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Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California

Chapter 4

Sound Advice: Making the Right Phone Impression

Nature has given men one tongue and two ears, that we may hear twice as much as we speak.

- Epictetus

Somehow the fact that people have two ears doesn't always keep them from talking over, under, around, and through the individuals they encounter during business calls. Haven't you had phone contact with some organization or other that left you feeling as though you'd been consciously ignored, insulted, or both?

If there is a potentially devastating "profit vacuum" that this resource can help you overcome quickly and easily, it's the common error of treating people on the phone as though they weren't entitled to a full hearing. There's a rash of phone-related etiquette problems in the business world today, and who can say how many millions of dollars in lost revenue from clients and customers it's costing us?

All I know for sure is that when a company is rude to me over the phone, it doesn't take me long to start thinking about moving my business elsewhere.

In this chapter, you'll learn the best ways to establish and maintain proper communication over the phone. By following the tips outlined here, you'll help your organization build bridges during phone contacts, rather than tear them down.

Tip #32

Ask before putting someone on speakerphone.

Looking for a great way to lose (or, at the very least, intimidate) a big customer? Call your contact person's direct number while you and one or more associates are already "on speaker." When the person picks up the ringing phone and says "Hello," he or she will be greeted by a cavernous rush of responding static-sound that may or may not include a distinguishable human voice at its center. Instead of wondering about how on Earth you've managed to pull off the latest customer service miracle, your contact will wonder what terrible transgression he or she committed to earn a spot in Telephonic Hell. You thought there was nothing worse than making a client listen to the Muzak version of "Something" while a call is transferred? Guess again.

There are very few devices that register as much displeasure from unsuspecting phone users as the speakerphone. If you're using it, this technology represents a superb and welcome convenience. If you're subjected to it without warning, however, it's among the rudest of rude telephone awakenings. Many listeners report that they feel as though the other person is talking to them from the bottom of a well during speakerphone conversations. The instinct to shout (or hang up in the hope of securing a better connection) can be quite strong.

Sound phone etiquette requires that the person who wishes to use the speakerphone always pick up the handset first when calling another party. After greeting the person on the line and establishing rapport, the person with the speakerphone should explain why he or she would like to put the call on this device. For instance: "George Smith, who is our firm's director of communications, is in my office. I think he'd benefit from your feedback. If it's all right with you, I'd like to put this call on speakerphone." Most callers won't mind - as long as the switch over is discussed before it is initiated and the benefit to the caller of placing the call on speakerphone is made clear.

What should you do when you find yourself in a telephone conversation in which the other person does not ask your permission to put you on the speakerphone? You have two options: Tolerate the lapse in sound quality (and remind yourself that your communications are not confidential), or explain that you cannot hear the person well and hope that this will encourage the other party to use the handset instead.

Tip #33

Observe proper conference call etiquette.

Yes, there is a certain etiquette to be observed when conducting or taking part in a conference call. Any situation that involves other people, in fact, requires thoughtful consideration of anybody else who might be involved. This is true whether the interactions are in person or by some electronic means.

Are you minding your teleconference P's and Q's?

When was the last time you were part of a teleconference? How would you rate its effectiveness? Many people I work with have come to regard teleconferences as "productivity vaccums" - and they have their reasons!

Here are three rules for conducting an effective and considerate teleconference.

Rule One: Prepare an agenda ahead of time. Be sure to include the number to call for dialing into the teleconference, along with the name, company affiliation, and contact information of each participant

Rule Two: Fax or e-mail the agenda to each participant 24 - 48 hours prior to the teleconference.

Rule Three: Let each participant know, by phone, e-mail, or fax, exactly what his/her role is in the teleconference.

Once you are actually leading a teleconference, it is your responsibility to:

Suppose you're not running the show? Here are two rules that will help you make the most of this meeting.

Rule One: "Sign on" at least two minutes prior to the actual start time.

Rule Two: Announce yourself by name to the person spearheading the meeting.

