How to Talk on the Phone Properly

George Walsh, partner in a large New York firm, dialed the number of Miss Evans, chief of the firm’s stenographic pool.

“Miss Evans is away from her desk a moment, Mr. Walsh,” came a pleasant voice over the phone. “May I ask her to call you?”

“Ask her to come into my office, please,” Mr. Walsh replied.

When Miss Evans came in, Mr. Walsh told her his secretary had had to leave the firm’s service suddenly, that he had to have a temporary secretary.

“I’d like to try the girl who answered your phone,” he said. “She has a most agreeable voice and phone personality.”

“She does have a nice voice, but I never thought of Amy having much personality,” Miss Evans replied. “She’s rather plain and not very fast on dictation. However, she is a responsible little person and might work out all right, at least temporarily.”

It so happened that Amy worked out very well on the new job. Her manner was quiet and efficient; her taking of dictation, though slow at first, rapidly improved; her work was accurate and dependable; and, above all, her voice and manner on the phone and with people who visited the office, were really charming. Amy was given the job permanently, one of the best for women employees of the firm.

Mrs. Gertrude H. Frese, Manager of Service Consultants for the New York Phone Company, recounts that incident, together with many other true stories illustrating how good phone manners have won opportunities for people in business.

We may think of the phone, with its imperative ring, intruding upon our home lives, interrupting our business hours, as a mechanical robot that commands and drives us through the day and sometimes into the night. On the other hand, we may better regard it as a helpful assistant in our dealings with other people, in extending, smoothing, and making more effective our human relationships.

Used with warmth, spirit, and enthusiasm, the phone will help us greatly in our personal and private activities. We may avoid disappointments by getting through quickly to people by phone to let them know we will be detained, to change arrangements and understandings. We may greatly expand our circles of personal influence by phone. We may talk with the sick or shut-ins; may easily and quickly express our appreciation or congratulations; transmit good news, or other wise carry into effect the rule of human relations of thinking, speaking, and acting in terms of others’ interests.

No instrument has done more to speed up personal dealings in industry and trade. It may be used effectively in many ways to announce new services, new merchandise, to follow up prospects, to buy and sell. The phone is a highly dynamic and quickening helper.

The central fact about phone conversation; social or business, that must be kept in mind is that the persons talking are invisible to each other. All specialists in phone usage are agreed on that. The phone is blind. You know that little extra effort one always exerts in talking with the blind? That’s the idea in telephoning—just a little extra consideration for the other person.

How effectively the blind person himself may visualize and work out his career in dealing with people by phone is illustrated by this story from F. J. Reagan, Director and former Vice-president of the Pacific Phone and Telegraph Company:

Before the Second World War a college student, whom we shall call Henry Bulotti, worked part time for a wholesale florist to help pay his tuition. His job was to call on retail florists’ shops with sample flowers and to obtain their orders. It was interesting work, and he liked it so well he thought he might go into it as a permanent career. But the war interrupted Henry’s plans, and when he returned to civilian life he was blind.

Henry applied for his old job and was accepted. His employer bought a recorder machine on which he could give instructions and suggestions to Henry orally rather than by written memorandum, and he bought a computer that Henry could use to record his sales and keep his own records. Then Henry was given an office of his own.

But how could he deal with his customers, now that he was blind? How could he convince them of the quality of the flowers offered, without actually taking the flowers to them to see? The answer Henry found is an amazing example of how, with great thought of the person being dealt with, a sales man may visualize and sell his products, his services, and him self by phone.

This is the ingenious plan that Henry worked out. He would have the flowers described to him, and by feeling them he could determine the shape and texture. This information he would then pass on by phone to his customers.

With the help of a phone company specialist, Henry trained himself in effective ways of influencing people by voice and manner. In addition, he kept closely in touch with the problems and methods of the retailers. He sold from their view point, in terms of their interests. He went to great lengths to learn all about exotic plants, their character and origin. These selling points he would pass along to the retailers to help them sell the flowers to their customers. Henry was a success in his new job.

Aren’t there at least two important points in human relations to be noticed here? First, our personal handicaps, however great, largely disappear when we deal with people in terms of service to them. Second, in everyday use of the phone it is possible, by conscious effort, to speak with such meaning, spirit, and consideration as to influence people favorably in our behalf.

As noted in the chapter on conversation, people communicate with one another not only by words but with facial expression and gestures and with the entire personality. Though the two parties to a phone conversation are not seen by each other, it is possible to turn on a sort of phone television, by voice tone, that carries life and illuminates the meaning of the words we speak. We thereby add a sense of seeing to the personal meeting on the phone, and a sense of action that adds influence to what we may say in words.

