feel the need to include a reason. “No, because XYZ…” If you just answer “no” then they can’t continue the conversation.

    Similarly, for your clients be pleasant but don’t give them the opportunity or excuse to think that the call will continue later.

    1. ZSD*

      I think it’s interesting that this is kind of the opposite of Alison’s advice (sugarcoat vs. just say “No”), and I’m honestly torn on which one I think is the better idea. Luckily…the OP could set up an experiment! Briefly train all your employees in both these techniques and instruct them to alternate techniques each time they get somebody chatty. Have them track how many of the customers a) get off the phone promptly and b) don’t call back for the next 8 business hours. After two weeks, check which technique seems to be more effective.

      1. grasshopper*

        I don’t think it is the opposite. I’m not advocating for a hard NO; just eliminate the white lie. Everyone should still be warm and friendly so that the tone of the conversation doesn’t change and the overall feeling remains the same. However, you’re just taking away the reason/opportunity for people to call you back.

        But running an A/B test could be an effective way to measure the results and see what technique is the most effective.

      2. the.kat*

        I think the A/B testing would be a great idea. I expect you’ll find that the answer is not unanimous. Some of your CSRs might really do well with the sugarcoating while others will be able to use the straight answer more effectively. I think some of it depends on personality. When I worked in a call center, I tended to use sugarcoating to end a long call but several of my neighbors were much more blunt while still polite. As long as both were genuine, the customers didn’t seem to mind either approach.

    2. Breebit*

      I 100% agree with you. When I worked at a call center I seemed to be a magnet for lonely people, likely because of my ability to keep my tone warm and pleasant despite stress. I learned pretty quickly that just saying that I have to go in the same tone I’d been using before got the best result re: people hanging up. I typically started with “That’s lovely about your granddaughter, I’m glad you enjoyed her visit. Is there anything else I can help you with regarding your account?” If they didn’t get the hint at that point I’d say “That’s great. I have to answer my next call, so thanks for calling [Company] and have a great day!” My after call scores were always 9 or 10 out of 10 from those customers that I had to cut off so it didn’t seem to impact retention. That might work for some of the employees in this situation.

  6. AnonAcademic*

    I wish there was a tactful way to route these seniors to an organization designed to bridge these kinds of social gaps. I realize that’s way outside the purview of a customer service job so this is more pie in the sky, but if there were national helpline (or list of resources by state) to connect seniors with their local senior services, and maybe you could transfer some of the calls there? Something like “I’m so sorry I don’t have more time to chat with you, Agnes! If you want, though, I know a group that’s very interested in talking to retired rice sculpters like yourself in YourState, would you like me to transfer you to them?” I wonder if the added time of doing a referral would be less than the added time of chit chatting.

    1. K*

      I was thinking of something along this line as well. There’s an organization in my City that looks for volunteers to visit with seniors once a week. This can be in person, or via a phone call. If the company could liaise with a service of this sort and possibly refer them or transfer repeat call-back seniors to a more appropriate outlet that could work. I agree, it’s a bit outside of what the company does but it’s a tricky situation.

    2. Key to the West*

      This is similar to what I was going to suggest.

      You would have to be careful about how you go about it, but recommending an “elderly helpline” (a charity that has helplines purely for older people to have someone to speak to) may be beneficial for both your reps but also for the elderly people phoning.

      1. Chinook*

        “You would have to be careful about how you go about it, but recommending an “elderly helpline” (a charity that has helplines purely for older people to have someone to speak to) may be beneficial for both your reps but also for the elderly people phoning.”

        But who says you are recommending those seniors to use it as a service? There is nothing wrong with recommending that they volunteer to take calls from lonely seniors. I know plenty of older ladies who are over 70 or 80 who often volunteer to help out other seniors. If handled correctly, it would kill 2 birds with one stone – both volunteers are taking part in the calls thinking there are helping out “a lonely, poor old thing” with neither of them having to leave the house (and neither wanting to hurt the other person’s feelings by telling them they are a volunteer).

    3. bridget*

      When I had to take cold calls at a law firm this is what I’d do. I’d listen to a genuinely sympathetic story long enough to confirm that it’s not the sort of matter my firm handles (often a child custody or immigration or landlord/tenant issue), then try to express sympathy/understanding about a difficult matter, and then repeat a list of websites and phone numbers for legal aid clinics and low-bono groups in the area who would be better equipped to handle them. The callers often seemed genuinely grateful for my help, even though I hadn’t really done anything.

      Of course, the caller knew what her situation was and what she needed, so my recommendation didn’t sound presumptuous – it’s hard to respond to “just want to check to make sure everything’s ok with my account” with “you sound lonely, here’s a hotline number.”