The primary responsibility for a conference call obviously lies with the person who is organizing it. First and foremost, the participants in the call must be notified in advance of the date. This action should serve to verify whether they are available to participate in the call, as well as to ensure that it is noted on their calendars. The organizer should then follow up via e-mail or fax to confirm the day and time and to provide a list of who will be participating in the call.

When announcing the time of the conference call, the time zone should be included. If an out-of-country participant will be involved, the call should be arranged with the time difference firmly in mind. In addition to a general announcement, an agenda should be sent to each person prior to the date of the call. The agenda allows each person to learn the goals of the telephone meeting and what his or her involvement will be.

The call will usually fall into one of two categories: Either you will be calling all involved parties and connecting them via your own phone system, or they will be required to call a certain number themselves to connect to the conference call. If your call falls into the latter category, you must make absolutely certain that your memo providing the meeting details includes everything a participant needs to know to be connected to the call.

As with any other meeting, punctuality is key to a conference call. Whether you are the organizer or a participant, you should be at your phone at the appointed hour. If you have organized the call, you must also observe certain etiquette in getting others on the line. The first person should be called within five minutes before the designated time; the last person should be called a minute or so before the meeting is scheduled to begin.

Those who are "lowest on the totem pole" should be connected first; the most senior executive or client should be connected last. If the meeting requires the other participants to call in themselves to be connected, you should ensure that all involved parties are on the line before commencing the meeting.

Once everyone is connected, the conference call host should greet the group as a whole and introduce all other persons on the line, who should then acknowledge their presence with a short greeting ("Hello" or "Good morning"). Once this basic courtesy is out of the way, the meeting should commence according to the agenda that had been previously distributed.

One major difficulty with conference calls is, of course, the inability to see your fellow callers. This prevents you from tuning into the body language that may indicate when another person wants to speak. In addition, people who talk out of turn may interrupt or drown out the caller who "has the floor." It can be extremely disconcerting to have several people talking at the same time. The calls tend to run most smoothly when one person determines whose turn it is to talk next - and when others refrain from speaking until they are asked for input.

When it is time to end the call, the host should provide a summary of no more than a few sentences, describing what was discussed and/or decided. After the call has ended, the host or the person who has been designated to take notes should promptly send a follow-up letter to each member of the group to confirm any action plan that had been discussed and to outline the responsibilities of each person in the group.

Tip #34

Keep people who field calls for you informed.

Hello, Mr. Smith's office.

This is Mr. Big. Is he there?

I'm sorry, he isn't. May I take a message? "No, it's too important. When will he be back?" "I'm afraid I don't know."

Well, do you know where I can reach him? "Sorry, no. May I give him a message?"

No, I need to talk to him before 3 p.m. or we'll lose this account.

One of the most frustrating experiences a caller can have in trying to get through to you is talking to someone who cannot provide any information on your schedule or availability. Many managers, in fact, prefer to keep their own schedules without bothering to fill in their subordinates concerning their whereabouts. What they don't realize is that by saving themselves that time and trouble, they can often create time and trouble for others.

Learn to use your office support staff effectively, particularly those people who represent you when you are out of the office. Your administrative assistants should be aware of both your schedule and any important projects you are working on that may require them to "run interference" for you when you are away. To this end, it is important to always provide a copy of your schedule so that your assistant(s) may know where you are and how to contact you when you are the only person who can handle a situation. You even may provide a script of what to say when you are out of the office, such as, "Ms. Jones is in a client meeting this morning and will return to her office this afternoon. May I help you or would you like to leave a detailed message on her voice mail?"

Also, give assistants both the responsibility of taking your calls and the authority to let callers know when they can expect a call back. ("Mr. Smith will return to his office this afternoon. May I have him call you back later today?")

Any information that an assistant might need for callers should also be provided: "Ms. Jones is not in the office right now, however she asked me to let you know that you'll be getting that report first thing tomorrow morning." When calls are treated in this manner, it demonstrates your ability to work as a team with your assistants and co-workers, as well as to respect the callers' time.