“Recently we did some training in the New York Zoological Department,” Mrs. Frese told me. “While there we saw the famous cockatoo that had been taught to say ‘hello.’ But it was pointed out in the conference that this bird could only say ‘hello’; it could not put any personality or tone into that greeting. On the other hand, we human beings have the ability, if we will only use it, to carry sincerity and friendliness in our voices in talking with one another.”

Cultivation of an effective phone voice often develops into a helpful personality trait. Mrs. Frese tells of one personal secretary in a large office whose voice on the phone was so lifeless and flat that a friend who called the manager asked him if he were now in charge of the morgue. This incident led the secretary to take a specialized course of training in phone usage. It not only notably improved her performance in hand ling phone conversations, but helped her to develop a charming personality. Also it assisted her in other phases of her business and personal life.

Clear-cut, agreeable speech is a definite help toward leader ship. A well-modulated voice adds personal charm. These at tributes can be cultivated and made a part of one’s personality, just as can any other good habit; that is, by practice.

“The voice is a marvellously flexible instrument,” says a well- known trainer. “You can smile, you can laugh, you can glower. By neglect, you can let the voice become flat and toneless and give the listener an impression of a dry, routine, and insignificant personality.

“Always remember that the other person to the conversation is visualizing you as you talk on the phone. What sort of picture does your voice conjure up?”

There are all sorts of phone personalities, he points out:

Mr. Grunt with his “Yeah” and “Uh huh”; Mrs. Mouse with her small indistinct squeak; Mr. and Miss Masticators with their cigar, gum, and pencil chewing; Miss Faraway with her vague off-the-mouthpiece voice; and Mr. Throat Grumble, whom you visualize, not too incorrectly, as sitting there on the back of his neck dredging up a few rumbles from the depths of a reluctant and tired torso. And, of course, on the pleasant side there’s Miss Cheerful Good Morning, Mr. Brisk Rightaway, and many other agreeable people.

The difference between the dim, routine, and indifferent personalities, on the one hand, and the heart-warming ones on the other is a matter of effort, conscious effort, as in every phase of human relations. One can’t afford to do just what comes naturally, especially in phone conversations which involve the handicap of some loss of natural tone and complete loss of actual visualization.

People can be affronted more easily than we think on the phone. “I asked my secretary to get Joe Roseberry on the phone for me the other day,” Carl Brown, a friend of ours, recently remarked, “and, whaddayuh think, the old goat was really sore because he was kept waiting a minute on the wire!”

This was what happened: Brown asked his secretary to get Roseberry on the phone. Then Brown went into an office down the hail. The secretary put the call through. “Just a moment, Mr. Roseberry,” she said, “Mr. Brown wishes to talk with you.” But Mr. Brown was not to be found quickly, and the secretary said, “I’m sorry. I’ll have to call you back.” This she did. “Here’s Mr. Brown now,” she said. “Hello, hello,” said Brown, coming on the wire. “Who is this? Oh, Joe, let’s see; I think I was calling you about that Newark property. Wait a minute while I get the papers. . . .“ But at this juncture, Joe Roseberry cut in with, “Who do you think you are that you can keep people hanging on the wire while you stall around? Get yourself organized!” And Roseberry hung up. Quite an unpleasant episode for both men.

Even in a social call it is only good manners for the person calling to come to the point at once and show consideration for the other person and the value of his or her time. In business life this is essential. Have in mind what you are going to say, how you can say it briefly and clearly. Mention the subject and main point at once. Don’t open with, “Remember what we were talking about last week?” Have your thoughts organized, any records or papers at hand, and paper and pencil for note taking.

As we think, as our attitude is, so will be our phone manners. The phone specialists offer the following list of contrasting words by which we may test ourselves.

The Voice Having Personal-interest Tone:

  • Pleasant
  • Friendly
  • Cordial
  • Cheerful
  • Interested
  • Helpful

The Voice Lacking Personal-interest Tone:

  • Expressionless
  • Mechanical
  • Indifferent
  • Impatient
  • Inattentive
  • Repelling

All the basic rules of good human relations apply to phone usage. And many special details as well, including, answer the phone promptly and speak directly into the receiver.

Identify yourself at once: “Jones Company, Miss Burnham speaking,” or, if the call has been received through your company’s switchboard, simply, “Miss Brown speaking.” A friendly greeting, such as “Good morning, Mr. Hepner,” may follow naturally when the caller identifies himself. On the phone, as in all other phases of business, one of the pleasantest customs is to learn the name of the person you are dealing with and use it often.

