Phone Etiquette for Success

Polite behavior goes a long way in influencing what people think of us. Certainly, there are businesspeople who are rude and obnoxious and yet are still successful. However, the vast majority of humanity would rather be associated with a person who is polite and considerate.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all salespeople; we are all selling something — be it a product, a service or, on a non-business basis, just yourselves. So, why not increase the odds of your success?

This article will address how phone etiquette can help or hinder you in business and personal dealings.

The Governor

A friend of mine is the former governor of a northeastern state and is a prominent attorney. He and his law firm have handled various business matters for me. He is a true gentleman.

Let me make a point about how he comports himself, and why I think he is such a successful attorney, businessperson and human being. Whenever I visit his office, if he happens to spot me, he invites me into his private office, holds all of his calls and shuts off his cell phone.

Now, there are very few people as busy as this successful person. He has investments in various businesses, has a prominent law practice, and, as the former governor, has obligations that he always meets willingly.

No one has a better excuse for interrupting a conversation to say that he has to speak with someone else. However, he doesn’t do that. He is so focused on the person with him, that that person feels like the most important person in the world. Let’s examine the logic behind this man’s behavior.


Think about this. If you constantly allow yourself to be interrupted, you have to refocus on whatever you were doing and start again — not very efficient. Besides, the person to whom you are speaking thinks that he or she is not very important because you keep allowing other calls to interrupt your conversation — not very polite.

My feeling is that to be really successful in business, one needs a laser-like focus. One has to be totally centered on the matter at hand. In this fashion, nothing important can get by you. You are too attentive to overlook important details.

And, you are making the most efficient use of your time. You are accomplishing a great number of tasks, efficiently and effectively in the least amount of time. Who could ask for more?

Let’s look at some of the things that act as stumbling blocks to your success. These are what I might call “telephone blunders.”

Call Waiting

Probably the biggest public relations success of the 20th century was when the phone companies convinced people that they had to communicate with more than one person at a time. Back in the late 1970’s, this phenomenon was quite rare and was regarded as extremely rude.

It has now become commonplace, and people who otherwise would be the height of good manners are behaving horribly by interrupting conversations because someone is on another line. Call waiting is great for the success of the telecoms, but, it can really damage your credibility and your business career.

I personally try to avoid any contacts who use call waiting. I either ask them to call me back when they can speak to me exclusively, or I hang up on them. Why waste our mutual time by being constantly distracted by incoming calls? Nothing really valuable gets accomplished. Or, if it does, it is accomplished at a great sacrifice to efficiency and good manners.

Returning Phone Calls

Here is another area where so many of us fall short. I have always told my employees never to leave the office until all calls have been returned. If I got any objections about this rule, I would quickly point out that I was as busy as anyone else and I always abide by the rule.

Think of how good a customer, client or friend feels if you extend them the common courtesy of promptly returning their calls. It means that you value your relationship with them and that they are important. Who doesn’t want to feel important on some level?

Call Screening

I personally have a problem with anyone who heavily screens his or her calls. I just don’t think that it’s necessary. In fact, it really doesn’t help you with your customers or clients, does it?

Many acquaintances of mine are extremely successful, yet it’s always quite easy to reach them. And, it’s not because I’m the one who’s calling. It’s just who they are.

My personal feeling is that a lot of call screening is done because of the fragile ego of the businessperson. If one were to really examine one’s telephone practices, I doubt that one would find a need for much, if any, call screening.

Since some of us are so intent on having our calls screened because it makes us feel important, shouldn’t we reflect on the fact that everyone wants to feel important and doesn’t necessary like to have to “prove” themselves to get by your secretary?

Let me end this article with some instances which show, I believe, how unaware some people are of their telephone behavior and how comical and unprofessional they can appear to others.

Some Actual Stories

The following are two funny examples of poor phone etiquette. They represent what you should not do if you are trying to portray a professional demeanor.

The Marriage Breakup

Believe me, this is true. I was having a coffee at Starbucks recently when a man received a phone call from his wife. Apparently they were in the throes of a separation and he was having a hard time with it. He was loudly complaining to her on his cell phone and was accusing her of trying to ignore him.

However, it was impossible for the rest of us to ignore him. We had a laugh at the guy’s expense. It’s too bad he didn’t keep his personal life to himself. He had the option (which he didn’t take) of leaving the store, and stepping outside so that he could discuss his personal life in private.

The Real Estate Magnate

My wife and I were headed to New York in the first class section of a train. It was, for the most part, a very quiet trip, with most people reading, chatting quietly, or sleeping. Suddenly, a man a couple of rows in front of us received a phone call.

He started to talk loudly about a real-estate deal, giving great details as to amount, terms, etc. Most of us were grimacing with annoyance, since there was no reason for the man to be speaking so loudly.

Finally, when he concluded the conversation, several people broke into applause to show, I’m sure, their annoyance and anger with this man. He had spoiled about 45 minutes of what was, up to then, a very quiet and pleasurable ride.

Business Impressions

Make the right impression for success. Examine how you think you are coming across to people and whether you are enhancing the chances of your success or decreasing them. Keep a laser-like focus to the task at hand and you can’t help but succeed. And, good luck!

Theodore F. di Stefano is a founder and managing partner at Capital Source Partners, which deals in bringing small-cap companies public. He also is a frequent speaker on the subject of financial advice for small businesses as well as the IPO process. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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