ask the readers: when clients complain that you’re too robotic

I’m in an all-day meeting, so I’m throwing this question out to you all for help. A reader writes:

I work in an event management role that is one part logistics, and the other part customer service. Most of my client calls are on the telephone, making it difficult to cultivate that personal relationship. Some calls I have one-on-one and others are with large groups. Geographically, in-person meetings are not likely as I am in a different time zone than most clients.

I have had several clients complain to my boss that I am robotic, abrupt and checklist-oriented.

I don’t want to take this personally, but I am offended because in real life I am a warm, fun loving, and personable individual, not a robot.

Please tell me, do I suck at my job because of this feedback? How can I improve besides starting each call with some chit chat about the weather and the news?

What advice do you have for this reader?

{ 191 comments… read them below }

  1. Mary Sue*

    Two things that helped me cultivate a good phone voice were public speaking classes (I still do Toastmasters from time to time) and the old sales advice to smile into the phone.

    Even though most of the time I’m really grimacing.

    The public speaking helped a lot because I hadn’t known until I was critiqued that I was speaking super fast and mumbling.

    1. ChristineH*

      What was Toastmasters experience like? I’ve thought about taking it, but it’s not really feasible financially; plus, I’m not necessarily looking to be a public speaker…I just want to improve my verbal communication skills.

      1. Agile Phalanges*

        I just joined Toastmasters (my employer pays the dues, but they’re pretty reasonable), and it’s really a “it is what you make of it” situation. You’re not obligated to do anything but sit there politely, but there are various roles each meeting to participate in, ranging from minimal speaking to obviously being the main speaker for up to 20 minutes or so. There’s a guide book you’re supposed to work through in order, and the first few speeches are very short (4-6 minutes, I think), and the first one is an introduction of yourself, so it’s fairly easy material to come up with. :-)

        If your town has multiple chapters, attend all of them that would be feasible for you to join, and see if you feel like you “click” with one particular group more than others. In my town, there are three groups, but one is too far geographically for me to get to, so I visited the two other groups. One seemed to be older people doing Toastmasters more as a hobby and social event, the other group had more people my age, and everyone seemed to be in it to improve their communication skills for their career, not just to socialize. I joined the latter group, of course. :-)

        But they tout that it’s not JUST beneficial for public speaking, but for all speaking. It helps you with prepared speeches, of course, but it also helps you think on your feet and be aware of how your speech comes across, even in one-on-one situations.

      2. Judy*

        I did Toastmasters for nearly 10 years. I would still be in it if I had no kid obligations. The first manual has 10 speeches of varying types, and then you pick which manuals to do, everything from Storytelling to Debate.

        When you’re in a club, there are parts of the meetings that are called “Table Topics” where you get the topic as you are walking to the front. You will also get the chance to lead the meeting and evaluate others speeches. And you get to be the dreaded “ah” counter.

        I looked online, and the fees are pretty much what I remember, $36/6 months, manuals for $8. Of course each club might have dues, one club I was in had a $1/month dues, just to have some cash for awards and things. The other club didn’t. the second club did have a monetary penalty for “ah”s.

        My first club was at my company. When I moved, I picked a club that was open, because I would meet more people from other parts of the community. I found that it was easier to handle when no one from work was in the room.

        1. Judy*

          I should say Table Topics were 60 second speeches that you were called on by the “TopicMaster” for the meeting, and had to prepare as you were walking to the front. They usually prepared enough topics so that everyone who wasn’t speaking in the meeting would have one.

      3. Anonymous*

        Not being critical of your budget here (I SO am not the person who would do that, lol!), but TM is $6 a month. Two lattes. And the chances are very very good your boss will pick up the tab, as it directly benefits the company. TM will cc your boss on any awards you earn, if you choose. I work in government, and my second and third level bosses were/are very interested in my progress. They stop me in the hall to ask about my last speech, and what my plans are for advanced work. I’ve chosen ‘Technical Presentations”. Naturally!

        1. Kelly*

          I wish the “lattes” method of recommended saving would be retired, honestly. A lot of people have already cut out the lattes (and other equivalent purchases). It always strikes me as dismissive.

          1. Anonymous*

            Well I have never thought they fit in my budget but clearly based on what folks get at coffee places you and I are more financially conservative than is the norm. I am sorry I sic not intend to be dismissive , merely in step with the majority.

          2. KellyK*

            Yeah, it is kind of dismissive. It isn’t necessarily meant to be, but someone’s budget and priorities are their own.

        2. Kelly O*

          And it kind of makes a lot of assumptions about what your boss or company is going to encourage.

          I mean, my own personal company does not even seem to care about professional organizations, and I still pay all my own dues. So ten bucks here, six there… it may not seem like much, but it adds up quickly.

          1. On a budget*

            “it adds up quickly”
            Hmm. I think that is precisely what the latte analogy points out. Did I miss something here?

  2. Nodumbunny*

    I know it is really hard not to get offended, but you need to vent it, get it out of your system, and then try to figure out how to fix it. You don’t suck at your job – you have a small issue with letting your warm personality come through on the phone. I would bet that you feel pressure when on the phone to get through the business so you aren’t wasting the clients time. Now you know it is coming across as abrupt, you can fix it. I like the ideas above. I’ll bet another answer is to make sure you are giving the client time to talk things through as they make decisions – let them meander while you listen for awhile and let them finish before you move onto the next topic.

  3. Lexy*

    I struggle similarly with email. I’m a very warm and friendly person face-to-face, and my clients tend to respond really well to me when we sit down together. But I have to try in order to not be “abrupt” over email because my writing style is very direct.

    I have found that after I write my email (before I put the “to:” up top, so no accidental sends) if I add two sentences at the beginning and end that are specifically “friendly” – either asking about their weekend, or commenting on the weather or a sports team we both enjoy – I find that I come off as much more approachable and less scary. (as an auditor, it helps to quell people’s instinctual fear of me… otherwise it’s hard to get what I need)

    I think over the phone you could cultivate that sort of softness by making a point to spend 90 seconds asking them about their day or where they’re from or whatever before you go into your meeting. I’m not sure what to tell you about conference calls… sorry :(

    1. fposte*

      I do the same thing with emails. Write what I need to say, sigh, and add friendly words on top and bottom.

      (Either “instinctive” or “instinctual” would be okay; the latter is a much more modern creation and tends to occur in slightly more scientific contexts, but they haven’t really carved out clear individual territories.)

      1. Lexy*

        Great, Instinctual might be more what I was going for, trying to riff off the auditor/auditee:predator/prey dynamic (for the record, I am not a predator, but it makes me laugh that people are so scared of my profession)

    2. some1*

      Good point! It can be so hard to make a polite tone come across in an email. For instance, if you are email the receptionist: “The toner needs to be changed.” that sounds a lot more terse than “Jane, could you replace the toner when you get a chance? Thanks.” Even though it’s Jane’s job to replace the toner and you’re not asking her for a favor, the latter email sounds kinder.

      1. Jamie*

        Yep. My emails that start with “hey – just a reminder…” are never mere reminders. But they are much better received than “I thought you were going to get me those numbers by close of business yesterday…wtf?!”

        1. Jen in RO*

          I always read “kind reminder” or “gentle reminder” as “wtf are you doing, get to this NOW” and “kind regards” as “f- off and die”. I love corporate speak sometimes.

      2. Lily*

        What if Jane responds with total seriousness later that she never got a chance?

        Recently, “Ideally, I’d like …” got ignored while “please have …” got action. But I still felt bad about the direct order, because I really meant that I wanted to see progress and I wonder if she will think I am demanding too much now.

        1. BW*

          There’s nothing wrong with being direct, and it depends on the person you are talking to what will be most effective. I Personally, I wish people were more direct about what they need done on the job. I really hate expending any mental energy having to guess at what is really a suggestion and what is something that absolutely needs doing. I’m not a mind reader, and I don’t try to be one. I particularly expect a manager to manage and not be making suggestions about what work I might ideally do.

          I’m also really busy and am constantly setting and resetting priorities. I have to make a judgement call on where to spend my time when, and when someone sends me an email that says “Ideally, I’d like…” and someone else says “Please have…” those things will be prioritized accordingly. The first is a suggestion of what would happen in an ideal world, and is likely to get a low priority. The second is more likely to move up the list because it is a direct order to do something rather than a suggestion. When I’m already busy with pressing deadlines, the suggestion to do something that is being communicated as being unimportant may just annoy me.

          Unfortunately, a lot of women have been and are still being socialized to think that being direct = b!tch. Really, it doesn’t have to be, especially in the workplace where people are already expected to do specific jobs and be taking direct orders. Being direct and respectful keeps the lines of communication and expectations clear, and that benefits everyone. You get what you need when you need it, and the employee who got the order isn’t subjected to your frustration for legitimately not realizing a suggestion really wasn’t a suggestion.

          1. Jamie*

            ITA on all of this.

            Direct does not equal bitchy – bitchy is separate.

            Personally my suggestions are pretty clear if they are suggestions. They start off by with “what I would do” or ” I’d love to see…” or whatever.

            If its not a suggestion but a directive I need accomplished. I start with please, it includes a specific date by which I need it done (or date to check in for a update) and I ask that if there is an issue with the date to please discuss.

            I don’t think ambiguity makes me a nicer person or does anyone any favors. I hate it when I have to decipher other people’s intentions. Ive found that people really appreciate clarity.

            1. Kelly O*

              This is where I get hung up sometimes.

              I try to make the small talk. I am polite. Please and thank you and all that.

              But I still get that “you are too businesslike.” Well… y’all we are working in a business. And sometimes I just need you to stop with all the sugary superficial stuff and just get something done.

              People who get this tend to have my sympathies, because I get “bitchy” all the time.

          2. KellyK*

            I totally agree with this. It’s important to add “Please” and “Thank you” and not jump down people’s throats for forgetting things. But it’s also unhelpful to make something sound like it’s optional and not at all urgent, when it’s necessary and important.

    3. Ryan*

      I have the opposite issue…i type 125 wpm so my emails are pretty conversational. I change that if it’s going to a customer or if it is for a wider audience (informational). My biggest bad habit is making the subject for every email, “Hey…” <–conversational see? It's not an issue for my co-workers unless they're looking for something specific I've sent them and they now have to sift through 50 emails that just say "Hey…" in the subject line. hahaha

  4. ChristineH*

    Have you discussed this issue with your boss? If not, I would suggest setting up some time to meet with him/her to get some honest feedback. Maybe even ask your coworkers if they work close enough to you to hear your side of the conversation.