  7. Denise C*

    I remember hearing that Fidelity Investments had a problem like this some years back. They had a small number of clients who were calling them repeatedly and they were trying to figure out how to get these people to call less. If I recall correctly, they used features within their phone system to identify the problem callers, and deliberately put them in a queue with a longer hold time. I know that sounds horrible! But it might be better than the other solution they tried – I also remember someone saying they starting charging a fee to customers who called in without a specific service need.

    1. TootsNYC*

      If you can identify which are problem people, you could give them some not-very-satisfying-but-still-perfectly-cordial response; like, maybe a manager answers the 2nd, 3rd, etc., calls on each day. Or always route them to completely different rep each time, so they don’t start to think they “know” the person on the other end.

      1. OhNo*

        I like both of these ideas. Basically, if one particular customer likes to call back a lot, just make sure they get someone new every time they call in a single day. The first call can go to “their” rep, but then every call after that goes to a different person, whether it’s a manager or another customer service rep.

        You can add to this by having them say, “Oh, you were waiting to talk to Larissa? I’m sorry, but it looks like her call queue is very backed up today, but I can help you if you have a problem!” or, “Oh, I’m sorry, Larissa just stepped out/went on her break/left for the day, but I can help you if you have a problem!”

        If each customer has a dedicated representative for their account, then you also have the option of allowing the “fill-in” reps on the second, third, etc. calls be a bit more brusque and business-like about getting people off the phone. That way they can get the customer off the phone quicker, without damaging the customer-representative rapport that has been built up.

  8. Dr. Ruthless*

    My mom was a telephone operator in the late 60’s/early 70’s, and she said that she’d have one old lady who called in on a regular basis, just to chat. Her most memorable phone call was one where she was going to make an angel food cake, and it called for a dozen eggs, but she only had 10 eggs, and did the operator think that would be OK.

    1. fposte*

      What makes me laugh about that is that we do the same thing now but on the internet. I think objectively we realize the order of operations should go “I have a problem with my widget–I should talk to widget people,” but in practice it more often goes “I talk to these people–I should ask them about my widget.”

      1. Not So NewReader*

        The reinforcement for this behavior comes when people at AAM actually answer with accurate information. lol. I don’t anticipate a cure any time soon. (chuckling)

    2. PhyllisB*

      That brings back memories!!! I was a telephone operator for over twenty years, and you would not BELIEVE how many food-related questions I answered. Not to mention the lonely elderly. This was in the days when you could use a pay phone for a dime, and every-day this little old man would call in and say, “Operator, I lost my dime. Would you dial this number for me?” Our supervisors told us to just dial his number without arguement.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I remember when pay phones cost a dime. And then a quarter. Now they’re all gone. I haven’t seen a pay phone since I don’t know when. I wonder what I’m supposed to do now if I lose my cell!

        They don’t even have many phone boxes in London anymore. I did see a black one somewhere in Westminster, but I was afraid to get in it in case it went down to Knockturn Alley or something.

    3. ginger ale for all*

      If you google “Reader’s Digest” telephone operator story, the first google result is a great story by Paul Villard about his childhood friend, the town telephone operator.

    4. irritable vowel*

      This reminds me of the time I was working at the reference desk and an older woman called to ask if she could freeze potato salad. I’m at a university library so we don’t tend to get this kind of question! Thank goodness for Google, which said you can freeze it if it doesn’t contain mayonnaise (which separates when frozen, apparently). She was thrilled, and I was glad I don’t work at a public library. :)

  9. Stephanie*

    My friend’s a CSR at our local utility and says this is a regular occurrence in the winter (we’re in a big snowbird area). She says she just kind of nods along (and feels a little bad that these people are clearly lonely) and is thankful they don’t have to meet production goals or have call resolution times.

  10. Jo*

    I have a similar problem. It’s not so much that people go off on entirely random tangents, it’s that some drag the calls out giving so much more detail than we ever asked for or we can use on related topics. Some of them you can’t get a word in to let them know you have all the information you need. Given most need our services as a result of a recent death in the family I certainly don’t want to be abrupt or rude

  11. That'll be me on the phone, one day ...*

    “Mr. Johnson, I just talked to someone in your area who mentioned The Senior Arts Center on Washington Street in as a fun place to gather … have you ever been? Would you like their phone number to find out more? It’s been so nice talking to you. Have a lovely day!”

    Of course this requires having an accurate list of resources for people to give out.

    Just curious as to what kind of “services” you “provide” to seniors that you couldn’t show them a little milk of human kindness and karmic energy.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Come on, I think that’s unfair. There’ s nothing that indicates the OP or her staff is being unkind, but they also have work to get done.

      1. Andrea*

        Actually, I was going to say to the OP that it sounds like her staff is doing a great job serving this particular community. They have clearly been very kind and patient, and that’s partly why these seniors are calling. So, while of course the staff members can’t be expected to chat on the phone to combat senior loneliness, it is also nice to know that these employees are doing some important things right for your customers/clients.

