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Marketing, Technology

Don’t hang up: 4 things to keep in mind when calling someone


This old thing? People STILL use it for all the wrong reasons.

Last night at midnight I got a phone call. Normally, even before I’d completely abandoned REM bliss, my heart would be pumping. Before I’d open my eyes and whip my head around to see who it was, I’d be running through all the possible scenarios: someone got into a fiery car crash; my roommate got locked out of the apartment and is being chased around San Francisco by a gang of homeless marauders; oh God, Grandma Margaret died. Every late night call shaves countless months off my life. Fortunately, it was nothing; just a friend calling to confirm plans for this weekend.

Given that there are so many other ways to reach me without waking me up from my slumber (e.g., text, email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) this person choose to call me. At midnight. On a Wednesday. Why?

More broadly, why do we use telephones at all in 2013? Counting out the elderly and the disabled among us, for whom other forms of communication might prove exceedingly difficult, it’s because we’re selfish and we’d rather inconvenience the person on the other line to meet our own needs than wait until it’s convenient for both of us to talk.

What does a phone call say? It says: I have a need. And this need must be fulfilled right now, from you. It doesn’t take the other person into consideration at all. Unless they’re planned, phone calls are designed to be convenient for the caller, not the recipient. As a result, calling someone is, necessarily, a selfish way to communicate. And we know that this is true; think about telemarketing, phone surveys, etc. An unexpected phone call doesn’t preface by saying, “Are you busy?” (or in my case, “Are you sleeping?”) It just rings and rings and rings, like an incessant, annoying child.

Basically, all unexpected phone calls are like THIS. Thankfully, you can still use your telephone without being a nuisance.

When to call someone in 2013:

  1. It’s an emergency!!!! For example, someone the recipient knows has died or has been involved in a fiery car accident. Or, the zombie apocalypse has begun. The recipient will thank you for this information, no matter the time of day or what they were doing when you called.
  2. I have an immediate need that cannot wait. Sometimes, things are urgent. There are deadlines that simply cannot be met without the recipient’s help. But there’s urgent and there’s things that can be communicated via text, email, Facebook, Twitter or any number of other services that are less disruptive and less intrusive. Use good judgment or risk being “the boy who called.” (see what I did there?)
  3. We have previously planned to have this conversation on the phone. Fantastic! This is ideal. You have buy-in from the recipient to be called, so you know that you’re not calling them unexpectedly. As a best practice in work situations, schedule calls with Outlook or Google Calendar (or whatever you use) and be sure to indicate who will call whom, at what time, how long they should expect the call to last and what the call will be about. Not only does this completely eliminate discourteous calling, it helps ensure that the call goes smoothly and everyone is prepared to participate.
  4. I just called because…I have something to tell you or sell you. Unless you know for certain that the person on the other end is bored and has nothing else to do but talk to you, this is NOT a reason to call. For these things, consider whether it’s more appropriate to send a text, instant message, email, Facebook message, tweet or something else. Considering the recipient of your message goes a long way to ensuring a relationship with mutual respect for time and information.

Here’s to a more call-courteous 2013! Let me know your thoughts about phone calls, calling etiquette and modern communications in general.


6 thoughts on “Don’t hang up: 4 things to keep in mind when calling someone

  1. Brilliant, Aaron.

    I’d agree with it 100% were it not for the sales dead ends where the ONLY way to get someone’s attention is to wake them up on the phone (not literally at midnight, but in the figurative sense). If sales people took every ignored email as a “do not ever contact me” a huge percentage of sales would never get booked.

    There is a huge contingency of every sales person’s targets that simply will not reply to even the most perfectly written email, will not bite on any electronic transmission of any sort, will indeed be annoyed by being dropped in on, on the phone – but will invariably take notice of a product (and often thank the sales person for following up).

    I remember working with people whose inbox was such a clusterfuck that I had no idea how they could possibly get work done. They’d have hundreds / thousands of unread messages. Unfortunately those same people more often than not are the decision makers. Everyone is too busy, no one wants to raise their hand to be a sales target, and the phone is a necessary weapon precisely because it’s intrusive.

    Most companies like to lead on that they are so clever in sales that they don’t have to resort to the phone, but (based on my limited sample size, granted) the overwhelming percentage of (B2B) sales is still heavily reliant on the phone.

    Your proposal would be outstanding for humanity, but very bad for the economy, IMHO 😉

    Posted by Travis Van | January 10, 2013, 2:51 pm
    • Thanks for the comment, Travis.

      You’re right that phone calls are absolutely the status quo for lots of business activities, including PR, my own profession! But what does that say when we agree that as individuals, we dislike unnecessary phone calls but for business to be conducted successfully, they are necessary? It says that we’re doing business wrong: effective communication is at odds with effective sales. That’s exactly why we hate cold calls, telemarketers, etc. It feels so forced, unnatural, annoying. Email typically isn’t the solution, either. Inboxes are overflowing and emails get missed.

