Using the Phone Effectively
Making Every Call Count
How much time do you spend on the phone every week? You might use it for talking to your boss, consulting with clients, coaching colleagues, or handling crises. Or, maybe you avoid making calls, and opt instead to communicate via instant messaging and collaborative software.
However frequently you make calls, for whatever reason, and whatever technology you use – landlines, cellphones or softphone services (that is, calls over the internet using a computer or tablet) – chances are, you could benefit from refreshing your telephone skills.
In this article, we look at why good phone skills matter. We also discuss how to communicate clearly, and how to know when you should speak, and when you should listen.
Why Are Good Phone Skills Important?
Few of us give much thought to how we talk on the phone, or when we should use it, simply because we've been making calls throughout our lives. But talking on the phone is a skill, just like writing well, and the consequences of having poor phone skills can be significant.
For example, imagine that your boss calls you, needing information about an urgent project. You're in the middle of writing an important email, and, instead of focusing on the call, you try to do both things at once. This causes you to be vague and unresponsive with your boss, and you could end up giving him wrong information.
Or, imagine that you're using the phone to tell a potential new customer about what your organization does. Without thinking, you use a lot of technical jargon that leaves him or her confused and uncomfortable, so he declines your offer of a personal meeting.
With first-rate phone skills, however, you'll more easily deliver what callers need. You'll create a positive atmosphere, leave a good impression, and make – not break – business relationships. Calls will likely be enjoyable, as well as potentially profitable.
When to Use the Phone
Email, instant messaging (IM), and even texting are often appropriate forms of communication. You might have a quick question to ask, some interesting information to distribute to a select group of people, or need to pass on an informal "thank you" to colleagues, for example.
But, people sometimes use these tools because making a call takes too long, because they communicate more effectively in writing, or because they lack confidence. Many of us simply don't make many calls anymore – we're sending more text messages instead – and we feel "out of practice."
Sometimes, though, it's essential to use the phone. You might have a complicated subject to explain, and questions to answer; an apology to make; something sensitive to discuss; or something important to say (and quickly). Perhaps you just need to answer the phone occasionally as part of your job – if you work on a reception desk, for example.
Making an Effective Call
Here are some simple ways to get the best from every call:
Planning Your Call
Prepare a list of points to cover, and the outcomes that you would like to achieve from the call. This will boost your confidence, help to maintain momentum, and give you the basis for summarizing the content of your conversation.
Meeting and Greeting
Ask for the person by name, and use their job title – and get them both right. If she has a name which is difficult to pronounce, it's OK to ask how to do so. She will appreciate you taking the time to find out, and it's preferable to stumbling through an unsuccessful attempt at pronunciation.
Owning the Call
After the greeting and welcome, state why you're calling and set the agenda. In the absence of visual cues, this lets the other person know that you're serious and ready, and that you have a clear outcome in mind.
It's tempting to do something else while you're on the phone, such as sorting emails or checking your schedule. But multitasking isn't always productive: if you try to do two tasks at once, you run the risk of doing both poorly.
So, maximize your productivity by focusing on the call. If it helps, turn away from your desk so that you're not tempted to let your attention wander.
Resist the temptation to make or take calls on a cellphone while driving. Even with a hands-free set, it's dangerously distracting. If your phone rings when you're driving, let it go to your answerphone or voicemail, and respond later.
Let the other person know who is answering whenever you pick up the phone. Say something like, "Good afternoon, this is Pam Michaels in Accounting." This immediately tells the caller who you are, where you work, and whether he has reached the intended person.
Having a Professional Phone Manner
When you can't see the person you're speaking to, your voice needs to convey authority, empathy and trustworthiness. You can achieve this by paying attention to the delivery and content of what you say.
Choosing Your Tone
Speak slowly and clearly, especially if you're discussing information that the other person knows little about. If your caller has to keep asking you to repeat yourself, she will likely become exasperated.
If the other person is speaking loudly, or in an agitated way, speaking calmly in response can diffuse his anger. Not only will it help to calm him down, but it will also prompt him to lower his voice.
Choosing Your Words
You need to be certain that the person you're calling will understand you, and can grasp the points you're making. But, this can be difficult in the absence of nonverbal clues, such as facial expressions. (We explore the use of body language on the telephone, below.)
Use simple and straightfoward language. Give one idea or piece of information in each sentence, and try not to "ramble." Avoid slang, and don't use jargon if the other person isn't familiar with your industry. If you sense any doubt in the other person, ask him if you can clarify anything.
Consider recording yourself when you're on the phone, and play it back so that you can assess what you need to improve. But don't record others without their permission.
Using Body Language
This may sound counterintuitive, but your body language plays a significant role in how you sound on the phone. Get up and walk around, if your surroundings allow it. And, if possible, use a headset. This can help you to breathe comfortably, and to make your point as if you were giving a presentation, rather than sitting at a desk.
Take care not to annoy your colleagues when walking around your office using cordless wi-fi headphones or headsets. They can be a serious distraction to your co-workers.
Even though your listener can't see you, try to behave as if you're speaking to her face to face. Visualizing a context for the call will help your delivery to seem natural, and not stilted. For instance, your listener will probably be able to tell whether you're smiling, which will make you sound pleasant, professional and energized.
Knowing When to Listen
Good listening ability is crucial for phone conversations. It's central to the process of fully engaging with the person you're speaking to, and establishing a genuine connection.
Developing your active listening skills will help you to take in all of the information that the other person is trying to share.
The key to active listening is concentration. You need to give the person you're speaking to your full attention. This is particularly important on the phone, because you can't read the other person's expressions or gestures.
You might also need to use empathic listening, especially if the other person is upset. Although it's easy to get flustered or to react negatively when you're on a difficult call, people who feel upset need your understanding and patience.
One effective empathic listening technique is to repeat what the person says in your own words. For example, you could say, "You're feeling upset because the accounting department made a mistake on your bill. Is that right?" This lets the person know that you're paying attention, and that you understand his frustration.
Show that you're still engaged with the call, even when your caller is doing most of the talking. This can be as simple as saying "uh-huh" during pauses, but it's better to say something which demonstrates that you've been listening.
For example, saying, "You mentioned problems with the technical side of the project. Could you elaborate?" shows that you've been listening, and that you're keen to hear more information.
To understand what someone wants, you need to allow him to have his say, even if his speaking style is complicated, hesitant or disorganized. Interruptions break the other person's flow of thought, and they can make him think that you're impatient, or that you're judging him.
Don't prepare responses while you're listening to other people speak, particularly if you're feeling defensive or uncertain. Try to "stay in the moment" or you could miss essential information.
Summarizing to Understand
Always listen with the intention of providing a summary of what you've heard. Make notes during the call, if you can.
This makes you think about what you hear, rather than just letting it wash over you, and your notes give you a basis from which to summarize. Summaries help people to understand the content of the call, and any actions you agree on.
Developing better telephone skills enables you to communicate more successfully.
Even the most confident caller lacks the visual certainties of face-to-face communication, and the ability to craft responses, that comes with text and email.
Prepare for calls by drawing up an agenda, and have a clear goal.
Greet your caller warmly, and state the purpose and scope of the call at the outset.
Stand up, if possible. This helps you to breathe, and ensures that both your content and your delivery are as clear as they can be.
Above all, listen actively, and make sure you are able to summarize the content of the call.