Help Wanted: Must Give Good Phone
Your Jewish Fairy Godmother’s 10 Commandments for
Long Distance Communication
Most of us don’t have a lot of face-to-face contact with the people we do business with. There’s the usual cast of characters you meet at the water cooler or bump into “down the hall.” People you communicate with through email and via text messaging. These are related but different art forms. But a primary form of communication that’s unlikely to vanish for at least a few decades is the hone, and its kissing cousin voicemail. With some skills and confidence you can make these among the most effective tools in your professional quiver.
There’s lots of reasons you dial people: to sell them something; to get information so you can customize a bid or proposal; to get them to read whatever you want to send them. Not every commandment is relevant in every situation. But understanding how they work will get you a reputation that’ll serve you well with colleagues and clients at home and away. The rules below focus on outgoing calls, but also work for incoming. Think relationship building as you read. Remember: Any or all of these folks might do your career some good or ill. And you might never know how or when.
Commandment Number 1: Aim for human contact.
Let’s face it, getting through to the person you want to talk to isn’t as easy as it was in the old days. Then most people picked up every call, themselves! Now, caller ID announces to everyone who you are and what company you’re with. In addition, instead of connecting directly with your target, you may encounter a gatekeeper, someone whose job is to prevent you from speaking to the person you want to find. Better than voicemail, but also trickier. The commandments below will work for both quarry and guard. But you may need to be persistent in your dialing, masking your name or revealing it in alternating tries, in order to actually reach a live person or get them to return your call.
Commandment Number 2: Be polite.
No matter what voice appears on the other end of the line, you want to be perceived as professional. Starting with “Hey” is the fast track to a click and a dial tone. Introduce yourself quickly with “Hello I’m [name] with [org]l and I’d like to speak with X about Y” or some other short declarative, informative sentence. Then ask their name, even if you were told it by the company operator. Your goal is to get the person on the other end both listening and speaking, not figuring out how to get rid of you. Once they’ve said hello they’re less likely give you an immediate rejection. Having established contact, ask for one minute of their time. No matter how busy a person is, they have one minute to share, if they want to share it. And make sure to ask some questions, so the other person gets actively engaged.
Commandment Number 3: Be professional.
When you give your pitch, be short, sweet, and invitational. Sound like someone they want to talk to, someone offering something they’ll value, not wanting to take something from them, especially a lot of time. If you need information, sound plausible, not shady. Speak clearly and steadily, with few pauses. Pauses allow people to say no thanks or good bye or some other conversation-ending word. Give enough information for them to see your usefulness. Do it in a way that’s not a hard sell (even if you’re selling) but that suggests there’s more and better soon if they’ll give you a little more time. Key words like resource, value-added, and other language that implies they’ll benefit from the relationship are good vocabulary to master. So is a sincere tone.
Commandment Number 4: Be personal, within reason.
Everyone wants to be recognized. They want to feel welcome and liked. If you can engage them briefly on something not related to work, even for an instant (the weather or their local team’s latest achievement, for example) you’ll have broken through the hardest barrier: becoming real to them. If you speak to them often keep track of their vacations, children, even pets. A contact file is a useful tool; you can use software or 3×5 cards, whatever helps you tell Joe from John from Joan. Important: Know your boundaries. Don’t ask about sex, religion, or politics, even with someone whom you think you know well. People are rarely fully honest on these issues and you’re more likely to hurt than help yourself.
Commandment Number 5: Control content and contact flow.
Give what you want; get what you need. That’s true for voice-to-voice or voice-to-machine. It includes all the befriending tips above, revealing enough but not all of why you want to connect until you get to where you want to go. At a minimum, get the name and number of another person to talk to, and start the wooing again. Always say goodbye in a way that implies you’ll make the next move, even if the listener does nothing between now and then. It’s very important to keep that right for yourself, whether that’s calling again (If you didn’t get to your true target or accomplish your mission), sending an email (you can include more content), or speaking to another person in the organization.
Commandment Number 6: Leave good messages.
You may make it through a gatekeeper but then get shunted to voicemail. Rather than fumbling for words, have your message ready, sounding competent but automated. State your phone number early, slowly, and carefully, and repeat it again, slowly, last. You should sound crisp and professional, efficient and businesslike. Ideally they will listen to your message themselves rather than have an assistant monitoring the line. But in either case you want to leave your contact info, refer them to your website, or give other content that makes them interested enough to either take some/any step in your direction or think well enough of you that they’ll respond to your follow-up.
Commandment Number 7: Wear a headset.
This commandment is especially true if your primary job is cold-calling others. But it’s useful for all conversations, even in-house ones. Headsets are more than ergonomic. They’re a way to get comfy enough to communicate freely. If you’re comfortable you’ll sound more relaxed. When you’re more relaxed you’ll sound more personal. Listen for the difference between a speakerphone call and a headset one. You’ll easily discern that the person who sounds comfortable also sounds more confident. Also, headsets will keep your volume and content from being overheard by curious eavesdroppers. Never, ever, communicate confidential information via speakerphone.
Commandment Number 8: Know your buttons.
Everyone hates being on hold. What they hate more is being disconnected. And if you’ve finally gotten though to your target, the last thing you want to do is accidentally lose them. Master all the details of your phone system: how to put folks on hold, three-way the call to add a colleague, transfer to other folks, or record the conversation. A modern phone is as sophisticated as a computer. Take the time, tedious as it may seem, to know what tools are available to you and how to use them. And keep the list of relevant extensions right by your phone.
Commandment Number 9: Be careful how you multitask.
No one likes hearing someone chew lunch in their ear. If the listener hears the sounds of your keyboard tapping in the background of a call, they may not know if you’re taking notes on the conversation or working on an email to your boyfriend. Ditto for opening or wrapping packages, blowing your nose, slurping coffee, sorting through mail or recycling, and horror of horrors, flushing. If you get a call-interrupt, make the split-second judgment about who is most important. If you must, and I mean emergency must, put someone on hold, ask for their permission and wait to hear “sure, “ knowing you might still lose them. Give the subject of your call the most focused attention that you can.
Commandment Number 10: Say thanks.
Everyone works too hard. They want to feel that you’ve appreciated the time they’ve spent with you. Even if you got shut down hard at the door, say a thank you that sounds sincere. You may need to call back in the future and you want the call answered. If you got what you needed, be especially sure to ask if there’s any way you can be of more help. Keep reminding yourself: you may never meet this person one-on-one in person. How you phone is how they will remember you.
You want people to like you enough to tell the truth, give you information, and be willing to talk to you again if you need to call back. The most important thing is to make them feel that the time with you was not wasted. Work to keep the doors of access open, for yourself and any colleague who might need to dial the same number.