Although email and instant messaging are quickly becoming standard forms of office communication, the telephone still plays an important role in business. Just like a face-to-face meeting, telephone conversations are expected to and should follow certain rules of etiquette to help make the experience pleasant and productive for all those involved.
It's easy to forgo manners when talking over the phone. Distractions abound, from impromptu meetings or email notifications blinking on your computer screen. Remember that a conversation over the phone carries just as much weight as a face-to-face meeting, as it is a great opportunity to communicate in real time.
Tuning up your pipes
If your job requires being on the phone most of the day, remember it usually takes a few hours for the human vocal cords to fully warm up after a night's sleep. Eight hours of rest usually leaves them a little rusty. Practice enunciation in the bathroom mirror while you get ready for work, or do some vocal exercises in the shower. Singing in the shower does wonders for a day of cold calling - but make sure you're not disturbing someone else's slumber with your warbling. Deep breathing exercises help condition your stomach and throat for a day's worth of talking, as well as gently clearing your throat and blowing your nose. If you drive to work, you can also sing along with the radio in the car.
Making the call
When making a business call, be sure to first identify yourself and your company. If you're routed to a receptionist or operator, also include the name of the person you're trying to reach. A simple, "Hello, this is Mary Robert from Off the Wall Productions. May I please speak with Mark Grand?" will do.
Be prepared with a one or two sentence explanation of the purpose for your call. When you are connected with the person, state the purpose of your call and then be sure to ask if you are calling at a convenient time. This is one of the most overlooked areas of phone etiquette, and allows the person you're calling the opportunity to better address your needs at a later time. Don't fib about how long your call will take - if you know it will take longer than five minutes, don't say, "It'll be quick." Let the person know what they are getting into at the start of the conversation.
If you get shunted to a receptionist and he or she asks why you are calling, give a concise but informative statement that can be easily relayed. Do not, however, assume that your message will be communicated; when you speak directly with the person you are trying to call, repeat your message in your own words. Don't be insulted if you're asked to leave a message or call back later - previous engagements do take priority.
Answering the phone
People make business phone calls for specific reasons. Very rarely do vendors or clients call just to catch up. Telephone calls usually lead to some action to be taken, so make sure your first vocal impression is a good one by trying to answer the phone as pleasantly and professionally as possible.
Identify yourself and your company when receiving an incoming call. While it's not impolite to say, "Off the Wall Productions, Mary Robert speaking," it might be easier on the listener to say, "Thank you for calling Off the Wall Productions. This is Mary Robert. How may I help you?" Variations on this theme can convey your greeting quite effectively. If you work at a large corporation with many departments, it may also help to include your department or section name, "This is Mary Robert, accounts receivable. How may I help you?"
The hold feature is generally considered a double-edged sword in telephone etiquette. No one is usually available at the exact moment of a phone call, and being on hold simply must be tolerated. However, there are many things the caller and the person taking the call can do to make the experience a pleasant one.
If you must put someone on hold, ask first and - most importantly - wait for their answer. If someone expresses reservation about being put on hold, calmly explain why it is necessary. Perhaps the person they are calling for stepped out of the office and needs to be tracked down, or is on another call. Callers like an explanation for their inconveniences, but don't give away too much information. If Bill from distributing is in the restroom, just tell the caller he is away from his desk.
Remember to keep the person on hold updated on the status of his or her call every 30 seconds. A simple "She's on another call" or "His meeting is running a little late" is sufficient. It's okay to hang up after three minutes on hold. Call back and ask to leave a message instead.
Voice mail and messages
If you have to leave a message or voice mail for someone, make it short and to the point. Speak clearly and slowly and leave your name, phone number, and a brief message. Say your name and number at the beginning and again at the end of the message, especially if you don't know the person you're calling. If the voice mail system allows you to play back your message, consider taking advantage of that feature to make sure your message is clear and communicates your needs.
Returning messages promptly is always appreciated. It's customary to return telephone calls within 24 hours. If you cannot attend to the caller's needs within that time, briefly phone the person to say when you will be available.
Your own voice mail
The message you leave as your outgoing message is an important business tool. Information is critical. The best messages communicate several key things to the person calling you: your name, the organization and/or group you're in, the current date (this tells them you are checking your messages), whether you are in the office or not that day, when to expect a call back, whom to contact if the call is urgent, and how to get to that person.
This seems like an enormous burden, but it just requires a little discipline first thing every morning or last thing every night. If you've ever called someone and gotten a generic voicemail, you know how disconcerting it can be. Is the person on vacation? Will I get a call back? When? So it's especially important for people who travel frequently to attend to outgoing messages.
Of course, you can simplify the approach and perhaps change your message once a week providing an update of the days you'll be out of the office that week. Any useful information in your outgoing message will make your caller feel more comfortable that the message is important and you will respond. Be sure to respond.
Resources and related reading
Letitia Baldridge - Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette
Judith Martin - Miss Manners Guide for the Turn of the Millennium
Peggy Post - Emily Post's Etiquette
Peggy Post and Peter Post - The Etiquette Advantage in Business