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Phone Facts

by Dear Jon
July 9, 2002

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Sort 154_Dear Jon-Phone Facts ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,

I hate talking on the phone because I'm no good at it for some reason, but my job requires some phone use. How can I improve my phone skills so that I can get rid of phone anxiety and stop sounding like an idiot?


Dear Nop,

You have excellent e-mail etiquette. If you are not already online at work, the best way for you to solve your problem is to convince your employer to get you connected so that you can handle all customer and vendor services on-line.

Not everyone has good e-mail etiquette. Some write letters to Dear Jon that do not open with “Dear Jon.” Sometimes they are unsigned. Sometimes they are signed but have no closing salutation. Sometimes they ramble. Sometimes they do not ask for advice. Your e-mail, however, is an example of exactly the kind of letter Dear Jon likes to receive. Your e-mail demonstrates that you are sensitive to the parameters of media-appropriate communication, intelligent enough to follow those parameters, and articulate. If your telephone manner is inadequate it does not mean that you are an idiot, but, like you say, it means only that you SOUND like one.

I can be an awful klutz over the telephone sometimes. We all can. Have you ever been so distracted that you answered your phone in the name of your previous employer? Have you thought you were listening carefully only to discover from your boss that the message you took was completely wrong: wrong name, wrong company, and telephone numbers not even close? Have you ever rambled while leaving a message until the answering machine cut you off? Dear Jon has muttered, stuttered, shouted, cussed and fussed on his employer’s telephones. Just not all the time, just not at the wrong time, and just not at the wrong people. In fact, these events have been infrequent enough that Dear Jon has received many more compliments than criticisms regarding phone etiquette.

Once you have convinced your employer that online communication is more efficient and documentable, you can simply leave the announcement on your voice-mail that excellent same-day service is available online at your e-mail address. Then let all of your calls roll over to voice-mail.

There will still be some dingbats who will insist that they speak to a live person. I never know what that means. Do they think a Dead Person is writing them e-mail? Those people who want to speak to a LIVE PERSON are usually angry and unappeasable. They are also the ones most likely to have screwed up in the transaction, either by leaving the wrong forwarding address, or offering the wrong social security number, or not realizing that technology works best when you turn it on. These simple explanations, already made three times by successively more authority, are never enough, because the customer is ALWAYS RIGHT and is NEVER A STUPID JERK.

Anyway, it is inevitable in almost any job that you will have to be on the phone at least occasionally. To prepare, observe the phone etiquette of your company’s receptionist. (But only if the receptionist is lauded for good skills.) Observe the diction and intonation. If possible, ask to get trained at your company’s switchboard. Practice the receptionist’s diction and intonation. That is how I learned. There is no substitute for learning from a professional.

You are now equipped to handle those voice-mails that insist, with great indignation, that they speak to a LIVE PERSON. The best times to return voice-mail are: Between 7:30 and 8:15 AM, Noon to 1:15 PM, and 5:15 to 6:00 PM. You will miss eight out of ten and have to leave a message. So as not to sound like a dork while you leave the message, script it in advance. Always include in the message that the company can serve customer requests best when they are received over e-mail.

If the person says, “Call me back between 3:30 and 5:00,” then call at 3:28 PM, or 4:57 PM.

If you are unlucky enough to catch a live person who had been waiting for your call, there are a couple important things to realize so that you become more comfortable.

First, the guy on the other end is just as afraid of you as you are of him. It is occurring to him that he is at fault and that he is making mountains out of mole-hills. He is threatened because YOU are, after all, the expert, and he can’t make the stuff you sold him work because he does not understand everything about the product that you do. Be the expert.

Second, nobody cares that you were teased as a child for the speech impediment, or that you stuttered during a dramatic reading in high school and the class was laughing at you. Nobody cares because that kind of stuff has happened to everybody. The only difference between the “in crowd” and the outcasts is that the “in crowd” laughed with everyone else laughing at them. The outcasts are the ones who cried instead, and then avoided those others. Outcasts think the "in crowd" are a bunch of snobs, but they are not. They are people willing to have a sense of humor about themselves so that they can have friends. The “in crowd” thinks the outcasts are snobs for holding themselves aloof, which is closer to being right. That is why I have known many fat, ugly people to be very popular and winsome enough to sell a Camaro to Ralph Nader. I have also known beautiful people who are withdrawn and never felt they fit in, whether at school or college or the work-place.

The point is, the guy on the phone doesn’t care whether you are “anxious”or have issues with interpersonal communication or issues with your potty training or ADHD or anything else. He just wants his money back, or help, or respect, or whatever. The only way you leave a good impression with him is if he feels he has been helped. The only way you leave a bad impression is if he feels he has talked to a stone wall. The people who get ahead at work are the ones who realize that nothing in their past or in their life gives them the excuse to be unprofessional.

I have not yet met a person in the world who has never been a dork, so like all the other unhelpful friends and supervisors you have talked to, I have one thing to say: Relax.

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