Bad at phone calls? This simple tool can help

By Judith Humphrey

The best way to build business relationships is to communicate in person. But that has become impossible in this era of self-isolation and remote work. So do the next best thing: schedule a phone call, rather than sending an email or text. Calls are far better ways for you to connect on an interpersonal level. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we often meander in these sorts of conversations. Chitchatting your way through a call may be the right touch when talking to a friend or family member, but it can lead to a dead end when making a business call.

There is a way to take control of phone conversation and achieve your goals—whether that’s closing a business deal, convincing your boss about something, or just strengthening a relationship with a client. Structuring your calls will get you the results you want.

This template discussed below defines the four parts of a well-structured call. It was developed by the company I founded, The Humphrey Group, and is used globally by our clients:

1. Begin with a “grabber”

Open your business phone calls with something warm and personal. Building rapport will grab the attention of the person you’re talking with.

Suppose you’re networking and arrange a call with an executive in a firm you’d like to work for. You might begin: “Thank you for taking my call, especially since I know how busy you must be in these difficult times.” If you’re touching base with a recruiter you might say, “Hello, Darlene. It’s been a while since we last spoke, and I wanted to reach out again because nobody is as good at placing people as you are.”

2. Get to your message

The second element in a successful call is your message: the idea or argument you want to bring forward. Leadership is about conveying ideas every time you communicate, and your message is the lead idea. It should be in your mind (or on paper) before you make the call, and it will give you and your listener a sense of purpose and clarity when you communicate.

For example, you might have as your message to a colleague: “I’m calling because I’d like to borrow a member of your team to help us market some new online training.” Or to a networking contact: “I’d like to meet with you to discuss career opportunities that you may be aware of in your industry.”

One reason people may not get to their point in phone calls is that they may feel reluctant to come forward with an “ask.” Yet without a message, you’ll be wasting the other person’s time, and you’ll sound like you don’t know why you called.

3. Build your structure

The third element of a well-structured phone call is the “body” or proof points. Once you put your message out there, you’ll need to go to bat for it. One common approach is to give two or three reasons for the “ask.” If you’re asking for a meeting, give the reasons why you’re doing so. If you’re asking about a position in a company, briefly give a few reasons you feel you’d be a good fit.

Another approach to building your structure is to talk about ways the “ask” can be implemented. Suppose, for example you say to a client you’d like to move forward with a training program for their leaders. Discuss two or three ways this might be delivered. Or if you’re talking to your landlord about rent forgiveness, suggest several options for paying your rent over time.

“Reasons” and “ways” are two great patterns for structuring the body of your phone call. (For other patterns that can be used, see a fuller treatment of the subject in my book Impromptu: Leading in the Moment.)

4. End with a call to action

The fourth component of a well-structured phone conversation is a “call to action.” Think of it this way: you’ve presented a message or an “ask.” You’ve developed that point through some supporting arguments. Now it’s time to close the deal.

Suggest what next steps are necessary to turn your message into reality. For example, if you want to meet with a recruiter to get going on a job search, ask her what would be a good time to meet for coffee to discuss. If your ask is to borrow help from another department in your company, suggest that the manager of the other department send a few candidates to meet with you. Whatever it is that you need to turn your message into reality, state it and request follow-through.

Unless you put forward a call to action, your message will remain just that: an “ask” that never gets acted upon. But with a call to action (assuming it is agreed upon by the person at the other end of the call), you turn your message into actionable steps. Your message becomes an idea that is realized.


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