Top 7 telephone tips for calling a company’s main line

You’re calling a general line and don’t know who will pick up. Here’s a list of my top 7 telephone tips resulting in better communication and customer service:


  1. Identify yourself. Who are you and what is your affiliation? It’s very hard to field an inquiry without someone knowing who you are. Most people forget this.
  2. Speak clearly. Especially when calling from a mobile phone and/or outside, it can really be hard to understand you unless you speak slowly and enunciate.
  3. Do not speak in a run-on for 2 minutes before pausing. You might have the wrong number, be talking with the wrong person, and/or information might be lost or confused. You are just wasting your breath. Instead, start with the thematic nature of your question, and ask who best for you to speak with.
  4. Do your background research. If the company you’re calling has a website, look there first for your question. If you’re calling to follow up on previous engagement with that company or a staff member there, have that information in front of you. This sets a tone for a more productive conversation.
  5. Listen well. If the person who picks up tells you their name, company information, reference number, or anything else, note it. In the event that you get disconnected and need to call back, you have information to resume; in the event that your question isn’t answered and you speak with someone else, you have reference materials; if they are helpful, you’ve already begun recording information.
  6. Don’t assume the person who picks up is dumb; usually, it’s a person who knows more than you might think whether their primary job is receptionist or they’re a program employee manning the phones that hour. If they ask for information, don’t assume what they do or don’t know; tell them they information they ask for. They will inquire further or redirect if it’s outside their scope.
  7. Always, always be nice. Say thank you. Keep the tone of your voice courteous and not pushy. I promise that you will receive better assistance.

Simple! Now go make phone calls!

On December 2, Basque athlete Iván Fernández Anaya was competing in a cross-country race in Burlada, Navarre. He was running second, some distance behind race leader Abel Mutai – bronze medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the London Olympics. As they entered the finishing straight, he saw the Kenyan runner – the certain winner of the race – mistakenly pull up about 10 meters before the finish, thinking he had already crossed the line.

Fernández Anaya quickly caught up with him, but instead of exploiting Mutai’s mistake to speed past and claim an unlikely victory, he stayed behind and, using gestures, guided the Kenyan to the line and let him cross first.

(Read more)

Good sportsmanship. Winning isn’t everything.

Brainstorming: A History and Future

I really liked this infographic and experiment. Below it, I’ve included a few more brainstorming exercises that I think work well. I don’t think there’s a catch-all answer.

via Are We Brainstorming the Right Way?

Brainstorming about Brainstorming… more exercises to try

These are a few from my experience; please add yours, too!

  • Pitch Not-Your-Own Idea: Write your idea down on a sheet of paper. Mix the ideas up and distribute randomly. Every person pitches the idea they now have (likely not theirs), meaning they have to own it and do whatever they can to support it in front of the group. It forces people to challenge their own biases stemming from who pitched an idea or how it was pitched, and everyone contributes. (via MaxFunCon 2011 workshop with Kasper Hauser)
  • Stickywall: People contribute ideas (either outloud or written) that are then literally stuck to the wall. The facilitator can then physically rearrange and cluster thoughts. It’s a great visual tool and a way to include as many ideas as exist in a room without being overwhelming. (via Rachael Swanson from my time on the LIFT student advisory board.)
  • Build-the-Idea: Someone gives an idea. Someone else builds on it through acceptance of the idea and addition of information. Still another person builds on that by again accepting all pieces of the idea and then adding to it. Each idea should go through at least 3 iterations before moving onto the next. This allows the group to really play with possibilities of an idea, support oneanother, and have some fun. (via my improv classes and inspired by an earlier post).

I think it’s professional (kinda) :)

When an email arrives in an undoubtably professional context that contains a smiley face, I do a double take. On one hand, it certainly creates a warm tone in a way that Kind Regards never will be able to do. On the other hand, we’re not in junior high and we don’t need to be cutesy to convey warmth. I’ve invoked the smiley on a few rare professional occasions, and I never quite know why I hit send even though I don’t feel stupid for it either. As long as it’s used in a ‘normal’ written flow, a smiley will probably be harmless because it has a positive connotation. As with pokes on Facebook from folks of a different generation or a certain type of relationship, however, it could be seen as creepy or inappropriate, albeit unknowingly so.

Verdict: As I often argue, people are should be hired for their overall selves as much as for how well they can directly fill their professional shoes. If it’s within a person’s written repertoire to occasionally smile, let ‘em smile if they feel so moved. It’s not hurting anybody, just raising some eyebrows.

The ‘Busy’ Trap (and my dirty little secret)

“You’re so busy!” “What have you been so busy with?” “Try to fit me in a few months down the line when you have time.” “You’re crazy…always doing stuff.” “Call me! Where are you?”

