Phone Finesse – It’s Your Call

Phone Finesse – It’s Your Call Image by: Malias

Even with the ever-growing dominance of computers and social networking sites, and the popularity of e-mail and text messaging, the telephone continues to be the tool of choice for most business communication. It is very important, therefore, to establish good telephone manners in order to convey a polished professional image. Poor telephone technique, sloppy cell phone savvy and missing mobile manners all detract from the impression you make when you make a call.

Here are some practical guidelines to help you foster fabulous phone finesse, ensuring you are heard even when you’re not seen!

 Put Your all Into Your Call

When you make a telephone call, you may have to go through various receptionists/switchboards. State at the outset who you are by giving your full name, where you are from and who you wish to speak to.

Once you are through to the right person, follow these guidelines:

Give a generic greeting
"Good morning", "good day", "hello" etc.

Clarify that you are speaking to the correct person
If you don’t know the voice of the person you are speaking to, and they have not identified themselves when answering the phone, make sure you are speaking to the person you want to speak to before proceeding.

Identify yourself
Use your full name and don’t assume the person will recognise your voice. When appropriate, identify your company, function or association. If you have not spoken to the person recently, you may want to identify the connection between the two of you.

State the reason for your call
Even if you are only phoning for a social chat, say so. That way the receiver can settle down into the conversation, without constantly wondering, “Why is he calling?”

If you are returning a call, remind the other person when they called, and why they wanted you to call back.


“Hi Sally this is Mary Smith. I haven’t spoken to you in ages, so I thought I would give you a call just to say hello.”

“Good afternoon Sipho, this is Julie Higgins speaking from Yazoo Driving School. You left a message on my phone this morning asking for information about the driving school.”

If appropriate, check that it is a convenient time for them to talk to you. If they are happy to talk to you, you can proceed. If not, ask when it will be convenient for you to call back, or arrange for them to call you back at a suitable time.


“Good morning, am I speaking to John Smith?”

“Yes you are.”

“John, this is Mary Brown and I am phoning you from Hedley Bank about your cheque book. Is this a convenient time for you to talk?"

“Yes it is.”

“Good. John, what I want you to know is….”

Use the person’s name during your conversation
Be sure to use the appropriate title where necessary (Mr, Mrs, Dr etc.) If you do not know whether a woman is married or not, use the generic title of “Ms” (pronounced Miz) to avoid possible offence.

If you say you are going to do something, then follow it up
Never make promises you can’t keep. If you say you will get back to them with information etc., do so. (Even if it is just to say that you were unable to get the information). Do not leave the person hanging – it is extremely unprofessional and does a lot of damage to your image.

Try to make your telephone call in a quiet area or where there is a good signal
There is nothing more inefficient than having to keep repeating yourself, or asking the other person to repeat themselves.

Thank the person for taking the time to talk to you
A few words of appreciation to acknowledge the time they have given to you will always be well received.

Handling Someone who is Very Angry

When people are very angry with us it can be a very unpleasant experience. Both parties end up angry and upset, with each person locked into a vicious cycle of attack and defence. The interaction quickly degenerates into a destructive and negative experience, which benefits no one. Confronting someone who is very angry does not have to be a negative experience however. It is possible to handle an angry person in a way that is positive and constructive. This will make an extremely good impression of you and/or your company.

Here are some practical suggestions for handling someone who is very angry:


If people are angry or upset it is best at first to say nothing and listen. People often shout if they do not feel heard. Eventually they will run out of steam and then it will be your opportunity to speak. If there is more than one issue they are angry about, it may be a good idea to write down them down as the person brings them up.

Acknowledge and Reflect

It is essential to acknowledge and reflect what they are saying. This allows the person to feel understood and listened to.

Example: “I can see that you feel upset”.


If the story is very long and / or complicated it is useful to summarise. This helps to ensure you understand the real issue at hand. (Your notes may help you do this).

Example: “To summarise, you are upset because you paid on time, and this is the third consultant you have had to deal with."

Broken Record Using Positive Language

The broken record approach consists of repeatedly stating the same phrase in a calm, direct manner with the persistence of a broken record.

This can be useful when the person is out of control and shouting at you, but not telling you what it is they want or need. For example: “Sir, I can see you are upset. How may I help you?”