        I also wonder if it would be possible to compile a list of organizations and such in the area and perhaps refer some of these customers. A call to the local agency on aging might be enough to find out about all kinds of resources and such that are available for this community. I understand that’s not strictly part of the job, of course, but then again, it might help with repeat business and word-of-mouth, as well.

        1. JMegan*

          Most places in North America have 211 services for just this type of thing – referring people to social service organizations, volunteer opportunities, etc. If the OP is up for it, she could do a little preliminary research using 211, to compile a couple of resources that her staff could refer people to.

    2. Observer*

      I think that that’s a bit unkind. OP specifically says that some time to brighten people’s day is fine. The problem is that these people need significantly more than that, and that creates a problem.

    3. hbc*

      “I am always happy to brighten a customer’s day by letting everyone take interest in them for a minute or two. But now it has reached the point where reps are on the phone with one customer for 20-30 minutes – trying to be polite and get off the phone but the customer keeps talking.”

      What kind of karmic energy are you putting out into the universe by ignoring the words that the OP wrote? And what kind of businesses do you use that have enough overhead to regularly shoot the breeze with customers for 20 minutes?

    4. A Bug!*

      Sounds like problem solved to me! Since apparently several 20-minute+ phone calls a day wouldn’t interfere with any of your existing obligations, OP can instruct all of her CSRs to give these folks your number.

    5. Elsajeni*

      I think it’s at least as kind to make sure the next 10 people in line can access the services they’re calling for without having to wait on hold for ages as it is to make sure Mr. Johnson gets all the social interaction he wants.

    6. LBK*

      That sounds like a passive aggressive “GTFO” to me, so not sure what kind of karmic energy you think you’re exuding with that method versus anything else suggested here.

    7. Temperance*

      I think this is actually very bad advice, because it sets up OP’s company as someone the senior can depend on/should depend on for social interaction. It will take more of their time, and eat in to their profits, to give these seniors advice on where they can get some social interaction.

      These seniors want to chat on the phone. They presumably know that they can go to the library, or the local senior center, or church if they want to see people in public. They are instead choosing to chat up a captive audience via phone.

      1. teclatrans*

        Well, no, a lot of seniors are homebound, or have to limit outings to a couple times per week so they can rest in between.

      2. Observer*

        Actually, Seniors very often do NOT know where they can SAFELY go to get social interaction. And those people who are either homebound or have limited mobility have fewer options, and are actually highly unlikely to know how to access them.

        That’s one of the reasons Meals on Wheels exists – in order to qualify someone needs to either be unable to do basic cooking or be unable to get to the grocery to shop.

  12. Michelenyc*

    I used to work in the call center for a catalog company during the holidays when I wanted to make extra money. I have 3 calls that I will always remember. The first was a famous race car driver. When I was getting his billing info and he said his name, I actually said like the race car driver. He did respond that’s me. He was actually very sweet. I worked for a children’s catalog company and we had a gentleman that would call and want to talk about clogs, if we liked clogs, and if we were wearing clogs right now. We called him clogman. The third was a very sweet husband calling wanting a special type of massager for his wife. I remember that he was so emabarrassed. I had just finished taking a semester of human sexuality and I was able to refer him to a company that could actually get him the type of item he wanted. The call center lead wanted to write me up for it but once the director listened to the tape of the call she came over and praised me for handling it so well. I was 18 or 19 at the time so needless to say I was thrilled with the compliment!

      1. After the Snow*

        I’m interested in their answer, too. But I suspect it was because she didn’t make a sale and actually recommended another company.

      2. Michelenyc*

        She was super religous and did not think it was appropriate that I recommend such a horrible company to a customer. The poor guy didn’t even want to tell me what he was calling for and I remember saying to him don’t worry about it we get all kinds of questions/requests.

        1. Formica Dinette*

          That was inappropriate, but Clogman perving on you was fine? I dunno about her.

          1. Saturn9*

            Clogman probably didn’t even trip her radar. Some people are so straight, they’re incapable of recognizing a kink even when it’s overly-interested in the shoes they’re wearing.

  13. Observer*

    Someone else mentioned this – is it possible to give people some numbers? Or, if you have announcements as part of your hold “music” maybe you could include the numbers of some local resources. Calls to seniors programs are not all uncommon.

    1. Kylynara*

      If possible, something like this might help both sides. If the services you provide involve sending them anything and they are mostly in the same location, an extra flyer or sidebar with information about senior activities might have enough benefit to be worth the research time.

      Especially paired unobtrusively with the suggestion below to have the hold recording request their help keeping wait times down.

    2. Lalitah*

      I agree with your suggestion. It’s really important to also brand the company as part of the community they serve and referring lonely seniors to needed social interaction is a pro-social and kind thing to do.

