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.: But in the business world, fairness doesn’t always 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 be job hunting since you feel your boss “spied” on you, and then handed you a less than sterling review. But it isn’t always a bad thing (or a condemnation of you) to get some 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? From note note, all you told me is that someone thinks you are “inapropriate.” That can mean a lot of things, from swearing, to gossiping, to being too personal, and more.
You can’t improve, if you don’t know what the issues are. So, instead of running off to find another job, do some damage control. Request a meeting with your boss to discuss the matter in more detail. Say that you are also concerned that you might not be representing yourself or the company in the best way possible, and you’d like to work with him to correct the things that might have been deemed inappropriate in your phone manner. You need to ask what the complaints were, specifically. 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 “YO!”). 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 (instead just briefly leaving your name, date, time of call, and a brief explanation for why you’re calling).
Mumble, whisper, yell, or talk so fast that you caller can’t understand you. If you want your caller to get your message right, speak slowly, clearly and distinctly.
Swear –too bad I need to include this, but you never know how others will take it.
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” No one really wants to wait to leave a message. Let them get to the point.
Leave a message that says you are out of town, live alone (the “we’re not home” greeting works for singles as well as couples. If you feel silly about that, consider that “we” includes pets and even plants, if you don’t have a human significant other living with you. No personal information other than your phone number (which the caller supposedly dialed anyway) should be on voice mail or answering machines.
Leave a way for callers to reach you in an emergency. Don’t assume that you are so important that your caller has previously saved your phone number or beeper number, and can automatically access it again! Return phone calls in a timely manner, or letting the other party know you resent the interruption (hint: if you really can’t to talk to someone right then, be honest. Let tell them you will call them back at a specific time and then do it!
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 what the vibrate feature and text is for on your phone.
Use a hands-free device while making calls in your car, or wait until you can 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 not only very dangerous, you will also sound distracted (and rude) to your caller. It’s also very annoying to hear outside noises (car horns, noisy trucks, etc.) You will also be dealing with dead zones as you drive resulting in dropped calls and poor reception. Pull over in a quiet place to make that all-important call, if necessary!
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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