Tip #35

Avoid the most common telephone faux pas.

The wooing, winning, and retention of customers usually means relying on salespeople who know the product or service being sold and can conduct themselves in a courteous, professional manner. Frequently, much of a salesperson's business must be conducted over the telephone. It is important for salespeople to avoid certain telephonic faux pas that can adversely affect the relationship with the customer or potential customer. Truth be told, however, anyone and everyone can benefit from telephone courtesy

Tip #36

Rate your cell phone civility.

Do you use a cell phone? Most of us do these days.

A cell phone can certainly make you popular with those people who have to have instant access to you, no matter where you are. But how about those people with whom you're actually sharing physical space? Take the brief test below to rate your cell phone civility. Respond "yes" or "no" to each statement.

  1. I keep my cell phone on during meetings so that others can have continued access to me.

  2. I usually answer the phone when I am in a restaurant.

  3. I tend to talk louder on a cell phone than I do when I am using a landline phone.

  4. As a rule, I instantly answer my cell phone in public places, regardless of how much physical distance there is between me and the people around me.

If you responded "yes" to all four statements, you may be "telecredible," but there's a good chance that those who have to share your working and space consider you rude.

If you've responded "yes" to three of the above statements, you may well annoy others when using your cell.

If you responded "yes" to one or two of the above statements, you are more civil than most cell phone users.

If you responded "no" to all of the above statements, congratulations! You have mastered cell phone civility.

(Your response to statement four is of particular importance. You should try not to answer your cell phone before "creating your own space" - by moving at least two arms' lengths away from those around you.)

Here are some tips that will help keep calls on the right track:

Tip #37

Be kind to fellow travelers.

Telephones and their electronic cousins are so much a part of modern life that it's easy to take them for granted. From the basic handset to cordless phones to cellular phones to beepers, modern technology allows us constant access to the rest of the world. These days, it is common to see people walking down the street with telephones to their ears or carrying on conversations while driving their cars. But is it really appropriate to conduct business calls anywhere? We are so used to telephones that many of us forget how serious lapses in telephone courtesy can be.

Many of the most common breaches of etiquette occur on airplanes. Avoid using air phones to conduct long, nonemergency business conversations. First and foremost, it's expensive - and if there's anything the accounting department considers impolite, it's a huge expense! Secondly, long discourses during extended flights are inconsiderate. Your telephone calls are of little interest or concern to your fellow passengers. In fact, it is unfair to subject them at length to your business affairs unless you have absolutely no choice. Air phones are best used for emergencies or when nobody else is within three rows of you.

Tip #38

Watch that beeper!

Avoid using beepers that "sound off." This can be worse than the sound of someone belching in public! Overly loud paging is noise pollution at its worst and (unfortunately) is still used by many as a conscious, and clumsy, symbol of self-importance. To avoid bothering others, especially in public places, get a "silent" beeper that vibrates when you have a call.

Tip #39

Set limits to personal calls at your home fice.of

Don't allow friends to assume that just because you work at home, you are free to take phone calls. Treat such calls the same way you would if your manager was standing right next to you in an office. Simply say, "It's good to hear from you. May I get back to you this evening?" You also may use your answering machine or Caller ID to screen your calls for you.

Tip # 40

Personalize your voice mail.

It's a fact of modern life. Often, the person who is trying to reach you by phone will not be able to do so because you are either on the phone already or away from your desk. Therefore, unless you have an assistant to take messages for you, the chances are good that your voice mail will click in on your behalf. Voice mail is, in effect, your private assistant. It is an extension of you and should reflect the same basic courtesy and regard for others that you would demonstrate in person. To this end, I recommend that you keep your voice mail message updated regularly. This will let callers know when you are out of the office and/or when they might expect to get a call back from you.