      There are several root problems with outbound communications for sales, as an example. One problem is that many companies fail to make compelling information available for prospects when they want it; there should be loads of content that aim to help prospects make a better decision (that is, that they purchase your service/product) and answer any and all questions they may have right from the get go. Another is that companies don’t often provide ways to get in touch, ask questions or become engaged other than phone. If you’re a prospect, you want to solve a pain (not talk to a salesperson). The quickest, easiest way you can solve that pain is the one the prospect will seek out. Ideally, if a company has excellent resources that prospects can access (e.g., blog posts, white papers, case studies, videos, customer references, pricing, demos, trials, etc.) and have meaningful engagement through alternative channels (live and virtual events, social media, etc.) there’s less of a need to make a call.

      The goal of every organization should be to increase hot INBOUND sales inquiries, not increase OUTBOUND cold-calls or emails.

      Put another way: I became a customer of ITDatabase not because I was pestered by any salespeople, but because I had a need and found an excellent solution. I’ve happily used ITDatabase for nearly 4 years, and at different companies. I tell people about IT Database—even competitors when they try to sell me their services (via phone!). Why? Because I have a mutually communicative relationship; I know my feedback is heard…and the CEO follows my blog. I feel valued as a customer and as a person. THAT’S how smart businesses increase sales and visibility! 🙂

      Posted by aaronendre | January 10, 2013, 3:36 pm
      • I read Mark Cuban’s “How to Win” (never thought I would find myself a fan of that dude, but I’ve really enjoyed a lot of stuff he’s written) and one of the key sections was where he talked about never asking your customers what they want. I actually agree with that. We ask our customers what feature they want, and we get 200 different answers from whatever % respond, and it just confuses the hell out of us. His point was that it’s on YOU (the business) to steer the ship towards what’s in the customers’ best interests.

        Along those lines, what I view as part of the problem is that customers don’t know what they want, or rather, may not be aware of what they should want. If the decision tree started with an implicit interest every time from the prospect, and it was about breadcrumbs and resources leading them to water, that’d be one thing. But it’s not like that – most people are too stupid and lazy to either (a) have enough intellectual curiosity to really care or seek out better ways than the status quo ways they are doing things; or (b) want to stick their neck out within their organization to say “hey – here’s something we’re not doing very well, and we should be exploring other options.”

        There’s a good reason why so many companies go year after year, using the same shitty products (or worse, shelfware). There’s so much apathy on the customer side that even good products with good marketing thrash trying to figure out just how to crack the radar of people they’re trying to connect with.

        I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a new customer that says “how come I’m just now hearing about you guys?” Makes me insane when it’s someone that #1- is subscribed to one of our free resources; #2- i’ve emailed them a couple of times historically; #3- they blew me off when I tried them a couple of years ago.

        When you’re on the sales side, a lot of the type of stuff I just said sounds like whining and sour grapes. But I think this mess is equal parts poor sales and marketing AND indifference / apathy by target customers. People who aren’t competent in their jobs aren’t on the prowl for the best resources, they are collecting a paycheck and trying to keep a low profile.

        Posted by travisjohnvan | January 10, 2013, 3:46 pm
      • You’re absolutely right about customers not knowing what they want. As Henry Ford is alleged to have said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Steve Jobs took that quote and ran with it, not allowing the marketplace to define the product offerings but creating entirely new markets for wildly different things.

        Posted by aaronendre | January 10, 2013, 4:15 pm
  2. Forgot to say – your ultimate point that things are broken when the primary modus of sales is at odds with most people’s preferences is really the gem of the whole discussion. Couldn’t agree more.

    But also in phone’s favor:
    You get nothing when someone ignores your email … by phone you can learn a better person to contact, a better timing to try to contact them, whether that person you are trying to reach has any power. The vernier of people’s online persona that you see on social, or even your best background research is often completely misleading, and it’s only by getting their actual feedback that you can confirm or deny that you’ve even got the right person at the org often.

    Main problem as I see it is that there’s been so much overly pushy sales through the years that people necessarily insulate themselves. The same person who might otherwise have read a well thought email and even take the time to say “no thanks” has instead become conditioned to delete immediately, because they are spending so much of their time warding off ridiculous, pushy sales calls. Sales and PR people have been categorically labeled as pushy morons based on a very large sample size of that type of behavior. So it seems like we’re all swimming upstream against that legacy of bad behavior.

    Posted by travisvan | January 10, 2013, 4:02 pm
  3. Agree.. but hey, in 2013 you can defend yourself > Google Voice > spam lists, no-ring between certain hours..etc.

    Posted by Zoli Erdos (@ZoliErdos) | January 24, 2013, 9:13 am

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