  14. LisaLee*

    What about a recorded message before the caller gets to the rep? When I was helping my grandfather get some home help services one of the places I called had a message that said something like, “Our reps get many calls a day and are very busy! Please help us reduce wait times by having your questions ready so we can assist you efficiently and then help the next caller.” Having a recording deliver the “we really can’t talk to you forever” message might make it easier for callers to swallow. It probably won’t solve the problem entirely, but it might help.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ooooh, that’s really interesting. It sounds smart to me, and I’d love to know whether people who work with seniors think it would help.

    2. ZSD*

      This is appealing, but I wonder how many people would think, “Okay, this recorded lady thinks I need to make the calls short, but I know that [my rep’s name] really wants to talk to me.” (It could be worth a try, though.)

    3. Sara M*

      I worked in a call center. I think this idea is definitely worth trying, because it will lower the number of people pushing the limits. But a backup policy would be good for people who ignore that message. Or think it doesn’t apply to them.

    4. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Oh, but ugh – it adds unnecessary and frustrating non-human wait time for the non-problem callers.

      1. A Bug!*

        I’d be concerned about that as well. Layers of switchboard, while often frustrating, at least ostensibly serve the purpose of getting your call where it’s most appropriate. But it’s a different type of frustration to have to sit through a recorded message that basically says “Are you sure you have to talk to us?” when yes, I do have to talk to you. It makes it seem like you as a company don’t have much respect for your customers when you feel the need to pre-emptively tell them not to waste your time.

        1. Kelly L.*

          I also think people kind of tune out what the recording is actually saying–people kind of figure it’s generic and don’t listen carefully. I’ve experienced that in other contexts.

    5. JMegan*

      I think this is perfect, in combination with some of the polite-but-firm scripts that have been mentioned here, and routing the caller to different reps or to a manager if need be.

      OP, I think it’s great that you’re being so sensitive to the needs of your clients, even when those needs are interfering with your business. I hope you can find a solution that works for both parties!

  15. Ms. Dette*

    I believe there’s a difference between providing customer service and providing company for people and once 20-30 minutes has passed, I think that line is crossed. I have to cut people off in my service role or else I will never get my work done and make any money. It also takes away energy and zeal for other clients. I can tell when a client is lonely or wants to talk and yes internally I feel good for talking to someone and brightening his or her day, but from a business point of view, I do not feel good for that time I cannot get back. It is really hard too because you want to empathize and not hurt feelings but I definitely agree that you may need to consider what your objective is as a company and how you want to be perceived. Can you afford to lose that time as well? I think you can provide customer service in a timely way. My fear would be that you build a reputation as the company that you can call and they will talk to you on the phone all day because we have to be careful of this perception that all seniors are lonely and not savvy, which is not always true. They may be ( innocently) telling others that you provide that service. Rather it seems as if you would like to be known as the company that has great customer service and did not rush you with your issue. I think it is ok to say: “Mrs. Smith, I hate to interrupt you (break up the flow) because you are very easy to talk to (rapport and empathy) and I could talk a long time with you if this were another setting (more connection), but I want to make sure I addressed your concerns or provided you with what you needed (bring it back to business).” Without knowing what your company does, is there an option to follow a script like that and if the conversation goes on further offer them an opportunity for additional connections if you have them (such as resources for them)? For example, “We’ve noticed lots of our customers love opportunities to connect with others. Would you like someone to call you back at another time to share that with you?” Personally, I would not do the latter because that may open the door for other things and more calls but given the need to make them feel better, that is an option. And kudos to you for caring about your customers and their feelings! Sadly we don’t hear that a lot lately.

  16. E*

    I’d recommend avoiding comments like “I’d like to talk longer”. Instead focus on the fact that your job is to resolve customer issues. Now that their issue is resolved, “I need to end this call now so I can assist our other customers who are on hold”. Wish them a nice day and go on to the next call.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I agree with this: I’d recommend avoiding comments like “I’d like to talk longer”.

      These people’s need is very high, and they will delude themselves into thinking this is very sincere, and that they are doing your reps a favor by calling back to chat.

  17. Cafe au Lait*

    An idea, but could you have a dedicated “chatter.” Specifically hire someone for this role. When Reps needed to move onto the next caller, they could say “I don’t have anymore time, but I see that Phillip is free. I’m going to transfer you over to him.”

    Phillip chats for 10-15 minutes and then moves on.

    1. Cafe au Lait*

      Years ago, I was friends with someone who ran a weaponry booth at Renaissance Fairs. So many people wanted to discuss “custom orders” but never could follow-up with an order. It completely wasted his and his staff’s time. So he hired a “Custom Order Specialist.” That person’s role was to discuss the ins and outs of custom made products. My friend ended up doubling his sales once he implemented that system.

      1. TootsNYC*

        because the non-orderers were taken up with the Custom Order Specialist, and he and his other staff were free to double the number of ACTUAL buyers they were interacting with?

    2. Sadsack*

      In theory, this sounds good. However, who is going to apply for this job? I don’t see this position as having any upward mobility, unless you hire retired people who aren’t looking to have a career.