    1. ChristineH*

      Sorry, that came out wrong. I know you said that some of your clients complained to your boss; how are you hearing about this? Did your boss mention this during a 1:1 meeting or just in passing without any real discussion?

  5. Victoria*

    Heh – I sometimes get this, too. Folks have said that I sound “too professional” on the phone; it’s from years on the phone in survey research.

    It sounds like your clients aren’t feeling connected with you. In person, you can be the driver of the meeting, making sure you’re checking your lists, and still be radiating warmth and ease through your facial expressions and body language. Since that’s missing on the phone, I’d suggest you make it a point to connect with everyone on a human level. So, yeah, ask about the weather, crack a joke if it’s appropriate, make it a part of your agenda to spend some time building your relationships.

  6. fposte*

    Are any of these calls recorded? Can you listen to yourself? And are there people you work with who you know are much more effective in these situations, and can you get an idea of what they do that you don’t?

    And don’t be so dismissive of a few minutes about the weather or other stuff. There are a lot of businesses where the personal touch is paramount, and it sounds like it’s valued enough in yours that your lack there is bothering people. Don’t think of it as a non-job distraction taking up work time; think of it as part of the job itself, and a part you need to develop. Events are a big and sometimes nerve-wracking thing to most organizations, and feeling like the person at the other end recognizes you as a person can be very reassuring.

    1. LJL*

      Recording yourself is a great idea. It’s often hard to step out of your body to see how you come across; recording offers a terrific chance to do that.

      Also, I think that the few minutes you spend with questions like “did you have a good weekend?” or “anything exciting going on?” will reap rewards in that you’ll be seen as more caring of the person (rather than the checklists). This will probably make you better overall.

  7. Zahra*

    If chit-chat does not come easily to you, do try to keep a file (mental, physical or electronic) about each of your clients/contacts. Then, yes, at the beginning of a call, try to touch base with your clients about their personal/professional lives at the beginning of the call. You can ask news about the other aspects of the event you’re helping plan: for example, if you’re planning a wedding (as a reception site event planner), ask how the rest of the planning is going, if they found the dress, etc. Keep mental time ticker on the personal chitchat and steer the talk back to business after a few minutes. It may mean that you need to budget a bit more time for phone calls but it should pay off.

    As to whether that means you suck at your job, it depends if being personable is something important in your job. After all, someone helping organize professional conferences has more leeway in being more abrupt and openly checklist oriented than one planning weddings, though being checklist oriented is absolutely essential to both jobs. (And being abrupt can be a boon when dealing when some members of the wedding party!)

    1. Lily*

      I do this! Even if I know the person well and they are simply returning my call, I’m probably in the middle of something when they call, so it’s really hard to quickly remember why I wanted to talk with them much less what to chit chat about! Both Outlook and OneNote are great for this!

  8. Anonymous*

    Try an old telemarketing trick: look at yourself in a mirror when you’re talking. It instantly makes you sound warmer.

    Also works wonders for phone interviews!

    1. Scott M*

      Awesome idea! I have a mirror on my computer monitor so I can see people who come up behind me. I might try this.

    2. Your Mileage May Vary*

      Also, stand up while you talk, if you can. It puts more energy in your voice. If you can’t stand, make sure you’re sitting with good posture. We sometime slump in our chair because we know the other person can’t see us and it reflects in our voices.

  9. BossLady*

    Though you are looking for more than this, do you already spend time on pleasantries? They do matter. It helps so much to get everyone into a cooperative mindset if you ask simply: “How are you doing today?” Helps even more if you ask about something they mentioned in an earlier conversation: “How is your XX project coming along?”

    Also, do you circulate agendas and checklists in advance? Is there a set objective to call? Once you’ve taken a moment to say your hellos do you then transition saying something like “If everyone is ready I’d like to go over the status of our project.”

    If the checklist is long do you allow few natural breaks in the progress through it? If it is running long do you ask people if they can stay on longer or if you should reschedule? It’s really valuable to show awareness and concern for their time and needs.

    You could also take a humorous self-deprecating approach (“I know you are all just dying to go through this immense checklist”) though for that approach you do need to consider your audience.

    Also, how are you feeling on these calls? Do you feel rushed, anxious, etc? If so, that will come across and doing what you can to manage it and remove pressures and distractions during the call can help too.

    Finally, not sure if you are in this camp, but please don’t fall prey to the idea that being (professionally) social with clients and colleagues is not productive time. Investing a little time in developing good relationships opens doors and often means things get done faster.

    1. twentymilehike*

      Investing a little time in developing good relationships opens doors and often means things get done faster

      I really want to echo this.

      ALL of my client relationships are phone-based, but some of them I have become so close to that I would almost consider them personal friends. They don’t have any physical cues, so they need to know they are important by the words you use and the tone of your voice.

      And I always make a point to ask how they are doing, or if they ask first, I always respond with something like, “I’m doing really well, thank you. How about yourself?” or if it’s super early, “I’m not too bad … still working on my first cup of coffee! How’s your day going so far?” Build a friendship with your clients and they will keep coming to you over your coworkers and they will trust you more and more. They need to know that you enjoy working with them.

  10. KayDay*

    First of all, if the only things your clients are complaining about is that you are “too check-list oriented” in a very detailed oriented job, you are doing okay.

    Since your naturally check-list oriented (in addition to being friendly in person) I would suggest you, silly as this sounds, make a check list of pleasantries you can use that are tailored to the person you are speaking with. You don’t need to spend much time making small talk, but a simple “how are you?”/”how was your XYZ last week?” goes a long way. Also, be sure you are minding your Ps & Qs, when talking on the phone. It’s easy for even normally very polite people to forget to say ‘please’ when they are going over a checklist. Another tip is to smile (literally) while you are talking on the phone; it really will come across in your voice.

    Finally, were these complains solicited, for example, in a client satisfaction survey or end-of-project report? Or did they come unsolicited? If they were unsolicited complaints, definitely do take it seriously, however, if the former, you may simply have had very satisfied clients who didn’t have much to complain about.

  11. Julie*

    Great ideas so far. I love the AAM community.

    Another question you might ask is whether you come off this way on personal calls as well, or only work-related calls. If you’re warm and fuzzy on the personal calls, you might think about how you can transfer some of that natural warmth to your work-related calls. If you’re task-on-target for both (“Dinner at 7? Great. I’ll make the reservation”), you might look at some of the techniques other people have posted already and see if any of them will work for you.

  12. Meghan*

    I do 100% of my work from home and I have a LOT of experience with the group phone meetings. The trick is to pretend, in your minds eye, that you are SEEING these people in front of you. Lean forward when you are making an urgent point, smile and move your hands like you ‘normally’ do when talking to people. Right now, it sounds like you are talking to the phone, a machine, instead of thinking of the phone like just a window to talk to people through! Pretend that they CAN see you through the phone connection and respond accordingly. You’ll notice that more and more of YOUR personality is able to get through your voice.

    1. ananas*

      Exactly this! I spent a lot of time doing phone tech support, and I got a lot of compliments and/or comments to my manager about how personable and easy I was to work with. The (relevant) trick was that I already tend to “talk with my hands”, and even when on the phone, I get pretty physically demonstrative– leaning forward, nodding, emoting with my face, etc. When I’m being more “formal”, almost all of that gets shut down.

      1. BW*

        I totally do this – talking with my hands and such on the phone, not even consciously, that’s just how I am (I even gesture when thinking of a conversation in my head). I spend a lot of time on conference calls and one-one calls for support. I get the same response from people.

        1. Suz*

          I do this too. My coworkers used to tease me about it. One time when I was giving someone directions to our lab they caught me pointing out the window showing the person where to turn into our driveway.

    2. snuck*

      And/or try to set up skype/video meetings where and when you can.

      And if there’s ever a chance to meet with the client/s face to face in the same city – even if it’s inconvenient or on your own time – do it – and then if it’s over coffee or lunch or whatever and let the conversation be much MUCH more casual.

      Write at the top of your own notes/list of things to talk about things like “ask Jane how her holiday was” or “ask Bob about his kid’s soccer cup” if you forget to chit chat often. Even if it’s just ‘ask how people’s week END has been’ (ie their personal life). Keep a few short notes of things to ask about the following meeting from that. (Not one for every person – that’s too… robotic.)

      Preface things if you are in a rush, or really stressed and task focussed by saying something like “Guys, I’m sorry, I’m really getting a bit focussed on this because it’s getting close to the line, please forgive me if I come across a bit pointy, I’m trying to pull such a lot together right now” and make sure you send follow up emails that aren’t just task lists but include something like “thanks for being such a great help with all this, it’s so close to being D-Day and I really appreciate your support”.

  13. Jubilance*

    I agree that speaking with a smile does help. A lot of it may also be tone & inflection – people who are more deadpan & monotone come off as robotic.

    Also, having a few moments of chit chat may go a long way, even if its just a simple “how is everyone doing? I hope you’re having a great day!” given with enthusiasm.

  14. H*

    I suggest that you slow down just a tad and make sure that you’re treating each person and their problems/concerns/information (I’m not sure what you do) with understanding, friendliness and respect, which may help each individual person feel like you know their problem/concern/info is valid and that you care and will get it taken care of. As a former customer service rep I know it can be easy to slide into the “okay I’ve fixed your problem – next” mode, especially when the previous twenty people you’ve spoken to had the exact same issue. You can’t let yourself get bogged down by the things you need to do (although obviously you do have time contraints and can’t let things carry on too long). And you don’t have to just ask about the weather, a simple (and genuine-sounding) “How are you doing today?” can open doors. You can also ask about their weekend (how it was (on Monday) or if they’re looking forward to it (on Friday)) etc. So to sum it all up, just try to be yourself when talking to your clients. :)

  15. kristinyc*

    Would you be able to to video chats with them occasionally (not every call, but maybe for some meetings?) My old office installed cameras on everyone’s computers that were hooked up to our phones so that every call would be a video call. (They did it because we were spread out all over the place and they wanted to improve how we interacted with each other).

  16. EAS*

    One thing I learned from my boss, who is amazing with clients, is that sometimes it’s okay to let the client talk and stray from the agenda. I always assumed it was our job to make sure a call is on-topic and following the agenda from start to finish, but sometimes it’s good to go with the flow and give up a little bit of control. Especially for regular, check-in calls that aren’t dealing with urgent business, it can be good to let the conversation happen more naturally. Of course, you’ll want to check off the important items, but having a more relaxed attitude may help!