Make a Simple Request

Example: “Please could you stop shouting.” Say this in a calm, direct manner.

Convey Your Feelings

Example: “I feel disrespected when you shout at me. Please speak calmly and respectfully.”

Indicate Consequences

Example: “If you do not stop shouting at me, I will not be able to assist you." Or “If you do not stop shouting at me I will need to speak to my manager.”

Change the Frame

Example: “I can see you are upset, let us talk about this later.” Or “Sir, I think it would be best if you phone back when you are calmer.”

(Please note: This is an absolute last resort and one that would be very rarely used in a work setting.)

Keep the mess out of Your Messages

Know what to do “at the sound of the beep”.

What you say

Clarify for whom the message is intended
This is not necessary if the taped greeting you hear clearly identifies the name of the person you are calling, or if you recognise the voice. However when a single answering system is used for more than one person, when the greeting is generic, or when you can’t recognise the voice, start with something like, “This message is for Jack
Mc Donald”.

Address the person by name as you extend your greeting. “Good morning, Joe.”

Identify yourself
Follow the same guidelines as for making a call - use your full name, and don’t assume the person will recognise your voice. When appropriate, identify your company, function or association.

If you have not spoken to the person recently, you may want to identify the connection between the two of you. “We met at the first meeting on the Marketing Programme last month” or “David Johnson from finance suggested I call you”.

State when you are calling
The date - and often the time of day - are especially helpful on urgent matters.

Identify the reason for your call
People appreciate this courtesy; it shows you understand they are busy, and you are helping them prioritise the return call. If you need to discuss several topics, limit your message to the most important one. The practice of identifying the reason for your call can also prevent your own embarrassment (have you ever received a return call and desperately asked yourself why you called?) If you leave a clear message, the person returning your call will most likely start by saying, “You called about….” and repeat the subject you identified.

Clarify the action required
Do you want the person to return your call, or will you try again later? If you intend to call later, it is helpful to suggest what day or time you will call. This may prompt that person to stay close to the phone, or to call you instead.

Avoid 'phone tag'
This is when you return a missed call, only to have to leave a message for the original caller, who then tries to phone you back, but is unable to reach you and has to leave another message… and so the game of tag continues!

Here’s the unwritten rule: After two messages are returned with messages, the responsibility for making contact reverts to the person who made the original call. That is, if you initiated the calls, don’t expect the other person to leave you more than two messages. Status between callers can, however, affect this unwritten rule. A corporate executive may consider the obligation to return a call to have been met after leaving just one message to someone in a lower position.

To help avoid phone tag altogether, try to specify an action for the person to take without having to call you back. Messages like, “Please add the phone numbers to the list before mailing it” or “The next meeting will be on Tuesday at 2:30 instead of 2pm,” can save time for both of you. Also, clarify your availability. “Please call me back; I will be in the office after 12:30.” Don’t ask someone to call you if you will not be there.

State the urgency of your call
Distinguish between calls you want returned as soon as possible, those you’d like returned at the person’s earliest convenience, and those that can wait 10 days. Don’t insist that your call be returned immediately if there is no reasonable need. If you do, a future response truly requiring urgency may be jeopardised.

If, after leaving a message, you obtain the information you need, a call back cancelling the first is always appreciated.

Be brief
Under typical circumstances, a message should not exceed 35 seconds. Avoid a lot of detail, especially if a personal discussion is necessary. This demonstrates your ability to communicate concisely, and lets the other person know you understand the demands on his or her time. It also helps you avoid being cut off prematurely by the answering machine.

If, however you can provide useful and detailed information within one minute that would prevent having to make another call, or if the receiver specifically requested a detailed message, then by all means include as much detail as is necessary. Your level of familiarity with the receiver is a factor as well. Don’t initiate conversation with a person you have not spoken to previously by leaving a detailed message.

Remember that your message may be picked up by someone other than the person you intended to hear it. As such, it is best not to include personal or confidential information.

State your phone numbereven if you know the person has it.
This saves time and increases your chances of getting a return call. (It is helpful to provide your number even if you don’t expect a return call. “Call me if you have any questions” is always welcome).

State your number slowly and clearly - and repeat it once. In this way, the receiver doesn’t have to listen to the message again, even if there was a momentary break in the signal, noise interference or other interruption.

