Thursday, September 27, 2007

[the telephone] the need for etiquette

This post follows on from the last one and from the comments by Shades, JMB, Bearwatch, Welshcakes Limoncello and Colin Campbell, which makes one think further about the issue:

The Catch 22 of businessmen and women is that no one wants to have to waste any time on unproductive potential customers and yet a certain amount of "wining and dining", of browsing if you like, is necessary to effect the sale.

In the case of the business people I know, this involves racking up huge phone bills. Every lead must be followed, every possible customer allowed his/her head up to a point. Largesse is the name of the game over here and for every invitation to the businessman's dacha for shaslik and banya, there are "customers" with no real intention to buy but who are just there for the free treat.

And through it all, the businessman must keep his equanimity. One down side is the mobile telephone, the key link in the chain. It's the downside for the person who doesn't stand to benefit and in my situation, a necessary evil.

One of my clients comes, lays three phones on the table before him and each has its own buzz, its own different ringtone, which drives me crazy but its part of his system. Then, during our time together, one or other of the phones always calls and he judges firstly by the tone and then by the number of the caller.

Sometimes he answers abruptly, "Srochno?" ["Is it urgent?"]. A woman who comes to me has a different, softer approach. What both do is, just before answering, to put out a placatory hand, a pained expression comes over the face and he/she asks, "May I?" "Is it OK if I answer?"

What both are doing is assuring the "incumbent sittee", me, that I am the major priority but this really is urgent, if I don't mind. This is nice - everyone likes to feel special and the businessman knows how to make you feel it. Work for his benefit and doors open, things fall into place.

My friend has an added technique. When the phone goes whilst he's with a client, he apologizes, reaches over, switches on but holds the phone at half-arm's length for a few moments whilst he assures the person sitting down that it will only take a moment and does he/she [the incumbent sittee] have enough coffee?

The caller gets the message softly and yet clearly that my friend is currently busy. Then he turns to the phone and is all friendliness. Anything longer than a few seconds and he asks if he can call back in twenty minutes or in an hour.

Of course, there is something inherently demanding in the telephone. When that imperious tone begins, shattering the coffee and chocolate laden pleasant afternoon atmosphere, it doesn't stop - it rings on and on and on, demanding the receiver be picked up.

I deeply resent this imperious manner of the phone. It should give one tone to warn of a call and then patiently wait. I need a new phone.

But worse than this is the caller. For some reason, callers who suddenly find themselves with either time on their hands or an "urgent" matter to resolve right there and then [and why must it be right there and then?], get it into their head that they can simply phone and the one at the other end will suddenly drop everything and deal with their concern.

This is ego beyond and my friend deals with it very cleverly with that half-arm held phone technique. The caller realizes he/she must wait just a little whilst the incumbent is dealt with first and this produces one of two reactions - resignation that it must be so or the other reaction - resentment.

The self-actualizing process is that the resenters tend to drop away and give up after some time but the real customer perseveres and then the relationship is always on the understanding that both are giving of their valuable time in a mutual pact to resolve a specific matter, be it only coffee and torte.

My technique is less good, I admit and not so conducive to business. Dial up has been a boon for me because I'm either in the net or out of the house with the answer machine on. With my system of no door buzzers, no domaphone, no way to get to me physically, the caller gets no immediate response - there's a filter in operation.

I always tell people they can get me by e-mail and that I check it constantly throughout the day. The type of person who wants his/her demands met instantly doesn't like that and suggests I get a mobile. No thanks.

Later, having listened to messages with a cup of tea in hand, composed and relaxed and on my own terms, I call back and deal with the matter, documents at hand. Then it's a check of the e-mails and the filtering of those and then the comments section of my website.

This achieves sanity and equanimity for me, which is what all callers and message senders needed in the first place - a person in possession of his full faculties and in a good mood, dealing with their concerns. Remove those filters from me and any call would soon get a snarling, savage, half thought out response - my mental processes work slowly.

This is the central thing with me - no caller is going to get the best response possible instantly. You might be the epitome of brilliant repartee and instant response yourself but I'm not - I need to think out my answers and advice.

All of this comes down to the concept of everyone reining in the ego and being reasonable, which most callers do not do and I blame the very nature of the phone, whether fixed line, mobile or the new-fangled type, designed for quicker, quicker, quicker response and no waiting whatsoever. In other words, technology is simply feeding people's egos.

But the callee on the other end of the line is human. The incumbent seated on the other side of the table has rights too - he/she has taken the trouble to visit and the imperious caller is an intruder. My whole face to face manner in my work is that the person[s] sitting opposite have my whole and undivided attention for that time - they are the most special person [s] in the world at that time.

The caller who realizes that and immediately asks, "Is it convenient?" or "When's a good time to call you back?" gets far better treatment from me and not only that but in so doing, becomes the higher priority when he/she does recall, simply on the grounds that the call was prearranged and there's now an obligation on my part to devote myself to his/her concerns.

The other type who cacophanously shatters the quiet of a pleasant session with imperious demands generally gets short shrift.



A friend had a poster up on his office wall, telling customers they could perm any 2 out of 3 on the following list:


As to phone interruption, how about being called at home at 9.30 pm (yesterday), by someone wanting house insurance and using a years-out-of-date Yellow Pages? Fruitless nuisances like this are why I gave up using adverts.

Gracchi said...

Brilliant article James one of your best- and you are right the phone does make an imperious sound- its like the alarum of a general to his troops. Thanks for this post, really good.

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

It depends on the caller.
Anyone calling me at home has to accept, they really have to be on speakerphone, because I am usually doing something else.

jmb said...

It seems whatever one does is wrong! Now you have broadband you won't be driving your friends crazy while you tie up you phone on dial-up!

Lord Higham- Murray said...

Sackerson - sorry it's taken so long. Like your example.

Tiberius - alarum is a fine word, now outdated.

Crushed - and what if it's a girl whispering sweet nothings?

JMB - it certainly needs to be thought out carefully.