  17. Ivy*

    I just want a chance to ramble about small-talk. I hate it. I hate small-talk in meetings, I hate it in the elevator, and I especially hate it as an introduction to what someone wants to say. Just say what you have to say. I don’t want to waste 10minutes telling you about my weekend (which was the same as the one before it). Why do people hate silence so much? When did silence become awkward? I understand its necessary to get to know people (we can’t all meet and have deep meaningful conversation in an instant), but still…

    OP try using a speaker, or due to clarity, a headset. I find when my hands are free to move about I can talk more naturally. It feels like the person is there. I think tone of voice is more important than remembering your client’s kids’ names. Keep a friendly tone and let the conversation wander naturally.

    1. Anonymous*

      I don’t know…small talk is about building trust, creating relationships. How can I trust you with my business if you are a stranger? Do you yourself trust people you don’t know anything about?

      I am a serious introvert and I prefer no small talk, but honestly, it’s part of functioning in society. You have to do it, or find a place where you don’t need it. Mail-order taxidermy, perhaps! My next career! :)

      And yes, Toastmasters will guide you to performing this function without effort. For $6 a month. Cheapest quality training on the planet.

    2. Elle*

      You know, I think a lot of people (maybe introverts?) are really proud of thinking small talk is below them, but I find that attitude pretentious and irritating.

      If I spend hours of my life trapped in a building with people, what’s wrong with us talking about non work topics? Why is it so bad to smile at people and ask if they had a good weekend? Manners and politeness cost nothing. Being a grouchy misanthropist only hurts you and your career.

      1. Bridgette*

        I can’t speak for all introverts but I think the problem some of us have with small talk is that it is apparent that the other person does not care about my weekend, doesn’t care about my health, etc. I don’t really think it’s beneath me but I don’t enjoy engaging in it because it feels fake to me, especially if it’s a random person on the elevator I will never encounter again. I do however see it’s social value and I agree that it can be part of being polite, so I just have to deal with my feelings and engage in it sometimes.

        1. the gold digger*

          I actually am interested in what people did over the weekend and what my customers’ lives are like and are they married or do they have kids or do they race Harleys. But that is because I am very, very nosy.

          And I do find that it is easier and faster to get things done once there is a bit of a relationship with someone. Which is why even though I would rather go to the noon body pump class at the Y tomorrow, I will be taking my Junior League onion dip to the company Thanksgiving potluck.

          1. K*

            Yeah . . . people always say this about small talk, but I do care about whether my acquaintances and co-workers had a nice weekend or if their kids are enjoying the new school year or what their vacation plans are. I mean, it’s not a matter of life or death and I’m not staying awake at nights worrying about it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care or that I’m not happy to hear their doing well, or concerned if I hear they’re not.

            1. Colette*

              I care about the people I know , but sometimes an honest answer to “How are you doing?” is too personal, long, or inappropriate for a work environment. (“Well, my gout is acting up, so I’ve just gotten back from my third doctor appointment this week. They think I might be allergic to wheat, which is just making things worse. And I’m surprised that I’d be allergic to wheat, because I eat three loaves of bread for breakfast every day. Do you know what goes well with bread for breakfast?…”)

              The end result is that everyone says “fine”, which reduces the time/personal detail, but makes it an almost meaningless exchange.

              Having said that, if the OP has been told she’s not friendly enough, there’s nothing to be lost by asking “How is your day going?” – and if the recipient doesn’t have much time, “Busy” is a good answer that will allow her to cut to business.

              1. Jamie*

                The end result is that everyone says “fine”, which reduces the time/personal detail, but makes it an almost meaningless exchange.

                I agree. IMO “How are you doing?” isn’t small talk – it’s just a cursory greeting for which the only answer is “Fine. And you?”

                I don’t think this is ever a real question.

                1. Colette*

                  Of course, I should add that in the case of my friend, it’s a little different, because we’re friends, not colleagues, but it’s still a little disconcerting when I’m expecting a “fine” as we get in the car instead of a detailed answer that we might get to over the course of the day.

                2. Jen in RO*

                  Could be a cultural thing too. In Romania (and even more so in other countries, such as Spain, I’ve been told) it’s actually rude to answer “fine”. You’re supposed to at least give *some* detail. For me, it would be something like “I’m ok, I had a nice weekend, went out with some friends. How was your weekend?”. I never know what to answer when my (American) boss asks me how I’m doing! (I usually go with “I’m ok, I was working on x project”).

                3. Lily*

                  I also think some detail is good. I really can’t understand how the answer to “how do you do?” is “how do you do?” at least in some parts of the U.S. How can you answer a question with another question?

            2. Bridgette*

              IMO, the difference in what you are describing and small talk is that the former is just normal conversation that flows from building a relationship – I talk about those same things with coworkers and acquaintances I see on a semi-regular basis, and I am genuinely interested in what they have to say.

              My definition of small talk is conversation that serves the purpose of filling silence and is used with strangers or people I rarely interact with. In those instances, we’re not building a relationship and probably never will, so I don’t really care about their weekend, and they probably don’t care about mine. I will use some polite phrases like “how are you” when introducing myself, but I rarely go beyond that.

              1. K*

                I think you’re right, but it sounds like the issue here is that the OP isn’t building relationships with people she needs to build relationships with. She might need to move them out of her “don’t need to engage” category into her “people to get to know better” category, mentally.

      2. Jamie*

        I would think people would find me more pretentious and irritating if I pretended to care about their weekend.

        If I go out of my way to make small talk with you about your life even if I find it boring and I don’t really care – how does that make me a better person? I talk to people about non-work topics all the time – that’s the benefit of having work friends…but that’s because I’m genuinely engaged. Talking about the weather or the price of gas with some vendor or some random co-worker? I don’t see how my pretending to be interested in his thoughts on snow to be anything but kind of patronizing.

        You can be polite and have good manners without feeling the need to engage in everyone you happen to pass. I don’t judge the small talk people for enjoying it – and there are plenty of them so they have an outlet for that – so I don’t understand why you judge people so harshly just for not having the same social needs as you.

          1. Jamie*

            No problem – I consider it an honor to represent the curmudgeonly of our society…we all need to do our part to fight discrimination.

    3. fposte*

      I’m with Anonymous. I’ve really turned 180 degrees on small talk since I developed a different perspective on its importance (and living in a small Midwestern town where it’s valued). Don’t look at it for its surface information–small talk is there for the subtext of social connections. It’s a ritual. If you look at it that way, it becomes like proper knife and fork usage–yes, it’s less efficient than putting your face in the plate and inhaling, but who wants to live in that world?

      1. Jamie*

        I think I have a cognitive disconnect on this – because I can see where some people enjoy it, but I’m not sure it’s actually useful.

        Today is a perfect example. I had a meeting with a vendor and I would bet real money that he thinks I’m all chatty and friendly because I really enjoy talking to him. He doesn’t do small talk, but he has these interesting non-work related stories and anecdotes that are really funny and pretty fascinating. He’s also brilliant and knows a ton about the subject matter – but I don’t think I get any more work benefit or actual information from him than I do from all the other vendors for whom I offer a cup of coffee and it’s right to work talk.

        IOW I don’t think there is anything in it for me, being more personable, with the exception of a more enjoyable meeting. Certainly no benefit to my career or social life.

        But as always I’m fully on board with your support of table manners. :)

        1. Anonymous*

          I would argue, Jamie, that IS small talk, and you are doing it well. It isn’t just about the weather. It is about connecting with folks, and you do that by telling stories and anecdotes about yourself.

          1. Jamie*

            I can see that – I guess I’ve always just thought of small talk as the weather, sports, traffic…where things are universal and basically the other person is interchangeable with anyone else. You can have the same conversation with multiple people and never change a word. But I wikipediaed it and you’re right – it’s a much broader classification in the real world than in my head.

            The other stuff feels different to me because that’s a real conversation where everyone is engaged and interested.

            If you break it down though – again using my experience today as an example – it wasn’t the best use of my time to be honest. My 2 hour meeting could easily have been trimmed to 1.25 hours if we’d dispensed with the conversation and just bucked down immediately with no digression from the task at hand. If you take the human element out of it, it was about 45 minutes each of wasted time by two people who aren’t in the position to give a career boost any more after the chat than before…and indeed neither of us was looking for that.

            I just find it interesting that when you break it down there was no benefit gained for me, him, or either company by being more personable. All the benefits are somewhat amorphous – a more pleasant meeting, fleeting entertainment, a better mood for the rest of the day…nothing that will further my prospects in any sense.

            I mean if you do a cost-benefit analysis on it there isn’t a whole lot in the black at the end of the day…but I’ll change my mind if 5 years down the road I get a crazy good job offer because some vendor remembered me as being nice to work with. I really won’t make book on that payoff.

              1. Jamie*

                The server cabinet is in my office – I would never ignore that warning because my purse is in there!

        2. K*

          From a selfish perspective, we usually do better when our clients and co-workers think we think they’re funny and fascinating. And we usually do better at making them think we think that if we cultivate an attitude that the small things about them are, in fact, funny and fascinating. It sounds fake, but I don’t think it necessarily is; it’s just that when we’re genuinely interested in the people we interact with, things tend to go more smoothly on a number of levels. And part of being genuinely interested in them is learning some basic things about them, which usually starts with small talk.

        3. fposte*

          I don’t think it’s something everybody needs to do, so I think you’re probably assessing your situation correctly when you say it won’t help you (isn’t IT guy like deli guy, where “grumpy” would be redundant?). It’s kind of like a language, though, and since it’s one that’s spoken in a lot of places–one of which seems to be the OP’s clients, it can be an advantage to be able to speak it. I actually enjoy it as kind of a game, whereas handshakes always just seem dull and obligatory to me.

          1. Jamie*

            I do forget sometimes that it’s less needed for me since the bar for cordial is set a lot lower for IT people than most. People are just happy when we don’t roll our eye and wait until we walk away before muttering under our breath.

            And handshakes should be abolished, especially during cold and flu season.

            Sigh – I skipped lunch and now I want deli.

            1. Anonymous*

              Web dev here, I’ll take this question! I get much much faster support since I have friendly relationships in place with those whose Powers I Covet. It’s the verbal equivalent of bringing the sysad cookies or Hello Kitty junk when you need a restore job, except I’ve pre-paid. Or if you need a tweak on a website from moi…seriously, I will move heaven and earth for Leonard, but Sheldon might have to wait a bit.

              1. BW*

                Me too! One thing I’ve learned over a long time is that when a person has a positive relationship with you, they are more likely to respond positively and quickly to a request, and feel good about doing it. Same goes for technology too. If you don’t give good support for your product and it’s not user friendly people, will avoid doing work on it as much as possible. Need that data cleaned up for a report? Good luck!

        4. Laura*

          You may be missing one crucial point. It isn’t that the chatty anecdote guy brought in more business or directly had work benefit, BUT you got his business. There are some clients out there who will NOT work with you if you are not chatty/personable.

