A few months ago, I answered a call from an extremely distressed lady, based in the South. She had an accent thick as molasses, and she was talking fast. Her voice was high-pitched and laced with agitation: she needed a lawyer at 2am on a Sunday.

This information was not immediately apparent. At first, the words pouring into my headset were unintelligible, and I couldn’t help her in that moment. But instead of interjecting and asking her to slow down, I decided to let her get the situation off her chest. As the story unravelled, I managed to pick up snippets of information which I could place into our call answering script.

After what felt like hours, her voice calmed and she began to slow down.

Then, I asked: “How are you feeling?”

She seemed surprised, and slowed down further, then the situation gradually became clearer: her partner had been arrested. I could now gather information in earnest, and the caller was shortly patched through to the on-call attorney, whose firm was reachable at 2am thanks to after hours call answering.

This experience represents the importance of tapping into an essential soft skill: proactive listening. It’s something I continuously seek to develop through my services as an AnswerForce receptionist and call coach. It’s something we can all seek to develop within ourselves, on a personal level and as service providers within a business.

Most empathetic listening is proactive listening. As call agents, we must put our own feelings aside and navigate the emotions of each caller, teasing out the pertinent information. It is a prized soft skill, second to none.

When we forget to employ proactive listening, things can go in a different direction.

I answered a call last year that strikes at the very heart of this. It took me almost two minutes to realize that the caller had dialled incorrectly. It went something like this:

Name? Check!

Verified? Check!

And so on.

As a virtual receptionist who handles many calls for many businesses, I was simply ‘doing my job’, instead of listening carefully.

It was only when I arrived at a question that made absolutely no sense to the caller, that I noticed my error. He wanted to reserve a car, not have his roof repaired: the two company names were similar, and he’d contacted the wrong business.

Simple things, like someone’s tone of voice, the pace of their speech, the strength of an accent, or even gender can set off preconceptions in our minds. Often, these are misconceptions.

The challenge of being a proactive listener is not always in hearing what the caller says, but in listening out for what they don’t say.  The weight of this can be enormous.

Recently I answered a call for a school attendance line, where we take note of absences. After working through the required fields, I came to the final question: what was the reason for the absence? I was stunned when the caller told me that her husband had just died in a non-fault car accident. She sounded to be in her 30s. I could hear children. 

Shocked, I offered my condolences and spent a few minutes asking if she had family with her and if she would like to speak with someone at work.

Later, I listened back to the call and realized I had missed the signs. There had been emotion there, but the caller had worked hard to keep it contained. I vowed to never make that mistake again.

When you serve as an AnswerForce receptionist, it feels as though the whole world passes through your phone line.

With every call, we must channel proactive listening. This extraordinary skill allows us to facilitate compassionate communication when it matters most, no matter the situation.