You may "personalize" your greeting, but that does not mean making it funny or adding sound effects. Your greeting should be professional and to the point. For example:

"Thank you for your call. I am at a client site today and will return to the office tomorrow. If you need immediate attention, please dial Mary Smith at extension 123. Otherwise, please leave your name, telephone number, and message. I will return your call promptly tomorrow."

Tip #41

Learn how to make voice mail work for you.

These days, more often than not, when people place a business call, they find themselves routed to a voice-mail box.

What do callers hear when they are connected to your voice-mail box? Do they hear, "This is Joe Smith. I'm not available. Leave a message."?

Or do they hear, "This is Mary Smith. I will be in a client meeting on Tuesday morning, April 23 and will return your call in the afternoon. Please leave your name, number and brief message."?

Which person would you rather do business with?

Don't blizzard the caller with all the details of your itinerary. Do leave an updated and concise greeting for those who must leave a message for you.

Tip #42

Learn to let the phone ring.

It's true: Answer your telephone only when you can talk. If the time is not right for you, most callers would prefer to leave a voice message if the alternatives are either to be rushed through the call or to hear you say that you only have enough time to tell them you don't have enough time to talk.

The same principle applies during meetings. If the only thing you'll be saying to the caller who interrupts a get-together is that you can't talk just now, let the call go into voice mail. You'll be saving time (and preventing aggravation) for three people: the person in your office, the caller, and yourself!

Tip #43

Check your voice mail and e-mail regularly

Technology's great, but only if you keep up with it!

Some people make a point of checking voice mail and e-mail messages two to three times a day. Others find that less frequent check-ins are sufficient for the work they do. Find the level that makes sense for you - it should be at least once a day - rather than letting messages linger unattended.

These days, no matter how involved you are in what you are doing, you are expected to get back to others promptly - by the next day at the latest. That's one of the implications of modern communications technology: A three- or four-day lag between an initial message and response, which not too long ago was tolerated, is now considered unacceptable.

Tip #44

Be specific when leaving a phone message.

Hi, this is Tom Smith. Call me. (Click)

Would you like to receive a telephone message such as this? The problems with it are obvious. Aside from being too abrupt (and therefore rude), there is no telephone number provided. More importantly, it lacks a real message.

What is the call about? What, if anything, should you have ready when you return the call?

Rather than leaving a vague phone message, always provide a reason for your call, even if it's personal. This allows the other person to prepare for the callback, thus making it more likely that you will hear from him or her promptly and lessen the possibility of your entering into a game of "telephone tag."

Here are more helpful hints for leaving a message that is specific and ensures a timely response:

Tip #45

Get to the point when leaving voice mail messages.

Use voice mail economically, especially when you're leaving an update or an important fact. Respect the other person's time. Keep it short and sweet. (And remember, some message systems operate with a time limit!)

You may want to "rehearse" your message ahead of time:

Hi, Ellen, this is Brenda at 212-555-2222. Just wanted to let you know that I got your message this morning. I'll call back this afternoon once I've had the chance to go over your comments in detail.

Tip #46

Explain the reason for your call.

How do you feel when you're in the middle of an important, time-sensitive project at work and someone calls to talk to you, seemingly about nothing in particular?

If you're like most of us, you feel a bit of resentment when you have to deal with such calls. So don't make them yourself! When contacting another person by phone, always explain the reason for your call at the outset. For example, "I wanted to set up a date to discuss our marketing plan with you." Then ask, "Can you spare XX minutes to talk about that?" By stating the reason for your call and then asking for a specific amount of the person's time, you'll put yourself at a business advantage. People will enjoy hearing from you more than from those callers who simply assume they have time to talk about "whatever."

Tip #47

Keep your cool with telemarketers.

That telemarketer won't take no for an answer. (Let's face it, the person is paid not to take no for an answer.) Instead of engaging in a battle of words or trying to see who can interrupt whom more dramatically, wait for the next question and respond to it by saying, "I'd like to speak to your supervisor, please."