          I, for one, would not work with a wedding planner who picked up the phone and said “okay, dress is ordered, cake delivered. have a good day. i will send you the bill.”

          Does her small talk change the outcome of the wedding? No.
          Does it ensure she actually gets the business of clients like me? Yes.

          1. Anonymous*

            Precisely! We need to keep in mind OP is in Event Planning, where it’s all about the experience. The checklist simple enables the Experience.

          2. Jamie*

            I totally agree in the wedding planner example – and the OP who does customer service. Totally. In fact isn’t it part of the job of a wedding planner to be part therapist? :)

            In my case though he is the tech guy for one of our vendors and we were working on some protocols regarding a process. I had nothing to do with selecting his company, nor did he have anything to do with being chosen. That was a department head on my end and a salesperson on his. We didn’t buy or sell it – we just get the hand off for implementation.

            I just find it interesting, and a little baffling, that it was such a positive experience for me. I usually hate this kind of thing and recover by closing the door on my office for the rest of the day. Today it left me in a really good mood and I actually have been more engaged with my co-workers the rest of the day.

            Since the introvert/extrovert thing comes up quite often I was just trying to deconstruct why this interaction was different than 99% of my interaction with people not of my choosing which leave me exhausted and longing for the life of a goat herding hermit. It’s like I understand that whole energized after spending time with people now. Either he has some weirdly positive mojo or I have become an extrovert!

            1. Agile Phalanges*

              I’m an introvert, too, but I, too, have had work-related social interactions that leave me feeling energized and not drained. I’m not sure if it’s just because the other person is really THAT charming, or if there’s just a connection there that leaves you feeling pleased you had the conversations instead of thankful it’s over, but I totally know what you’re talking about. I’ve had a couple of vendors I’ve clicked with in that way, too. One just left her company. :-(

            2. Not So NewReader*

              Some people enjoy these on the road jobs because they get to see a variety of people. I think your vendor, Jamie, has a hobby called “people.” He gets a kick out of people.

              He probably fishes around by running down a list of subjects until he finds a subject the person in front of him appears to enjoy. Then the conversation is off and running.

              Whatever the reason- the vender is very comfortable in conversation, this comes across and people get comfortable with him fast.

              1. snuck*

                And if people become comfortable with him fast then there’s less likely to be minor grumbles and political intrigues in the delivery of the project. The vendor’s rep is also a sales person – consider it ‘post sales support’ – if you have someone who isn’t a people person being your representative in meetings and discussions then you are going to create a lot of angst around the delivery of the project – people people learn how to read others, whether they are saying yes but thinking ‘not really’ and so on.

    4. Ivy*

      I don’t know who to reply to so I’m just going to reply to myself :P

      I totally agree with many of you about the benefits of small talk, and I understand them (and have gotten quiet skilled at small talk). Relationship building is definitely important. I dunno.. I think I’m just a little tired of it…

      I have taken on the “social ritual” viewpoint, but sometimes you just want to drop the knife and fork to eat your ribs with your hands.

      1. Rana*

        I personally have mixed feelings about small talk, because sometimes it veers into talk that is not actually “small.” I have no problems chatting about the weather, about that strange dog that just walked by, about someone’s kids when they bring up the topic, etc.

        But my big problem is that there are some questions that people ask where they’re expecting a simple, uncomplicated answer, and, well, it’s not. Like “where are you from?” For me, there are about five different ways to answer that, so being asked it always brings my brain to a halt while I try to figure out what, specifically, they want to know. Or “what do you do?” (this one was particularly terrible when I was partially employed in a career I was desperately trying to escape). Or even “how are you?” can be a landmine if the person you’re addressing is dealing with personal stuff. It’s especially bad when the other person refuses to take the hint when you say something like “Oh, nothing much, how about you?” and starts pushing for a more substantive answer.

        All too often it feels like your choices are either to flat-out lie in order to preserve harmony, or to bring up things that your poor unsuspecting conversational partner wasn’t expecting to get into. I hate it.

        1. Anonymous*

          Wait, so you were desperately trying to escape a career and didn’t want to make it the topic of small talk? Seriously, girl, I found my current 6 figure job by talking to a guy in an elevator, who knew a guy, who thought there might be a job at this company his friend worked at.

          I see what you are saying though. I have “spiels” for the most common questions. You shouldn’t have to think before answering “where are you from” or “what do you do” or “is Rana short for something”. Doing your homework will help you here.

          1. Rana*

            That’s a good point, but, honestly, I didn’t really want to talk about my job situation with anyone at that point, and there was no good way to talk about it without my bitterness and disappointment coming through, and I resented anyone who made me spend more time thinking about my employment failures than I had to.

            And my experience has been that most people aren’t satisfied with the simple versions either; they press and press until you reach a point where your answers reach a point that strike them as being either stone-walling or TMI. Typical conversation (which I’ve had many, many times): Where are you from? Chicago. Did you grow up there? No. Where did you grow up, then? The West. Oh, really, where? (Me, heaving internal sigh). A lot of places. Like where? California, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona. Wow, you moved around a lot. Was your dad in the military? No. Oh, so what’s the deal then? etc.

            And, yes, I could probably just say “California” but then the questions would shift to where in California, and did I like it, and do I know so and so who lived eight hours away in another part of the state, and weren’t you afraid of earthquakes, and wasn’t it neat being near the beach all the time, and movie stars, and blah and blah.

            This sort of “talk” is not fun for me. Maybe the other person gets something out of it, but I don’t. I put up with it because I’m basically a nice person and I understand that people mean well, but, really, most times I don’t want to get into my life history with total strangers, you know?

            And that’s really my point. Some topics that people think are light, frivolous topics with easy, simple answers (and thus suitable for banter with strangers) are, for other people, incredibly complicated and sometimes painful. Stick to the weather and weird-looking dogs, is all I’m saying.

            1. Rana*

              Or to put it another way, I find it very difficult to reduce my life down to spiels. I get why it might be desirable to, but I still find it challenging and mildly unpleasant, and wish that more people recognized that.

            2. Anonymous*

              Oooh make up a cool story. I have an actress friend who does that. It’s crazy, one person thinks she grew up in an African Consulate. I’ve learned to just play along.

              But seriously, don’t overthink this. You don’t have to tell the whole truth. Pick out the two or three things you like and just tell those. And please, learn and make use of the debate technique known as the pivot. Basically, you just answer the question you want to answer, not necessarily the one you were asked. I just mastered this at Toastmasters! SO proud of myself.

            3. Not So NewReader*

              YUK! That’s an interrogation, not small talk.

              Try putting the brakes on by throwing a question back- “I am from X, and WHERE are YOU from?”
              “Oh, I am in the middle of making a career change and am still deciding what route to go… AND what do you do for a living?”
              Which you can follow up with “Now how did you end up getting into that line of work?”

              People looove to talk about themselves, try to turn the question back on the person by landing on a question for them to answer.

              I understand a little too much of what you are saying here, Rana. It is an effort- but am finding it easier with time to just turn the question back to the other person. And frankly, people do not seem to notice at all.

              1. Rana*

                Heh. I do try. But apparently prying answers out of a reluctant person is even more fascinating for some folks. ;)

            4. Colette*

              One way to turn that kind of conversation around is to ask as many questions as you’re getting.

              Where are you from? Chicago, and you?

              1. Rana*

                I do appreciate the advice (and it’s useful) but I think my initial point was lost.

                It’s this: what may seem like innocent idle questions and conversation (small talk) to one person, may be painful, awkward, or frustrating interrogations to another.

                And that the more personal the questions get, the more likely this is to be the case.

                I wasn’t asking for advice on how to deal with nosy people, so much as trying to suggest to people how not to BE nosy people.

                1. Rana*

                  I mean, notice how this conversation went swerving into “Hey, Rana, it’s not so bad, here’s how you can fix it!” territory almost immediately. Now, imagine if you’ve experienced that a number of times in real life, and you can see why it gets old.

  18. Anonymous*

    I once worked with a country Vet that everyone adored. He always asked about the kids, the cousins, the in-Laws, the church meeting, etc every time he drove up on a call. As his intern, I had clients tell me his memory was amazing, and he was just so connected and warm. His secret? I drove, and before we arrived he checked his rolodex for notes about the family we were about to visit. He told me the vet HE interned for told him this secret. I followed in his footsteps (though I use Google contacts). He also taught me that 98% of success in business is social. 1% is talent. The rest is luck.

    1. Chinook*

      If you know how to use Outlook, there is a tab for this type of information. It is amazing the type of stuff that you can catalogue there for future reference.

  19. Michelle*

    I was in your shoes, too! After diving right into the scheduled topic over the phone, my coworker said, “Well, I’m fine, thanks. How are you today?” And I realized that my efficient and productive nature didn’t go over well with him.

    All the tips above are great….I’d add that it’s important to consider the communication style and motivators of the person you’re on the phone with. Do they speak quickly, or are they slower-paced?
    Are they using phrases like “effective” and “take action” or are they more interested in “dependable” and “free of controversy”?

    The former is the style of a driven, task-focused person. This direct, all-business type is likely not one of the clients who views your efficiency as brusque or robotic.

    The latter has more of a people-focused nature, and would likely value small talk and warm fuzzies in the conversation before getting down to business. Does this describe the folks who have contacted your boss?

    I commend you for wanting to resolve this, instead of playing a blame game. Good luck!

    The people we interact with give us clues to how they like to be communicated with. Yes, being limited to phone (vs in person) makes this approach more challenging, but it can really pay off. Good luck!

    1. Lexy*

      Yes! Mirroring the conversation style of a client goes a long way toward building rapport (It doesn’t mean you have to imitate them or anything, but keeping your interactions within a threshold of their own enthusiasm/tone is like some advanced level client-relations stuff).

    2. Jamie*

      I was in your shoes, too! After diving right into the scheduled topic over the phone, my coworker said, “Well, I’m fine, thanks. How are you today?” And I realized that my efficient and productive nature didn’t go over well with him.

      FWIW I would have appreciated your efficient and productive first instincts immensely.

      You made an excellent point about paying attention to people’s styles. Even in email – I find salutations and sign offs irrelevant and a waste of time since that information is in the header…but if one starts every email to me with “Hi Jamie” then all of my emails will also greet them by name as I can tell it’s something they value.

      1. Anonymous*

        You’d like letter-writing in Sweden then. Only love letters feature a salutation, with everything else launching straight into the subject matter.

