ASK ALISON: My Boss Says I Give Bad “Phone”
Dear Alison: “I’m a middle manager in a busy sales office. At my review last week I was shocked to hear my boss tell me that my phone manner was bad. Worse, he told me he’s been “monitoring” my phone calls and keeping notes! I was so insulted I didn’t even know how to respond. Alison, I’ve been talking on the phone since I was old enough to say “momma!” and don’t think I need a phone make-over. But my boss said that clients complained I was “inappropriate.” I can’t think of a single thing I’ve ever said that would make that true. His bad review really upset me but worse, made me wonder what if anything I’ve done wrong. Since then, I’ve started job hunting, but when I go to interviews I need to make a good impression and now I’m wondering if I will. What advice can you give me?
ALISON ANSWERS: In private life, if someone is listening in to your phone calls without your knowledge or permission, it is called “invasion of privacy. ” These days and in business that doesn’t apply. While I question your boss’s tactics, it might be understandable if clients are complaining. Had he told you he was going to “listen in” you would probably edit the way you speak.
I can understand why you might believe your days are numbered since your boss “spied” on you, and then handed you a less than sterling review. Consider that it’s not always a way to the door if you receive unexpected or even (negative) feedback, especially at review time. The purpose of reviews is not to stroke your ego and make you feel good (although that is always nice), but more to let you know how you’re doing, and to help you set some new goals for yourself. If you work in a sales office where there is a lot of person-to-person contact, handling the phones well is obviously an important part of your job success.
You may think your phone manner is perfectly fine, but if people are complaining, it’s time to take a closer look at how you appear to others –especially verbally over the phone. Did you ask your boss for specific examples of what clients complained about? All your note said was that someone thinks you are “inappropriate.” That can mean a lot of things, from swearing, to gossiping, to being too personal, or maybe it’s something else.
You can’t improve, if you don’t know what the issues are. Instead of running off to find another job where you might repeat the same mistakes, why not figure out what’s gone wrong here, and try to fix it, first? Request a meeting with your boss to discuss the matter in more detail. Say that you too want to make the best impression you can, and if there is something in your phone manner that puts people off, you’d like to change it, but to do so you need to know what, specifically, people have complained about. Don’t bother asking who complained (you probably won’t get an answer, anyway). But you need to know concrete examples of what was “inappropriate.” Do your best to listen constructively without being defensive. The chances are you can fix this, easily, without feeling bad or having to run off in a huff. However, if your boss can’t or won’t provide specifics, that really could be a sign that the critique was just one more way to ease your departure from the company.
If you do want to find another job, however, keep in mind that job hunting is also a highly social activity. Most of the people with whom you’re going communicate on the job, and in your job search, will “meet” you by phone before they ever see you in person. Their impressions will be lasting, so you can’t afford to make a bad one. Here some of the most common mistakes that people make on the phone. If you are guilty of any of the ones below, that might be just what people were complaining about:
Carry on two conversations at once, one with someone on the phone, and the other with someone in the room.
Cover the mouthpiece of the phone and yell out something to another person (hands are not the effective muting devices you may think they are). The person at the end of the line will be forced to suffer your ear-shattering voice).
Drink or eat while you’re talking on the phone (each noise you make is magnified). Hearing someone chew their lunch can really sound disgusting –especially if the other person is hungry!
Perform other audible tasks (besides talking) while on the phone (make no mistake, your caller can hear your bodily functions, shuffling your papers, washing the dishes, flushing the toilet, etc).
Put someone on hold for “just half a minute” which turns out to be far longer than 30 seconds.
Answer the phone with a casual greeting (e.g. “Yeah” or “Whaddyouwant?” or “wassup!”). Anything other than your name, the name of your company, or good morning/afternoon/evening can get you into serious trouble (remember that famous scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary where she picks up the phone and says: Bridget Jones, wanton sex goddess” only to discovered that her father is on the other end of the line)?
Leave long, complicated messages that send people scrambling for pen and pad to scribble furiously when you know you’re going to have to speak person to person anyway (just briefly leaving your name, date, time of call, and a brief explanation for why you’re calling is best).
Mumble, whisper, yell, or talk so fast that your caller can’t understand you. If you want your caller to get your message right, speak slowly, clearly and distinctly. Who hasn’t needed a phone number, an email address, or some other important bit of information, even the caller’s name, and it’s just not intelligible?
Swearing is bad, Really, really bad. And it’s too bad I need to include this, but it’s just not appropriate for the office, ever.
Force callers to suffer through two verses of your favorite song before they hear the words: “We’re not able to come to the phone right now” Your caller just wants to leave a message, not to be entertained.
Leaving a message that says you are out of town or that you live alone is not advise able. If you really are single and silly saying “we,” consider that “we” includes pets and even plants. No personal information other than your phone number (which the caller supposedly dialed anyway) should be on voice mail.
Leave a way for callers to reach you. Don’t assume that you are so important that your caller has previously saved your contact numbers or can automatically access them.
Return phone calls in a timely manner. If you don’t want to talk to someone right away, be honest and say you will call them back at a specific time and then do it. If you absolutely must, let the call go to voicemail and return the call asap.
Turn off your cell phone in public places where you might disturb others with your call. You cannot possibly be quiet or discreet enough for the people sitting with you, or next to you! That’s why there are vibrate and text features on your phone, Use them!
Don’t drive and use your phone. Pull over. Take a break to check your messages or return phone calls. It may be tempting to use your vehicle for an impromptu business call, but driving while talking on a cell phone is distracting and half the time you’ll drop the call and your caller will hear the annoying outside sounds. Cars are transportation, but if you must make yours into a mobile office, pull over in a quiet place to make that all-important call.
Everyone is guilty of PPP (poor phone performance) some of the time. If you really want to know the correct way to handle virtually any sticky professional or social situation in business, life, or career, I strongly suggest that you consult a recently-edited etiquette book. (Don’t laugh!) A good one will give you authoritative answers so you’ll always be prepared. You’ll be amazed at how often you find yourself checking it for advice. Start with the phone etiquette section.
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