Once you've made this request, most phone reps will realize that they're obligated to put you through to the manager. When you reach the person's superior, calmly and tactfully explain that you don't want to be called again. For example:

Hi, this is Joan Bennett. Your sales rep called me at 508-555-1212. I'd like you to delete my name from your call list, because we don't accept unsolicited calls at this number. Would it be possible for you to take care of this for me this morning/afternoon/evening? Thank you.

Tip #48

What to do and what not to do when meeting over the phone.

When talking to another person for the first time by phone, drop the person a note following the call. This will let him or her know that you are one who follows through and goes that extra mile. If you're lucky, this gesture will lay the foundation for a strong new business relationship.

Whatever you do, refrain from "jumping the gun" by asking the person to send you a business card by mail. A business card is a "signature" - coming out and asking for it is more than a little uncouth. Even if he or she would have forgotten to send a business card, you may seem tacky for having asked. If you need the spelling of a person's name or to confirm the office address, ask for it during the conversation.

Tip #49

Keep the customer satisfied over the phone.

Customer service begins with the first person who answers the phone.

If you are a telemarketer or a front-line person, such as a receptionist, secretary, or customer service rep, and you have to handle multiple calls on a daily basis, there's a one-word rule to keep in mind for all of your phone work: Enunciate!

It is disconcerting to any caller to hear a voice that skips along rapidly without pronouncing words properly. Mumbling conveys a poor first impression. To avoid sounding like someone who just wants to get off the phone as quickly as possible, take care to slow yourself down. Try adapting your rate of speech to that of the caller.

After all, which greeting would you rather hear when you contact someone:

Sagreatdayatabeeseecorphowcanihepyasmornin'? or:

It's a great day at ABC Corporation! How can I help you this morning?

Also, if you work at a reception desk or handle any kind of incoming call, avoid making callers feel like they're getting the bum's rush!

Be patient with both the caller and yourself. Pause after asking a question, in order to give the caller time to respond.

Refrain from breaking in with your own suggestions after a fraction of a second.

And be honest. If you have other people on hold, let the caller know this and ask for his or her cooperation. Then get back to the call as quickly as possible. Be sure to thank the person for holding. Remember: However patient a caller may be, nobody likes to be kept waiting for too long.

Tip #50

Smile your way through multiple calls.

Handling a lot of calls? Smile as you do so.

Anyone who fields multiple calls in any capacity should post a sign over his or her desk reading, "Say It with Smiles!" This dictum is especially true for telemarketers, who suffer serious disadvantages when matched against representatives who hold meetings or sell products in person. Where others are able to use body language and visual aids to make their point, you have to rely solely on the tone of your voice. You must grab and hold the attention of those you are calling if you want to make a sale. A voice that sounds bored and disinterested, or someone reading a script with nothing more than a drone, may only "turn off" a potential customer.

So practice your smiling. Even though the person on the other end of the line cannot see your face, a positive attitude can be conveyed by your intonation, and customers will respond to that in kind. If you're having difficulty remembering to smile, then keep a mirror at your work station and check yourself as you talk, to ensure that your lips are curved upwards.

Along with a smile goes simple, basic courtesy. Remember that telemarketing calls can frequently be disruptive to those you are calling, so be sensitive to this. Many sales trainers advocate a sensitive, attentive telemarketing style, rather than the annoying rat-a-tat strategy that guides so many of the calls we receive. This resource is not a sales guide, of course, however you should know that most individuals react with strongly negative emotions to telemarketing appeals of the "You are interested in saving money, aren't you?" variety.

My advice: Avoid launching into your sales pitch the minute the potential customer picks up the phone. Be polite, state the caller's name, express your thanks for the person's decision to take the call, and ask for permission to proceed. It might sound something like this:

"Dr. Smith, thank you for taking my call. I'm calling about...Do you have a minute?" You may find that this simple, courteous question - delivered with genuineness and warmth - is received with appreciation and, therefore, gains you the attention you need to make your pitch.

Tip #51

Show understanding to tough callers.

This is the third time I've called!

I want an answer immediately!

Repeat what I said? What are you, deaf?

