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The Importance of Phone Skills

phone skills
Thomas Martino
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Published on March 24, 2014

This is a guest post by Ryan Kelly  for Student Stories.

I’d be willing to bet most students, if asked during a job interview, would say that they are comfortable handling phone calls.  I mean, it’s just holding a plastic thing next to your face and talking, right?  Easy.

I will be the first to tell you that it is not as simple one might think. But I will get to that shortly.

First, consider how many times you are engaged in a phone call over the course of a month.  I whipped out my iPhone for this, do the same if you feel so inclined.   After calculating my rate for this month prior, (either made OR received) I averaged about one per day.  Give or take a few, I think this is the range where a lot of college students would dwell:  about one a day.  Remove butt dials and telemarketers from the equation, and this number may grow even smaller.
I’m not blaming anyone one for not spending too much time having in depth discussions over the phone.  I fall into this category too.  We live in a society driven by indirect communications, where most people are primed to send a text or email before having a one on one conversation.  It’s less mentally taxing, and can be done in the background while we focus our efforts elsewhere during the day.  Despite this, we should not overlook the importance of being able to proficiently share and receive information via the phone, as it is very often a responsibility for internship and entry level positions.

My first internship as an undergrad was right on my college campus, working for a research team conducting a psychological study.  As with any research study, there was a recruitment and enrollment process for participants.  I was in charge of said process, meaning the bulk of my work included screening families, scheduling assessments, providing reminders for assessments, and reaching out to participants for follow up visits.  Phone calls, which were typically a part of my life a few times a week at the most, could easily reach in the double digits during one eight hour shift.  On top of that, the screening and enrollment process required me to gather a lot of personal information about subjects, some of which was very private in nature.  If I wasn’t respectful in my tone or delivery of questions, there was a lot of room for the person on the other end of the line to be insulted or made to feel uncomfortable.

For the first couple days of my internship, I was truly nervous every time that phone would ring.  And this manifested itself in every way possible.  I stuttered.  I forgot to ask necessary questions.  I gave incorrect information.  I froze.  “Uhh” was my go-to word.  Hearing myself struggle through the first several phone calls rid me of any confidence.  But I wasn’t the only one who noticed.  Those who were on the receiving end of my ineptitude heard too, and their occasional sighs, groans, or flat out unpleasant responses only further illuminated the amount of improvement my phones skills required.

Any way in which I found myself unprepared to handle a phone call at work can all be attributed to a simple lack of practice.  I rarely made phone calls before, and even if I did, it was almost always to someone I knew well.  As clichéd as it is, practice will make perfect.  The more calls I made at work, the more efficient I became.  As I became more efficient, I gained confidence in speaking with strangers, and was no longer dreading having to deal with a potential stressful situation with a study participant over the phone.

Believe me, it is a skill with which you may not even know you need more work.  In addition, being proficient and confident over the phone can benefit you in not only in the workplace, but in the hunt for an internship.  Think about it: Phone calls are commonly used by employers to schedule interviews.  Occasionally the interview itself can take place over the phone.  Competency on the phone here is crucial, since this may be the first impression you provide you potential hirer.

Therefore, if you find yourself searching for or beginning an internship position in which you will be working the phones (in any capacity), the best way to prepare yourself is straight forward: call people.  Anyone.  Hey, don’t know if Barnes and Noble has any more copies of the next Game of Thrones book you need? Hit them up.  As easy as Domino’s makes it to order online, try ordering over the phone.  Make plans with friends.  Call home, your family probably misses you anyway.  I know most of these aren’t important types of exchanges, but repetition will help you in comfortably relaying messages to others, and potentially asking questions of strangers.

Other advice for handling phone calls during an internship:

Always identify yourself.

This is a good habit to get in to, as it is important for callers (or those you call) to have a name and title for the person with which they are interacting.  Added bonus: if a caller knows you by name, this person will tend to be much more cooperative (from what I have experienced).

Do not be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

I can’t emphasize this enough.  If someone asks you a question, they typically aren’t looking for a guess. They want as accurate an answer as possible.  If you can’t provide one, there is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know”, but be sure to follow it up with “let me check for you/ let me ask my supervisor/ let me look it up” and act accordingly.

Try not to take the unjustified rudeness of certain people personally.

Some clients or customers truly have no patience, and are not above barking at someone who is trying his or her best to assist them.  Shake them off, and cherish the super friendly caller.

On the other hand, you would be surprised at how forgiving people can be.

Admit when you make a mistake.  “Hi there, I’m so sorry to tell you this but I accidentally scheduled your assessment on the wrong day. Totally my fault, and I’d like to reschedule it for a day that works for you.”  This is important if you are in a setting where you may have to make calls to the same people consistently, as you can build a trustworthy rapport by being up front about the matters at hand.

Pen and paper next to the phone.  Always.

Write down information as you talk to the best of your abilities, even if you don’t need it later.  You may not realize how quickly we sometimes forget things we heard just seconds before.

Stay comfortable and loose. 

Basic psychology:  If you are relaxed, it will likely keep the person with whom you are communicating relaxed too.

About the Author:

Ryan Kelly is a Health Science major in his fourth year at Northeastern University.  His internship experience includes settings in academic research as well as a contract research organization.

Thomas Martino

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