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Success tip: Use telephones effectively

10 August 2015

Telephones are ubiquitous. While there was no telephone in my home until I was aged 22, today almost all children grow up in a house with a telephone, and most have their own mobile phone from their early teenage years if not before.

However I see many cases of ineffective and inefficient telephone usage. That is no surprise.

As with any other tool, unless someone teaches you how to use it well, you are likely to reach a basic level of self-taught usage and then stall. For example I had a telephone on my desk for three years at the small accounting firm I trained at, without receiving any instructions on its use. It was only after I joined Arthur Andersen that some basic telephone disciplines were instilled into me.

The recommendations below are about telephone calls made for a purpose, as opposed to social chatting. This applies to all calls made “on business”, but also applies to calls made in your private life where the call is meant to accomplish something useful.

I have written the recommendations prescriptively, as that allows me to make them more concise. Obviously there will be many cases where exceptions will apply, but if you make the recommendations into habits you will notice an increase in your personal effectiveness.

Making a call

Before initiating the call, you need to prepare.

Preparation for the call

Think about the following:

The goal of preparation is to ensure that you are in control of the call, and not the person you are calling.

Starting the call

When you start a conversation with someone, whether by telephone or in person, the first few words you utter may be heard, but they are generally not absorbed by the listener. Accordingly, you should use verbal “padding” which is pleasant, allows the hearer to gauge your voice, and become ready to listen properly.

Secondly, the person who you are telephoning will feel “off balance” until they know who you are. How many of us like having a conversation with an anonymous stranger? Apart from immediate family and close friends, you should never rely upon the person at the other end recognising your voice. It can even be hard placing you if you just give your name, especially if your name is a common one.

In passing, I once had two clients with identical first and second names, and very similar voices. Whenever one of them rang me, I spent the first few minutes of the call trying to avoid “putting my foot in it”, until the conversation gave me a clue which of the two I was talking to!

Accordingly, start each call with something like “Good morning, this is Mohammed Amin from [organisation].”

If the other person will need to access records

There is no point trying to get into the substance of the conversation until the person has your records on-screen in front of them.

Accordingly, the most practical thing after you have said who you are is to ask the other person what information he requires to find you in his organisation's computer system and call up your records.

Only after you are sure that the person has your records on screen in front of them should you try to get into the substance of the call. Otherwise you will simply be wasting your own time.

If the other person is a secretary or personal assistant

The role of the secretary is to ensure that her (or his) boss receives the calls that he (or she) wants to receive, and is not pestered by unwanted callers.

Accordingly, you need to co-operate in helping the secretary decide which category you fall into. Trying to avoid or sidestep her role will merely cause resentment and make your life harder.

I have seen far too many instances of the caller, when the phone is answered “Mr X’s office” simply demanding to be put through to Mr X. It does not work.

Instead, especially if this is the first time you have telephoned, you need to spend the initial part of the call explaining who you are and why you want to speak to Mr X. The more confidently you communicate this information, the greater the chances of the secretary deciding that you are someone whose call Mr X should take.

As a separate matter, if you expect to have a continuing relationship with Mr X, you need to get to know his secretary. If you ever visit his office, make a point of introducing yourself to her, and ensure you learn her name. If you do not visit, you may get the name from an email. You can ask her for it during the call, but leave it towards the end of the call at a stage when you have built up the appropriate level of rapport with her.

Receiving a call

As explained above, your first few words will not be heard properly by your caller. Accordingly answer with some padding such as “Good morning, Mohammed Amin speaking.”

It is important to say who you are, even though logically the caller should know since they rang you. It reassures them that they have reached the right person and did not misdial or that someone else has not answered your phone.

If the other person does not introduce himself, then unless you are completely certain you know recognise the voice, you should establish who it is before getting into the substance of the conversation.

Even if the caller made no attempt to introduce himself, say something like “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.” If the caller gives you a name but no other details, it is legitimate to want to know the organisation before getting down to the substance of the call.

It avoids the problems that arise from having a conversation where you really don’t know who you are talking to.

