are you breaking these 5 rules of business calls?

As the business world increasingly communicates through email, chat, and other non-phone methods, traditional phone etiquette is getting lost. In fact, some professionals use the phone so infrequently in their work that they dread the occasional call they do have to make – probably in part because no one teaches phone norms anymore.

Here are five of the most common business phone etiquette mistakes. Avoiding these will help keep your calls on track, your coworkers and clients happy, and everyone’s phone angst to a minimum.

1. Giving into phone phobia. If you’ve grown to dread phone calls, you’ve got a lot of company. But even if you hate the phone, there are times when it’s far more efficient and effective to make a call – such as when you need to hash out a complicated topic, explain nuanced information, or have significant back and forth, or when you need to deliver a difficult, sensitive, or easily misinterpreted message.

What to do instead: Sadly for you, sometimes you have to just bite the bullet and pick up the phone. If you’re really dreading it, though, don’t be afraid to write out talking points for yourself ahead of time. You don’t want to sound like you’re reading a script, of course, but written notes can help you structure the conversation and prevent you from having to come up with perfect wording on the fly. Plus, this will require you to think through what you’ll say ahead of time, which can make you feel much more prepared for the call.

2. Leaving long, rambling voicemails that no one will finish listening to. People increasingly lack patience to sit through entire voicemail messages if they’re long, possibly because listening to a long voicemail messages feels inefficient now that we’re all used to being able to quickly skim an email for key highlights. In fact, these days, some people don’t listen to their voicemail messages at all. And if the person is one of the many who will simply call back when they see they missed your call, without listening to your message, you’ll end up repeating all that same information all over again anyway.

What to do instead: If you’re leaving a voicemail message it should be quick: your name, your phone number (if needed), a brief explanation of the reason for your call. Note the word “brief” there; this is not the time to go into every detail of the situation you’re calling about. But on the other end of the spectrum…

3. Leaving cryptic voicemail messages. While long, rambling messages aren’t ideal, you don’t want to go too far in the other direction and leave messages with too little information either. Messages like “this is Jane, call me back” give the recipient no information about why you’re calling and thus no way to judge how urgent your call is or how to prioritize it relative to other pressing tasks.

What to do instead: Briefly explain the reason for your call. Bonus points if you’re clear when the situation is either time-sensitive (“I need to hear back from you by 4:00 because the printer deadline is 5:00”) or utterly not time-sensitive (“No rush on this, just whenever you have time”).

4. Calling when you could have sent a quick email. This one won’t be true in all offices, but in many offices, there’s an expectation that if you can deal with something quickly in email, you’ll choose email instead of the phone. The idea is that phone calls interrupt whatever the other person is doing and require an immediate response, whereas emails allow the person to respond at a particularly convenient moment.

What to do instead: Pay attention to the norms in your particular office. If your workplace is one that prefers email, it’s usually smart to operate within those norms (unless you’re the boss, in which case your preferences will probably win out).

5. Not picking up on cues from the person you’re talking with. Ask people their pet peeves about business phone calls, and you’ll hear that calls drag on too long or come at inopportune times. Ideally, people would be comfortable saying, “I’m actually on deadline right now – can I get back to you later this afternoon?” or “I’ve got to run to a meeting that’s about to start.” But in reality, many people won’t and will just get annoyed that you’re not picking up on their cues.

What to do instead: Pay attention to the signals the person you called is sending out. If the person sounds busy or distracted, ask if it would be better to talk at another time and/or try to wrap up the call quickly.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

 

{ 66 comments… read them below }

  1. Gandalf the Nude

    Additional rule for voicemail? State your phone number right away, even if you think they already know it. I should not have to listen to your entire message multiple times to get to the contact information at the end, especially if you break rule #2 and even more especially if you can’t enunciate.

      1. Kelly L.

        Absolutely. I’ve listened to too many VMs where the recording suddenly cut out in mid-number. But if you say it twice, it probably won’t cut out the same digit both times, and the person can reassemble the number, so to speak.

        And to address one of the other points in the article, writing out bullet points for myself has been a lifesaver when making calls!

      2. WorkingMom

        Yes! Always say it twice! I say it once right away, and then again at the end. And speak slower than you think you need to!

