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Business telephone etiquette

"People who are funny and smart and return phone calls get much better press than people who are just funny and smart." -- Howard Simons

IT is an unfortunate truth that the telephone etiquette of some business people (let's call them the 'arrivants') is atrocious. Many are unaware that the unreturned telephone call, and other such lapses, speaks volumes about themselves and their persona and can eventually rob them of potential business from persons who would otherwise recommend their companies. Ignorance of proper business telephone etiquette does not absolve the guilty but sometimes a reminder will go a long way to help lessen their jail sentence.

The unreturned phone call: Insurance and other persons in sales and marketing will always return your phone calls, after all, they have something to sell and you are a likely 'prey' on their long list of contacts. But did you ever notice that unenlightened CEOs and other persons further up on the food chain in organisations rarely, if ever, deign to return your calls? Never mind that on their journey up into the rarified air of 'executive-dom' they made it their point of duty to return each and every phone call, leaving no stone unturned to make sure they connected with 'their people'. For some weird reason that only someone running for public office could ever understand, they made sure that they were 'on the level' with their workplace compatriot, especially if they themselves were promoted from within the ranks.

No sooner than the announcement is posted that they have 'arrived' something like a heavy deadbolt seems to descend on their persona -- you can actually hear the loud and weighty clang as the gate between you and them slam shut -- and you have to make several appointments just to tell them good morning or good evening. What is the saying? 'No more Mr Nice Guy'. Worse yet, don't try and contact them by telephone. You will feel insulted as they will have already lumped every one below their rank into the category of somebody looking to benefit from their new position. I am not saying that each and every call should be returned with equal urgency, because most of us are busy people. The truth is that in business the excuses for the unreturned phone call are no longer 'cute' what with instant messaging, mobile phone, pager, e-mail and every other technology that seeks to connect. If it is that you remotely suspect that the person at the other end of the message has a legitimate need to connect with you, return the call within the day if possible. The steps in life's ladder accommodate both upward and downward mobility. By answering your phone and returning said calls, you allow those of us who you pass on your way up to remember the sound and tone of your voice. If nothing, we will at least recognise your shriek for help if ever you come crashing down.

If the media calls: It is always a good idea to return a call from members of the media. And I am not just writing this because I can type. In another life, as a reporter it would give me perverse pleasure to write a story including facts that efforts to contact 'Mr So-and-So' for his comments were futile. Bear in mind that in those bad old days, after waylaying the person to hijack a quote from him or her, the telephone was all we had to help us. Many a secretary sacrificed her space in Heaven because of the many untruths she told to protect her boss from the probing press. However, as surely as night followed day, if the article published was contentious enough, a response from the 'non-commentator' would be forthcoming and undoubtedly he would demand front-page prominence for his raggedy quote. Most sensible editors do not oblige and that moment of glory would be lost. To make matters worse, when the shoe was on the other foot, it would be Mr Big who -- needing the publicity -- would leave you messages on end. The 'do unto others' moral applies here.

Leave the cheek at home: We Jamaicans are among the most truculent people on earth. We would irritate even the most holy and late Mother Theresa into a crying fit of anger. We are outspoken, we have something to say and darn it, we will have our say, especially to the nameless and faceless ones who answer our telephone calls. When answering business calls, never ever be cheeky to the person who has placed a call to your place of business. My advice... drink some strong-back and bitters if you must, but if we call you and are in the throes of displaying our Jamaican best bad manners, toughen up. Never enter into a 'tracing match' with the caller to see who can give the best impression of a market woman (my apologies to the good ones) on a bad sale day. It is a sorry reflection on your superior. I will never forget a particular secretary of an erstwhile Mr Big who was rude to all and sundry who tried to make contact with her boss. As it turned out she had been busy taking lessons from him in the area of being ill-mannered and was a star pupil as he was a most successful tutor.

The automated phone: As appreciative as I am of the technological advances that have been made in communication, like many of us, I am not a fan of the automated phone service, especially those that rely on voice recognition. It just seems very, very wrong to be punching buttons and not making contact with a real person. I am convinced that the automated responder is designed to push you that much closer to the gates of Hades as you get more and more touchy with each 'I'm sorry I did not get that response'. Nevertheless, technology has brought us here and we must worship at the shrine where we seem to be the non-entity. If your business must utilise this method of telephony, my only request would be for the opportunity for human contact to be among the early choices that we have. Please, please, it is not our joy to listen to fifteen options before we hear a human voice.


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