        Personally, I will put a salutation on an email when I’m starting a thread, but when replying, I’ll let the conventional “On $DATE, $NAME wrote:” do the job (at least on civilised clients where you reply in-line). And I do always sign them off as well, regardless of whether it’s a new thread or a reply.

        1. Anonymous*

          I learned to be sure to sign off on emails from a boss who stopped reading when she thought she got to the end of a given msg. She would often email back requesting the info further down in the initial msg. I’d send it back asking that she read to the bottom, and to look for my sign off to know I was done just as she signed off on hers. It worked, & I’ve kept the habit.

      2. Ellie H.*

        I’m the opposite but I do the same thing; I’m the kind of person who writes salutations and sign offs by default, but I am always happy to reply in kind (no salutation and no signoff or just my name) when someone emails me in your style. So mirroring works in both directions!

      3. Anon*

        I, too, consider email salutations and signoffs largely unnecessary. For me, business communication is about conveying information. Especially with internal emails, I figure it’s a waste of time writing all those extras around a simple one-line request or confirmation when I already said good morning to that colleague and will see them again in 10 minutes.

        However, after getting a performance review where I was told colleagues found me abrupt and brusque, perhaps even arrogant, I realised not everyone sees it that way. My manager was very helpful, suggesting standard greetings and signoffs which I now insert as a matter of protocol.

        When dealing with clients, if inserting an artifical “It was good to speak with you earlier” or “have a great weekend” or “I hope you enjoyed the holiday season” helps maintain relationships, I figure it makes good business sense to apply the appropriate formulae even if they feel artificial.

        OP: It may help to view it as a foreign culture where you have to study the customs and rules of polite interaction in order to be accepted (there was a post a while back on business etiquette in different cultures – maybe think of it like that).

        Another hint which I think has been mentioned above: On the phone, smiling really does change the sound of your voice. Before you pick up the phone, pause, breathe, smile.

        1. Lily*

          Use a text expanding program which allows you to define clippings (in Firefox) or snippets for whole phrases. That saves a lot of typing.

  20. COT*

    I can struggle with the same thing–I’m friendly and talkative, but just don’t enjoy the phone that much. Sometimes I’m kind of awkward about small talk, or the phone call is an interruption, or I’m just sick of answering the same question from the fifth caller today.

    I do, though, enjoy talking to certain folks because we always have good conversations. Investing a few minutes in small talk might actually help you enjoy your work more than you already do, because you’ll get to know and appreciate the folks on the other end of the line.

    In addition to all of the great suggestions here, I use lines like:
    “Good to talk to you!”
    “Anything else I can do for you?”
    “Thanks for your call.”

    As long as you say them with warmth and energy, those little phrases can help rescue a conversation that might otherwise seem too task-oriented.

    It also helps me if I get rid of other distractions when the phone rings: take my hand away from the mouse, turn down the music or close my office door, etc. I make an effort to be completely invested in the call.

  21. Liz in the City*

    I’m wondering, too, if this might be a regional thing. I live outside NYC and people here are pretty “to the point.” Most people don’t want the initial “how are you” question because it’s perceived as a waste of time. I know when I travel outside the region, though, that the rest of the country, for the most part, does want that question, along with eye contact and a friendly smile. (Not that NYers don’t–but *cough*years here have taught me “the faster, the better.”) Maybe it’s because you’re talking to someone as if they were from where you are and less how they are used to being addressed?

    I think the advice above is great. And maybe take a minute at the beginning of your phone calls to engage in small talk. If it feels nature to dive into the work, then do so; otherwise, give the small talk another few minutes. In the end, it might pay off.

    1. fposte*

      Good point about regional styles. If any of them are from other countries, there are cultures that are even stricter about the importance of not approaching business directly. And maybe that’s a way to think about it even if they’re from a neighboring town–their culture in this isn’t familiar to you, so you’re learning it in order to serve your client better.

    2. Bridgette*

      Very true. I’m a born-and-raised Texan and many Southerners tend to be more small-talky and less to the point, but I am definitely not. I’m very awkward in social situations that require this kind of communication (like vendor exhibits! oh dear god). I have found the best way to get around this uncomfortableness with small talk is to ask the other person questions about themselves – keep them talking so I don’t have to.

      1. Jamie*

        Oh I love Texans – and I deal with a company based on Texas a lot but yes…it seems we have to talk about weather and football before any business is discussed – it’s so consistent it’s like a rule!

        I have also been asked, more than once, in their sweet Texan way to repeat myself because I talk so fast. What the hurry? I guess my Chicagoese goes a little quicker words per minute wise than a Texas drawl.

        1. Rana*

          I have to admit I find that rather hilarious, because so many of the Chicagoans I know speak at an. annoyingly. slow. pace. compared to the way I grew up talking (in California).

          1. Bridgette*

            And I’ve known some Californians who speak so slowly I want to yell at them! :) Just goes to show how varied regional differences can be, even within the same region.

      2. Job seeker*

        I am a Southerner and I have the opposite problem. I really do care about connecting with others. So, I do try hard to extend myself in being friendly and making small talk. This is not a hard thing for me to do because I grew up with this. This was a plus for me at my last job. I received many compliments from customers regarding my going out of the way to help them. I think when someone adds the human factor others feel more valued. I think this is just harder for some people that are extremely business only. I wish sometimes I could have a more business like approach too. Asking the other person questions is a good way to connect, just make sure you do it in a way not to seem nosey.

        1. JT*

          “I think when someone adds the human factor others feel more valued.”

          A few of us feel put upon to reciprocate, and think “leave me alone/answer my question.”

          And certainly “friendliness” of salespeople is a big part of why I prefer shopping online for most things.

          1. Job seeker*

            I understand what you are saying. I did not do sales. I have worked with the public. I just can speak for myself and I really think it is a plus to build a friendly rapport. I appreciate knowing the people I deal with and we do small talk about weather, family etc. It makes me feel I am more than just another number. Maybe they don’t really care but it is a nice feeling. But, that is just me.

              1. Job seeker*

                Thank you for saying this. You have no idea how much I wish I had your qualities and your way of knowing the right way to do things. You come across very professional always but you show a kindness toward others. I admire you so much.

    3. Hannah*

      I agree. My cousin used to be a HR director before she had her kids. She was based in (and born & bred in) NYC, but a portion of her company was in South Carolina.

      She would always talk about how she HATED having to call down to the S. Carolina offices because they would want to chat for 15 minutes about kids, the weather, the weekend, etc before they would get down to business and it drove my cousin CRAZY. LOL.

    4. Anonymous*

      I’m in in the Northeast, plus I am a very direct person to begin with, and I loathe chit chat. I had a pretty big hurdle to get over when I started working in a job where the majority of my co-workers were in the Midwest. To say my communication style wasn’t appreciated is an understatement. And I found theirs as difficult to deal with as they found mine.

    5. KayDay*

      Regarding small talk in general, my feelings about it tend to vary quite a bit depending on the situation. (full disclosure: I’m super awkward and not very good at small talk.) If I’m getting a coffee on my way to work during rush hour, I don’t have time for even a how are you. Give me my coffee and take my money and on to the next corporate zombie. But if I’m at work and trying to build a longer term relationship with a business contact, I find getting to know that person–specifically getting a feel for their personality in general–is really helpful, and brief bits of small-talk can be helpful. For situations in the middle, I don’t really care either way.

  22. Bridgette*

    I feel your pain, similar things have been said of me. I prefer plain, direct speech and dislike small talk. But I understand the value of social lubricant.

    One of my coworkers does this really well and I think you might can try her approach. We provide tech support at a university, so in her emails and on the phone, she uses phrases like, I understand where you are coming from, I’ve been there, I get frustrated by this too, etc. And she says and writes these things in a casual manner. To provide a contrasting example:

    Me: I understand your frustration and I apologize for the inconvenience.
    Coworker: I realize this is frustrating, I hate it when this happens on my computer! Let me see what I can do to help.

    So softening up is not necessarily about adding small talk – you can keep it on topic and be a little warmer, it just takes practice at phrasing.

  23. Laura*

    Like others here have said, just spend a couple minutes with them at first, asking how they are, etc. My job does not require me to deal with the public or customers, but I have found that when I have to call with a question about one of my credit cards, or call about an airline reservation — anywhere that’s a call center where people are quite often verbally abused by customers — if I spend a minute or 2 asking them how they’re doing and how their day is going, they’re much more pleasant to work with, and much more likely to help me rather than following their script, or just handing me off to someone else. It’s like talking to someone nice catches them off guard.

    If I can find out where they’re located, by asking them while they’re waiting for my account/reservation to come up (or whatever), then I can say something like, “Oh, I love Chicago, but I really hate that Ohare airport!” or make a comment about a local sports team, if it’s doing well or been in the news, or ask about the weather if there’s been a bad storm or flooding, etc. Or tell them to have a nice weekend if it’s a Friday…just little things, but it’s always been pretty effective.

    I’m sure the same thing would work for you. People like it when you take an interest in them, even if it’s for something superficial.

  24. Thebe*

    When I call people, I try to be responsive to what kind of business conversation they want to have. I do a basic “How are you today,” to start out.

    Some people want you to get to the point right away: they’re busy, they’re impatient, or they’re hyper-efficient. You pick that up right away because they say, “What can I do for you” or “What do you need,” and don’t get chatty. Then I can plunge right in and get all check-listy.

    Other people you can tell like the niceties: “How are you?” or “Is it cold in the city?” or something like that. They want a little human contact.

    The key is telling the difference between the two and adjusting. If I had my way, everybody would be in the first camp and we’d all get more done. But a lot of people like the small talk, so I do it. I use a headset and that relaxes me — I can lean back and wave my hands around.

  25. Anonymous*

    My mind: HELL NO!
    What I say: Sure, let me take a look to see what we can do. We do have a policy of XYZ in order to be fair to everyone. I understand you are in a tough situation. These are the ways we can try to solve the problem. I’m sorry that this is frustrating for you, but I am really trying to get you where you need to be. I know it is not easy. Please let me know how you would like to proceed from here.

    1. Bridgette*

      Yes! This is a good way to do what I’m describing above. It’s not “small talk” per se but it shows some warmth.

      And I the exact same thing is going through my mind, usually with “And stop asking me!” attached to it.

      1. Anonymous*

        It just shows you’re alive and not a robot devil who doesn’t care about anything. Even though you really feel like a robot devil that doesn’t care about anything. I work at a college bursar’s office. IVE HEARD IT ALL

  26. LCL*

    When I first started training for my highly technical job (more years ago than I will tell you) I had problems with credibility. I had problems in other parts of my life with credibility. This in spite of the fact that I was and remain extremely blunt.

