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Meredith Holt, Published March 09 2014

Who's afraid of the big, bad phone?

CAVALIER, N.D. – When Jessica Hibl’s phone rings, her heart starts to race.

But she’s an attorney who has to spend about a third of her workday on the phone.

So, when her secretary pages her, she takes a big, deep breath and answers the same way each time.

“This is Jessica.”

The routine helps the otherwise confident 30-year-old Cavalier woman get over her initial nervousness.

“I still have my moments, like when the judge is calling me or an attorney I haven’t talked to before … But once I’m into the conversation, it generally goes away,” she says.

Our phones may be getting more use, but not in the way you might think.

According to data from CTIA, a wireless communications trade group, data traffic on cellphones nearly doubled between December 2011 and December 2012, but the number of minutes spent actually talking on them during that same time period only went up less than 1 percent.

Hibl thinks the shift from talk to text is generational.

“I think our generation is going to find more and more that people would rather Skype, Snapchat, Glide, Kik and message than use the phone function on their ‘phone,’ ” she says.

Although increased connectivity can be good for business, there are some things for which texting, messaging and emailing just aren’t as effective, like making a sales pitch.

Calling gives a voice to a name and can make a better impression than a form letter. It’s also easier to discern tone over the phone.

“That initial contact, if you can get good at doing it, can be very well made over the phone,” says Tamara Anderson, team performance strategist for Dale Carnegie Training of North Dakota.

Unfortunately, many employees don’t feel comfortable picking up the phone and cold-calling someone, especially if they’ve grown up primarily using other means of communication.

The good news is it’s a skill that can be learned.

When Naomi Orre, 29, an Ada, Minn., native who lives in St. Paul, first started her job as a customer service representative, she worried about how she sounded on the phone.

But after three years of practice, she’s a pro.

Now she talks to an average of 80 people a day and gets compliments on her speech and articulation.

“Because of that, I’m going to school for marketing communications in the fall,” she says.

Anderson, who works with clients on their phone skills, says preparation is one of the first steps to overcoming anxiety.

Know something about who you’re calling and why before you dial.

“I think for cold-calling to be effective, you have to do a little pre-work,” she says. “Think about, ‘What am I going to say?’ ‘How am I going to get their attention?’ ‘What’s my agenda?’ Business person to business person, when you’re making that call, their time is valuable, and you don’t have a lot of time to get their attention and make them want to listen to you.”

Anderson tells the story of an employee who called a CEO with a clear pitch.

“Within a half-hour, she got a call back not from him, but from his HR director. He’d actually called the HR director as soon as he got the message and said, ‘You need to call her,’ ” she says.

Jot down a few key points if you need to, but you eventually need to get comfortable enough with it to ditch the script so you sound more natural.

“If you haven’t done it before, that’s a great place to start,” Anderson says. “But the danger of it is you get too tied to it. You can tell when somebody’s reading from a script.”

Ashley Stenerson, a 29-year-old Fargo woman who spends a lot of time on the phone for her job with an engineering firm in West Fargo, always keeps paper next to her phone so she can take notes.

“That’s been really helpful, for me, at least,” she says.

If things get hairy on a call, she advises staying calm and using the person’s name.

“That seems to help calm them down and lets them know that you’re really listening,” she says.

Orre, the customer service rep, is also sensitive to tone, both her customers’ and her own.

“If you’re confident, if you’re happy, if you have pep in your voice, the whole conversation will go well. If you’re the opposite – if you’re crabby – it’s just not going to be a good conversation,” she says.

Tips for talk

• Do a little prep work. Know who you’re calling, why, and what’s in it for them.

• Keep your tone upbeat, friendly and conversational. People will take a cue from how you sound.

• Be concise. Recognize the value of the recipients’ time. They’ll appreciate your brevity.

• Take your time and take a deep breath if you need a break to gather your thoughts.

• Close your eyes if you have to. It might help you concentrate.

• If you flub up or lose your train of thought, keep it light and laugh it off. It happens to everyone.

• Keep a notebook next to your phone to jot down notes and follow-up questions.

• Practice makes perfect. The more time you spend on the phone, the easier it will become.

Sources: Jessica Hibl, Tamara Anderson, Naomi Orre and Ashley Stenerson


Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590