    1. CrazyCatLady

      I always say my name and number first … and repeat it at the end in case I was too quick the first time for them to write it down.

    2. Meg Murry

      Yes, here’s a script:

      Hello Jane, this is Meg Murry from Teapots Inc, and my number is 123-456-7890 . [One sentence reasons why you are calling, including deadlines (with an actual time, not ASAP)]. Please call me back, again, Meg Murry from Teapots, Inc, 123-456-7890. I will be in my office today from 12-2 and 3-4 (or whatever times, don’t ask someone to call you back if you won’t be around to answer their call for multiple hours). Thank you.

      Even now, before I pick up the phone I try to make a bulleted list of the things I want to get across, so I’m not stumbling and fumbling if I get a person when I expected voicemail and voicemail when I expected a person.

    3. The Other Dawn

      Also, say it at a normal pace so people have a chance to write it down. I hate when someone leaves their number at the end of the voicemail and they so it so fast I either can’t understand it or can’t write fast enough. I then have to listen several times to make sure I got it.

      1. Cordelia Naismith

        THIS. People have a tendency to speed up when they’re giving information that they know really well, forgetting that the listener does not know it as well as you do, if at all. Lots of people give their phone number in one breath, so it comes out sounding like “My number is mumblety-mumble. Call me back!”

        If you want them to call you back, the number is the most important part! Slow down and speak clearly to make sure they actually can understand you.

      2. Eden

        Oh, this is my all-time VM pet peeve – the lickety-split number at the end of a 4-minute message makes me crazy. And don’t mumble your name, for the love of god. Particularly if you have an unusual name.

        1. WorkingMom

          Those people are likely to get deleted! You’ll have to play again another day if you want that call returned. I will not spend time being a detective to return your call! (I’m not bitter or angry, I promise.)

      3. Solidus Pilcrow

        Yes! I like giving a slight pause between the segments to allow the person to write down the number. “My number is area code 123 456 7890. Again, my number is, 123 456 7890.” The first time I give the number each digit is given slowly. The second repetition is a bit faster to allow the person to confirm the number.

        I have a lot of practice spelling out my multi-syllable last name by breaking it up into 2-3 letter segments, so this technique comes naturally to me.

      4. Honeybee

        Oh man, this is my voicemail pet peeve. Yes, you know your number, but I do not! Slow down. I make sure I go really slowly and say each one of the digits of my number individually (say “six eight four two,” not “sixty-eight forty-two) and repeat the number.

    4. Felicia

      I’ve gotten people who not only wait until the end to say their number, and don’t enunciate so you can’t tell what number they’re saying, but they also don’t say their name at all. Saying what your name is should be basic.

  2. YourUnfreindlyPhlebotomist

    so glad that my job doesn’t require many phone calls at all, I cant help but interrupt. I cant focus long enough and I feel like I already know where the other person is going with their thought so I just get excited and talk too soon. my mother hates it but prefers to text anyway. I just cant master it.

  3. Mabel

    In my case, sometimes when people ask if it would be better to talk at another time, I realize that yes, it would be better. Other times I realize that I’m sounding rushed and harried, but it’s not actually a bad time, so I have the opportunity to slow down and finish the call.

  4. Rat Racer

    A question: when you are moderating a conference call that has an agenda with set timeframes, is there a graceful way to interrupt someone who has gone over time? I send out advance reminders to participants to stick to their allotted time, and endeavor to IM people first (“time’s up!”) before I interrupt them, but sometimes there’s no getting around it. And I HATE doing it! And sometimes get nasty-grams from meeting participants like “You let Jane go 3 minutes over, but you interrupted me immediately when my time was up!”

    I don’t envy those presidential debate moderators. Or the people who turn on the “get off the stage” music at the Oscars.

    1. Not Myself

      Give them a 2 minute warning so they can wrap up. It’s a bit nicer and keeps things on track. Assigning a ‘time keeper’ for larger meetings is helpful as well.

      1. BRR

        I’ve had meetings with official time keepers and warnings, it seems authoritative but was necessary. This worked because appropriate amounts of time were given for each topic. It was wonderful. You start to get the “I don’t want this to drag on any further” feeling and then bam, next topic. The rules were also established at the beginning that you’d get a warning and that end times would be strictly upheld.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think you’ve got to read the situation a bit and not be totally rigid, but if you do indeed need to cut in, I’d say this: “I’m going to jump in here — sorry to cut you off, Jane — I think these are great points, but I want to make sure we stick to our agenda and have time to get through it all. Maybe you and Marketing can talk separately about these issues, which I agree are good ones to tackle?”