      1. JMegan*

        …unless you hire retired people who aren’t looking to have a career.

        Done, and done. Seems like a good way to meet several people’s needs at once, actually!

        1. Elle*

          I could see my dad loving something like this. He’s a retired NASA engineer, and loves to problem solve, and look at every angle. He’d eat this up!!

        2. TootsNYC*


          My dad is 85, and he’s a talker, and has a high need for people contact. My mom passed away, so he lives alone, far away from most of his kids, and the few who are close by don’t have that much time.

          I thank God every day for his job at Home Depot!

      2. Cafe au Lait*

        Yes, you’d want someone who would be comfortable is only having that role and not transitioning upwards. Possible demographics: retirees, college students (especially freshman and sophomores), individuals with cognitive disabilities that are lively and great listeners but are unable to hold down “regular” jobs. Honestly, the lists of possible candidates are endless. You just need to make sure you ask the right questions when hiring.

      3. LBK*

        Maybe you could just rig up the call system to pair the chatters with each other. Two birds with one stone!

        1. fposte*

          I was going to say this could be brilliant anywhere–turn waiting on hold into a party line (the old old kind, not the ’80s-’90s kind) where people could talk to one another. But then I realized the likelihood of pervert incursion.

      4. Honeybee*

        Jobs don’t have to have upward mobility for people to fill them – there are plenty of jobs that don’t, and plenty of people who need something temporary. My sister would’ve loved this job in college, for example; she really likes talking and listening to elderly people. Maybe she would’ve done it for 3-4 years as a student and then moved on and someone else would do it.

  18. Student*

    Time to look at how this actually impacts the business.

    How much money do you make from customers who really want the “personal touch” with the chatting, vs. other customers?

    How much money are you losing by not addressing other calls in a timely fashion? What is the average wait time for calls, and how do you expect that impacts your other customers? Do these calls actually make a difference in the bottom line, or do you just have a “gut feeling” that they are a waste of customer rep time?

    Is the best solution to cut down on average call length, or to cut down on the outlier very-long calls, or to add more personnel to handle more calls? Should you look at some level of automated help? Would a better website help offset some of the increased phone calls from other customers? Presumably, more and better business does naturally translate to more calls even without the seniors considered, so this may be a combination of problems.

    1. Librarian*

      Yes! There is much math to be done on this problem to determine just how expensive a problem it is. This needs to be weighed against your company’s mission – Making the world better? Caring about our customers? Building relationships? This may be an acceptable cost of doing business if you can truly identify the cost.

  19. Treena*

    This is something healthcare providers face all the time, especially with people who don’t pay co-pays to go to the doctor every week and chat. Aside from needing appointment slots open for actual sick people, elderly socialization has become a thing their doctors are now concerned with because socialized elders do so much better health-wise.

    Obviously as a business, you can’t be evaluating and formally referring, but maybe you can suggest something to them in a friendly way. One option might be to reach out to elder hotlines for general advice. Massachusetts has a government-run elder phone line–I’m sure you can call and explain your situation and ask for some strategies.

    I really like the phrasing above, “I just talked to someone in your area who mentioned The Senior Center on Washington Street in as a fun place to gather … have you ever been? Would you like their phone number to find out more?” and you can use the same place if your clients are in a geographically specific area. Elder dot gov is a great resource for geographically diverse customers–you can type in a zip code and select “Adult Day Program” and it’ll generate all the local services.

    1. Temperance*

      I was recently hospitalized, and was very surprised to find out how many older folks choose to go into the hospital/seek medical attention when they don’t strictly need it. My roommate had chosen to go to the hospital because she liked how many of her family members doted on her when she was in the hospital. (And the staff, truthfully).

  20. Katie the Fed*

    I don’t know the answer to this question, but it’s a good reminder to everyone – call your grandparents or parents or elderly relatives tonight if you can. They do get so lonely!

    1. Andrea*

      And check on your neighbors! I have several seniors in my neighborhood. Sure, sometimes it can be difficult getting away from them and sometimes they tell the same story over and over. But they sure appreciate a short visit or a quick call, especially if the weather is bad.

    2. SL #2*

      Weirdly enough, my grandparents Facetimed us last night in the middle of the dinner. I was very concerned and thought it was an emergency (because they have been trying to use Facetime for the last 4 years and never quite got the hang of it), but no, they’d finally figured out how to use it and just wanted to chat.

      On the other hand, they called my mom in the middle of the night once because they got the timezones wrong (they live in Hong Kong). She was not pleased.

  21. Girl in nash*

    Take Alison’s advice. The only thing I can advise is to be direct that moving forward calls will have to end after information pertaining to business is discussed. Avoid indicating that this is something temporary to soften the blow. For example, don’t say “We are having a very busy season right now and I can’t continue speaking.” Also, I would avoid saying that new policy is stopping the chats because again that puts the management at fault. I would say something soft but firm like: “I apologize ma’am but I have other customers at the moment. Please feel free to call us if you need additional assistance with ________”.

