In the summer before my last year of high school, I landed my first job that involved answering a telephone. It was in the administrative offices of an iron ore mine in Northern Ontario. This was 48 years ago, in 1975.
It was a time when there were hard and fast rules about phone etiquette that everyone followed. When making an outbound call, one always asked the recipient, “Is this a good time?” Etiquette dictated that the answer was almost always, “Yes.” And, of course, this was usually true. A phone call immediately captured our full attention since we were all sitting at desks holding the heavy receiver of our landline phone. (Multitasking involved using our neck to balance the receiver between our ear and shoulder, a feat that often ended badly. When that phone slipped out of place, it landed with a loud “clunk” on the floor or desk. A reprimand soon followed.)
This bit of etiquette has endured. I encounter it with every outbound team I coach. But using it today is a major impediment to successful conversations.
How does this question prevent valuable conversations? What should you do instead?
When a customer/client/prospect answers an unscheduled phone call, and they are asked if it’s a good time, they think:
- This sounds like a telemarketer;
- I’m right in the middle of a proposal, email, deadline;
- Look at my desk, the traffic, the people in my office, etc.
As a result, they either say no… or say yes but remain annoyed, defensive or rushed. Not ideal for inspiring a valuable conversation.
The solution is simple. It’s all about listening.
Here are two recent experiences that illustrate the skill:
- Early in August I prepared and sent a proposal to a new client. As promised, I followed up a week later. My only contact number was the prospect’s cellphone. She answered but in the background, I could hear children laughing and a lot of busy activity. I said, “It sounds like I’ve caught you at a very inconvenient time.” She agreed, explaining that it was her first day of vacation and the family was busy packing before heading to the airport. But this wasn’t the end of our conversation. She went on to tell me exactly what was happening with my proposal and when I would have an answer. (And by the way, the proposal has been approved and training booked.)
- This past Friday I called a colleague with some news about a new project. When she answered, I said, “It sounds like I’ve caught you when you’re in your car.” She was surprised that I could hear that so quickly but it allowed her to easily admit that the call was inconvenient and we agreed to talk on Monday.
When making outbound calls, give the task your full focus as soon as you start dialing. When your prospect/customer/client answers, respond to what you hear. This simple skill tells the other person that you are attentive, a great listener, and that the call is truly going to be about them.