    Then I had to work for awhile with another trainee, who was ALWAYS schmoozing and making small talk. I saw how well received that was, and tried hard to imitate his interpersonal style. And people finally started liking and believing me, even though I felt like a complete phony at first.

    So, yeah, make with the small talk at the start of your calls before you get down to business. One safe noncontroversial opener is “I am calling from (city) and it is cold here! Where are you located?” Or if you are in a different time zone, establish that at the start of the call, then mention something about the difference “Oh, you must be getting ready for lunch and I just booted up my computer” etc.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      “And people finally started liking and believing me, even though I felt like a complete phony at first. ”

      What changed? What made you stop feeling phoney?
      I think it might be interesting/helpful if you would share that….

      1. LCL*

        I had been brought up to believe that small talk when doing business was really intrusive and rude and the courteous thing to do was to get right to the point. I felt phony because of the dichotomy between my inner voice telling me I was being rude, and the outward approval of people I was relating to. Once I realized that people actually liked small talk, I didn’t feel hypocritical about engaging in it.

  27. Worker Bee*

    Very good advice. Love the AAM Community!
    I don’t have any advice to add on the speaking matter. But what bothered me more though is that you are offended by the critiszm. I hope this was only the first feeling that you got when you heard it, plus it might not have been the best setting for this kind of feedback. But try to see it as a change. Don’t doubt yourself/career choice. If you like your job see it as a chance for improvement and use the wonderful tips you got here. Talk to your boss, ask coworkers for help/ listen in on them handling conversation and so on.
    Good luck

  28. NDR*

    I am also in events management, and something I have noticed about myself is that I have a tendency to treat all of my events and clients like “just” my job, which is a set of abstract logistics, contracts and budgets. But to each client, the specific event is a big deal (or else they wouldn’t need an events professional). I have to step back and remember that this is someone’s retirement celebration, big professional meeting (and reputation), scholarly lecture, annual fundraiser, etc., which helps me connect with the client as well.

    There’s a chance that you’re coming across as too checklist-driven to clients because to you it’s your job, but to them it’s something special/important, and they’d just like a little acknowledgement of that to help calm them down or make them feel understood.

  29. Anonymous*

    Does anyone else find some of these complaints pathetic?

    “Too professional”? Oh no, I’m sorry that I’m a good employee who reflects well on my company.

    “Too direct”? I’m sorry that I get to the point without a bunch of needless “how is/are: your kids I never met / favorite sports team that I don’t care about / your weekend where you did stuff that doesn’t interest me”.

    Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind socializing or being friendly at work, but I feel like when you’re communicating with clients / customers / whatever you call them, the boring, mind-numbing chit-chat just distracts people from what they need to do. When people call me and tell me their life story (none of which is helpful to the reason they’re calling), it just annoys the [chocolate teapots] out of me because I’d rather quickly help them with their problem and get back to my work. I may sound like a grouch but it’s not important for me to hear 10 minutes’ worth of backstory that’s completely unrelated to the task at hand, and it just wastes everyone’s time.

    1. Rana*

      I get what you’re saying, but you’re assuming that your sense of what the call is “about” and what your clients’ sense of what it’s “about” are the same thing.

      You may be thinking of the call in terms of getting a task done so you can move on to the next; they may be thinking of it as a moment of human contact in an otherwise boring and lonely day.

      1. Anonymous*

        I’m saying in terms of “the customer called me, so they know what ‘it’ is about”. For example, I used to work at a video game store years ago and people would call with questions. Instead of asking, “Hey, do you have [this game] or [this system] in stock?”, they would go into a long-winded spiel about how their boyfriend really likes to play these kinds of games and how they want to make them happy and how far away they live from the store and when they could make it to the store to pick up the game they haven’t asked about yet and how they also like to play the game and oh by the way did I mention that we play video games together and so on until they finally ask me if we have the game in stock.

        There is no point in saying anything else other than what your question is. It’s a waste of time and the person on the other end of the phone isn’t there to be your buddy. Go get a pet for that.

        1. Rana*

          But what I’m saying is that it isn’t a waste of time for them.

          And it may be less of a waste of your time than you think, as well. If part of what they want from a company is not just product information, but a sense that the company considers them as people, not just as wallets, then, honestly, you’ve not given that customer what they want. And if your competitor is willing to give them that bit of attention, they may well end up spending their money there, if that attention is important to them.

          In other words, they’re not doing this to annoy you or to waste your time. They’re doing that because such conversations are part of being a customer for them; whether you want such customers is a different question, but they’re really not out to get you by being “inefficient” in their calling habits.

        2. fposte*

          Anon, I think you’re forgetting the service element of most business. It’s up to the client, not you, to define what it is that makes them give you money. If the OP’s clients want to give their money to friendlier people, lecturing them on their failure to grasp the point of a business exchange isn’t likely to change their mind.

    2. Laura2*

      I don’t think they’re pathetic, but I think it’s weird that someone would call to complain specifically about someone’s style of interaction unless there was another problem that they thought it was a symptom of, like not actually providing good service. Then I’d call to complain and say “So your employee never actually sent us the contract, missed some important details that I explained more than once, etc. and on top of that she’s really abrupt with me; I can’t help feeling that our business isn’t important.” But if they just weren’t asking me about my weekend and were obviously following some sort of a script/checklist that they needed to get through? Not so much.

    3. K*

      The OP is an event planner, though. She didn’t specify business vs. personal events, but even business events usually need to reflect the culture of the company planning them in pretty particular ways. This feedback might really be more about the OP focusing on tasks such that she didn’t end up learning about the culture that needed to go into the event. (Not the most eloquent way for her clients to phrase the criticism, if that’s what was bugging them, but people are often not particularly self-reflective about why something’s not working for them and it’s incumbent on people in service industries, who want to succeed in those service industries, to get at the heart of the complaint despite that.)

  30. Chinook*

    Might it be a regional difference? I am used to a chatty style of business interactions out West here (i.e. you always comment about the weather or someone’s family or where there from, etc. before getting down to business) and, when I was in Ontario, I found conversations very abrupt because there was no “chatting.” DH, on the other hand, would get impatient out West because everything would take to dang long and he just wanted to get in and out with no chit chat. Now that I am back home, I am finding I have to reculturalize myself to be more chatty otherwise I get labelled a snob or not being a team player ( i.e. the VP here told my Office Manager that I need to be seen as more of a team player by showing my face upstairs more and saying hi. Never mind that the 2 VP’s I support are on the main floor so, if I go upstairs, I have to be away from them, my phone and my computer and am not actually working. But the “casually chatting” thing is considered important, so I suck it up and do it).

    1. Chinook*

      The one example that comes to mind was a female car sales person who, when observed by the owner of the company (who was from the city) saw her spending an hour with a “customer” without selling him anything. She pointed out that she sells him a new truck every few years and he sends all his family to her too. If she tried to hard sell him everytime he came in or to rush him out the door, he would remember and go to the competitors. That is all worth an hour of her time and a cup of coffee.

      She then pointed out that she was the top truck sales person in his 3 dealerships over the previous few years.

  31. Anonymous*

    “I have had several clients complain to my boss that I am robotic, abrupt and checklist-oriented.”

    This might not be a “chit-chat thing” so much as, allow your clients to feel comfortable discussing things with you. Friendliness wouldn’t stop me from complaining if I feel I am not being heard. It would just tack on a nice person but…. Especially in event planning, there are times where things need more discussion, or when people like to be reassured. If you are planning my event that will affect my organization or career, you’re darn tootin I want to know you a) care and b) are willing to work with me, not just for me. These could be some easy changes for you, as opposed to figuring out a chit-chat subject.

    Also, weather is kind of important to event planning – you might have an easier time with that than you think, if you inject more small talk! Best of luck.

  32. BW*

    Ask your boss for concrete examples of the behavior people are referring to. You can’t address it if you don’t know what it is you are doing or saying that is being perceived as “robotic, abrupt, and checklist oriented”. Is it a tone of voice? Too much focus on process? Body language? It could be anything! Once you have that information, it is much easier to figure out how to work on the problem.

  33. Joey*

    There are two ways to take advantage of this opportunity. Watch a peer who is successful or learn how to do it yourself. That means sponging as much as you can, trying and keeping what works for you and discarding the rest. Don’t beat yourself up, it can be learned. For some it comes naturally, but I see folks all the time develop a sort of alter ego that they turn on when its time to interact with clients.

  34. Laura UK*

    I may have this totally wrong but could it also be a comment about flexibility of approach and ability to adapt to client need? Might be worth considering whether that is also an angle here and that the OP isn’t perceived by clients to be responsive to different client scenarios and able to deviate from the script and actually deliver what they require without sounding ‘blocking’. This might be down to personality or it might also be about training and confidence or might be down to not feeling you have the authority to make a call about certain things. Just a thought

  35. ARM2008*

    I believe phone calls should be direct, check-list oriented, and to the point. :-)

    So, I have had to learn to deal with chatty, people people. When creating agendas I actually make the first item something like 5-10 min of catching up, how’s the weather, are the kids in school/on-break. I actually write it in the agenda, not just in my head. It helps the check-list side of me, and in meetings it lets the people people see we do need to move on to business, too. With clients on the phone you might not necessarily tell them it’s on your agenda :-)

  36. MA*

    I spent about a year in law school working at a mediation clinic. Most of the clients we served were by phone, and to be honest I am not really a warm and friendly person which isn’t very helpful when you want clients to open up to you about a conflict. That being said, using the mediation techniques really helped me to connect with clients and I often had people say “you are the first person to truly listen.” I find that mediation techniques are extremely helpful and transferable to all kinds of meeting facilitation (legal or not).

    Some particularly helpful techniques are to ask open ended questions such as “what is your vision for this event?” Then as they tell you, repeat key phrases such as “it sounds like you want a small and intimate gathering” or “so you want a large event with a garden theme.” Once you’ve asked some general open ended questions then you can begin to narrow your questions to try and get more specifics.

    Also, don’t try to lead your client. Unless you have a client who is unorganized in their thinking or high conflict, its best to let the client lead the conversation. If they want to have an extended conversation about flowers, let them. Don’t push them onto your next agenda item if they aren’t ready. If they keep revisiting a topic, it may be that they feel you aren’t truly listening or understanding their needs.

    If the client is upset or frustrated, recognize their emotion such as “I’m hearing that you are concerned, I know that this is a very important event to you and I want to make sure I have all the details correct.” Similarly, if you are running out of time and need to cover a certain topic but the client has gotten a little off track tell them “I see that we only have a few minutes left and what you’re saying is important, however, I know your time is valuable so I want to make sure we cover all the details of your event during our call today.” And if you really have to interrupt someone, a neutral way to do so is to say their name until they stop talking. Once they do, again apologize and reiterate how important their time is and you want to make sure you have all the information you need to make their event successful.

