Telephone Skills

by Babs Moore

Preparing for an outgoing call

To get the best out of a telephone call, you need to prepare and plan ahead. Depending on the call, this might entail a few moments’ thought, a quick conversation with a colleague or a more structured plan.

Clear objectives

As with almost any business activity, it’s important to be clear about your objectives before you start. If it is likely to be a difficult or lengthy call write down the main points you wish to cover before you pick up the phone.

It may be helpful to share some or all of the objectives with the person on the other end at the start of the call. For example, let’s suppose you are calling the caterers to make arrangements for a forthcoming conference and your objectives are to agree the time and content of each meal and coffee breaks. Both parties would then know at the outset that this is likely to be a very detailed call which will take some time and may require one party to provide a summary at the end or immediately after the call.

You may have multilevel objectives. This occurs when you have an ideal outcome, but are prepared to settle for a different one, if necessary. For example, a sales call may have the following tiered objectives, in order of priority:

  1. Taking an order there and then on the call
  2. Agreeing to meet
  3. Finding out the name of the person you really need to speak with.

Is the telephone the best medium?

Given the objectives of the call, is the telephone the best medium and should it be the only medium used? There are, of course, other options that might be worth considering:

  • Email
  • Email plus call
  • Face-to-face meeting
  • Quick call plus face-to-face meeting
  • Video conferencing or webcast

The telephone is excellent for comparatively short, straightforward or structured exchanges of information, especially if both parties are able to take notes. However, it’s obviously not a good idea to call someone on their mobile while they are driving and ask them to provide detailed answers to complex queries. Moreover, even if the person is sitting in their office, an email or combination of telephone call and email is probably preferable if the answers to your questions require a certain amount of consideration rather than an immediate response. For more complex exchanges of information, a face-to-face meeting may be even better. If constraints of geography or timing make this difficult, then video conferencing or webcast may prove the best option.

Most people struggle to maintain concentration on long calls (30 minutes or more) if they have no visual stimulation. Consider whether your short-term objectives could be met through a quick call and medium term ones through a later face-to-face meeting. There are also occasions when it may be crucially important to be able to look someone in the eye or watch their body language (sensitive or difficult negotiations, for instance).

Think ahead of the call

Think through possible scenarios before you make the call. It is very dangerous to assume that the person you are calling has the same agenda as you do, even when you are making a pre-arranged call. A call might have been agreed to discuss a new supply contract, but a new contract will be the last thing on the customer’s mind if their factory has been shut down because your company is late on delivering a vital part.

A few minutes spent thinking through the scenarios may enable you to handle the call professionally throughout and avoid a dreadful silence when you are caught off-guard and must attempt to think on your feet. Below are a few questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • What if the person does not have sufficient time to do justice to my call?
  • What if the person is angry about something unconnected to my call?
  • What if the person wants only to speak to my boss?
  • What if the person wants to talk about additional services or products?
  • What if they unexpectedly turn out to be the wrong person?
  • What if I get an answering machine?
  • What if the person is not there, but I get to speak with their colleague?

Who do you want to talk to?

When making a call, be clear who you need to speak to, asking for them either by name or by function. It is then important to allow the person on the other end to confirm whether they are that person or not. There is no point in going through a lengthy explanation about the accounts software problem to an overworked receptionist whose objective is to ensure all calls are answered promptly and put through to the right person. Likewise, it’s frustrating for both parties when someone gives highly technical information to the wrong person.

At the start of a call, it is essential to remember to focus and listen, and not launch straight into your subject matter to the wrong person. This is an easy trap to fall into, especially if the call is important and you are nervous about making it.

When to make the call

Think about the person you are calling and when they may be available. Senior managers are often most likely to be found at their desk early and late in the day; more junior people are sometimes less likely to be in meetings during the day, but may not work extended hours. If you know when your contact takes lunch, then often the remainder of the lunchtime period (typically 12.00-2.00pm) is a good time to call people as the office may be a little quieter and fewer meetings will be taking place. If you know the person well enough to be aware that they are clearly a morning or afternoon person, make use of this information.

