Great conversations on the telephone

Studies have shown as much as 87% of the opinions people form about us when speaking to us on the telephone are based on the sound of our voice, 13% on the actual words we use.  People 'hear' our personality, mannerisms, attitude and so on through our voice when they can't see us.  As a user of video calling apps I have more opportunities to see and visually read people on calls, but in many professional situations with my business clients, this is not a communication option.  So the telephone remains a major means of holding important conversations with customers in particular.

Our most important responsibility in professional situations where a good outcome and understanding is needed is to have brilliant listening skills.  Most people don't listen.  They just take turns to speak.  Steven Covey coined the term "listening to understand", often referred to as active listening.  When we are listened to we feel affirmed and validated, understood.  Listening actively  on the telephone presents more of a challenge than a face to face conversation.  

Recent training I have provided for some different public service organisations has focused on communication and listening to customers on the telephone.  As a result, some helpful practice and ideas have emerged about holding great conversations over the telephone to share in this blog.  Possibly nothing startlingly new, but it's a pertinent reminder of things to remember about listening well and managing what happens on the telephone to the other person.

First, listen well

If you hold responsibility for the conversation then you hold responsibility for listening well.  Here are five important ways to listen well:

  1. Learn to use your thinking time wisely.  Train your mind to be a scanner to identify the theme of the other person's message.  Check your grasp of the facts by asking questions, summarising and reflecting back.
  2. Become an observer.  Avoid becoming 'one who speaks and listens to him/herself speak'.
  3. Listen with an open mind.  We all have a tendency to resist ideas that are of no personal interest to us.  Open your mind and focus on what the person is saying even if you think you're not interested or you've 'heard this before'.
  4. Be aware of your personal prejudices.  Guard against the tendency to exercise emotional or cultural censorship and ignoring or blanking out things you would rather not hear.
  5. Listen all the way through.  Don't jump to conclusions.  The 'punch line' usually doesn't come til the end.

Telephone conversations have a different dynamic

What's the difference?  It's less personal, it's easy for both to be distracted and for there to be miscommunication, there is no visual reaction or feedback, non verbal communication is invisible.  However - the latter is still there, and involves our physiology and how we communicate.  One other interesting thing  is that time is distorted.  The passage of time seems difficult to keep track of.  It's a subjective illusion that things have slowed down, or taken longer than they really have.

People like people who sound like......?

Using our voice is needed to create the right impression when people can't see us and the following characteristics seem to be those my training delegates agree we would like to have our customers describe us as on a call:

  • friendly
  • helpful
  • respectful
  • knowledgeable
  • confident/credible
  • in control
  • professional

These are the words that create images in the other person's mind when we are holding a conversation.  We do this by:

  • taking control of our physiology
  • managing our values and emotions
  • using verbal behaviours consciously and controlling how we sound

We do this with our voice.

Some tips to achieve great conversations on the telephone

  1. Create a positive physiology.  Smile, breathe, sound friendly and warm.
  2. Less note taking.  Taking notes might be important but can lead to over processing and missing what is being said.  It splits attention and the person on the other end may notice.
  3. Change your voice.  Practise and use different voice techniques to improve your effectiveness.  Keep in mind values and biases come through sound too - especially tone and emphasis - so keep your emotions under control. This part of conversation excellence takes practice and conscious effort.  Focus on these voice changes: 
  • Smile to create a bright tone.  Pause and breathe between statements.  
  • Speech rate (speed of talking can reflect emotional state)
  • Pitch (height and depth variation; listeners can assume a mood)
  • Volume - the telephone can reduce volume so increase your volume slightly to aid comprehension and ensure you are heard correctly.  
  • Pronunciation.  How you pronounce a word and how clearly you speak is very important over the phone as there are no visual clues.
  • Emphasis. Because we don't have visual communication, emphasis on certain words and phrases is where people will make meaning.  So repeat particular words, use significant pauses so the message is understood.

You are in control

You control everything you say and do, so make sure conversations by phone involve all of these: body posture, listening, questioning, empathy, understanding, rapport, effective information processing, self management, self control and call control.

In summary

I've mentioned Susan Scott in previous blogs and her writing on 'fierce conversations'.  Her mantra applies here.  The conversation is the relationship.  Your success in achieving a great outcome in a conversation relies on building the relationship whether you are on the phone or face to face or communicating online.  

If you'd like to commission some training on customer care over the telephone, a number of options can be found in my list of programmes hereGet in touch if you'd like to have a conversation.