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Ask Sue
A Weekly Q&A Column About Professionalism, Etiquette and Problems in the Workplace
by Sue Morem

Telephone Etiquette

Dear Sue: I related to the question from the sole proprietor who was concerned about answering the phone without annoying other clients. Although I do not meet clients in my home, I do have a home office where I run a one-man consulting firm. I spend most of my time on the phone, making and taking calls, sending and receiving faxes and sending e-mail all day long. I have a few comments and suggestions for your readers.

First and foremost, I would never answer a call while meeting with a client. As a client I would find this extremely rude; it implies that other clients or potential clients are more valuable than the one you are meeting with. If you have a cell phone, turn it off during meetings. I personally keep my cell phone number private except for family members; if it rings, I know it's an emergency that would justify an interruption.

There are many ways to handle incoming calls if I am on the phone, and I recommend three things: voice mail, call waiting and caller ID.

It is important to change your message every day, and more often if necessary. I use the same simple message every day, but I always mention the day and date, so callers know I check my messages every day at a minimum. If I'm going to be out, even for an hour, I change my message and inform callers when I plan to return. This reassures callers by giving them an idea of how long a callback will take. Personally, I don't like answering machines because they are more difficult to change, and they often sound cheap. It's also easier to check voice mail on the road (don't forget to mention that you do this in your message). I also don't like answering services; a real person on the other end encourages questions and callers want answers as to when you will return or if someone else can help, which quickly reveals that the "real person" doesn't even know who you are or what your business is.

Call waiting/caller ID: If you are on the phone, and another call comes in, you may be able to decide if you need to interrupt your current call. I don't really mind being put on hold for a moment, as long as I'm not abruptly cut off during a critical discussion. Don't kid yourself, or try to kid clients: they know you're the only one in the office, and they understand that sometimes you need to take another call. Just don't do it too often, or let them hang for long. Caller ID also lets you return a call if someone doesn't leave a message; you may contact a few wrong numbers, but you may also impress a potential client.

Another important consideration is additional lines. You should definitely have one for phone and one for fax/on-line access; if you spend lots of time on-line and receive lots of faxes, get three lines. Busy signals get very annoying quickly.

These services add to your overhead, but I find that they are well worth it in reassuring your clients of your professionalism and attention to their needs. - Tom

Sue Says: Your suggestions are well thought out and make sense. I always appreciate knowing when to expect a return call, and like the idea of daily updates, however, if you plan on doing so, be sure to change the message daily. There is nothing worse than reaching someone's voice mail on February 5 that tells you where he or she is on January 25. This sends a negative message to callers and can appear as though you are absent minded or lack attention to detail. In addition, don't say you will return all calls if you know you won't.

While we are on the subject, I'd like to add a few words of advice for callers when leaving messages: Keep in mind that any message you leave is one of many the person you are calling is receiving. Make your message brief and to the point and write down the main points you want to cover so you don't waste time collecting your thoughts while you are recording. Don't eat, smoke or chew gum while talking, and when you state your name and phone number, speak s-l-o-w-l-y. In fact, if you write down your number as you say it, you will be helping the listener out and be more apt to slow down. Spell your last name for the benefit of the listener as well. It's also a good idea to leave your name and number both at the beginning and end of a message. And, since e-mail is preferable for many, you may want to leave an e-mail address on both incoming and outgoing messages.

Connecting with people by phone has become quite a challenge - thanks for writing.

Sue Morem is a professional speaker, trainer and syndicated columnist. She is author of the newly released 101 Tips for Graduates and How to Gain the Professional Edge, Second Edition. You can contact her by email at or visit her web site at

Send Sue your questions by clicking here: Ask Sue
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