Example

I had a boss who was far easier to call when he was in his car, since he saw that as downtime; as he commuted an hour each way, this allowed plenty of opportunity for a useful conversation. He was short and efficient in the morning, as he was focusing on the forthcoming day, but very chatty as he wound down on his way home in the evening. The nature of the particular call I was making and the reaction I wanted therefore influenced the time I would choose to call him.

Time likely to be required (and available)

Take a few moments before a call to estimate how long you expect to take, especially if this is likely to be more than a few minutes. It is unprofessional to have to terminate a call you have instigated because you are expected in a meeting, just as it is rude to be late for a meeting because you are on a call. It is also polite to check with the receiver that they have time for the call; if not, arrange an agreed time to call back. A rushed call is unlikely to be successful.

Where to make the call

The basics need to be right for any call. The environment must be quiet enough to allow you to hear the person on the other end and to be heard yourself. You also need the wherewithal to note down or record any important information that is exchanged.

Information available and to hand

Ahead of a call, consider what information you may be asked for and have it to hand. For example, if a customer has had payment problems, they may ask you the state of their account before placing a new order. Equally, if there are orders outstanding, they may enquire when the goods might be shipped. If a customer may end up purchasing something as a result of the call, even if this was not the original intention (for instance, where a technical support call turns into a sales call), then it looks professional if you either have the price and delivery details to hand or know the correct person to pass the caller on to for help. Your ability to look and sound professional can be seriously undermined if a reasonable request for information leaves you floundering. If the request could not have reasonably been foreseen or you need to do some research to find the information, then be honest and agree when and how the information will be provided.

Review notes from previous contacts if applicable

A key part of the pre-call preparation is to make sure you are aware of the relevant points from previous conversations, whether those contacts were with you or another member of your organisation. It creates a professional impression and in any case it is most annoying to be obliged to repeat information that has been previously provided. For example, if a customer has said that a decision cannot be made until Sue Richardson returns from vacation on the 25th of the month, then it would not be clever to call on the 24th.

In moderation, picking up items of interest can make the call more friendly and pleasant, thus increasing the likelihood of a positive outcome. For example, if the contact is a keen football fan and supports Manchester United, a brief reference to the win over the weekend will probably be appreciated. This becomes easier as the relationship develops, but you need to bear in mind that such remarks are rarely appreciated if overdone – nobody like to feel that every comment they make is being noted down for use in small talk.

Plan your body language

Although not visible, body language is important on the telephone. Take time to think about the body language you would use if the meeting was face to face and use it anyway. For an assertive call, plan to stand to make the call, especially if that allows you to feel more confident and sound more positive.

Learn to listen for the other person’s body language and react accordingly. If the person sounds angry or aggrieved, this is probably exactly how they feel and their ‘invisible’ body language would reflect this.

Openings

Practise and prepare two to three different openings, to be used according to how well you know the person in question and whether this is a cold call or one that is expected/pre-arranged.

It is important that the person answering the telephone knows who is calling, who the caller wants to speak to and, if appropriate, the reason for the call. Listen carefully to the person answering the call to check you have the right number and, if it is a direct line, whether the person who answers it is the person you wish to speak to.

Example
  • Cold call

‘Good morning. My name is Susan Davidson and I am calling from Matthews Materials of Manchester. Please can I speak to David Price?’

... connect...

‘David, good morning. My name is Susan Davidson and I am calling from Metals & Materials of Manchester. I would like to take a few minutes of your time, assuming now is convenient, to discuss our new...’

  • Expected call

‘Brian, good morning. My name is Anna Stevenson from Joneswatch Ltd and I am calling today, as we arranged last week, to discuss...’

  • Well-known contact

‘Peter, good afternoon. It’s Sam from Richtrees. How are things going?’

Allow a few moments of friendly chat and then continue ‘I am calling today to discuss...’