    3. Mike C.

      Can you just mute them? I know that sounds harsh, but you’ve told them and warned them so they’re really leaving you with no choice.

  5. some1

    I used to get so many vague voice mails from customers. I finally changed my greeting to include, “Please leave your name, number and also please explain how I can help you.” and it helped so much.

  6. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.

    In my circles, it’s now becoming faux pas to call someone on the phone without arranging a time to talk (the other person agreeing to the phone call). If my phone rings and I’m not expecting a phone call, I give the phone a hairy eye ball. It can’t be someone I want to talk to because they’d arrange a phone call first.

    Arranging a phone call is as fast as “do you have time to talk?” shot at me from XYZ (outside, mostly), and me emailing back “sure 10 min, call me on my cell” or “yep, free right now, call me on my direct line” or “I’ll call you in half an hour”.

    1. Anlyn

      That’s what we do; if I need to talk to someone, I’ll send an IM with a message “have time for a chat?” and then if not, we arrange to talk later. Also, sometimes we can resolve an issue over IM, but often I need to call because I’m confused as to what they’re telling me through text.

    2. videogame Princess

      Yeah, calling out of the blue is definitely a huge no-no in our company too, unless the caller is the guy who started his own company and successfully sued another, humongous company for stealing his intellectual property. I always assumed it was a universal “no.”

      1. M&M

        this is true where I work as well. An out of the blue phone call is usually something incredibly urgent and sensitive – it’s usually bad news. In nearly every other circumstance, setup time to chat or ask via email first!

    3. Ama

      This is becoming more common at my workplace as well and I really prefer it, especially since most of the people who call me on the phone are asking a question where I need to consult certain documentation or databases anyway. Everyone’s going to get better info faster if I have time to pull up the materials I need first.

    4. Graciosa

      My real frustration is more tied to the phone phobia / email aspect. It is amazingly common for people to try to discuss things in email.

      It Does Not Work.

      If people are going back and forth on an email chain with different opinions, you need a phone call.

      I hate seeing a ridiculous number of emails in the same chain in just a few minutes. There are a few of us who will step in and politely point out this this appears to need further discussion and maybe we can schedule a quick call, but not nearly enough.

      1. Kyrielle

        And I hate the attempt to take a back and forth to phone even if it won’t work in that format…. If I have to look up technical details (5 minutes of lookups / scanning / searching) before I can respond, that’s going to be one heck of a miserable phone call. If it’s a back and forth between two technical people and each exchange has that level of research built in (or even if, say, 1/4 of them do), it’s going to be hideous.

        Barring emergencies, of course, where the answer must be known as soon as humanly possible, I vastly prefer dialogs where research is required for any significant part of the exchanges to be handled via email or IM, so you don’t have those long pauses. (Or worse, where it takes 10 minutes to find it because the other person wants to fill the silence and keeps adding things that distract you.)

        I agree, there are times it has to go to phone – but not everything that is going back and forth is best handled via phone.

        1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.

          This. This is what works for me. Having a heads up to the topic and ability to prep before the call makes the call efficient.

        2. Kelly L.

          Ugh, this–I just had a lengthy phone conversation in which I kept having to say URLs for the person to type or write. Email is definitely better for that!

          1. Shannon

            Unless the person I was talking was my boss and explicitly asking for a URL for her to write down, I’d just say the URL and follow up with, “Let me shoot you an email with that.”

      2. Honeybee

        Maybe this comes from my dislike of the phone, but I don’t mind that, especially if there are more than 3-4 people in the conversation. I can archive an email chain and refer back to it later if necessary, and in my work those long email chain conversations with different opinions become useful later on.

    5. Honeybee

      Yeah, it’s like this at my business t00 (and we don’t use the phone; we use Skype for Business). The upside with Skype is that it has an IM tool that’s tied to your Outlook calendar. So you can check to see if someone is busy or in a meeting; if they are not, you can then instantly message them to ask if they are free to talk. Then you call them. And even then, you only do it if the call is gonna take 10 minutes or less. Anything longer you arrange a Skype meeting.