  22. Sara M*

    True story!

    I worked at AT&T as a phone monkey. Policy at that time was that you could not hang up on a customer. All you could do was transfer to Escalations, who also couldn’t hang up (and had nowhere to transfer to). You could persuade the caller to hang up, but that’s about it.

    There was a guy who only called at night, between midnight and 3 when the center wasn’t very busy. When he called, he’d never have a question. He’d ask us to call him Uncle Joe, and he’d chat. A lot. Hours. If the rep tried to end the call, he’d say, “Now I know your policy. You can’t hang up on me. Would you like to hear a song?”

    He’d play guitar, sing, anything. :)

    I never got him on my line, but everyone said he was a gentleman. Never creepy, always sweet. He knew many of the overnight staff by name.

      1. Sadsack*

        Kind of? I’d say, very. He knew that these people were working and he kept them on the phone anyway because they were a captive audience.

          1. Sara M*

            Because policy was set at way higher levels than we at the local call center could influence. The people who set the policy were essentially unreachable.

            Thank you for choosing AT&T!

        1. Sara M*

          Yes, manipulative– but way better than yet another customer yelling at us. So most reps liked talking to him.

    1. BRR*

      I assume (not sure if I’m correct) that most reps can’t hang up. I count on that for when my situation hasn’t been resolved (namely poor service at my mail order pharmacy).

      1. Saturn9*

        Yes. Most reps can’t hang up. Even if someone is verbally abusive and/or making threats of violence, the rep cannot hang up without risking termination. As above, they can transfer to Escalations (the main function of that department is to pretend to be the supervisor you just asked for—o hai that’s my department) but under no circumstances is a rep to ever intentionally disconnect the call.*
        *Turnover is high and call center workers are legion but this has been the policy at every call center I’ve worked at and I’ve (sadly) make quite the career of call center work.

      2. Amy UK*

        It depends. I’ve never worked at a call centre where you couldn’t hang up if people were abusive. We’d warn them once, twice and thenhang up (we didn’t even have to say anything the third time, we’d just disconnect). I’m assuming you aren’t abusive though, in which case we’d not be able to hang up on you.

      3. LouLouBee*

        I work in a call center for a big coroporation. We can hang up on customers for being too abusive; putting us on hold for too long; not being on the line when the call comes in; or if the customer is recording the conversation.

        Everyone has also accidentally disconnected too, either it’s a bad transfer or rep goes to move the call window and hit the X

        I know Comcast can hang up because I’ve been hung up so many time by them. They seem to be a big fan of the pick up the call and then hang it right back up.

        I have a friend who worked in a credit card call center and they were allowed to hang up with abusive callers. Another friend worked for one of those big contracting companies that provider customer service rep at cut rate for companies…like convergys, they did not have the ability to hang up

        I could give more examples but from my experience the rep likely has the ability to hang up on you. It’s always smart to be nice to the call center rep anyway. We love the nice callers and try to do as much as we possibly can to take care of them.

    2. Adam*

      If the rep tried to end the call, he’d say, “Now I know your policy. You can’t hang up on me. Would you like to hear a song?”

      Woah…On one hand I feel bad for the guy, but on the other…

      1. Saturn9*

        Don’t feel bad for him. Not even a little bit. He assumed everyone enjoyed chatting with him because most people (apparently) did and he intentionally mindfucked people that didn’t want to chat with him, using the fact that they had limited means to end the situation after expressing that they didn’t want to be involved.

    3. Honeybee*

      This is exactly why blanket policies don’t make sense. I think there is something inherently creepy about a guy who calls late at night and forces call center workers to listen to him chat or sing or do whatever when he knows his audience doesn’t want to listen but doesn’t have the power to stop listening.

      1. I'm a Little Teapot*

        Yeah. I have a lot more sympathy for call center workers than I do for someone like this. Some people are lonely for good reason – because no one can stand their company.

      2. Hobbits! The Musical*

        I just had a P-A response thought: I can’t hang up on you, but maybe I don’t have to listen to you… I wonder what would have happened if at this point the AT&T rep had just put him on speakerphone and let him sing/ramble? (This would only work if no other ‘wee hours’ calls came in.)

        I’ve been told people think I’m “lovely” because I actively listen to everyone (e.g. neighbours, kids, seniors at the community afternoon tea), and because I _have_ heaps of time I don’t need to rush them. But I admit, I’m not always fully concentrating on their side of the convo.

  23. Papyrus*

    I used to take phone calls from customers, and I’d gladly take a lonely old lady who just wanted to chat over the angry ones who wanted to yell at me. I definitely see how this is a problem though, since I do hate disappointing people. The worst one for me was this lady who insisted on making me laugh, and kept telling me jokes. Of course they were all terrible, and I’m equally terrible at faking laughter, so the jokes kept coming. I almost cringed out of my skin.

