ARTICLE: “Taming the Telephone”

RRRRRING! RRRRRING! Do you find yourself groaning inwardly (or outwardly) when the phone rings? Do you have phone stress? This column continues our series on controlling time wasters. The phone can be a huge time waster and a time saver at the same time. You just have to know how to use it effectively. Here are some tips to help you make friends with your phone:

• One study showed that an unplanned call takes five more minutes than a planned call. If you make 12 calls per day, you could save an hour simply by creating a “mini-agenda” before calling. List the topics in the order you want to discuss them. Or keep a running log for people you communicate with frequently and jot down ideas as you think of them. This will keep you from forgetting what you want to say. 

• Try standing up when you talk on the phone. This practice saves me about 1-2 minutes per call because it keeps me “on my toes.” 

• If a conversation is off-target, use your agenda to bring it back on track. Bridge back to your point. Keep the conversation focused. Pick out a word from the other’s comments, mention it, “Speaking of xyz, that reminds me about....,” then come back to your point. 

• Get callers to come to the point quickly by asking “What can I do for you?” or “How may I assist you?” When asking these questions, don’t be too abrupt. Practice by physically smiling and lifting your voice at the end of the question. It’s important to watch your voice tone. If you’re stressed, the caller will detect that in your voice. The person will keep you on the phone longer, demand more detail, and may call you back for reassurance. A warm, crisp tone will make the caller trust your competence and shorten the length of your call. 

• Wrap up a phone call by talking in past tense. Begin by summarizing your follow-up action and promises. Then say, “It was nice to have talked with you! Thank you, good bye!”

• If you must call a known chatterbox, phone right before lunch or at the end of the day. If you call at 4:45 p.m., the person will tend to keep the conversation brief so they can go home.

• Set time aside to return ALL phone calls in low energy period. Get out your list and start cranking them out. If you do one after the other, you will naturally eliminate much of the social niceties and get right to the point.

• Leave very detailed voice mail messages. You can’t leave only your name and number and expect people to be able to assist you when they call back. Tell people exactly why you’re calling and what information you need. If you don’t, people are forced to say when you finally do connect, “I’ll have to get back to you on that,” effectively creating another volley of phone tag.

• If your work situation allows, get your calls screened by an assistant or take turns covering phones with co-workers. That way, you can block out some “Not Available” time. Have your co-worker refer calls that do not require your personal attention or take messages for those that are minor.

• Let your voice mail pick up when you have a pressing deadline. Or screen your calls via the digital display on your phone and allow the call to go to voice mail if it’s not important.

• If you know you are calling someone who talks a lot, place a call to their voice mail when you get home, leaving a detailed message so they don’t have to call back.

• When someone phones and asks, “Gotta minute?” do they really mean one minute? Of course not! So reply, “Actually, I have just one. Will that be enough, or can I call you back?” Or simply say, “Honestly, I don’t. I’m up against a tight deadline right now. Can I call you back at 3:00?”

• When you’re going out of town and need to connect with your staff during your absence, schedule a conference call. Before leaving, distribute a tentative discussion agenda. Participants in the call can then prepare themselves for the call.

• You’ve returned from lunch to find 12 phone messages waiting for you. If they each take an average of 10 minutes, you have 2 hours of calls to make. Not everyone has that kind of time! So how do you decide which to return first? Many people sort through them and call a person they like, regardless of the priority. To keep those calls from overwhelming you, return them in order of priority. 

© 2000 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at