Michael Stone and the phone: His advice — Answer it properly. I can’t say I do.

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In the past decade, my attitude to inbound phone calls has evolved. These days, outside of people I know, virtually every inbound call “out of the blue” is a solicitation, publicity agent, or a spam robo-call.

Of course, our organization serves other businesses rather than consumers directly. Inbound phone calls (unless from a friend or for something truly urgent) are intrusive, irritating and frankly (to me) disrespectful. I do not need to hear from (or want to hear from) salespeople I don’t know or publicists pitching their client’s product, service, innovation, or event. If they wish to let me know, they can send an individualized email, or (as happened today from a printer seeking my business), an old-fashioned courier package or letter.

(The printer’s rep said she would be calling today, and she did. It was okay and I gave her the answer she wanted in the brief 20 second conversation: I had her information and would be sending some specs for specific quotes/pricing evaluation.)

So how do I respond to Michael Stone’s advice about phone etiquette?

He says wherever possible, you should answer your calls personally and carefully monitor the response/standard, and stick to an opening script.

“Good morning / good afternoon.”
A greeting that tells the caller that you’re having a good day, and you’re wishing the same for them.

“Stone Construction Services”
When you state the name of your company, it lets them know they’ve called the correct number.

“This is Michael.”
Let them know who they’re talking to.

“How may I help you?”
This is music to their ears. They are calling because they need help, and you’re offering it.

Stone doesn’t like phone trees, voice mail (except after hours, and then you should respond the first thing in the morning) and anything that sets up a barrier between you and your potential customers.

I can’t argue with him, if you truly receive out-of-the blue calls from potential clients. And it doesn’t hurt to have a simple, respectful and clear initial response.

The argument might be whether you need to remain respectful after you discover the call is in one of the usual offensive categories. Here I cannot claim perfection, much as I tend to slam the door in the face of anyone canvassing at my home.

It’s bad manners, and I don’t recommend anyone follow my approach, but I don’t think it right that salespeople of any kind should be able to disturb or distract me at any time without first receiving my permission. And this attitude has increasingly been enshrined in law, such as the mandatory “Do not call” lists for consumer services in Canada.

Within this framework, what can/should you do?

First, as noted above, if your business receives a meaningful number (that doesn’t need to be large — one or two a month for large-scale purchases could do the trick) of initial inquiries from real potential customers, be nice — at least until you are sure the caller doesn’t belong to one of the bad categories. It won’t hurt to audit your inbound calls for a few weeks and see who calls, and how many fit into the different boxes.

Second, and this cannot be overstated, make sure your website/landing page and initial communications forms are easy and simple to complete, and (where possible) provide useful information and resources.

We make available our media/rate guides through our websites, but have set a two stage process. You have to identify yourself first before receiving access to a special password protected page. (Yes, you can fake this if you wish — but you’ll still need to provide a real email address where you actually open your emails.) I respect that potential clients should not need to talk to a salesperson before receiving basic advertising pricing information, but they still should be ready to receive a follow-up inquiry IF they want us to provide instant data that might be useful to a non-helpful competitor.

Finally, you can be like Donald Trump, and hand out a special phone number (your cellular phone, perhaps) to anyone you really want to answer, and that could be potential clients who follow a simple screening process — again where they receive useful information and resources in exchange for getting through the screen.

Note: Michael Stone’s take on inbound phone communications is very different from mine. I respect his opinion and perspective and it might indeed be right to answer all the calls directly, be nice to everyone (including the intrusive solicitations) and remain professional throughout the calling process. If you agree with him, please ignore my approach to the issue.

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