I get these comments said to me a lot, and I can’t think of many things that are more personally irritating. 

It’s true that I am often busy – whether it is a work commitment that goes into the evening or a plan with friends or a class or a stroll – yes, I’m busy. I live in New York City, where everyone moves a mile a minute and planning something for work or pleasure often has to happen months in advance. People get booked, and even folks who enjoy spontaneity – as I do – need to plan certain meetings in advance so as not to miss the chance. A concert here, a lecture there, a dinner or drinks in between…. well, that’s life. If you want to take advantage of it.

In a recent opinion piece by Tim Kreider in the New York Times, The ‘Busy’ Trap, frustration for these super-busy, ‘crazy’ lifestyles and the people who complain about have them is expressed loud and clear. (It’s actually a very good, interesting read.) Kreider writes:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Fair point. Could be true for some. Fine. But, the author also self identifies as “the laziest ambitious person [he] know[s]”; so who is he to speak to what busyness is? In fact, this is the problem I have with being told through scolding voices how busy I am: I like what I do and know that my life is not trivial, and I feel that the activities I choose to fill my days and evenings with are in fact quite meaningful. Kreider and other doubters would know if they asked what folks were busy with instead of judging the quality of their busyness.

It’s easy when you have a large network and many interests to want to do it all, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it without resting. As Kreider correctly argues, you get tired. But, to keep a healthy balance of planned versus unplanned time for that multi-faceted, highly rooted in many social relationships person, you frustrate some people (friends! good friends!) in the process. You’re certainly not available every time they want to hop on the phone for catch up or go to the movies or grab dinner. I have seen this expressed – unfairly, albeit benignly in intent – over and over in whining statements of busyness in the tone of Kreiders article.

Here’s my dirty secret: I like committing to only what I can actually be fully present for. I don’t like to be late or overbooked or flake out. So, I decline things I don’t especially want to do, or can’t do fully. I also keep 2 nights a week and a large chunk of 1 weekend day always booked… for me. They are nights when I say I’m busy should people ask me to do something a few weeks out; I keep them free so I can enjoy these nights or weekend days however I choose in the moment. It could be alone or with others, at home or out, exhausting or relaxing, educational or silly, healthy or unhealthy. It’s time that I keep so that I don’t fall victim to having no time for myself, to allow for a healthy amount of spontaneity, and to recharge. I don’t do it to sound self important or too busy for others, although that is certainly a potential outcome.

There’s a balance to strike. It’s ok to pass on some things to open the door for others, and to hope that things you want to do and people you want to see can happen on a whim, or to just enjoy sitting sipping a (spiked) lemonade by yourself without feeling guilty. If you are always rejecting plans with the same person (like Kreider cites), perhaps there’s a larger self check-in of where that relationship fits in to your personal priority list. Taking some initiative to either spontaneously connect or schedule that connection on your time is a good step to fairly maintaining that relationship and your sanity.

To me, losing control and awareness of my time is what moves me from happily busy to pathetically busy. It is rare that I put something on the calendar many weeks out, because then I do indeed start to feel trapped. I see complaining about being ‘crazy busy’ or using busyness as an excuse (Kreider’s nemesis!) as a good tip off that I need to re-adjust, but not necessarily to stop doing. I don’t owe anyone but myself an explanation, but I do feel a need to be sincerely on board with my calendared items so that ‘busy’ doesn’t just become a transparently obnoxious rhetoric.

A last thought: every person has their own threshold for busy, too, and need for idleness. For Kreider,

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. 

For me, idleness is important though perhaps not as much so. Regardless, it’s the responsibility of a ‘busy’ person (you know who you are!) to recognize how your (seemingly) booked life might come across to others so that it can be communicated in a way that you are comfortable. Otherwise, people make assumptions often qualified in spiteful statements about busy people. A friend shouldn’t make another person feel guilty for leading a fulfilled life, so long as there is still quality time together.

I am a busy person. I’d like to think I’m good at it and have found a nice balance that is both fair to others and fair to myself. I do not think I’m generally overbooked, or pathetic, or using planned activities as a placebo for meaningful action. I don’t feel trapped by ‘busy’, but recognizing the threat of the trap is how I immunize against it. And I’m happy. Think twice before judging busy people, Kreider and friends.

Umbrella Etiquette

Inspired by the rain outside and the severe ankle jab I received on the subway from a golf umbrella this morning, I present to you my tips for proper umbrella use.