Repeat the person’s name at the end of your message, for a personal touch. “Thanks Sally. I’m looking forward to your call.”

How do These Guidelines all fit Together? Here’s an Example:

“Alan, this is Elaine from Business Management. It’s noon on Tuesday. The budget meeting can’t be held tomorrow as scheduled because of a conflict for some of the council members. Please read the minutes from the meeting last week and let me have your comments by the end of the day on Friday. If you have any questions, call. My extension is 4588. Thanks Alan.”


“This is a call for Donna Westin. Donna, this is Steve Allman from the Chamber of Commerce. It’s Wednesday evening. I’m organising volunteers for the stall at the Business Show and I noticed you signed up to work on Saturday. Please let me know what time of day would be best for you. I’d appreciate a call back tonight or tomorrow night if possible. I want to finish the schedule before the Friday morning meeting. My name is Steve Allman and my number is -----. I repeat -----.”

Both messages, which follow the guidelines, take less than 35 seconds. The second example is slightly longer, but contains crucial information. Steve, the caller, subtly reminds Donna of the commitment she made earlier and explains his deadline (and the priority of a return call).

How you say it

Eliminate the “uhs” and “ums” in your speech.
“Like” and “well” are bad habits you can eliminate with practice. Sometimes “so” becomes a filler word when the caller tries to connect ideas, even though the connection is unnecessary.

A message without fillers makes the caller sound clear, effective and decisive - in stark contrast to the image of a person who sounds as if he isn’t quite sure who he is or what he wants.

Use a pleasant tone
Remember that the listener is forming an impression of you, your personality and your business effectiveness. Make the person want to call you back.

If you are angry, control your temper in the message you leave. There may be times when anger will elicit the response you need, but in general, a neutral message is best. If your perspective changes later, the message will continue to represent you at your emotional peak.

Put a smile on your face while you leave your message – the other person will hear it in your voice.

Avoid background noise
Try to avoid calling while the carpenter is drilling in the next office or vehicle horns are blasting near you. Also avoid leaving a message while driving, as reception can easily be lost. What’s the point of leaving a message no one can hear?

Executing the Message

The appropriate content of our phone message comes from common sense. The biggest trick is to learn how to quickly organise your thoughts. You can turn these tips into habits faster by writing down what you will say. The 'reading' of a message will also help you eliminate any "uhs” or awkward pauses.

Some callers leave sloppy messages simply because they are distracted by another activity. They dial a number and then start looking at mail, turning on their computer, checking e-mails, cleaning their desk while waiting for the ringing to stop (or taped message to end).

Stop the peripheral tasks and focus on leaving an effective message. It is the equivalent of making eye contact when speaking to a person.

Tips for the Receptionist or Secretary

Your voice is more often than not the first contact a caller will have had with your company or organisation. As such, the way you answer the phone, and conduct any subsequent conversation, creates a vital first impression – not only of you individually, but of the company as a whole.

Research has shown that as much as 88% of customers who stop using a company’s services or products do so because of perceived employee indifference or rudeness. It is therefore important to adopt a flawless telephone technique so that the image you project is friendly, warm, helpful and professional.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Answer the phone with a smile
    People will hear it in your voice.

  • Answer the phone promptly
    Try not to let the phone ring more than three times.

  • Speak clearly
    The caller on the other end of the phone cannot see your face or assess your body language. Your voice is the only tool you have – use it wisely. Take the time to speak clearly, slowly and in a cheerful, professional voice. Remember that 87% of your message is conveyed through the tone of your voice. What you actually say only accounts for 13% of the message received.

  • Do not eat (including chewing gum) or drink while you are telephone duty – wait for your lunch or tea break.

  • Always have a pen and paper close by
    It is very unprofessional to ask the caller to wait while you scrabble around for something to write with.

  • Do not use slang or bad grammar, and never use swear words.
    Avoid unnecessary jargon or acronyms – “No prob. I’ll ask him to give you a buzz back asap.” Always say “Yes” and “No” instead of “Ja,” “Yeah,” “Yup” or “Nope”.

  • Address the caller properly, using his or her title and surname.
    Never address an unfamiliar caller by their first name.

