When a telephone call is not the best choice for the task

People who need English at work often ask me for help with telephone skills. You have to be spontaneous. You have to speak, and can’t write down what you want to say. You can’t see the other person. You have to listen and understand so that you can give an appropriate response.

However, I believe the role of the telephone is changing.

I remember when I was a teenager, I was always happy when the phone rang. I’d rush to answer it, because of course it could be one of my friends. I was even lucky enough to have an extension run through to my bedroom – before the days of cordless phones.

Now, I don’t do a happy dance every time the phone rings. If I can see it’s a call centre or don’t recognise the number, I let it go to voice mail. If the same number rings me multiple times without leaving a message, I block it. People who refuse to speak with my answerphone drive me crazy.

It’s different with friends, and I don’t have any hang-ups about actually speaking on the phone, but I like to know why people are calling me. This means that most of my phone calls are booked into the diary. I have a lot of meetings, so I’d much rather someone sent me an email that I can respond to when I have time,. It’s just more efficient that way!

Of course it depends on the job that someone is doing. If you have a customer-facing role, and those customers can contact you by telephone, it’s better if you can feel confident about taking those calls.

If you’re working in a different location to your colleagues,sometimes it helps to chat things over. It makes your communication more personal. There can be misunderstanding with written text. You can’t hear the tone of voice or tell whether someone is really angry.

Some people are really slow at typing, so sorting something out on the phone is quicker for them.

If you’re trying to organise something with a colleague or you need to find out what’s gone wrong, a call is often a good way to get the job done.

However, sometimes, as many of us are working in a more global environment with people around the world, it’s harder to communicate by telephone because of the different time zones.

If you need some time to sort out your thoughts or you are not working in your native language, sometimes it’s easier to write things down.

If you have to deal with someone who gets sidetracked and talks about random things for the next 30 minutes, getting the main points down in an email can save your time (and ears!)

So if you need an answer to a quick question, want someone to look at something, or are trying to make arrangements for a meeting with multiple participants, maybe the phone is not the answer.

1. Can you read this document?

Unless you’re going to sit there in silence on the phone while the other person reads the document, or you’re going to read it to them, sentence by sentence, calling the other person is wasting your and their time. Maybe they don’t have time to look at it right now. Maybe they want time to process the information and think. Maybe they want to order their thoughts before feeding back to you.

Sure, it might be a good idea to have a call or a meeting to discuss things afterwards, but it makes more sense to send your document by email with an explanation if necessary as to what it’s about and what you want from the other person. Include the deadline if there is one, but don’t call before the other person has had a chance to read it.

2. Can I arrange a meeting with you?

I’ve been a PA in the distant past, and people did call me to arrange meetings. But often, particularly when more people were involved, meeting requests were the way to go, especially when people had access to other colleague’s diaries to see when they might be available.

If any of my customers want to change a meeting with me, they do it by email, which I find so much more efficient. You don’t need a long conversation. You need to know what the problem is, when they want to move the meeting to, check the calendar, and respond. Job done!

I don’t use online calendar software, because I want to be the only person working on my diary, but especially as someone without my own P~A, I find that getting the main details in a quick email is much quicker and easier to keep track of.

Some people don’t work like that, and that’s ok. This has as much to do with my communication style and way of working as anything else, but I do get a bit tired of hearing companies say pick up the phone” to resolve every little question or problem, when sometimes written communication is more efficient.

3. Can you just tell me…?

Sometimes the things that people want are complicated. It could be figures, prices, or a web address. Something that they will have to write down, because it’s too much information to keep in their head. So either they have to make notes while I speak, or I have to send it to them. So did this really need to be a phone call?

4. I know you’re busy, but…

Kirsty working with students

A lot of my time is spent with customers or working on projects for customers. People buy blocks of my time and get my attention for that time. So my voicemail answers my phone more often than I do. If it’s urgent, I do call people back or send them an email, but the chances of speaking to me spontaneously are not great!

Again, not everyone will work like this, but it’s worth bearing in mind that if people have a job that involves lots of meetings, they’re likely not to be able to drop everything when you call and give you their attention. So maybe some other form of communication would be better.

Similarly, if people travel a lot, they might not always have a phone signal, or it might not be appropriate to chat to you while they’re in a packed train carriage, particularly if it involves confidential or sensitive information.

5. Did you get my email?

Unless it’s an emergency or something really important, please don’t do this to people.
In a previous job, we had a guy from a recruitment agency who always did this. He’d send me an email, and a minute or so later, the phone would ring, and it would be him, asking whether I’d got the email and telling me what was in it.

I had got the email, but I usually hadn’t had time to read it, and in any event, it was rarely my highest priority. He did get a response, but he wasn’t the only person I was dealing with at the time.

Unless something terrible has happened, or the timing is really crucial, like stopping someone leaving for the airport because the event that they would have been going to has been cancelled, give people the chance to read your mails before hounding them on the telephone!

I’m not anti-telephone! I often used it to build relationships with colleagues or stakeholders in previous jobs. It is a good tool for negotiating, rather than just making demands or passing on instructions. Nowadays, all of my meetings take place on the telephone or through videoconferencing software.

Some people are less comfortable about putting things in writing, and it helps for them to have the chance to talk over the problem.

I understand all of these things.

If someone wants help with telephone skills, I’ll give them the help that they need.

However, I also want people to feel confident choosing the thing that works best for them, rather than feeling under pressure to use the telephone, without questioning whether it’s the best tool for the job.

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