    6. Matt

      I wish it would be like that in my place … we still have a very strong phone culture here, everyone calls everyone about everything, and arranging a time for calls is virtually unheard of (except for conference calls), you’re expected to always answer when you’re at your desk. I always try to educate my coworkers to email me instead of calling, but after all those years the attempt seems to be futile :(

  7. Paloma Pigeon

    As a squeezed Gen-Xer, I find that older (upper Boomer and Greatest Gen) and younger (Millennial and younger) struggle with the new normal and old normal respectively. Older folks don’t get the ‘pressing time’ thing AT ALL. So you get lots of small talk which can drive people who are on deadline insane, but to them it’s being personable. On the flip side, younger folks (who perhaps never logged thousands of hours talking to their friends on the phone when they were teens and so never learned to read the emotional subtext of conversations), have trouble establishing a rapport on the phone. Just my .02.

    1. Graciosa

      I think this can be tied more to personality or culture than to generation. I’m in the had-to-learn-to-chitchat camp (task-oriented, driver, introverted-thinker, etc.) after finally accepting that it can actually be faster in the long run to “waste” time on these things.

      There are personalities and cultures who value this enough that they just can’t seem to get in gear until it is taken care of. Trying to skip it and get down to business actually slows things down because of unmet needs or lack of trust. You end up arguing / negotiating the decisions that need to be made much longer. Admittedly, you’re superficially talking about the task at that point, but it’s not getting done quickly.

      I finally decided that X minutes of chitchat at the start of each meeting is more efficient than 3X additional minutes of argument during the meeting (or entire additional meetings because we couldn’t resolve the issues the first time).

      I have also had our in-country contacts explicitly coach us on this before critical meetings, along the lines of yes, you have to spend a couple days talking about sports or families or whatever and going out to dinner together before you’ll be able to get anything done. I just bucket this into the category of things-I-don’t-enjoy-at-work and hope there won’t be too many of them.

      1. Paloma Pigeon

        That’s a really good point about cultures. My husband works internationally, and relationship-building is key on many levels in foreign territories, in the way you have described.

    2. Honeybee

      I’m a Millennial, and I’m 29. I was 18 before I had my first cell phone, and most of my friends my age didn’t get cell phones until they were in college. Most Millennials who are old enough to be working full-time probably did log thousands of hours chatting to their friends on the phone when they were teenagers. I certainly did! (And even then, the first cell phone I had was a flip phone and I used that phone to chat with friends for hours on end. Text messaging didn’t become really big until I was nearly finished with college.)

      I also don’t think Boomers are any less capable of understanding deadlines than Millennials are. Deadlines and pressing matters didn’t start becoming a thing in the mid-2000s.

  8. Mike C.

    Maybe I’m just weird, but I hate being called on the phone because it you might as well be telling me that whatever it is you have to talk to me about is much, much more important than anything else I happen to be doing at the time.

    In some cases this is very true. In most? Not so much.

    Voice mail is a giant pain because most retrieval systems are absolutely terrible.

    This isn’t saying I won’t ever call or take a call, it just means that most of the time I’m not enjoying it.

    1. Not So NewReader

      You caught me. That is what I am saying”Drop everything my question is important.” I work part time at one job, where if I say I do not have all day, I truly mean that! ha! But, seriously, yes, there is an element of truth to what you are saying.

      I have peers that take up to six weeks to answer someone. My worst time is five days, and that is because of my limited hours. The reason I do so well is because I do tend to push. However, I try to make most of my calls first thing when I get in. That way people have several hours to get back to me or they can catch me the next work day.

      To compensate for my short hours I am willing to deal with long, detailed voice mails. Even though I can only understand every other word because the sound quality is terrible.

  9. Not Today Satan

    Ugh yes to #3. So often I get messages from clients that just say, “I have a question.” Then I call them back and, 99% of the time, they don’t answer. So we get stuck in an infinite loop. If they would just tell me what their question is in the voicemail, I could answer it in my message back.

    (And in most of these cases email would be better and more efficient, but no matter how I beg clients to email me questions, they insist on leaving voicemails. Sigh.)

