Telephone Skills

by Babs Moore

Telephone etiquette

Telephone etiquette is a set of behaviours that combine to make the whole telephone experience easier and more pleasant than if they are ignored.

Focus on the call in hand

If you eat, drink, walk around or try to do two things at once, this will be picked up by the person on the other end and will project a negative and bored image. How many times have you heard a keyboard being used while you are speaking with someone?

Call interruptions

It is difficult to take an interruption when on the telephone without appearing rude to the person on the other end. If you are distracted, you may miss something important that is being said and more likely than not the person you are talking to will realise that they do not have your full attention. Try to avoid being interrupted, therefore, and make colleagues aware that they should only interrupt when it is essential, preferably by passing you a small note. If you know that you are expecting an important call or have a meeting due, explain this to your caller. You can then either offer to call back at a time when you can give them your full attention or obtain their agreement to a possible interruption. The key is to make the person you are talking to know that you value their time as much as your own.

Taking a second call

Some telephone systems, in particular mobiles, allow you to make a second call while putting the first one on hold. This can be a very useful feature but can also be extremely frustrating, especially to the person who is being put on hold (and often left until they become bored and hang up). The relevant comments here are similar to those for taking interruptions, in this case the interruption caused by a second call. The message you are giving is that you would rather speak to the other caller than the person you are speaking to. If this is to bounce a colleague off a call to take a customer call, this may be acceptable, but it can still make the colleague feel a little uncomfortable. In general, it is better to let the second call go through to voicemail and avoid interrupting the first call.

Eating and drinking

It is usually obvious to the person on the other end if someone is eating and drinking while on the telephone. This is not good manners. Never eat while on the telephone. If you really need to, however, you can take quiet sips of a drink, particularly if the call is very long.


In general, it is unacceptable to take calls in a meeting. The message it delivers is that the meeting is not really that important – certainly less important than answering your telephone – and that your time and calls are more valuable than those of others who are giving the meeting their full attention. Meetings take longer for everybody if they are continually interrupted.

There are exceptions, as always. If a really important call is expected – and think carefully before you decide that a call is so important that it cannot wait until the meeting is over – one option is to have a mobile on, but in silent mode. Only take that really important call, not others, and do not get distracted, continually wondering whether to take other calls. The other, preferable, option is to leave your mobile off and divert your office telephone to a colleague, with strict instructions as to which call would warrant interrupting the meeting.

If you really do need to be able to take calls, it is only common courtesy to do the following:

  • Warn others at the start of the meeting that you may be interrupted
  • Apologise
  • If possible, give some form of explanation.

If someone’s wife is due to give birth imminently, very few reasonable people would object to a call interrupting a meeting to say labour has started and the person needs to leave immediately.

Who rings back when line goes dead?

Unless agreed differently during the call, the originator of the call is the person who calls back. This etiquette avoids both sides ringing and finding each other constantly engaged.

Is it convenient for the recipient to take the call?

When the person you want to speak to answers the telephone, it is reasonable to assume that a quick call will not be too inconvenient. If not, one would hope they would not answer the call in the first place. However, if the impatient tone of voice suggests otherwise, try to rearrange the call rather than continue.

For calls than will be longer than a few seconds, it is polite – especially if it is not immediately obvious that the call will take more than a couple of minutes – to check that the recipient is able to give sufficient time and attention to your call. If not, agree a convenient time when you can call back. It is better to arrange that you will be the one to call back, keeping control of the situation, than to rely on someone’s promise to call you back. Their call back to you may not happen and in any case they may call back at a time inconvenient for you.

Take care if you are calling someone who does not really want to speak to you; indicate the benefits the conversation is likely to bring them before checking if it is convenient to continue the conversation.

Calling back when committed to doing so

Don’t commit yourself to calling back if you have no intention of doing so. Always, but always, call back when you have committed to do so. If you hang back from making it clear to someone that you do not want to speak to them, rather than making yourself clear at the outset, this will, in the longer term, waste time. It is much better to tell them, firmly but politely, the first time around that you are not interested in their products/services/job application or whatever.

Covering for someone unable or unwilling to take a call

This can be a nuisance, especially if someone consistently leaves you to take their calls. However, internal frustrations should not be obvious to the caller; a professional face should be shown to the outside world at all times. If you have an internal issue, address it internally.

There may, of course, be a perfectly good reason why someone cannot take a call They might be already engaged in a deep conversation, or away from their desk, for example.

There is no need to give too much information to the caller while maintaining a professional approach. A few examples of alternative wordings for common issues are given below.

  • ‘He is on the loo!’

Try ‘He is way from his desk for a few minutes. Can I help?’

  • ‘She’s in the middle of an argument.’

Try ‘She is unavailable just at the moment. Can I take a message or help?’

  • ‘She doesn’t want to take your call.’

As above.

It is important to ensure that the whole team uses positive language and is professional at all times.

Should I put in a call or ask my secretary to do it?

The habit of using secretaries to make the call and then connect the caller to their boss is very much a thing of the past. In today’s business environment, this can come over as being arrogant, basically suggesting that you value your time above that of the person being called.

When you call someone, you inevitably interrupt what they are doing; if you then expect them to wait while the call is put through to you, this appears rude. If you have someone’s direct dial or mobile number, call them yourself. The exception to this would be at a very senior level, where the respective PAs can first agree a good time for the call, making sure it is convenient for both senior managers to take the call.