  24. TN*

    I’ve worked in retail all my life, most notably at a well-known grocery chain and the volume of elderly customers who would want to chit chat was enormous. I’m responsible for stocking shelves, designing/organizing, maintaining displays, cleaning and about a hundred other things – and you want to talk about your grandchildren?! I would feel so bad having to cut these customers off but there came a point when their actual grocery need ended and their need for interaction took over. I ended up using a sort of “blunt” approach – get them the item they needed, ask if there was anything else they need and then give a cheerful “Thank you for shopping at while walking away from them into another aisle or the back area. Not ideal but it worked. OP, I commend you giving your customers quality time even if it is brief.

  25. Clever Username*

    You are very kind to encourage & allow your staff to make small talk with the customers, but I understand the need to get work done. When I read your letter, I just imagined myself holding a speaker near the phone, playing a recording of another phone ringing. “Oops, there’s my other line, I have to take that!”

  26. OP*

    Thanks for all the feedback everyone. I’ll definitely take some of the suggestions under consideration!

  27. CreationEdge*

    I handled calls where we’d speak to children as often as grandparents (toy company).

    The tactics we used for these talkative customers were the same as AAM suggested. A friendly, but firm statement that you need to get going.

    “I really enjoyed chatting with you, but unfortunately I need to get going. I have other callers waiting.”

    And if they started up again, I’d usually just go. “Great! Thanks for calling! Have a great day.” Then they’d just respond good-bye because it’s habit!

    1. CreationEdge*

      I should clarify that I never interrupted them, I’d wait until they stopped.

      The key is the friendly tone. As long as you don’t sound agitated or impatient, there’s usually not a problem with them being offended. I never got a bad survey from it.

  28. Temperance*

    I occasionally work with seniors through my job, and here is how I keep phone calls short:

    1.) Be friendly, but keep the chit-chat to a strict minimum. The clients won’t notice if you are unfailingly polite.
    2.) Redirect, redirect, redirect. When Mrs. Smith calls to ask about her account, tell her things are fine. When she brings up her 100 grandchildren, say “oh that’s so wonderful, did you have any additional questions regarding your account?” Repeat as often as necessary.
    3.) Shut down the call. “Mrs. Smith, is there anything else you need on your account today? No? Well have a nice day, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon”.
    4.) When they call back hoping to chat, your reps are just too busy with other customers. They haven’t had more time to talk with everyone because the phones are just so busy.

    I absolutely *do not* recommend that your reps make recommendations of other services where lonely seniors can call to get some social interaction, because that just encourages further conversation. It puts your reps in the position of being the person who cares about the client, which will lead to further phone calls and wasted time.

    1. Anna*

      A million times this. I work in a medical facility that primarily serves seniors and these techniques work very well. Every once in awhile I’ll get someone who really can’t take the hint and needs to be pushed a little harder, but for the most part people receive the message. Remember OP: the reps are the ones in control of the conversation, not the clients. It’s an art to be firm and polite at the same time, but with the tips Temperance has listed you’ll do great!

    2. Sarah G*

      This! Suggestions #1-4 ares spot on, but I strongly with disagree the recommendation not to have reps provide other resources. It only takes a minute or two to give someone a couple phone numbers, it is a kindness and a service, AND a way to end the call. “If you don’t have any more questions about your account, I really do need to speak to the next customer, but would you be interested in the number for the Senior Friendship Line?
      Or you could have pre-printed postcards with phone numbers/resources that you can offer to send to customers — the rep could just jot the customer’s address on it right there.

  29. Annoyed Student*

    I have an interview on Friday, and I just got asked for two written out reference letters by then. Is that normal?

    I have references of course (I am a university student), but I haven’t asked them to write out letters – they would expect phone calls! I emailed two professors (one who I have asked before, the other helped prep me for the first round interview), but I would prefer to have done it in person, and to have given them more time!

    Is it normal to get a reference letter request so close to the interview date?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I keep the comments here focused on the topic of the letter, but you can email this to me directly or post it in Friday’s open thread. Thanks!

  30. JennyFair*

    One thing that often worked for myself and my teams was, “It’s been great talking to you today. I’m so glad I could help you with your question about XYZ, did you have any other questions about your account? No? Great, have a wonderful day!” And then if needed a second time, skip the any other questions bit.

    1. JennyFair*

      Essentially, act like they’re okay wrapping up the call and then wrap it on up :)

  31. Elder Dog*

    OP, you mention the customers call “their rep” instead of talking to the first person who answers the phone.
    That means to me they’re used to chatting with “their rep” and expect to be able to do so. They’ve been taught “their rep” is able to chat for a long time. They have a relationship with “their rep.”