  10. Heather

    Or too many details! I don’t need to know what the weather is doing, if you had a good weekend or what you are planning for the upcoming weekend or your thoughts on whatever! Just don’t! I need name, business, phone number and what you are calling for (in a short simple sentence). It’s amazing how many people leave such long overly detailed messages in voice mail.

  11. Erih

    For both work or cell phone, if I miss your call and you don’t leave a brief message (or better, email me with a reason for the call), unless I know the number and the reason why the person would be trying to contact me, most often I won’t call back. Also for my personal phone, if I don’t know the number, I generally don’t answer.

    Do people who call without leaving a message still expect a callback? (since recently people often have caller id these days). I just wanted to check my assumptions on this, since I’m a millennial who avoids phone conversations half the time.

    1. Not So NewReader

      The people with no message: I am amazed at the number of people I know that will call back a number that leaves no message. I had no clue that was a thing. Since I have been pretty happy with my system of no message equals no return call, I will be keeping this system.
      I think some people need an answer in a short time so when they hit voice mail they realize they cannot wait and move on.

  12. Noah

    Not leaving a voicemail drives me crazy. If you call me, and do not leave a message, I will not call you back just because I see a missed call. Either leave a voicemail or send me an email asking me to call you. I don’t know exactly when this trend started, but I just assume the call was not important if you don’t bother to leave a message.

    1. Jaydee

      I can understand with personal phones and people whose numbers you know/have programmed in. I’m going to call my mom or my best friend back even if they don’t leave a message. My husband will text if it’s urgent and I don’t answer. If I get a call from a random number with no message, I know it wasn’t important.

      The problem is that I think people forget how landlines work when they call me at work. “Can you just text me?” they ask. No, because this black box on my desk lacks a QWERTY keyboard. “I’ve called you 7 times today!!!!” Perhaps, but how many messages did you leave? Because I don’t see a log of all my missed calls, nor would I try to figure out who called but couldn’t be bothered to leave a message. I have enough people to call who do leave me messages.

  13. Marina

    #5 If I think my question is going to take longer than two or three minutes to answer, I think it’s polite to start the call with, “Hi, this is Marina, I wanted to get your opinion on the new teapot spout procedures. Is now a good time to talk?” If nothing else, that gives them a heads up that I want their full focus on this call, not trying to multitask.

  14. Ad Astra

    I am so guilty of phone phobia. Lucky for me, my organization is big on meetings, so I can usually schedule a 15-minute sit-down with someone else in the office to get the information I need. For some reason, I need to see the speaker in order to process verbal information. Working the drive-thru in high school was a nightmare for me.

    1. VG

      I have that problem too. Group conference calls are the worst because without being able to see people, I have a hard time processing what’s being said and knowing when it’s my turn to speak. Plus, there’s the struggle of trying to figure out which person belongs to each of the five or six unfamiliar disembodied voices, which only gets worse when everyone on the call is the same gender. The only time I feel comfortable on the phone is when I’m speaking to people I know very well–if I know their speech patterns and can visualize their expressions and body language, it’s much easier to follow along.

    2. Not So NewReader

      My home phones are really bad- I can only use the speaker part. If I use it like a regular phone I cannot hear most of what the person says.

      I do have scarring on my ear drums from ear infections, I think that cuts into my ability to hear a phone conversation, plus the phone is crappy. I can just see me trying to handle a drive thru, omg, that would be a nightmare to me, too.

    3. Felicia

      I have a similar issue, I’m fine and even confident face to face, but it’s the not being able to see facial expressions that bothers me about the phone. In writing you don’t see facial expressions either, but the fact that I have more time to think and don’t have to respond on the spot in the same way makes up for that

    4. Honeybee

      Yeah, I’m the same way. That’s part of the reason I don’t like the phone. I have a hard time processing and retaining audio-only information.

  15. BobbyTwin

    My pet peeve is a conference call where people don’t identify themselves. It is too hard to know who says what once you get past about 4 people. And sometimes that is really important. “Wait did Tea company just volunteer to cover the blue pots Wednesday? Or was that guy from Leaf company??” A simple “This is Joaquin, I think we should blah….” helps immensely. Assuming if course there were introductions in the beginning.

