The Telephone: A Basic Operating Manual

img_0050As we return to work and the workplace in the new order of normalcy, I am reminded of the many bad habits we may have acquired in the discomfort of isolation. Foremost among these vices is the spreading disease of poor telephone conduct.

A phone is hardly a phone anymore. It’s an email device, a web browser, a camera, a texting platform, and an app launcher. Yet its initial (if not primary) function we still call a telephone. Perhaps it is time we relearn how to use it in that regard.

Call me ancient, but let me suggest that manners still matter in human contact on both ends of the line.

Unless we recognize the contact name or Caller ID on the screen, few of us will answer a phone anymore. No matter what number you file at the registry, your phone rings continuously with garbage sales calls and bot inquiries. I think that is where bad manners begin, with poor intention.

I once had a boss who never answered the phone, and this was in the days before cell phones. He used to say, “If it’s good news, they’ll call back. If it’s bad news, I don’t want to hear it.” I think that’s another form of bad manners. I also don’t think it’s true. Sometimes good news gets reallocated. Bad news swept under the rug can swiftly convert a minor misunderstanding into a corporate crisis.

Sometimes we need to answer the phone whether we like it or not.

Mobility doesn’t give any of us license to rotten phone behavior. I have written before about returning calls, but now I am getting into the basics. If you didn’t grow up with a landline or have forgotten the etiquette associated with polite calling, here is a laundry list of reminders you may want to paste on the back of your mobile case.

  1. Do not leave your voice mailbox full. You may be getting a call with a job offer. I may not call back.
  2. Record a greeting on your voicemail, however short, and your name. How else do I know I called the right number, particularly if you told it to me wrong.
  3. Speak clearly into the mouthpiece. Don’t rely on the Bluetooth microphone. Articulate your verbal expressions with deliberate care and emphasis. Pretend the other person is really interested in what you are saying. Say it that way and I might be.
  4. Speak even more clearly when you leave a message on my voice mail, particularly the number I should call back if it’s not the one you called from. If I don’t know you and your name is more than one syllable, be precise or spell it.
  5. Should I take the time to leave you a voice message, please extend the courtesy of listening to it before returning my call. You don’t need to begin our conversation with, “What’s up?” I’ve already told you. You’d know that if you simply hit the playback button.
  6. When you answer, speak. Say, “Hello, this is Joan.” If your name isn’t Joan, you can substitute the correct version. Don’t leave an awkward pause and wait for me. I called you and I want to hear your voice. That is reassurance we are getting off to a good start. Your silence tells me you are not interested in the activity at hand and you may never discover why I called if I don’t continue. There go the Dodger tickets I was calling to offer you.
  7. If you’re sitting in the seat behind me on a plane being boarded, don’t speak at full volume. Same recommendation in the airport when we are in line for coffee. I don’t care if you have an earpiece. You may find this ironic, but I really think your business is best kept to you. If you are fighting with your spouse, do you think the fight will end better if she thinks you are sharing the disagreement with the company of strangers? Speak softly or step away where you are alone to lose your argument with dignity.
  8. If I don’t know you, begin the call with your name. Then tell me why you are calling. You called me, remember? I need to know why, not guess at it.
  9. If I call you to introduce myself, don’t know you, and it goes to voicemail, do not text me back. We don’t know each other yet. I’m not ready to text you in shorthand until we have established a relationship. Dial me back. If I waste your time, you needn’t ever text me at all.
  10. Please, thank you, and goodbye are all foundational words that are exceptionally useful in building a platform for communication. Grunts and guttural utterances have their place, but you’ll be surprised how much easier sentences flow with old-fashioned politeness.
  11. There are time zones. They are easy to understand and largely consistent. If you’re looking at the Atlantic Ocean and I live near the Pacific Ocean, your brilliant idea at an early breakfast is not quite as interesting to me in my final few hours of pre-dawn rapid eye movement. Likewise, when I get an idea at midnight, I promise not to bother you with it for at least six hours when we are both again awake.
  12. The phone part of your mobile phone—don’t hesitate to occasionally use it when conversation is sufficient for the topic. Videoconferencing has its place, but we don’t always need to see each other just because the invitation link is a click away. Sometimes we can just talk. Really, we can.

I am sure you have some recommendations of your own. Feel free to share them in the comments here.

Here’s one more tip: Email is not the best way to handle everything. Around the time of re>re>re the essence of an email is largely lost. If you are seeking to be understood or understand (humbly invoking the inspiration of St. Francis), talking is a wonderful alternative to a long list of email comments no one can follow. Email certainly gives you a paper trail and artifact, but it doesn’t necessarily solve your problem.

