An effective business phone call strategy (part 1)

The secret to using the phone effectively is preparation.

Note: this article is about telephone technique in general. See our other articles on this site about key telephoning phrases in English.

Are you afraid of using the phone in English? Do your hands start to shake when you dial a telephone number and know that you will have to not only speak in English – but also understand the other person? And would you rather send an email in order to avoid the situation completely? Well, you are not alone. Millions of non-native speakers of English face exactly this situation every day – often at work and in high stress environments, where there is no alternative to talking on the phone.

But using the phone in English doesn’t need to be a nightmare. If you follow the simple suggestions described below – and learn some key business telephone expressions – you will soon find that making phone calls in English is one of the simplest and most direct ways of communicating with your clients, customers or other colleagues.

Steps to making the perfect business phone call

Stop! Take your hand off that receiver. Before you pick up the phone… PREPARE! Get yourself ready first – and you will find it much easier to make that important business call. Here’s a checklist of things you can do before you phone someone:

1. Write down the main points that you want to discuss with the person you are going to speak to.

These don’t need to be long notes – in fact, it’s better that you don’t write whole sentences, as you will sound as if you’re reading from a script. (Think of those telephone calls you get from banks and other large companies where an operator sitting in a call centre reads from a long prepared script. It’s like talking to a robot, isn’t it?) Just jot down a few bullet points – single words and short phrases are best. For example:

Contact: Chris Hemming, HKR Communications:

  • New designs for brochure
  • Printing – how much? When?
  • Payment – euros or pounds?

Having these notes in front of you – even if they’re just written on a yellow Post-It™ will help you to focus on what you want you want to say and enable you to structure the conversation.

2. Create the perfect telephoning conditions, if possible.
Get everything ready before you phone. If you’re in a noisy office, try and find a quiet place where you can make the call, ideally in a room where you can shut the door to keep background noise to a minimum. Try and choose a time to call when you know the other person will not be in a hurry and has time to speak. (Avoid phoning at awkard times, such as early on Monday morning and late on a Friday afternoon. Think about it: would you be happy if someone phoned you during these periods?) Have a pad and a pen in front of you (with your notes from point 1, above). (You may find it useful to write down words and phrases that the other person says as you are trying to understand them. You can then use these to help form your own replies and questions). If you need to discuss a proposal, design or similar document with the other person, it’s much easier if you both have it on your desk in front of you. You can then refer to the appropriate pages, paragraphs or details that you need to talk about. Send an email with your document attached and ask the other person to print it out or have it open on their PC when you call. Arrange a suitable time to speak so that you can both get ready. (Even for two native speakers, this can save a lot of time.) Spending a short amount of time creating a relaxed, well-ordered phoning environment will be worth the effort when you are in the middle of the call.

3. Rehearse the call. 
You can either do this silently in your head, or (preferably) speaking out loud. (Of course, you will probably want to do this when no one else is around – or you may find your colleagues are slightly worried that you are under so much stress that you are talking to people without actually using the telephone!) Think about what you will say, the type of reply you will receive and any possible points or questions that could come up during the conversation. If you know there are some tricky names or technical words that you will have to say, practice them before you ring the other person. Be ready to spell long or difficult words. (e.g. If you need to tell someone that the project meeting will be in Dar es Salaam, think of words that you can use to spell this out over the phone: “D as in Dinosaur, A as in Apple, R as in Rainbow”, etc.). If you are giving someone a number, such as phone number or account number, get the other person to repeat it back to you. Of course, if there is any really important written information that you need to pass on or receive, tell the other person you will send an email (and don’t forget to send it) – or get them to send one to you.

4. Take a deep breath.
If it’s a really important, make-or-break call, get yourself physically ready. Do some deep breathing exercises before you speak. (Breathe in, count slowly to five, breathe out, repeat two or three times.) You will then find you start the call in a Zen-like state of calm (peaceful relaxation), even if you start to find yourself struggling as the call progresses. Have a drink in front of you – when you get stressed your throat can dry out – which can make you sound even more stressed. Even if it’s only a bottle of mineral water, keep some liquid nearby so you can take a few sips when the other person’s speaking. (A drink’s OK, if you can swallow  quietly, but never eat or chew gum while you’re speaking on the phone – the receiver amplifies the sound and it’s like talking to a cement-mixer – plus, it can make you more difficult to understand.)

Congratulations! You are now in the perfect state of mind to make that call!

Read part 2 of this article now.

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