    1. Anonymous Educator

      You may want to check out UberConference. It shows little talking heads based on who’s talking at the moment, and you get a visual for when someone has joined or left so you don’t have that awkward “Hi… did someone just join the call? Who is this?” moment.

  16. baseballfan

    I find phone phobia and rambling voicemails to be two of my biggest challenges. The good news is I’m aware of these issues and conscious of overcoming them.

    I agree with the comments that it’s very frustrating, not to mention time-wasting, when people get into a back and forth over email that a 5 minute phone conversation would have cleared up. If you have information to convey, send an email. If you need to debate someone about a topic, pick up the phone.

  17. mcfly85

    My big peeve these days is people using the phone in a situation where email works better. I have a coworker who does this sometimes when they need to give me a bunch of just-fyi information – they’ll call, and then I end up having to take notes while they rattle things off. In this case, they’re taking the lazy option of dictating to me on the phone when they could have typed everything I needed into an email.

    Ooh – and another disturbing thing that happens in my org but I wonder how common it is elsewhere –
    When someone calls a coworker, if they don’t answer, it’s very common for the caller to then call someone else who sits near them to ask if they’re at their desk. Just leave a voicemail or send an email! No need to get other people involved. I mean, I’m definitely in favor of using the phone when it’s appropriate, but not when it’s enabling laziness or stalking.

  18. Lefty

    I don’t answer the phone if I don’t know who it is that is calling. If you have a legitimate reason for calling me, leave a message explaining that and your contact info and I will call you back if I need to/want to/etc…

    Don’t leave me a voicemail without stating why you are calling. Unless you are my boss, some work VIP, my mom, my spouse, or a close friend, you will NEVER get a call back from me by leaving a message like, “Lefty, this is Joe Blow from ABC Corp, please call me at 555-555-5555.” I just delete those. I don’t want to get stuck on the phone with you without knowing what we are going to be discussing so that I can pull what I need, clear my head, etc… You’re not going to ambush me into a conversation where I’ve got the phone on one shoulder, digging through papers, going ‘Ummm’.

    I prefer email. I leave everything undone in my inbox so that I know what needs to be done. If you email me what you want, I will schedule time to get what you need and I will call you then if you like.

    Another reason I avoid the phone, I’m older and worked for years before we had computers or even voicemail, but I really don’t want to exchange pleasantries with people I don’t know. I didn’t like it then and I can avoid it now. Just let me get you what you want so I can get on with my myriad of other tasks and you can get on with yours. I’ll call a friend if I want to chat.

  19. So Very Anonymous

    If someone’s outgoing message requests that you instead send a detailed email with your question, please actually send that email rather than leave a long detailed voicemail message. So many of the questions I get, I honestly cannot answer in a phone conversation (it’s just the nature of my job) and I can help you SO much more by sending you links , information, etc. in an email. Definitely don’t leave me a voicemail asking me to call you back to read off links to you.

  20. Anonymous Educator

    I used to be a receptionist, and phone calls were the worst… mainly because they were inefficient. During the busiest times, I’d come into work and the phone would already be ringing, and I’d have 30 unheard voicemails waiting for me to plow through. I’d spend at least three hours returning calls and listening to voicemails. If those 30 people had just sent emails, I would have been able to respond to them all within 30-45 minutes.

    What did help at one point was my boss agreeing to switch over to Google Voice. At least then I wouldn’t have to re-listen to voicemails just to hear the number to call back. The voicemail transcriptions of the words were hilariously inaccurate, but the transcriptions of the phone numbers were usually spot on, and then I could just call back by clicking on the number instead of dialing it.

    More importantly, with even the horrible transcriptions, I could usually tell what was urgent and what was less urgent, what I could forward on to my boss… and really just generally what the gist of the call was.

    But, really, if you just want information, email.

  21. Trillian!

    I have Opinions on this!

    1.) If I send you an e-mail, do not call me back about whatever I asked. I sent you an e-mail because I need your response in writing.
    2.) When someone answers the phone at the number you’ve dialed, identify yourself! I just got a call from someone who said he wanted to talk to our recruiter, and I had to interrogate him to find out who he was and why he was calling. (It was a college kid looking for an internship.)
    3.) Conversely, when you answer the phone at a place of business, identify yourself! It drives me nuts when I call one of our satellite locations and someone answers the phone by just saying “Hello?”

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