If one answers for another person, the helpful thing to do is to offer one’s own services, or offer to have the person being called call back.

In calling another person about a personal matter, or a business matter that may take more than ordinary time, the person called will appreciate it if we ask if this is a convenient time for him to talk on the phone. He may have visitors or may be in the midst of some matter in which quick action is essential. The housewife when called may be in the act of changing pants for the baby, or broiling a steak. Let’s bear in mind the imperative nature of the phone ring, cutting in on what a person may be doing at the time. Let’s show personal consideration for such situations.

At the conclusion of the call, each party should say good-by, rather than just hang up. Let’s not be in too great a hurry to hang up. In no event, certainly, should we bang down the receiver.

In signaling the operator to transfer a call, move the receiver hook down and up slowly three or four times. Don’t jiggle it. This consideration for the operator is a habit every person should cultivate as a regular practice.

“Enunciate clearly, mold the words in your mouth,” the Bell Phone specialists advise. Don’t slur the words; speak every syllable of every word.

Speak in a natural tone of voice. Don’t shout.

Don’t talk too fast. The ordinary rate of around 120 words a minute will save time, on long distance just as on a local call. If you speak too fast, the listener may hear just a jumble. In ordinary speaking, a person should give each word sound the fraction of a second required for it to reverberate in his transmitter. It is even more important to speak with reasonable deliberation.

On the other hand, speaking too slowly takes the vitality out of a phone conversation. The other party’s mind is apt to wander and he may lose interest.

Realizing the nature of the phone conversation, the New York Central Railroad System advises its people not to use slang. Don’t say, for example, “all righty, sister,” “nope,” “yep,” and such frowzy talk. A bit of dignity is appreciated by the unknown speaker on the phone.

People who constantly interrupt in phone as in other conversations waste time for themselves and the other persons. Montgomery Ward cites this wrong- and right-way example to show how such interruptions make difficulties for everyone:

CUSTOMER: I’m Mrs. Hawkins. I placed an order Wednesday, and the girl said it should be in to day. Could you . . .

ORDER GIRL: Mrs. Hawkins just a minute

ORDER GIRL (returning): Did you say Hawkins? And when was the order placed?

CUSTOMER: Yes, the name is Hawkins. I placed the order Wednesday. The girl said

ORDER GIRL: Just a minute, please!


ORDER GIRL (returning after a very long minute): Are you sure the order was placed Wednesday, Mrs. Watkins?

CUSTOMER: The name is Hawkins—H-a-w-k-i-n-s—-and if you can’t even remember my name for three minutes, no wonder you can’t get an order in. As far as I’m concerned, you can . . .

CUSTOMER: I’m Mrs. Hawkins. I placed an order Wednesday, and the girl said it should be in today. Could you tell me if it has come in yet?

ORDER GIRL: Just a minute, Mrs. Hawkins, and I’ll look it up for you. Some orders just came in, and I’ll see if yours is among them. . . Hello, Mrs. Hawkins. Your order just arrived, and we’ll have it for you whenever you come in.

Waiting on the phone is annoying to the person holding the line because he can’t see why he is having to wait nor that anything is being done to cut the waiting period short. Here, again, consideration for the other fellow should come in. If you ask a person to hold the line, and there is some delay before you can get back to the phone with the information you want to give him, he wilt appreciate your expression of regret. And if you find the delay may be prolonged, explain the reason for it and offer to call back.

A Montgomery Ward officer points out that complaints are opportunities and, if properly handled by phone, may serve to make friends instead of enemies. He illustrates the point with these contrasting examples:

CUSTOMER: The one I ordered was size ten. You sent me size eight.

ORDER GIRL (not very enthusiastically): I see. Wrong size. Want it exchanged?

CUSTOMER (furious): I certainly do. And immediately! If you had sent the right size in the first place.

CUSTOMER: The one I ordered was size ten. You sent me size eight.

ORDER GIRL (sympathetically):

Oh, I’m very sorry that happened. I’ll be glad to make the ex change immediately. You’ll have the right size just as soon as possible. ‘Will that be satisfactory?

CUSTOMER: Why, yes, that will be fine, thanks.

ORDER GIRL: Thank you, Mrs. Black. You know, with the thou sands of orders our mail-order house handles every day, some mistakes will occur. I’m just sorry this had to happen to you.