Observing proper telephone etiquette can be difficult when there is a particularly troublesome caller on the other end of the line. If your job involves fielding calls all day, your nerves can often be worn to a frazzle from your interactions with such callers. Resentment is inevitable when callers take their own anger and frustration out on you and fail to recognize that you are only an intermediary.

Unfortunately, this is part of your job. You simply can't avoid the impatient, difficult types who will expect answers you can't provide and make impossible demands of you. The trick to handling them is to invoke a variation of the Golden Rule: "Do unto a caller as you would have a caller do unto you."

Put yourself in that caller's place. You're phoning a company expecting to talk to a certain person or to get an answer to a particular question. Instead, you reach someone who not only doesn't know what your contact's schedule is, but is in no position to answer your question and doesn't know to whom your call should be transferred. All you can do is leave a message and wait (indefinitely) for your call to be returned. Wouldn't you feel a bit frustrated?

Granted, you are not paid to be a sounding board for frustrated callers with poor manners. But as the person who has picked up the phone, you are the company's representative and the one who is going to provide a crucial impression of the type of people your company employs. Therefore, it is up to you to display good manners and a willingness to help. A true professional is eager to go the extra mile to put callers at ease. This means employing good listening skills, conveying detailed messages, and doing whatever it takes to ensure that questions are forwarded to the proper individuals. You would, after all, expect no less than this when you are looking for assistance!

When callers recognize that you really are making a sincere effort to work with them, you'll be amazed at how quickly their attitudes improve.

Courtesy begets courtesy!

Tip #52

Know when and how to ask the other party to call you back.

If you use the phone to transact a great deal of your business and find yourself with mounting phone bills as a result, it may be time to examine your telephone usage. In particular, if you are dealing with suppliers who are making money from your business, yet you are bearing the greater burden of the telephone costs, you need to rectify this. Any phone conversations that last longer than five minutes should be at the expense of the party who stands to profit most (or to be more precise, eventually gets paid) as a result of the call.

Suppliers of a product or service should recognize that it is their responsibility to assume the long-distance calls that may result in business for them. To ensure that this happens, request a callback when you place your initial call, being sure to specify a call-back time. For example, "I will be in the office between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. this afternoon."

There are other approaches, of course. Countless companies have installed 800 numbers for their customers' convenience. Still others will back up these techniques by providing you with a toll-free facsimile number when facts and figures or special messages need to be communicated. But if the company you're dealing with has not yet changed to a more cost-effective system, then you should tactfully, yet firmly, ask your contact to return your call and spare you a long-distance charge. For example, you may say, "Jim, I'm afraid this call's going longer than our accounting department would like. May I ask you to call me back this afternoon between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.?"

Tip #53

Use Caller ID properly.

File it under "Intimidating Experiences of the Modern World": You place a call, you're listening to the phone ring, then the person on the other end of the line picks up the phone and, before you can say a word, addresses you by name, explains that he has to run off to a meeting, and asks when you're going to have those reports you promised to deliver.

New technology can be both a blessing and a curse. Caller ID, which was devised to help screen phone calls, is subjected to frequent abuse by its users and can create confusion for those who are calling when they are greeted before having had the chance to identify themselves. This is not just disconcerting, it's rude!

Proper Caller ID etiquette means that you use the device to prepare for a call by identifying its source. It is not meant to be a game of "one-upmanship," which can, in fact, backfire when the caller on the other end of the line does not coincide with the screen name you have for the incoming phone number.

Thus, two potential problems exist when Caller ID is misused:

  1. The caller may be thrown off guard when he or she is addressed by name at the outset.

  2. The caller and the screen name may not be the same person, thus getting a telephone call off to an inauspicious start.

To avoid confusion and to demonstrate your professionalism, answer the telephone properly! Use Caller ID only as a means to screen and prepare for calls - rather than as a means of showing off your new high-tech gadgetry. When you reach for the telephone, bear in mind that it is a tool, not a toy!

Key point summary

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