Phone Best Practices (No Calls Please)

3rd July, 2015 No Comments Blog

I have come to believe that a phone call is usually the worst form of business communication.  It suffers from the downside of meetings with almost none of the upside.  A phone call:

  • requires synchrony, meaning everyone has to be available at the same time;
  • is inefficient because most people read and write faster than they talk and because a call requires pleasantries that take time;
  • involves spontaneity that can lead to miscommunication; you cannot review something you say before you say it; and
  • provides little more information than e-mail – you can’t read body language over the phone, though you can get some read on emotion through vocal tone.

So, I try to avoid calls whenever I can.  Occasionally, a call is necessary, typically when a meeting is preferable but logistically impossible.  Perhaps a fast exchange is needed, as in a negotiation or question-and-answer setting.  A sales pitch is another candidate for a call (again, when a meeting is too difficult or costly).  Finally, I find myself suffering through calls when the other caller is bad at e-mail for whatever reason.

When you find yourself stuck needing to do a call, do your best to make the most of it using the following tips, which you may recognize from my post on better meetings (and not by doing e-mail or web surfing during the conversation):

  • Agree on the purpose of the call before you agree to meet.
  • Send a good calendar invitation.  See my post on [meetings] for guidelines.
  • Start and end on time.  If you start late, end on time.
  • Have an agenda with times allotted for each topic.  Stick to it.
  • Tackle the most important topics first.  You never know when a call will be cut short unexpectedly.
  • Strive for efficiency.  Save the chit-chat until the end or for another time.
  • Send any materials ahead of time.   If you expect the participants to review the materials, send them at least 24 hours ahead.  Better yet, send them before the weekend preceding your meeting; (only) if you accomplish this, you can run the call assuming all participants have reviewed the materials.
  • Do not use meeting time to review materials if you have sent them sufficiently in advance.  Reviewing is an individual activity; doing it in a group means at least one person is wasting her time.
  • Do not use meeting time to write or edit.  These are also individual activities and can be done more efficiently asynchronously.
  • Have a conversation.  If only one person is talking, the call should have been an e-mail or video monologue (because you could have avoided meeting logistics).
  • Ask questions.
  • Answer questions directly and succinctly.  Don’t take more than 5 or 10 seconds to answer a question.  People will ask follow-up questions if they want to learn more.
  • Say “I don’t know” if you don’t know, then commit to finding the answer.  Find and e-mail the answer ASAP after the call.
  • Send a thank you if you asked for the call.  Some people think paper thank-you cards are a nice touch; I would argue that e-mail works well and doesn’t require energy to make the card (even if it is recycled paper) and to mail it.
  • When appropriate, also follow-up right away with an e-mail outlining any next steps and clarifying the party responsible for each of those.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am not a fan of voice mail either.  In my view, voice mail is simply a poor substitute for e-mail:  replying either requires a call back to the number in my “missed calls” list (if I’m lucky) but calls stink (see above) or a search for the caller’s e-mail address.  Also, if a voice mail includes any important details, I have to write them down.  It’s much easier to get an e-mail; I can reply with a click and all the details are already written down.  And sending an e-mail takes about the same amount of time as leaving the voice mail (maybe less).  In my view, the only reason to leave a voice mail is that you don’t have the recipient’s e-mail address; if you do, leave a voice mail indicating you will send an e-mail with details (so that the recipient does not feel s/he has to scramble for a pen).  For these reasons, my outgoing work voice mail message includes my e-mail address and a request for e-mail instead of voice mail.


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