    I realize these may seem like pretty basic suggestions, however, the point of these techniques is to ensure the client is able to talk and feel HEARD. When someone feels like you are picking up on key points, repeating important language, and letting them discuss the topics that are most important to them it will be much easier to get through your check list in a more organic, less abrupt way.

  37. Jennifer*

    I have gotten in trouble (as in, laid off in trouble) for this kind of thing before. I then managed to avoid having to be on phones for 10 years, but alas, they are now sticking me back on them again in a new job. Argh.

    So, yeah, what everyone else said about how YOU MUST BE CHATTY before you get down to business is what I’ve been yelled at for too. And be smiley. However, I do think it’s difficult to “be chatty” if you don’t know the people you are talking to before the call whatsoever. And uh, duh, it’s a business call. But if you are dealing with people on a regular basis, you should be able to “get to know them” enough to be chit-chatty after awhile.

  38. MA*

    I should add that you can still have and use a check list/meeting agenda using these techniques. When I would co-mediate disputes, we often had a list of issues we needed to discuss with clients. But keep in mind, being a good facilitator doesn’t always mean adhering to the topic/time allotment you’ve set in your agenda. Being a good facilitator is about letting the client feel you’ve truly heard and understood their concerns, so if they keep returning to a certain topic (even if you’ve moved on from that part of the agenda) you should consider why.

  39. Ask a Manager* Post author

    These comments were really fascinating for me to read.

    I am by nature, down to my core, someone who wants to get straight down to business, and I’m often really annoyed when I’m dealing with vendors, service providers, etc. who aren’t. I seriously considered switching mortgage brokers in the middle of buying my house because the guy I was using had to chit chat with me for 10 minutes before he’d get down to business. My general reaction to the idea that some people need more of a personal connection in business relationships is … well, it’s kind of to scoff at it. Not when it comes to coworkers — people you work with every day — but vendors, etc.? Absolutely.

    But reading these comments gave me much more appreciation for the other side of this and why some people feel differently. And it made me think about the times when I have given in and embraced the chit chat in situations where I really didn’t want to … and I have to admit, it nearly always left me feeling warm and fuzzy and generally more positive about the relationship.

    So I think I need to reconsider my orientation to this.

    1. JT*

      I think it’s worth looking a little at who needs who in a relationship, and at power. That sounds obnoxious, but I what I mean is asking yourself would your mortgage vendor not give you good service if you politely and bluntly said “That’s nice to hear, but I’m very pressed for time recently, could you just let me know about XYZ.”

      That is, politely but firmly cutting off chit chat with people trying to have you use their services.

      If you’re in more of a client service or sales situation, or even trying to win over peers or people who work for you, play the chit chat game as more. Even with vendors who are in some way “special” and who you need to persuade in some way.

      I’m reminded of a few phone calls I had with the head of a private banking at a global bank – a person working with billionaires and a big staff of her own. She was always super-abrupt with me because her time was extremely valuable and she was so busy. Never actually mean – just all business taken to an extreme. She needed to tell me specific info and get specific info and then get to her next call. And I didn’t take that personally.

      I’ll add that I’m not adverse to chit chat in a store with a salesperson if we’re both standing there waiting some something – say a product to be sent up from the back or a transaction to finish processing. It’s the polite thing to do – to reciprocate – and I have nothing else to do. But if I have something else to do, or it’s causing them to serve me more slowly, then it annoys me.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, I think that’s an important distinction, and it’s one I’ve always made — a “come on, I’m paying for this service and I’d like to get straight to it” kind of mindset. But reading the comments here really has made me reflect on how in the times that I’ve just given in to the chit chat and let it happen, it often did make for a more pleasant experience. I think I need to remind myself in those situations that efficiency isn’t always the highest virtue.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          You never know what will come of those little chats, either.

          I had a tech come to the house to service a well known home product. My preference is to have service people talk to me – it gives me some sense of what type of stranger I have just invited into my home. In the course of chatting, he noticed a few other things in the system that needed a bit of tweaking… So he greased X, replaced Y, tightened down Z…. AT NO ADDITIONAL cost to me. I probably saved $200.

          It’s not about chatting. It’s about recognizing there is another human being in front of me. Showing an ounce of respect for that goes a long way. It happens too many times that service people are treated shabby. I have a lot of friends that are techs and consistently, if a customer is pleasant, conversational, etc. the tech is more willing to help out and more inclined to look around for different ways of helping the customer.
          My learning curve in all this was not to let the technical stuff overwhelm me. Most of the time, I know very little about what the tech is doing. My challenge is to find things to say that shows consideration without making myself look too foolish: “Did you have trouble finding the house?” or “Do you need anything?”
          Probably small talk stuff- but if I think about the tech’s situation and needs, then probably the tech is going to put a little more thought into what s/he is doing, too.

  40. CG*

    I like a bit of lubricant, but just a tiny bit. I don’t want the actual conversation/chit-chat, I just want a signal that the person on the other side is human and won’t bite my head off. I normally give this signal myself but being warm and polite in tone.

    “Hi X, it’s CG here… I am trying to do Y and was hoping you could help me with something?” I keep my voice nice (but genuine!) and never act like I’m too busy to be kind, even if I don’t want to ask inane questions.

    I don’t actually want to know where you’re from, how old your kids are, any of those things. These are tiresome and can be annoying when you’re extra busy. But if I go to a meeting and the other person doesn’t say “How are you?” ou “How is your day going?” I find that a bit chilly. (I think in person you need to give a little bit more than over the phone.)

    I will never give much information back, nor expect it. Usually it goes as “Not bad/Busy, thanks, yours?” “Yes, good, thanks” and then on to work. On the phone, I think “how are you?” is fine, to which, in my opinion, the answer should ALWAYS be simply “fine, thanks, you?” followed by “fine, thanks”, but it doesn’t offend me at all if the question isn’t asked, as long as the voice and the tone of the conversation are friendly. (Robotic list-checking would not make me feel very cooperative.)

    I reduce my expectations even further in retail situations – I used to live in the UK, where “Hi” and a smile are the common greeting, and it suited me just fine, but in Australia every single shop assistant will ask “How are you?” which is just plain irritating (because we have to go through the whole good-thanks-you-good-thanks malarkey). I just want to look at the damn dress!

    1. jesicka309*

      Bahaha at the Australian thing, it’s so true! People expect it too.
      When I worked at McDonalds, to try to prevent the chit chat (that would steal valuable seconds on your time) I would say “Hi, how can I help you?” The amount of times someone responded with “Good, thanks, how are you?” was baffling. Didn’t you listen? It’s such an automatic response.
      Mind you, at my current job we take calls from internal clients, and some of the reps have the greeting down to an art.
      “not too bad, not too bad” or “Busy, yourself?”
      It could be an Australian thing, but it’s also a good way to gauge how into chit chat someone is. Some people will respond with “oh, I’m great! Lovely weather, it’s going to a hot one etc.” and others will respond with “Good, I’d like a large cappucino…” Saves the awkward times where one person misses the visual cues that they aren’t into chit chat.

    2. JT*

      One other thing, about the answer should ALWAYS be simply “fine, thanks, you?”

      I agree in terms of with strangers or people we need to influence. But with people I am close to already who are too chatty and I’m not in the mood, I try to perhaps “train” them not to ask with brief but honest answers and not always reciprocating on asking back. That is cutting it off such as with “fine, now about that proposal….” or even (rarely) Example “I’ve been better. Now, about that proposal…”

  41. Anonymouse*

    Are you female? I’m guessing so— only because it’s not as often that anyone will complain about a man being to-the-point (which in a woman’s case can be interpreted as anything from “robotic” to “terse” to “icy” to “bitchy”). Some of this can’t be helped nor solved by you, since with some people it’s just plain *their problem*. As in they either expect everybody in any position that “serves” them to totally kiss their ass above all reasonable proportion and/or they have that expectation that women in particular should be dripping with saccharine sweetie-pie-ness at all times lest be accused of being a genital epithet. (This sort of person might also order you to “smile”.) With that kind of person, you’re not really going to win— although if you can get into the role-playing of it, it can be fun to have the excuse to play southern belle and they’ll tend to eat it up.

    In other cases it could just be that you’re coming off a little less personable than you think and a few little tweaks would make all the difference. All that’s been suggested here on that is good advice. Also– if, say, you’re having the kind of day where you just can’t seem to muster that extra smile in your voice or sweetness in your tone, it can sometimes be easier to just make a statement of really nice *words* instead, regardless of tone. For example: “whatever you need, don’t hesitate to ask”, “I’m just a phone call away”, “it’s absolutely no trouble at all”, “it’s my pleasure”, “have a wonderful day”are all tremendously warm and friendly things to say unless your tone is so intentionally sarcastic as to cut glass. If you say these things with sincerity, it makes it clear you’re a nice person if they have any doubt. Other commenters here suggested some other nice phrases to use and I think they’re all helpful. I agree with one commentor who said something along the lines that asking about someone’s weekend if you truly don’t care can really fall flat– you’d have to at least kind of care for it to work AND they have to meet you halfway or else it’s like trying to get blood from a turnip.

    One thing I like to make the effort to do in *any* situation where I think someone might judge me as cold or distant or bitchy is offer a *sincere* compliment. The operative word is sincere because it really needs to be for it to work. (And of course it can’t be done too often with the same person because that’s just weird.) You can find anything about anyone at any time to give a little compliment on, and you can even do this over the phone, i.e. “you’ve got a great laugh!” or complimenting their word choice: “great word– I’ll have to use that more often” or anything about them or their work that you might know of outside the phone call, ESPECIALLY pertaining to their own creative ideas in an event planning situation, i.e. “that’s a beautiful idea you had about such-and-such”. People DEFINITELY remember compliments and who gave them, and it can instantly transform any kind of social interchange.

    And again, in things like event planning, what they want most in that context is to have their great ideas acknowledged.

  42. TL*

    Second the suggestions to get additional feedback from your boss, if you can, about the specific reasons *why* clients are feeling this way. It may not be a lack of small talk that’s the problem (though it might be). For instance, I recently dealt with someone who rushed straight through from Point A to B to C to Z, and I had to interrupt their rapid-fire verbal delivery – which made me feel rude and pushy – in order to ask a relevant question, or clarify something. On the phone, this can be even worse to deal with – but the issue wasn’t with small talk, it was with rushing through without giving me a chance to add my (necessary) $.02. This is just an example, of course; not saying this is your problem. :)

    FWIW, I’ve noticed a lot of commenters suggest asking about someone’s weekend as a good, entry-level small talk topic. I suppose this is a “know your audience” thing, but even though I don’t mind friendly chatter, the weekend question is one that I really hated getting on a regular basis. It seems oddly personal, especially if it’s asked week after week. My work and personal life are separate, and I don’t feel like sharing everything I did on the weekend with coworkers. Besides, I rarely do exciting things, so it’s awkward to say “I did chores and stayed home and made myself a fancy brunch” all the time. It seems like a question that’s best asked once in a while, not every Monday.

