Phone Call Etiquette

Phone Call Etiquette

Voicemail and phone behavior can be crucial to maintaining your personal brand.

A baby boomer executive from a Fortune 500 company recently shared she doesn’t go anywhere without her iPhone. If we left it to millennials or their younger counterparts you might think phone calls are a thing of the past. Not so; much rapport-building and many business transactions continue to rely on telephone exchanges.

Let’s make sure your phone etiquette is in order, starting with the unassuming but very important topic of voicemail.

Voicemail greetings

When someone doesn’t get you on the other end of a phone call, what are the expectations? “We are a need-to-know-now generation that is accustomed to a quick response,” says Dawn Levy, digital marketing manager for Dex Media. If you are unavailable for reasons more complex than you’re already on the line or in a short meeting, Levy suggests these must-haves in a voicemail greeting:

  • When: Time frame you are gone and when you will return.
  • Why (optional): On vacation, in training, off-site.
  • Who: A solution or backup contact in your absence.
  • Where: An urgent-situation contact number or resource.

This courtesy directed to your caller helps both sides. (Do be sure to confirm your company policies regarding voicemail greetings.) Some prefer to withhold major details from voicemail greetings and send stakeholders a courtesy email ahead of any long departure or share this information as an email auto-reply. It’s perhaps a case-by-case situation, but Levy’s overview gives essential guidance for those industries or situations where time means money, as well as peace of mind for your customer.

If you need to leave a voicemail message once you’ve heard your recipient’s greeting, remember, “Voicemails are a reflection of who you are as a business professional. If you don’t plan ahead of time, it will be frazzled,” says Jennifer Hellman, COO of St. Paul-based Goff Public. She suggests your message be no longer than 30 seconds.

Believe it or not, this is a mini-performance. Be powerful. Use confidence and clarity. Hellman recommends you include your purpose with a call-to-action for the recipient and be sure to repeat your name and phone number. “I am baffled at how many times I receive voice messages during which the caller speeds through their message. Often, it’s unclear who the person is, and the number zips by so quickly, I can’t decipher it after three replays.”

Time management

Not only do you need to be mindful of the duration of your message for someone else, how you respond to messages left for you is crucial. Phone call etiquette is a reflection of your personal brand. A reputation for swiftly returned calls serves you well in the marketplace. The reverse is also true. When clients, vendors and colleagues don’t hear back from you in a timely fashion, your reputation is tarnished. And inevitably, slow response hurts your ability to grow revenue.

What’s a good rule for response rate? “Because we have so many channels of communication available today, it’s important to get back to people the same day or within 24 hours or the next business day,” says Rose McKinney, CEO of Anoka-based Pineapple Reputation Management. She urges erring on the side of swiftness—so if you receive a call at 9 a.m., “don’t wait until tomorrow to respond.”

Your vocal behavior

When you do leave a voicemail greeting or respond to one, your vocal behavior is not a supporting actor, but the star of the show. Your audience can’t see your face or watch your body language. Speak in a voice that’s not too soft or too loud. Check yourself for a nasal tone because it lacks credibility. I’ve heard greetings by a couple of my friends who sound subdued and almost mean, yet they are perfectly friendly people. Realize there is a subtext to your vocal behavior even here. Stand up when recording to give ample room to breathe. Smile, so your best self comes out—unless of course, you have terrible news to deliver. Then stay neutral.

The adage “Less is more” is your friend. Despite that general guideline, if you don’t know your intended recipient well, add “Mr.,” “Ms.” or “Dr.” to show respect. Always mention the person’s name and clearly identify yourself.

If you reach your recipient, nearly all of the advice above applies. Respect your subject’s time. Stay relaxed and let whatever you say work in concert with your brand.

Roshini Rajkumar is a communication coach, host of News & Views on WCCO Radio, and author of Communicate That! For additional communication tips, visit