Strategies to improve phone manners

I dread phone calls. Partly because I don’t know what to say, partly because I don’t think I have good phone manners, and partly because am distracted by background noise.

However, I do know that good phone manners are essential for success at work and for running a business, so improving my phone skills has long been high on the priority list.

Old red phone

And I have improved, at least with short predictable phone calls. They are not so dreadful and scary anymore, and my husband says that I sound professional on the phone (he runs his own business and does not BS me).

I would like to share my strategies, because they work.

First of all, it always help to break a challenge into sub-challenges:

1. Know what to say

Knowing what to say consists of two elements:

  1. Outline the purpose of the call in a few concise sentences
  2. Small talk

Professional phone calls must begin and end with small talk. When I worked in an office, my boss once pulled me in for a talk and said that suppliers had complained about how I dealt with them on the phone. I didn’t understand: I didn’t think I had been rude to anyone.

It was an open plan office, so I asked if he had ever heard me be rude on the phone. He said: ‘No, but you are very short and direct. A phone call is not just an exchange of information. Try to be friends with the suppliers on the phone!’

I wanted to do as I was told, but ‘being friends’ sounded vague and fake, and I didn’t know what to say to them, so I just felt more awkward. Small talk was never my strong side.

Then I realised that it is all just social scripts. A phone conversation is a little drama with a beginning, a middle and an end; where the middle is the key message, and the beginning and end consist of social niceties. I already knew that, but the key point is that each stage has a short list of fairly standardised dialogues to choose from, such as:


– Hi how are you?
– Good thank you, and yourself?
– Good.

– I just want to hear how far away the goods are. We haven’t received them yet, still waiting to do the docs, and the flight cuts off in half an hour. I suppose they can’t be far away?

– (Coughing) Oh, was that today?

(…. drama …)

– Ok, we can try that. Have a good evening, see you later. [never]
– All right, bye.

To know what to say in phone conversations requires practising a selection of social scripts and learn the rules for when to use them, and then imitate others when they use them. That is all ‘being friends on the phone’ implies.

2. Develop good phone manners

Phone manners build on intonation, timing, speed and pronunciation (and of course social scripts). Great phone manners involves talking slowly with a rich intonation (vary tone musically up and down and use strategic breaks to highlight points), timing the words right, and listening with an open mind while keeping a professional distance.

I was criticised in the past for talking too fast and for being hard to understand on the phone due to my accent. I still have my accent but believe I have slowed down my talk and improved my intonation, pronunciation and timing.

These strategies have helped me improve:

A. Imitation

I try to absorb and remember the voices of people who speak with a beautiful intonation and whose talk would be a pleasure to listen to even without understanding their language. Then I try to assimilate some of their good manners into my own skills set.

Role models include friends and acquaintances, random professionals (when calling the tax office or even getting annoying marketing calls) and movie characters.

The computer Gerty in the science fiction Moon (2009) is a particularly helpful voice role model. Gerty has a beautifully empathic voice with perfect intonation, timing and pronunciation, and a highly scripted repetoir of diplomatic answers.


The smiling face icon of AI computer "Gerty" from the movie Moon (2009)

“Gerty”, the empathic AI robot from the brilliant movie (2009)

Moon is my favourite movie, and I have seen it well above 50 times. That has allowed me to listen to Gerty’s voice over and over again and gradually absorb elements of it into my professional skills repertoire.

B. Singing

For the past five months, I have been singing in our Church’s worship team every Sunday, and it has helped me to develop voice confidence.

We are now usually just 2-3 singers plus the band, and I am often the only female singer. This means I can hear myself clearly, and so can everybody else. Every mistake and every great sound gets amplified, and people give me nice feedback.

The positive feedback has boosted my phone confidence and given boldness to play subtly with intonation and timing when I talk on the phone. There is some similarity between singing in a microphone and talking into a phone; in both cases one’s voice is converted into electrical impulses. I try to trick myself into believing that talk is a kind of singing too, and that people may enjoy listening to my voice on the phone.

I am deeply grateful to our Church for this opportunity.

3. Cope with background noise

Background noise can interfere with phone talks by overlapping words so some of the meaning gets lost. It can be highly stressful to fight to hear what is being said while trying to sound professional and in control.

A head set and quiet surroundings solves that problem.

Jumping into deep water

Yesterday I accepted an International freelance project that involves cold calling executives to get them to participate in a survey and then interview the fish I get in the net.

The pay is per survey at a sub-standard rate, at least after Australian standards. The customer paid me late last time. I hate cold calling. The work hours will screw up my sleep because the time zones of the office hours are almost opposite – these people live on the other half of the globe and will have no idea that I am calling them out of the middle of the night. That is how global outsourcing of services works.

I took on the project because I need work (income) too much to reject a customer, even if the pay is crap and the terms are unfair. However, I try to see the project as an opportunity to develop my professional phone manners.




9 thoughts on “Strategies to improve phone manners

  1. sensoryoverload2012

    Well, I could have used this earlier today. I got yelled at on the phone by someone because I got tired of them talking and I put the phone down. A few minutes later I heard buttons being pushed in the phone and I picked it up to them asking if I was asleep and I said “No, I just got tired of listening so I put the phone down.”.
    (I know it isn’t correct for those two periods at the end, but it should be and I don’t feel like explaining why. I am sure you can figure out my reason. Thanks. Bye.)


    1. Mados

      My grand dad used to talk relentlessly on the phone with his loud, dominating, pedantic voice, so when I was a kid I used to put the phone down and walk around and do other things. Then suddenly: silence, and I flew over and picked the phone up to his suspicious voice:
      – Are you listening?
      – Yes!
      and then the flow of pedantic explanations continued while I walked around and worked on my own things.


    1. Mados

      After ‘Bye’? Done.

      I guess I can’t ask you to edit my typos… there are far too many! However, please feel free to do so, they are obvious.


  2. Pingback: My work history briefly, Part IV: Starting a Small Graphic Design Business | History of Bad Parties

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