    1. K*

      I usually ask “Did you have a nice weekend?” instead of “What did you do this weekend?” If the person says “Oh yeah, it was relaxing,” instead of naming a specific activity, I wouldn’t drill down for more info; if they do name a specific activity, that could start a conversation.

      1. TL*

        Good distinction, and thanks for pointing out the difference! I’d be much less annoyed by that question, if asked alone. :) Unfortunately, in my experience it’s sometimes been bundled as a two-for-one: “So, how was your weekend? Did you do anything fun?”

  43. moe*

    The word “abrupt” makes me think this may be as much a “listening” as a “talking” problem. You may be interrupting or cutting clients off sometimes, probably accidentally.

    I have a tendency to jump in too soon when face-to-face, too, but it’s easier to stop yourself when you have body language to go on. On the phone, I’ve had to train myself to listen and wait for pauses in conversation, which means being comfortable with silences sometimes too.

    This is valuable feedback you’ve gotten!

    1. The IT Manager*

      +1 to Moe and TL above.

      You may want to try to get further explanation of how you can improve, but the friendly small talk that’s being discussed here may not be the answer.

      Robotic, abrupt, checklist oriented sounds more like you don’t veer off topic and since its worded as a complaint you may not be listening and getting concerns and feedback from your customers and that’s why its a problem. You may cut them off.

      All communication via phone makes its harder for you to realize that they have more issues/concerns to discuss as you just plow through your agenda.

  44. Anonymous*

    Where did the OP grow up and live?

    Might seem like a strange question, but I ask because in my experience in both the Midwest and East Coast, Easterners as a group seem to be much more brusque and to the point. If your clients are from different parts of the country, this could all be a big misunderstanding based on regional differences.

  45. jesicka309*

    I’m surprised how many people are against makig chit chat and smalltalk. I’m guessing you are all business when you buy your morning coffee then? How about when you’re walking to the carpark with a person in another team? Never had a conversation with the kitchen staff?
    I ahve a tendency towards depression, and it’s amazing how one little, mundane conversation can completely turn around a dark mood day. Just yesterday I was having an awful day when the Head of another department opened a door for me, and as we went down the stairs we chatted about the fact that Coldplay were playing that night in the stadium next door to our building. We could have easily talked about something businessy, or had an awkward silence. The rest of the day I felt a little bit better knowing that he could have easily ignored me.
    While you’re rankling about the fact that you ‘just want to get to business’, just remember that you might be the first person who’s talked to them all day, and for all you know, a simple conversation about how hot the building gets in summer could be making that person’s day.
    OP, even chit chat about the work you’re doing could be helpful. Even just “How are things up your end? Busy this time of year? I know we are swamped with events in December, but the holiday at the end is worth it!” Business related, but friendly and eliminates the ‘robotic’ tone that could come across if you just said “Hi! This is the plan for Saturday’s event.”

  46. Pickles*

    This might sound weird, but try becoming friends with someone from the Middle East. Seriously – or another culture that has a strong emphasis on hospitality and semi-ritualized politeness. I had a variant of the same issue – I tended to feel bad for interrupting someone, so thought let’s get down to business and get it over with quickly so I could let them get back to what they were doing. Then I started working more with two men from the Middle East, and it just didn’t work. It was like talking to a wall. They’d stare blankly, unable to understand my apparent rudeness, and I’d get upset that they were uncooperative. So I learned how to ask how they were, how their families were, refuse/accept coffee, and other chitchat before delving in. It’s helped overall in daily life. I’m still brief, but I’ve lost the reputation for being completely socially awkward. (And when I told these two men this, they cracked up. Now they call me “the awkward woman” in Arabic when I stop by.)

    1. Laura*

      This is so true. I grew up in the Middle East — we moved there when my dad got a job in Saudi Arabia. It was a huge adjustment for him and all the other Americans working there to get used to the culture. If a meeting was scheduled for 2:00, that meant “about” 2:00, meaning any time between 1:45 and 3:00. And like you said, the social stuff had to be addressed first before any business would be discussed, and then sometimes everyone would kick their shoes off and get comfortable. It was a real challenge for Americans, who are always in a hurry and on a timetable. It drove my dad crazy for awhile, and then he realized it was just something he had to deal with and get used to. After that, it stopped bothering him so much.

  47. Sara*

    I work in this area and I too do a lot of phone calls as my clients are in different cities. This does make relationship building challenging without face to face. Based on the comments I wonder if the OP might not come across as flexible or perhaps sticking to a list when covering off items, as in this business it’s very checklist oriented. Perhaps cultivating conversation on phone rather than firing off the list would help. Also listening more and talking less seems to help client relationships.


    Dear Miss Robot, sounds like you are a hard worker, trying to get everything done and make a huge impression! Just relax, have fun and ask people how they are doing and mean it, take time out to listen, just listen and be kind, just remember one thing, treat others exactly the way you would like to treated, exactly! If I can’t have a few laughs every day, I can’t survive and trust me, people like it so much better when you are light hearted!!!

  49. Cassie*

    I’ve been told, by my coworkers who sit near me, that I have a happy phone voice. They think it’s hilarious that I sound all nice and peppy on the phone, when in reality, I’m usually quiet and maybe even a bit grouchy (obviously not to my boss or clients). I didn’t realize I had a happy phone voice until they mentioned it – I think it’s because if I’m calling someone, it’s because I need something from them, and so I have to be “nice”.

    I’ve tried adding a “how are you?” after the initial hello. It works well with people I’ve met in person and work with extensively (also, people in fundraising seem to love this), but not so much with people who I’ve emailed/called but not met. The latter group usually just want to get right to business, which is fine with me, but sometimes I feel awkward just launching in.

    As far as small talk, I’m not a fan. People I interact with regularly don’t really care how your weekend was, they just ask out of politeness (except for those fundrasing folks – they really like chit-chat, but I guess it’s part of their job). One of them asked me yesterday what I did over the long weekend and I contemplated telling them the truth – I discovered there’s a mouse/rat around our house somewhere, it’s apparently been traipsing through our sofa for who knows how long, so I spent the weekend cleaning up. And bought some poison and traps but who knows if they’ll work. And then I figured 1 floor on the elevator was not enough time to go into all of this (plus, who wants to hear about that?!), so I just said “oh, nothing.”

  50. Katrina Prock*

    I’m probably repeating some other poster, since I’m so late to this party; but sometimes just saying, ”Good morning,” can set a warm tone and let you get to the business faster.

  51. Indy*

    I am playing devil’s advocate here… but I think chit-chat often comes across as very insincere. Perhaps its the Germanic attitude to chit-chatting rubbing off on me. I once asked a colleague I spoke to infrequently how he was and he said after a confused pause ‘…Fine. Why are you asking me?’ The only answer I could come up with was ‘Well, its a social convention where I come from’. Which is fine, but if you’re taking up someone’s time, you should be prepared to sound interested and sincere about the topic of discussion.

    I guess the questions are:
    a) Is chitchat really a social convention here?
    b) Are you mistaking efficiency for unecessarily brusque: i.e. do you bring your personality into the interaction with the client? I associate the comment about robotic more with issues around whether you sound appropriately engaged, interested in the relationship, and whether you reveal enough of your own personality than with chitchat.
    c) Where is the line where chitchat becomes too much? I always find it odd when people ask about client’s children- it seems professionally stalkerish to me. However a short conversation about work (outside the meeting agenda topics)- i.e. is it busy etc, is something most people can engage in. It also gives you an in with a client- you could notice in this conversation they are struggling with something you may be well positioned to help with! This keeps the chit chat business oriented, may help with increasing service provided (and sales) and would definitely in my opinion make people think you are engaged and interested.

    1. Laura*

      Ha! That’s funny, and so true. My company has a big office in Germany, so I work with quite a few people there. Over the years I’ve become good friends with some of them, so we chit-chat about things before talking business. But with the people I don’t know well, it’s always very businesslike and efficient. The thing I’ve really noticed about the Germans is that they don’t share alot of personal information with someone they don’t know.

      Where I’ve really noticed this is with health and medical issues. Americans, in general, tend to overshare in this department. The Germans don’t. If someone in that office is out with the flu, all you hear is “I was sick.” On the other hand, if someone in the US office has the flu, when they get back, it’s, “OMG, I was sick as a dog, my fever was so high, could hardly get out of bed,” and so on. I do the same thing.

      1. Worker Bee*

        So off topic but yes that is who we germans are. Of course there are exceptions. But this reminds me of the first time I went grocery shopping with my roommate and she talked with the cashier about me and how exciting it is that I moved here from Germany and what plans we had for later tonight. When we stepped out of the store I asked her where she knew the cashier from and to my surprise/shock she didn’t..
        Even though I am all down to business, efficiency, I came to enjoy the chit chat in the stores and the nice/friendly costumer service. It just makes live more enjoyable. I have to admit it took some time for me to open up but now it is just nice. I smile much more and I am friendlier because people are friendlier. I know that a lot of it is superficial but you don’t know how nice it is. Live in germany for a while and I bet you will start to miss it. I am already annoyed when I think of going back to Germany and the grumpy people. We are so serious and “mind your own business”.. That is no fun either!! Believe me..

  52. Michelle*

    There are so many comments that I don’t have time to read them all so someone else might have recommended this but…

    My recommendation would be to call some of these clients just for the purpose to connect. That may sound uncomforitable, but it can be very helpful in building a relationship. Tell them you are calling just to touch base and see how they are doing. Be prepared to ask some questions to start the conversation. For me, as an HR person, I would ask about how their organization doing. What is their take on their group’s moral. Any challenges they are facing? How is our relationship doing? Are they getting what they need from me? By asking questions you are inviting them to share with you and this is how you start a relationship. If you are normally just sharing information you are missing the two sided piece of effective communications. Ask and listen.

    I also completely agree with adding some levity to your conversations. Jokes do that wonderfully as does self-depricating humor and sharing personal examples and stories.

    The good news is that this is something that you can work on and change. It takes time and a commitment to put the effort towards it, but you might be surprised at how big a return you get for just a little extra effort. Good luck!

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