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The Green Sheet Online Edition

September 28, 2009 • Issue 09:09:02

Telephone etiquette

By Vicki M. Daughdrill
Small Business Resources LLC

The telephone is one of the top 100 inventions of all time, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia traces the telephone's development from 1844, when Innocenzo Manzetti first discussed the idea of a "speaking telegraph," through April 1877, when "Edison filed for a patent on a carbon (graphite) transmitter." Alexander Graham Bell is generally credited with developing the first telephone for which he was awarded a U.S. patent in 1876.

From its inception, the telephone has been an integral part of our lives; it is essential in today's ever changing workplace. And with current economic restrictions, business is increasingly being conducted by telephone rather than in person.

Creating an impression

How you answer your business telephone identifies your company as professional or amateurish, and it sends signals about your company's character and culture. A pleasant, energetic and enthusiastic voice represents your business as a vital, growing entity.

Whether you are a single-person merchant level salesperson office or the largest ISO, you need to convey the highest level of professionalism. Good manners are always appropriate. "Thank you," "you're welcome" and "please" are essential in creating a positive impression. In certain parts of the country, "yes, ma'm," and "no, sir," are expected expressions of respect.

Here are some telephone tips to keep in mind:

    General habits

  • Remember, you are the voice of the business. You may be the first or only contact a person has with your company.
  • Speak directly into the mouthpiece.
  • Speak in a pleasant, friendly voice. A smile in your voice comes through telephone lines, as does a frown.
  • Eliminate or at least reduce background noise to provide the most businesslike setting for placing and receiving calls.
  • Do not carry on other conversations, keyboard, or perform any other activities while placing or receiving calls.
  • Do not speak on the telephone with your mouth full of food, or while chewing gum or smoking.

    Receiving calls

  • Always answer calls within three rings.
  • Identify yourself and your company by saying your name or "XYZ Company, Jack Smith speaking."
  • Listen carefully; do not interrupt or talk over the caller.
  • If a caller reaches you in error, be courteous and help the person if possible. If you are unable to assist, say simply, "I'm sorry; you have the wrong number."
  • Never hang up on a caller. If someone is abusive, say, "I'm hanging up now." Then hang up.
  • If you must place a caller on hold, ask, "May I place you on hold while I look up that information?" Then use the hold button. Never say, "Please hold." This appears brusque and uncaring.
  • If you are unable to assist a caller and need to transfer the individual to someone else, explain what you are doing, who you are transferring the caller to, and a number to call if the call gets disconnected.

    Placing calls

  • Prepare for each call by identifying your objectives and thinking about the language you want to use.
  • Be sure you have the correct number.
  • If you are calling a different time zone, be aware of the time. You do not want to call someone at an unusually early or late hour unless you have scheduled the call for that specific time.
  • Identify yourself clearly by giving your name and company name, spelling both if necessary.
  • Allow time for a few pleasantries, but do not linger over personal conversations.
  • Clearly state the purpose of your call.
  • Focus on the objective of the call and the actions required.
  • At the end of the call, repeat any request or actions to be taken.

Handling messages

If you accept calls for another person, and voice mail is not in use, never ask the caller to call back. Instead, carefully take a message that includes the date and time of the call, the caller's name, company name, telephone number for a return call, and information on the purpose of the call.

If voice mail is available, responses such as, "He is out of the office for the morning. Would you like to leave a voice mail?" or "She is unavailable at this time. Would you like to leave a voice mail?" are good. If at all possible, include a time frame for when the person will return to the office or be available for calls.

Voice mail is an essential part of today's communication arsenal. However, it can be cold and impersonal if not handled carefully. You need to utilize it effectively and professionally. Remember, voice mail is more than a tool; it is also a reflection of your business.

Get in the habit of returning messages promptly. If you do not return calls, people will assume you are screening your calls, hiding behind voice mail or simply refusing to deal with issues.

Even if you have minimal or negative information to convey, it is important that you communicate clearly and frequently.

Here are some tips for outgoing messages:

  • Record your own personal greeting and change it frequently to reflect your activities. A sample professional greeting is: You have reached Jack Smith with XYZ Company. I am in the office today but unavailable to take your call. Please leave a message, and I will return your call as soon as possible.
  • If you have unique or unusual work hours, be sure to include them in your message.
  • If your voicemail system allows it, include a sentence that says, "If you need immediate attention, please press x for Jane Doe."
  • If you plan to be out of the office for any period of time, change your message to reflect your schedule. It is unprofessional to leave your general message when you plan to be away from the office for a two-week vacation, for example.

You may frequently find it necessary to leave a voice mail for clients or colleagues.

When doing so, keep the following in mind:

  • Speak slowly, clearly and distinctly.
  • Leave your name, company name, call-back information, the date and time of your call, and when you are available for a return call.
  • Spell your name or company name if necessary.
  • Keep your message short and to the point.
  • Repeat your telephone number at the end of the message.
  • Close your message with, "Thank you" and "good bye."

Using language

Your word choice and tone of voice affect the way your communications are perceived. Unfortunately, a message delivered without care might come across as rude or offensive. Being aware of the language you use and the tone of your voice will help you communicate in a positive manner, even if the message itself has negative content.

Here are some words that help convey a positive message:

  • Will you please (rather than you have to or you need to)
  • Your question (rather than your problem or your complaint)
  • May I place you on hold?
  • May I ask who is calling?
  • I'm having difficulty hearing you; could you please speak a bit louder?

At all costs, avoid these words:

  • Hang on.
  • Hold on.
  • Who's calling?
  • I can't hear you; speak up.
  • I can't help you. You will have to talk to someone else.
  • You'll have to call back.
  • Why are you calling?
  • What do you want?

The telephone is a vital tool when handled with professionalism. Take a few minutes and evaluate your own skills and those of employees who work for you. Remember, that voice on the telephone is frequently the only contact someone has with your business.

Be sure it accurately reflects the image you want to convey. The Green Sheet, Inc.

Vicki M. Daughdrill is the Managing Member of Small Business Resources LLC, a management consulting company. E-mail her at vickid@netdoor.com or call her at 601-310-3594.

Notice to readers: These are archived articles. Contact names or information may be out of date. We regret any inconvenience.

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