Why (and how) you should still master telephone skills in 2023

Telephone communication

Photo credit: Annie Spratt

Telephoning used to be an effective means of communication, especially if you were working in sales. But the internet has changed the game. Social media, email newsletters or chat bots provide alternatives that have a high reach, low cost and easily measurable results. And yet, speaking to a person one-on-one remains a key component to maintaining good business relationships, be it via a traditional device or video call. So how exactly do you make your calls count?

Why is telephoning still relevant?

Hearing another human’s voice invokes a sense of commitment and focus that is almost impossible to achieve in the digital realm. Just think about how easy it is to delete an email or to get distracted while you’re writing a message. But once you have picked up the phone it is difficult to hang up. However, the real upside of verbal communication is that you can start a dialogue and get an understanding of the other person’s perspective. If you keep an open mind and ask the right questions, a phone call will allow you to ease pre-existing tension, negotiate a compromise or pitch the right offer. So while cold calling may be turning into a thing of the past, knowing how to make a call to important clients and business partners is a communication skill with lasting value.

Preparation is the key to success

The inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, said that “before anything else, preparation is the key to success”. This quote still rings true today. Knowing in advance who you may be talking to and what information you want to get across, will lay the ground for effective communication on the phone.

  • Have your introduction ready: Whether you are making or receiving a call, it is important to have your introduction ready and rehearsed. This should include your name, company and possibly your title. Deliver your introduction in a clear and positive way and the call is off to a good start.
  • Practice cultural awareness: The start of the conversation can be very different depending on what culture you’re in. Many cultures like to start with some small talk or at least a polite “How are you?” Skipping this part will be considered rude. Other cultures prefer to get straight to the point. If you are too chatty on a business call, they may feel like you are wasting their time. Do some research on what is appropriate in the countries you are communicating with and adjust accordingly.
  • Have your own contact details ready: Scratching around for contact details during a phone call is inconvenient for both parties. Rather make sure that relevant phone numbers and addresses are always within reach. If you are not at your desk, proactively offer to send the details via email after the call.
  • Be prepared to take notes: Important information and decisions are worth writing down. Figure out the easiest way for you to do so and create a shortcut to the programme or app or just keep an old-fashioned pen and paper on your desk.

Telephoning etiquette

In phone calls, people cannot see you gesticulating, what you are wearing or the impressive view from your office. All you have is your voice and your listening ability, but that can be more than enough. Make a good impression by following these simple tips:

  • Speak clearly: There are many reasons why people may not understand you. Do you mumble, have a regional accent or speak very quickly? If people ask you to repeat yourself frequently, make sure you start annunciating more clearly and drop any idioms. Don’t be afraid to get regular feedback from colleagues.
  • Always be friendly: The effect of being unfriendly or rude is intensified on the phone, because all non-verbal communication is lost. The person on the other end has no warning that you are in a bad mood and you cannot see their reaction. So while you should generally be friendly and polite when conducting business, this is even more important on the phone.
  • Keep track of important information: You didn’t catch the caller’s name, title or company? Then you should ask and perhaps even write it down. Knowing who you are dealing with creates context, avoids misunderstandings and allows for later reference. The same goes for any other important information shared throughout the conversation.
  • Be an active listener: With non-verbal signals out of the picture, it is all the more important to explicitly communicate if and what you have understood. Being an active listener includes asking questions, giving feedback and repeating back key points to make sure they came across correctly.

Making the call

In many ways making the phone call yourself is easier as it gives you the chance to prepare. Use this advantage by structuring the call in advance. That way you will be able to speak about all important points and remain time-efficient. Summing up the purpose of your call in preparation will also come in handy if you don’t get through the first time and decide to leave a message.

Then consider who you will be talking to. Culture, level of seniority and familiarity will determine how quickly you get to the point. The best times to call are mid-afternoon and mid-morning, but you should also be aware of time differences.

At this stage you are well prepared. You can introduce yourself in a concise and clear manner, know how to quickly get to the point and have all important points listed.

Note: If you are planning on putting the call on speaker, do so after you have introduced yourself and warn other participants in the call. Starting the call with background noises may be confusing and seem unprofessional.

Answering the phone

Knowing how to make a call also prepares you for receiving one. But when do you pick up? Three rings seem to be a generally accepted rule of thumb, but there is no need to count. Just take a second to gather yourself, take a deep breath, smile (believe it or not, a smile can be heard in your voice) and answer. Try not to leave any calls unanswered. It is common courtesy to return calls and if someone opted to call you over writing an email, they actually do want to talk to you.

And what about video calls?

Of course telephone etiquette applies to every device or platform people use to make a call. Today people are not restricted to landlines or mobile phones. There are any number of apps or programmes such as Google Hangouts, TeamViewer, GoToMeeting, Webex, Zoom, WhatsApp or Skype. These digital tools give you many advantages such as a large amount of participants, screen sharing, recording the session and many others. To be prepared consider the following:

  • Test in advance: If any of the participants are new to the software or use it infrequently, do a test run before the actual meeting is scheduled. It is often hard enough getting everyone into the same call, so you don’t want to waste time on tech- issues.
  • Minimise background noises: With several people in the call background noises and static quickly add up. To prevent this, make sure to find a quiet location and close the door if possible. Additionally, it is a good habit to switch of your mic when you are not speaking.
  • Use video strategically: Seeing the other people in the call makes things more personal, but can be heavy on the bandwidth. A good compromise is to start the call with video and then switch it off to increase the sound quality.

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