You have to spell out the unfamiliar names and words:

  • A as in Alice
  • B as in Bertha
  • C as in Charles
  • D as in David
  • E as in Edward
  • F as in Frank
  • G as in George
  • H as in Harry
  • I as in Ida
  • I as in James
  • K as in Kate
  • L as in Louis
  • M as in Mary
  • N as in Nellie
  • 0 as in Oliver
  • P as in Peter
  • Q as in Quaker
  • R as in Robert
  • S as in Samuel
  • T as in Thomas
  • U as in Utah
  • V as in Victor
  • W as in William
  • X as in xRay
  • Y as in Young
  • Z as in Zebra

On the phone, as in other human situations, people will pay us back. If we are considerate, they will be easy to deal with. If we are inconsiderate, they are apt to make things difficult for us. Good manners are more necessary in telephoning than in face-to-face conversation. A distinct, unhurried friendly voice adds efficiency and charm to every phone conversation.

it is a profound truth that little acts of helpfulness in the routine of daily life develop great character. Instances are found in the lives of workers in all American enterprises. Let us bear in mind that great fact in considering our own lives. It will help prepare us to rise in heroic strength when the great emergency comes, as come it must to everyone.

Here is a story from the annals of phone service that illustrates the point, simply and directly. Read the formal citation of Mrs. Mildred Lothrop, thief operator, Northwestern Bell Phone Company, Homer, Nebraska:

“The town of HomerNebraska, was practically washed away by a flood in the early morning. Mrs. Lothrop lived with her five sons in the one-story building which housed the phone central office. At about a o’clock in the morning Mrs. Lothrop was awakened by a signal at the switchboard. She was advised by a subscriber, who lived five miles up the valley above Homer, that there had been a cloud burst and that the whole valley was a sheet of water. She immediately called the fire chief and several businessmen to notify them of the threatened flood. After that she commenced calling the homes of subscribers. In some instances it was necessary for her to call twice in order to impress upon the people the danger that threatened, as there had been a flood of less consequence about three weeks previous.

“While calling subscribers she sent her youngest son out into the water, which had already reached the phone exchange, and told him to ring the fire bell, knowing that many subscribers, upon hearing the bell, would immediately call the central office. In this way she was able to advise many others to hurry to safety.

“Although the mayor and several other citizens, as well as two of her sons, urged Mrs. Lothrop to leave the switchboard, she did not leave until the board went out of commission. When she got outside, the water was up to her shoulders and the current was very swift. She and one of her sons who had stayed with her, were just able to reach the entrance to a hail above a store near at hand. For the rest of the night Mrs. Lothrop did not know whether her four other children had been drowned or not. When morning came, all her sons were found alive and unharmed. The flood lasted until about the middle of the forenoon when it began to recede. The efforts of Mrs. Lothrop in warning the people in the valley of the danger saved many lives.

For her valiant efforts in this crisis, Mrs. Lothrop was given the Vail Gold Medal Award and $1,000.

But wait, there is more about Mrs. Lothrop. Twenty years and four days after the 1920 flood, on June 4, 1940, to be precise, another flood occurred at Homer. Mrs. Lothrop, still chief operator, again acting swiftly with cool, calm judgment, notified those in danger and even helped organize the rescue work.

“Despite the rushing waters which threatened the building and almost reached the second floor where the switchboard was located,” said the second citation, “she stayed on the board many hours until the flood receded. The community credits the saving of many lives to her resourcefulness and courage.” For this second service in time of emergency Mrs. Lothrop was again awarded a gold medal and $1,000.

It may appear strange that this story of Mrs. Lothrop is included in a chapter on phone usage. But it makes two important points:

First, it helps dispel the idea many seem to have that positions such as that of a phone operator are just routine jobs. In every position there lie great possibilities for helping others and at the same time for winning recognition of one’s own personal worth. And, more important, the spirit of service to other people, even the attribute of great heroism may, in fact, become a habit.

Here, in summary, are a few helpful points to keep in mind when using the phone:

1. An agreeable phone voice and manner may win a promotion in business.

2. We can use the phone with ease to widen our personal spheres of influence.

3. The central fact about phone usage is that the per Sons talking are invisible to each other. Better than ordinary good manners, therefore, are necessary.

4. The person talking to us visualizes us, sees a picture of us. That picture is our phone personality.

5. Let’s beware of being Mr. Grunt, Mrs. Mouse, Mr. and Miss Masticator, Miss Faraway, or Mr. Throat Grumble.

6. Don’t fail to say good-by. Don’t jiggle the receiver, shout, mumble, talk too fast or slow, use slovenly talk, interrupt, or keep people waiting.

7. Consideration for others and small acts of service, as habits in everyday phone usage, will work powerfully for us with people.

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