Try a Little Sympathy

While my soon-to-be new office does not offer a view of the ocean, I am eye-level with about a dozen trees budding to life beneath a cloudless blue sky. A perfect “perch” for some Sunday wordsmithing! 

There’s a question that’s always on my mind – “What makes a great communicator, especially on the phone?” One answer was provided to me this week while in Saint John, New Brunswick, spending the afternoon with the energetic team at Credit Counselling Services of Atlantic Canada (This is an amazing not-for-profit organization that is truly changing people’s lives, helping them alleviate the horrid stress that money issues create and giving them the knowledge and skills they need to have a solid financial future.) 

During my time with them the word “compassion” came up many times as an important characteristic of their work and it sparked my curiosity enough that I looked it up in the dictionary. It means “sympathy inclining one to help”. I like it! It is obviously a characteristic we should all nurture. But it led me to wonder – what is the definition of the word “sympathy”? 

And this is where I found it – the characteristic that can take your phone communication from good to great, from productive to inspired. 

Sympathy means “to share in an emotion or sensation or condition of another person”. This is vital to all communication but when cultivated as part of your telephone skills, it will eliminate frustration and increase the number of strong relationships you create. 

I can give you dozens and dozens of examples (and will if you ask!) but for the purposes of this short post here’s three for your consideration: 

1. You had a great first conversation with a potential client. They said they were very interested in working with you and it was agreed you would follow up in a week’s time. It is now three weeks later. You have left 4 messages for them and they have not returned your calls. You are now uncomfortable calling them, certain that they have changed their mind about working with you and that their lack of response means “no”. 

Try a little sympathy: The person you spoke to is the Vice-President of Business Development for a large firm. Everyday they have at least two meetings, each lasting a minimum of two hours. They are responsible for a team of 15 people throughout Canada and are available to this team throughout each day. The company is growing into new markets in Europe and this currently involves travel to England, Ireland and Spain. They also deal with a constant stream of email and must keep up with reading contracts, minutes and other business correspondence. They sit on the boards of two community charities. Oh yes, they have a young family so want to attend the sporting events, concerts and recitals of their children, as well as find time for their spouse, parents and siblings. 

While you may never know the specifics outlined above, sympathy allows you to know that unanswered phone messages rarely mean “no”; rather they mean “very busy”. If you are truly invested in building relationships, use your ability to “share in the conditions of another person” to continue to contact them at polite intervals so that they can realize their stated goal – which was to work with you! 

2. You are trying to reach a potential customer but are continually stopped by the receptionist, who asks what you think are impertinent questions and does not put your call through to your prospect’s office. 

Try a little sympathy: As part of their job description, many receptionists are asked to keep out “unwanted” calls. How do they determine which calls are “unwanted”? Often no guidelines are provided so, because they want to do their job well, they keep out your call which, of course, holds value to their employer. 

Instead of trying to “get around” them, recognize receptionists’ importance and responsibilities. Talk to them, include them, let them know that you understand their situation and that you are hoping that they will “help” you deliver your valuable message. 

3. You call someone – anyone – a prospect, an existing customer, a friend – and they answer the phone with annoyance or stress in their voice. You take it personally and end the call as quickly as possible. 

Try a little sympathy: All of us have answered the phone when, if we thought about it for just a second, we would let it go through to voice mail. Sometimes it is when we are rushing out the door, already late for a meeting. Sometimes it is when we are up to our elbows in soapy water, trying to get dishes done before guests arrive. Sometimes it is when we have, at last, sat down to read or watch a favorite television show – and the phone call annoys us! 

When you get this response, simply say what you hear “Sounds like I’ve caught you at an inconvenient time. Why don’t I call you later/tomorrow?” This response clearly marks you as an excellent listener and, the majority of the time, the person will apologize for their reaction and you will end up having a great conversation. 

From my perspective, sympathy should play a major role in all telephone communication, whether it is customer service or sales, accounts receivable or conducting a survey. Sympathy is the foundation from which we can build strong relationships. 

What do you think? 

Two Last Thoughts: 

“The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge.” Elbert Hubbard 

You may not hear from me next Sunday. Much to my surprise and delight, it looks like I’ll be enjoying Paris in springtime. Lucky me! I’ll share photos in future posts. 

Enjoy your phonework everyone!






0 thoughts on “Try a Little Sympathy”

  1. Fabulous MJ! Love reading your posts – it’s almost as good as sitting down with you and having tea :>). Thanks for your insightful reminders!

  2. Mary Jane, a wonderful post this week! A term you didn’t use but applies well here too is ‘putting yourself in the other person’s shoes’. I guess that also means sympathy but I hadn’t connected the two until now.

  3. Mary Jane, as ever your insights here are so full of what should be (but isn’t necessarily) common sense to most of us. I often find myself thinking “oh yeah,” in recognition. It’s wonderful to have your reminders show up in my inbox every week. Have fun in Paris!!


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