Are You Talking to Me?

In our personal and professional lives, we all spend a huge chunk of our time communicating with other people. Whether we’re just having a conversation with a friend, or we’re negotiating a major contract with a client, the quality of our communication skills can make or break any relationship. 

When connecting with others, the order of my preferred communication channels is as follows:

  1. Face-to-face
  2. Telephone
  3. Email
  4. Regular mail
  5. Text message 

Actually, the number 5 ranking for text messaging is kind of misleading. If I had a list of 25 communication channels, texting would rank 25th for me. I’m just not good at it (I suppose it has something to do with inaccurate thumbs). 

While I prefer face-to-face communication, I spend a lot of time talking to people on the phone. And phone communication is the focus of this blog post. 

Over the years I’ve experienced just about every telephone etiquette violation there is, and I’m guessing you have, too. If you do a Google search on the subject of telephone etiquette, you get 1,510,00 results. Many of the search results are for telephone etiquette consultants. Others are for telephone skills classes, both online and in-person. Other search results simply offer lists of phone etiquette rules and suggestions. 

I’ve noticed a few gaps, however, in the literature when it comes to certain telephone communication bad habits or practices. I believe that if the goal for our organizations is to create loyalty-driving customer experiences, it’s important to identify communication issues that might frustrate or even alienate customers along with suggestions for dealing with the issues.

While the issues I highlight here might be viewed as pet peeves of mine, I think that most people are likely frustrated by some of the following telephone bad habits and practices. 

So in no particular order, here are some of the telephone issues I often hear or observe, with accompanying suggestions: 

  • Because it’s more and more common for professionals to give customers or clients their cellphone number, it’s important to get out of the habit of just saying “hello” when answering your cellphone. When I call you and just get “hello,” I’m not sure if I have the right person. I have to ask, “Is this Bob with xyz company?” Starting off a customer conversation with the customer being confused isn’t a very good idea. At least answer with something like, “Hello, this is Bob.” That way I know I got to the right person.

  • My second suggestion is connected to the first one. Make sure that you personalize your cellphone’s voicemail greeting. When you simply use the automated greeting that comes with your phone (the robotic voice that says, “You’ve reached 407.555.1212. Please leave a message.”), I’m once again not sure if I got to the right person. I then have to say, “If this is Bob with xyz company, this is Dennis Snow returning your call,” and I’m left in voicemail limbo, which isn’t a good place for your customer to be. I run into this issue all the time.

  • If you and I happen to be meeting in person, please don’t pull out your cellphone and place it on the desk or table, especially if I’m your customer or client. The message communicated is that you’re waiting for something to happen that’s more important than talking with me. That assumption might be incorrect, but it’s the assumption that’s made. Even worse is when someone does put their phone on the table and keeps looking at messages as they come in. Now I feel really unimportant to you, which you never want a customer or client to feel. Of course, if you actually take a call while we’re meeting, now I feel really, REALLY unimportant to you.

  • Avoid using a speakerphone if at all possible. I’m not talking about the hands-free option on your cellphone when you’re driving, although talking to a customer or client while driving is rarely a good idea. As the customer, I KNOW that you’re driving and it’s likely I don’t have your full attention – nor should I have your full attention if you’re driving. What I’m referring to here is using a speakerphone (landline or mobile) in your office. No matter how good your speakerphone technology is, it doesn’t sound as good as a handset. On any speakerphone you sound far away or like you’re in an echo chamber. It sounds bad, and isn’t respectful to the person you’re speaking with. When I’m on a one-on-one call with someone and they’re on a speakerphone, my assumption is that they’re doing something else while they’re talking with me. Right or wrong, that’s the assumption. If you’re on a call with someone one-on-one, please pick up the phone.
  • If you must be on a speakerphone, tell me why. Simply saying something like, “I’m putting you on speakerphone so I can review the records we’re discussing,” lets me know that I still have your full attention. Then take me back off the speakerphone when it’s no longer needed. The less time spent on the speakerphone, the more effective the communication. 
  • If you have to be on a speakerphone because you have a group on the call, such as when you’re in a conference room, be sure to explain the situation to the customer(s) and introduce the participants. When you’re the person talking, get close to the phone, or at least speak loudly. If you’re talking from across the room in a normal tone of voice, I’m only getting about half of what you say, if that. I might pretend I’m getting more, but I’m not. And side conversations going on in the room make things much, much worse. I can hear the background noise. You don’t want your customer struggling to understand what’s being said.

    A side note regarding conference calls: Because speakerphones sound so bad, consider having each participant call in on separate conference lines, even if some participants are all in the same building. This might not always be practical, but it always sounds better. 
  • Regularly clean out your voicemail. While this suggestion applies to landlines too, I find the “voicemail box is full” alert more often when calling someone’s cellphone. If a customer trying to reach you gets a mailbox full message, especially if it’s an urgent situation, they’re left scrambling to find another way to quickly get to you. Making a customer scramble isn’t a good relationship-building practice.

  • And my number one telephone communication tip is this: Please, please don’t talk to customers or clients on your cellphone when you’re in the restroom. I’m always amazed when I’m in a public restroom, like in an airport, and I hear a person talking on a cellphone to someone I can tell is a customer or client of his. If you’re having a phone conversation with me, and I hear a toilet flush in the background, I’m pretty sure I don’t have your full attention. I can’t believe I have to comment on this, but it’s so common I had to mention it.

I know I’ve been guilty of many of these and other telephone etiquette missteps myself (except talking to a client while I’m in the restroom. If you’re on a call with me, rest assured that I am NOT in the restroom).  There are, of course, plenty of other telephone bad habits and practices that I haven’t addressed here, because they’re addressed in lots of other places. This is simply a list of telephone missteps I hear or observe regularly, and I thought the suggestions might be useful, perhaps even generating some additional tips within your organization or workgroup.

Strong customer relationships are the foundation of business success. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the quality of your communication skills can make or break the relationships you have with your customers, clients, patients, members, etc. And since the telephone is a key communication tool for many of us, it only makes sense to ensure we’re not using the phone in a way that weakens customer relationships but in a way that strengthens customer relationships.

Something to think about: What telephone habits or practices might be weakening your relationships with customers?