  • Be patient and helpful
    If a caller is irate or upset, listen carefully to what they have to say so you can refer them to the correct and appropriate person. Nothing angers an upset person even more than being put through to the wrong person or department by a careless or unthinking receptionist. (Refer back to: Handling Someone Who is Very Angry).

  • If you have to put a person on hold, ask their permission first, and only keep them on hold for a short time. 
    If the person they wish to speak to is still unavailable after this time, inform the caller and ask if you can take a message or suggest that you transfer them to an alternate person.

  • Thank the person for callingand wish them a nice day.

  • Let the caller be the one to hang up first.

Mobile Manners

There is no denying that mobile phones – when used appropriately – are wonderful things! Ask anyone who has ever broken down or had a car accident, or had to change plans unexpectedly or get hold of someone urgently, and they will tell you they wouldn’t have known what to do it if hadn’t been for their phone.

Sadly, however, as the modest cell phones of a decade ago have morphed into smartphones capable of keeping us permanently connected to our emails, the internet, music, videos and even TV, we are becoming more and more guilty of abandoning long-upheld social etiquette and adopting a blatantly rude and antisocial behavioural code in which our relationships with our phones are eclipsing our relationships with people.

Date Speech

Zoosk, the world’s largest social dating community (with over 50-million members in 60 countries) recently conducted an online survey among its members, asking them their thoughts about cell phone behaviour. They discovered that one in three dates ends prematurely because of poor mobile etiquette!

As part of the survey, Zoosk inquired about the 'biggest cell phone offensives'. They discovered that 86% of respondents hated it when their date constantly glanced that his/her cell phone, 76% were annoyed when their date sent a text message and 51% took exception to their date taking a call. Many respondents took umbrage to all three behaviours.

However, if there are mitigating circumstances which could make having to use or answer your phone unavoidable, explain these to the other person/people as soon as possible.


“I’ve left my children with a babysitter and I have asked her to call me if there is a problem. I would like to place my phone on the table so that I’ll hear it if it rings. Thank you for understanding.”

If the phone does ring, answer it as quickly as possible and excuse yourself from the table while you go to take the call.

Cell Savvy

Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University and author of Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium says, “Cell phones have merged everything into one all-purpose space. You don’t have to be in the same room, the same state or even the same country to talk clearly and quickly with someone. However, with this unity other problems occur - personal space is being redefined and it is growing to include all others in earshot. But what about their personal space? Do they not have a right NOT to hear you?”

We can overcome this problem to a large degree by adhering to basic etiquette governing cell phone usage in public:

  • Don’t make or take calls when you’re in a confined public space such as a bus, train, restaurant, doctor’s waiting room, clothes shop changing room, or any place where those around you will be forced to listen.
    Telling your caller that “It’s not convenient for me to talk at the moment, could you phone back in 30 minutes?” is perfectly acceptable. In the case of an emergency, excuse yourself (if at all possible) from the public place, and move to somewhere more private.

  • Turn your phone off completely during public performances such as concerts, lectures, movies, your child’s piano recital, plays, and even sports events.
    And if you forget, don’t just ignore your phone when it rings, pretending it’s not your pocket or handbag wailing loudly. Turn off your phone immediately – do not answer it.

  • Don't yell  if your immediate environment is noisy and public, causing you to raise your voice on your phone.
    It is more polite to arrange to call back later, or take the call somewhere else.

  • Interrupting a face-to-face conversation to take a call is one of the worst things you can do.
    Whoever is actually in the room with you should take precedence over everything else. If you must take the call, apologise, move away from the person you were talking to, and speak softly.

Cell Safety

Safety is probably one of the biggest issues governing cell phone etiquette and it is not without reason that many countries have made it an offence to talk on your cell phone while driving.

Some countries don’t even allow you to do so while using a hands-free head set. And for good reason. Research conducted in America (where there are over 75-million cell phone users) indicates that driving while talking or texting on a cell phone can be as dangerous as driving while drunk. Highway Safety Research reports that talking on a cell phone while driving is nearly equivalent to driving with a .10 blood alcohol content and that those texting while driving run a relative risk 23 times higher of being involved in an accident than if under the influence of other distractions.

Remember – cell phones, telephones and the internet are information sources, not lifestyle choices.