How to make a successful phone call

This is a guest post from Dan Ednie, 22, who is a young Melbourne entrepreneur studying linguistics at the University of Melbourne. In 2008 he founded Global Heart Tours, a bilingual tour service that connects Australian Language learners with international students and generally travellers. He writes and consults primarily about second language acquisition and cross-cultural communication, but is able to consult for any linguistic problems. Email him at dan.ednie@gmail.com.

Dial number >> phone rings>> receiver answers

A: Yes

B: (1 second pause) Hi Steve, I mean, Good afternoon Mr. Jobs. My name is Dan and I’m calling with a stellar proposit….

A: *Beep, beep, beep, beep*

  Hello! Can I help you?

Photo by Fernando Mineiro  

We all know that the opening few sentences of any phone conversation are crucial. A stammer, a false start (“My name, My name is Dan Ednie umm”), a stunned silence, are all things which do happen, and can be hard to recover from. Phone manner is an art, and for anyone at any level of business it’s an enormous asset. In the above example, Dan is thrown off by Steve Jobs opening, he was expecting something like ‘Hello’, or ‘Steve here’ or ‘Steve Jobs’.

The question for entrepreneurs and linguists is, why has this been such a big factor, and how can we fix it?

Linguists have been writing in the last ten years, frequently: on phone exchanges; address terms (what we call each other by); and the causes of dis-fluency markers (ums, errs, mispronunciations). Honourable a study as it is, very little of the research has been made available and I hope to give some kind of an insight into what academic linguists make of this aspect of business communication.In 1979, American conversation analyst, Schegloff, concluded that the majority of American telephone openings have a direct identification and recognition. The four variations of these were:

1. a summons-answer sequence (e.g. the phone rings and the callee answers ‘Dave speaking’);

2. an identification and/or recognition sequence (e.g. ‘Dave!’/‘Hey Sarah’);

3. a greeting sequence (e.g. ‘Hi’/‘Hi’);

4. a ‘how are you’ sequence (e.g. ‘How are you?’/‘Alright, yourself?’)

These are all quite acceptable responses, and if we are trying to create a new relationship, set up an interview, or respond to their advertisement, we will deal with these openings with ease.Are these openings universal, can they cross national boundaries? With something as variable as how to answer the phone, we might expect to vary a lot. Especially if we keep in mind that in some cultures its normal for people to  actually wait for the caller to start, has this ever happened to anyone else? Hopper, Hymes and Chaika have found that these vary significantly across cultures, especially between different languages. Fortunately between English speakers the difference is not too great, there are some similarities between Americans and Australians, as both tend to answer the phone with ‘Hello’ in private calls, while business callees tend to provide explicit self-identification, often the name of the business. O’Loughlin’s (1989) reported a higher frequency of self-identification (67%) in business calls than private calls (34%). What is incredible is that 33% of business calls don’t self identify, and thus we see the abnormal ‘yes’, ‘hello’ or something else unexpected as quite a significant player.

But what about the traditional G’day, is that still happening, or in this age of iSnack Web 2.0’s have we lost our Paul Hogan heritage. O’Loughlin’s study found that the informal ‘G’day’ was used but twice by male callers and not once by a callee.

So, what went wrong for Dan in the Steve Jobs phone call? As an Australian Dan was used to either a ‘Hello’, Hello, this is Steve Jobs’ or a direct confirmation ‘Steve Jobs’. Receiving nothing but a terse ‘Yes’, the dialogue sequence is totally thrown off and the rest is history, Dan doesn’t even get to the pitch because he’s already proven himself as unprofessional, and unorganised. What we need to be aware of is that individuals will vary a lot in their opening sequences, and that when we are speaking to a non-Australia, then we need to plan for the unexpected, and have to composure to say what we have scripted or intended to say. When we contact individuals in a business context, they may be answering the call as though it were a private one, and their circles of friends may have effected a completely unexpected summons-response sequence.

3 thoughts on “How to make a successful phone call”

  1. Hey Steve and Dan,
    Great timing for this post as I had this exact experience today!

    I got throw off by an initial sequence that gave me nothing and I didn’t get hung up on, but the editor was very kind to me.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. While I appreciate the authors involvement in this post, it is clear that he has little real world experience with phone etiquette. 

    The basic ingredients to any phone call is that one needs to have information on the person they are calling, as well as being focused, confident and most important of all understanding how to read and feel there way through the conversation.

    That also means adjusting ones talking style, speed, and thought process in a way that best suits the person on the other end of the line. 

    This article did little to provide a clear set of instructions on how to achieve success in a phone call and I feel the use of ‘Steve Jobs’ is somewhat over zealous and nieve. 

    What is this authors claim to fame to be discussing with us on this topic?

    1. Thanks T Rollo for the thoughts, you’ve raised some really salient and good points which only help to make this article better. 

      The author, Dan Ednie, is (was? This post was written a while ago now) a linguistics student at Uni. More to the point, Dan and I caught up for a coffee a while ago and discussed the work he was doing then. He was (is) running an organisation called Global Heart Tours, guiding foreign language students through the city of Melbourne and showing them the sites. His ideas about linguistics really amazed me, and I’m happy to have the post up outlining a few basic ideas of that. 

      Thanks for your thoughts🙂  

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