Expedite your way up the corporate ladder with better telephone etiquette

(Photograph: Philips.)

I WAS lucky enough – although I did not think so at the time – to sit alongside my boss in an open-plan office in my first job.

At the end of my second day at the company, she gave me some good advice: “If you are serious about your career and getting interviews with the right people, you have to learn how to use the telephone to your best advantage.”

She taught me to always introduce the publication on which I worked and myself in full – with first and last name – unhurriedly and clearly.

“Never assume, even if you have spoken to or met a person before, that they recognise your voice or that they can guess what you are calling about,” she advised.

“Once you have introduced yourself, explain very briefly why you are calling and enquire if it is a convenient time for them to talk. If the answer is no, immediately agree on a suitable time to call back. Do not delay them any further.”

My boss summed up her counsel by saying that since the telephone is the one of the workplace’s most frequently used tools, it made sense to learn how to use it effectively early in my career.

This telephone mentoring took place years before the advent of the cellular phone but, with the dramatically increased use of telecommunication, the advice is arguably more pertinent now than ever.

Yet, despite the fact that telephone is so much a part of our lives that it would seem incomprehensible to live without at least one, telephone etiquette has remained an extraordinarily neglected facet of business at many levels.

Granted, an increasing number of receptionists and personal assistants seem to have been provided with some training in this regard. Many executives, on the other hand, appear immune to telephone protocol and the benefits of making a good impression on the line.

I was reminded of this recently when I received a call from someone who had sent me an unsolicited e-mail some weeks before. He launched into a lengthy and breathy pitch without identifying himself, explaining the reason for his call or even linking it to the e-mail. After minutes of unceasing chatter from the stranger, I managed to interrupt him and pry out some facts. He seemed surprised by my questions and the conversation ended unsatisfactorily.

Ill-telephone-mannered executives are not exclusive to South Africa. In 1982 St Louis-based Nancy Friedman, a former receptionist and secretary, set herself up in the business of teaching and preaching telephone etiquette. Today her company, Telephone Doctor, is a thriving business that provides many Fortune 500 companies and individuals with telephone skills, ideas and techniques, which she says “translate into higher revenue, lower customer turnover and reduced stress”.

Friedman tells her clients that although most people develop enough of a telephone style to at least get by, there are some useful and effective telephone techniques that can help them climb the corporate ladder quicker and higher. The techniques are particularly useful for job seekers who are subject to telephonic interviews or who want to canvas job opportunities from companies on the phone.

Her company teaches simple steps, such as putting a ‘smile’ in your voice and speaking in a clear and normal tone: “This mode of communication relies on the messages relayed through the voice. Having a positive attitude and speaking with the right tone of voice are essential to convey messages correctly. Good posture also helps control the voice.”

The Telephone Doctor says proper telephone techniques involve other basic common sense such as:

• answer incoming calls in a timely manner;
• answer with a phrase like, “Good morning, Chris speaking, may I help you”;
• never put a caller on hold, but if you have to, check back with them every minute or so and ask if they would like to continue to hold;
• act as if the person you are speaking to on the phone is standing right in front of you;
• do not eat, drink or carry on another conversation with someone in the room while on the phone;
• if you are too busy to take the call, ask the person if you can call back rather than sounding preoccupied or rushed when you speak to them;
• when calling another business, give your full name and the company’s name;
• if you get the wrong number, apologise to the person who answers – do not just hang up. This is particularly important since the advent of Caller ID. It is easy to check who rudely hung up; and
• when leaving a message, state your name, company, phone number and a brief reason for calling. Speak slowly and clearly.

A final word of advice from my ex-boss: make a note of the names of personal assistants and even receptionists, and develop a rapport with them. If you are able to greet them by name, it will be help solicit their cooperation when you are trying to get in touch with their boss.

(First published on the Corporate Ladder page in Business Day.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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