  1. Hold the umbrella upright and tightly. The handle should be fairly perpendicular to the ground and centered on your body. This achieves maximum dryness for you and minimum water runoff onto other people. Of course, you may need to adjust for wind, but try to maintain a smart posture.
  2. Do not text and hold an umbrella. Do not drink coffee and hold an umbrella. Do not hail a cab with your umbrella. Just use your umbrella to stay dry.
  3. imageClose the umbrella before walking inside or down into the subway. If you don’t, you block the door and make it more difficult for others to pass. To close your umbrella properly, pull off to the side of the sidewalk (out of the way) and close as expediently as possible. Do not shake it out. Tie up your umbrella with whatever closure is attached to it or a rubber band if necessary. If you have a bag in which to place your umbrella, do so, and people will think you’re classy.
  4. Avoid sudden movements. When you stop short or wheel around suddenly, several things happen: water flies, people get spoked, and you anger people (especially those without umbrellas). You already have this luxury of staying dry, so make a point to not indulge in this luxury at the expense of someone else.
  5. Be conscious of the space your umbrella takes up. Open, leave enough space between you and others, even if it means slowing your pace to let others coexist comfortably. Closed, your new walking stick or swing-around-item can still very much get in the way, so hold it steady and pointed, again, downward so that it is perpendicular to the floor. If it is dripping and must drip on someone, deal with it dripping on you rather than letting the stranger next to you suffer. It was your choice to use an umbrella; this is one of the consequences.
  6. Rain or no rain, do not walk on the sidewalk next to your entire group. In the rain, be especially conscious not to walk next to more than one person maximum, because it is even harder for people to pass. Plus, there are often puddles that everyone tries to avoid, and if your group is spanning the entire sidewalk, nobody can appropriately handle that obstacle.
  7. If it is incredibly windy and rainy, forgo the umbrella. Get a little wet. Or, stay inside. Too many people fight with their umbrellas, and as a result, foot traffic blockages and flying umbrella parts are ubiquitous. This is an unpopular opinion, but the correct one, I think.
  8. A broken umbrella has no place in a city. It is sharp and dangerous. Dispose of it immediately and buy a new one which thankfully, you can do easily in a city.
  9. If you do realize that you’ve committed an umbrella sin, and it’s possible to apologize to the person(s) impacted, do so.
  10. Etiquette begins from the moment of purchase. Do not buy an umbrella that is bigger than you. It’s fine to pick between tall ones or the tiny collapsible ones (preferable), but it should be the right size for one and only one body. No golf umbrellas, or anything even close. Sharing an umbrella makes both people wet anyway, so if chivalry is important to you, carry two umbrellas or just give yours up. Also, try to get an umbrella that looks somewhat stable. It doesn’t have to be top of line, because you’ll leave it somewhere on accident still, but it shouldn’t break in the first 15 minutes of use either.
  11. Drop the attitude. It’s never positive to walk by people who are grumpy anyway, but if you have an umbrella and you’re angry, your umbrella shows it. It droops, it assaults, it gets all bent of shape. You forget the rules and don’t even apologize when you’ve made a mistake and bothered a fellow pedestrian. Not good. Figure out a way to enjoy the rain, at least temporarily, and move on.

Emily Post, as always, I hope I’ve done you proud. Village Voice, I like your thoughts on the subject, too. Readers, please know that I seldom use an umbrella, despite being a glasses wearer.

Think I missed something? Leave your tips as a comment.

The Phone Stack

I wholeheartedly approve of this bar/restaurant game described in Kempt:

It works like this: as you arrive, each person places their phone facedown in the center of the table. (If you’re feeling theatrical, you can go for a stack like this one, but it’s not required.) As the meal goes on, you’ll hear various texts and emails arriving… and you’ll do absolutely nothing. You’ll face temptation—maybe even a few involuntary reaches toward the middle of the table—but you’ll be bound by the single, all-important rule of the phone stack.

Whoever picks up their phone is footing the bill.

It’s a brilliant piece of social engineering, masquerading as a bar game. It takes the phone out of the pocket—where you can sneak a glance and hope nobody notices—and places it in the center of attention at all times. Suddenly, picking up your phone is the big deal you always secretly knew it was. And more importantly, it comes with consequences.

But if, after the third ring, you decide your call is more important than your lunch tab, we’re sure your friends won’t object.

I’m as addicted to the screen as many of us, but I also feel strongly that technology will never replace face-to-face communication. When you are fortunate enough to be in a situation where you are breaking bread with friends, you should not be worried about something that can almost certainly wait an hour until you are finished. I do love games, too, and this has clear purpose, consequences, teamwork, competition, and of course obstacles. Now the tough part: getting people to agree to play.

Keep agreements that you make, and make agreements that you can keep.

from the book It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys

I didn’t read this book, but a friend shared this quote because I’ve been quite frustrated by people canceling and changing plans and promises made in various contexts with sincere intent but without being realistic. To me, this is equally as irritating as being late and has similar consequences, especially when it happens frequently. If you’re a repeat offender, check in with yourself and your ability to follow through before you commit.