Returning phone calls

My manager at Arthur Andersen once asked me the following question. “You come back from lunch. There is a message on your desk saying ‘Mr X from Y Company rang.’ When should you return the call?”

I recall giving a carefully thought out answer involving completing key tasks and finding the right time window in the afternoon. My boss batted this reply away as completely unacceptable, and told me that the right answer was “As soon as humanly possible.”

I have adhered to that for the rest of my professional and personal career. It has many advantages:


Voicemail is something that many people use badly.

Your own voicemail system

How often have you telephoned someone’s mobile and got a voicemail message like “This is the Vodafone voicemail service for telephone number 07123 456789.” What is your reaction?

My reaction, even when I am sure that I have not misdialled (because I was using a pre-programmed number or reusing an incoming number automatically) is to feel slightly off-balance, and slightly unsure whether I have got the right person’s voicemail. Accordingly the voicemail messages I leave are less detailed than they would be if I was sure I had the right person’s voicemail. Also, I feel less confident the person will pick up the voicemail than if it was personalised.

Accordingly, it is essential to personalise your voicemail, so that callers receive a message such as “Hello, this is Mohammed Amin of [organisation]; please leave a message after the tone.” Your tone of voice needs to be friendly. The message should not be too long, so that the caller gets bored, but also should not be too short; the time the caller spends listening to your voicemail message allows them to think about what they want to say in the voicemail.

At PwC our office phone system required us to log on every day since it was designed for hot-desking. Accordingly each day I would record a voicemail saying what day it was, and what times during the day I would be free. Such a message encourages callers to leave you a voicemail, since it confirms that you are around [that is why I specified the day] and not on holiday for several weeks. However I have not had the discipline to record a new daily message on my mobile phone since my voicemails are now less critical and less frequent.

Capture the time and date of the voicemail

All voicemail systems are capable of recording the date and time of the incoming call. Make sure that yours is enabled to do this, and enabled to send you notifications of new voicemails so that you know you have a voicemail you need to pick up.

Leaving a voicemail

The least useful voicemail to leave someone is “Hello, this is X, please call me back”, even if the person does have your number already.

Your voicemail should aim to be as useful as possible to the person you have telephoned, subject to not leaving super-confidential information. For example:

“This is Mohammed Amin of [organisation], telephone number {say the number slowly and clearly, and do so at the beginning as here in case the recording time runs out}. The reason I was calling is {and then go into as much detail as possible.} I will be tied up between XX and YY, but am otherwise free today until ZZ if you want to call me back.” Be willing to use the several minutes of recording time most voicemail systems give you.

If the person calls you back but misses you, a surprising amount of progress can be made if you leave each other a good voicemail message each time.

Other aspects of telephone technology

 Modern technology makes your life easier, but only if you learn to use it.

Losing telephone numbers

I have lost count of the number of friends who have contacted me after replacing a lost telephone asking me for my number. All of us are capable of having a phone stolen, accidentally damaged, or just malfunction suddenly and permanently. However there is no excuse for data loss.

All smartphones are capable of synchronising¬† automatically with your computer’s address book without using a cable, either via your mobile data service or by Wi-Fi. There is no excuse for not setting up such synchronisation. Apart from saving you from data loss, it enables you to add people to your computer’s and your phone’s address book while using your computer.

If you are still using a “feature phone” (the official phone company description for a “dumbphone”) you will not be able to synchronise as easily as with a smartphone above. However from around 1994, long before smartphones or Blackberrys, I was able to use a cable to synchronise my ordinary Nokia with my computer to protect against the risk of losing data. Accordingly, despite having one Nokia phone stolen and one accidentally destroyed, I have never lost my address book.

Conference calling

All mobile phone services, and many landlines (including almost all office systems) allow you to put a caller on hold, dial someone else, and then patch both into a three-way conference call.

If you would find that useful, you should learn how to do it.

Blocking your number

Mobile phones usually have a facility to block the recipient from seeing your phone number. Some people use this because they are concerned about people they phone thereby having their phone number.

I advise against using this facility for several reasons:


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