Some people subscribe to the notion of returning all your calls every day. Try this. I’ll bet your life gets better.

When your phone rings, don’t assume that someone is in an accident or has died. I know that’s becoming an urban legend. Your heart rate deserves better.

Oh, and if I call you, it’s likely for a reason. Please give me the respect of a call back.


Photo: Pexels

I’ll Get Back To You

Here’s an observation—the busiest, most successful people in business are the ones who follow-up when they say they will follow-up.

Those who tell you they will get back to you and don’t are not at the top of the food chain, no matter what they think. They are insecure, weak, or hiding something. These are people who are there when they need you, invisible when you have nothing to offer them. They are not just disingenuous, they are deceived.

AA009737I’m not talking about the person who won’t return your cold call. That happens, although the best executives I have ever met are the ones who will give anyone at least a single chance with a cold call. I’m talking about the person who asks to see your business plan and then never gives you feedback. I’m talking about the company that posts a job online, and then ignores the applicants who pour out their hearts in their submissions. I’m talking about the person in your network who knows you well, whom you ask to read your proposal, and then when you follow-up ignores you. That’s not just bad manners—it’s bad business.

I can’t tell you how many of the people I mentor relate utter frustration at being ignored by former colleagues they once counted among their contacts. Many of these same people are still out of work from the recession, apply for an open position, hear nothing back, and when they call or email, still hear nothing back.

The sound of silence is not a sign of importance or strength. It’s not a sign of how busy you are. It’s a sign that you did not have a good boss on your way up who taught you how to play the long game. All of the great bosses I’ve had—and some were very big bosses—return their calls and their emails on a regular basis. The others were arrogant, lazy, or both—and that’s how they are likely to be remembered at tribute time, silently or spoken.

I’m not sure when this sort of behavior became acceptable. It probably had something to do with email, to the people who are facing 200 or 300 entries in their inbox every day. Often those people have an assistant to help them manage the flow, but it is up to each person to decide whether the words “I’ll get back to you” mean something or are hollow.

If you don’t want to read someone’s business plan, say so. I do it all the time. Say “that’s not in my wheelhouse” or “my plate is too full at the moment” or” I don’t think we’d make good partners.” That’s honest and takes you off the hook. Anyone would rather hear that than the sound of silence.

If you agree to get back to someone, or you solicit candidates for an open position, you should follow through. That is the right thing to do, and guess what, someday you too will be on the sending end of that interchange, and you’ll wonder why the other person has decided not to let you know the truth. People I know right now who never returned phone calls aren’t getting their phone calls returned. How about that!

I have seen this work both ways at every company I have worked, partnered, or consulted. All of the great CEOs and Board Members for whom I worked returned their outside calls and emails, especially if they asked to see something. The best VCs I know let you know if they want to proceed or not—they don’t all do this, but the best ones with the best names do. Realtors who want a relationship with you call back whether you are a seller or a buyer, whether you have a listing or are even in the market. Most of the mayors of great cities respond to the feedback they solicit. So do the Senators, House Representatives, County Supervisors, and Assembly Members.

You know who doesn’t return your call? The guy who sat in the cube next to you when you were 25 and now is a VP at the ZYX company, the guy you later bump into at Starbucks and says give me a call sometime, and when you do, doesn’t acknowledge your call. Rent his office now, he’s toast. You know who else? The person who fashions herself a boutique investment banker, whom you meet at a networking event, who asks if you know any great start-up entrepreneurs, and when you send one her way, ignores them. Wouldn’t give her my business. Anyone else? The op-ed executive at the dying newspaper who doesn’t tell you why you didn’t make the masthead. Also that fellow in your LinkedIn Level 1 contacts who says in his news feed he has an open position, and when you forward him a friend’s profile, never clicks on it.

Here’s the cool part, where the winners really win. The truly resilient never hear the sound of silence. If you ignore them, they go to the next person, and the next person after that. Who loses? You do, my former friend, because the individual who is that resilient, who does not care that you did not respect him, that is the person who probably has the best idea in town. Know what? You could have had it first. You asked or agreed to review it, but then you dropped the ball. When that resilient person finds the right partner, she has won, you have lost. Every single time.

You are always better off being honest with bad news than silent with none. If you only respond when there is good news—something you want or need—you’re opportunistic, not in it for the long haul, surely not someone who cares about the people in your circles, only what they can do for you. When you open a door, open it all the way, or your true intentions will be impossible to hide.

Your network is only valuable if you nurture it constantly. Your word is all you have.