    You need to break that relationship. Move Nancy’s clients (at least the chatty ones) to Sandy and Sandy’s to John and John’s to Sally. Next time Alice calls to chat at “her” rep Nancy, Sandy answers the phone and says oh, Nancy isn’t handling these accounts anymore. I’m your new rep. And then Sandy can make it a point to be polite and spend a minute or two chatting, but then she has other calls waiting and has to go. Always.

    Alice will ask for Nancy’s new phone number, but Sandy doesn’t have it and can’t get it.
    People change jobs, they move, they stay home with the kids all the time. Handle this the same way you’d handle one of those situations.

  32. Anon Collections Rep*

    Just thought I’d throw in my two cents. I work in a state tax collections call center and it doesn’t matter to some folks why you are calling, some folks will not get off the phone, either talking your ear off or calling you everything but a child of married parents. I am absolutely not allowed to ever disconnect a call unless I get ‘dead air’ for over two minutes. Once, a caller was so abusive to me, my supervisor ‘broke into’ the call and took over to get it to stop. Then there are the folks who want to talk about their bad country song of a life (lost my job, wife ran off, dog died, no money for beer, car got totaled, blah blah) and so on.

    With lots of elderly/chatty folks, I find it best to control to call and after a few sentences of chit chat, steer the call back to the resolution. I am a bit on the chatty side but I always get the call back on track and do my best to be pleasant, upbeat, and personable despite why I cam in contact with folks. No one wants to talk to a tax collector but I do get callers asking for me specifically so I like to think I am doing well for all parties involved, even the boss and the never ending metrics lol.

  33. Three Thousand*

    This problem is making me cringe, because I’m absolutely horrible at small talk and would find this kind of thing incredibly annoying, but I’m also bad at politely but forcefully ending conversations. I really like the idea of directing these callers to people who actually want to talk to them.

  34. Mando Diao*

    You might need to accept this as an unavoidable quirk of your business model. It’s part of knowing your customer base. If you’re selling a product that people tend to have a lot of opinions about (skincare, car parts, vintage books) and/or are selling to a demographic that you know is going to act a certain way, you need to hire enough staff to deal with it properly. I’ve worked for businesses that targeted really specific audiences but who also tried to train us to basically change how those people are used to communicating, and it never works. It actually makes me nervous, because if you try to get your employees to do something that’s pretty much impossible and make them think their jobs depend on it, you’ll stress them out and lose them. Hire enough staff do deal with your clients.

  35. Sarah G*

    My job involves talking with seniors and people with disabilities every day, many of whom are very isolated and want to chat. I find that indulging it for a few minutes then FIRMLY (and politely and graciously) ending the call is very effective. But I’ve had a career of working with people with severe mental illness and have developed skill in redirecting or ending conversations if needed! Maybe role playing would help?

    MOREOVER, offer other resources! Find local resources such as senior friendship lines, senior peer counseling (many do free home visits with trained peer counselors), Council for Jewish Elderly, etc. Your local County office or Dept on Aging should have some suggestions! Every rep can keep the numbers posted by their desk, and you could also print out lists of numbers to include with other mail if you send out mailings.

  36. Sammy*

    When I was in college, I had a contract job at a clinic. I had to call patients and confirm their ID numbers against a list of all patient IDs. I remember two things about that job:

    1. Calls on Monday always, always involved the patient asking me about church on Sunday. The first time I was so taken aback, I just blurted out that no, I did not attend. That got me an earful. From then on, I just said I was Jewish. I am not actually Jewish, but good Judeo-Christian Americans usually don’t have an argument against that.

    2. This call:

    ME: Hello, my name is Sammy. I’m calling with your medical provider to confirm we have correct information for your account. Can you give me your patient ID number? You can find it on a bill or similar paperwork.

    CUSTOMER: Why yes, I have that paperwork available. But it is downstairs. It will take me quite a while to get down there. Can you tell me a joke to pass the time?

    ME: >tells a joke, I don’t remember whatsings the first verse<

    CUSTOMER: That was beautiful. Now, my ID is…

  37. Sammy*

    Oh what even, half my story is gone.

    ME: Hello, my name is Sammy. I’m calling with your medical provider to confirm we have correct information for your account. Can you give me your patient ID number? You can find it on a bill or similar paperwork.

    CUSTOMER: Why yes, I have that paperwork available. But it is downstairs. It will take me quite a while to get down there. Can you tell me a joke to pass the time?

    ME: >tells a joke, I don’t remember whatsings the first verse<

    CUSTOMER: That was beautiful. Now, my ID is…

    1. Sammy*

      All right, I give the hell up. I sang “God Bless the Child”, that’s what happened. But I got that damn ID.

  38. VictoriaHR*

    I worked in a call center 10+ years ago and we had an older lady, Doris, who would call in all the time to just check on her insurance policy. She really just wanted to chat. I could tell she didn’t get much human interaction otherwise. It was pretty sad.

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