The Art of the Quick Phone Call

Posted on Nov 18, 2010 | 36 comments


All this heavy talk about angels, VCs, bubbles lately.  I thought I’d go for a more tactical & practical post today.  The art of the quick phone call.

I had breakfast with David Tisch the other morning in NYC.  If you don’t know David he’s the guy who will be running TechStars New York starting in January.  And that’s a great thing because I was really impressed with him.  Surprisingly so.

He had a ton of great ideas about what he wanted to do with TechStars NY.  I’ve agreed to come out in the new year and spend a few days with the entrepreneurs who join TechStars NYC (as well as Boulder).  I love this program.

I’ve been running Launchpad LA (very similar to TechStars) for 2 years but I must say I had some great take-aways at breakfast from David who hasn’t even run his first group yet!  I’m always impressed when people are wise beyond their years and felt like David was a kindred spirit.

One of the things we were chatting about was how many first-time entrepreneurs have grown up digital natives so have a really good intuitive feel for technology & design but don’t yet have the business basics down.  This shows itself when people try to do an elevator pitch, send concise, actionable emails or have a quick phone call with you to ask for help.  David said he wants to be sure his class is grounded in the business basics that will help with success – this is smart and I plan to copy him.

For example, Brad Feld told me that TechStars makes each company practice the 1 or 2-minute pitch the first week of the program.  Whenever somebody visits a TechStars office they go around and meet the companies and hear these pitches.  It gets drilled into each founder the need to have a pithy overview of their business and why it’s relevant.  Smart.  It’s one of the most common activities of an entrepreneur used in recruiting, marketing, sales, networking, biz dev, etc.  I plan to do this with the next Launchpad LA class.  If you haven’t read about Sam Jones and “dead magazines” it’s worth your time to have a quick read.

So I thought I’d blog about one of the topics we discussed at breakfast – the phone call.  I’m not talking about a sales call, getting past the assistant or anything like that. I’m talking about simple and quick calls to your business peers, VCs or other players in your ecosystem.

How Can I Help?

Angels, entrepreneurs, VCs, bloggers and the like all get a ton of requests for “just 15 minutes” phone calls.

I’m OK with this.  One of the more rewarding parts of my job is being able to help other people.  It’s high in the gratification quadrant when somebody comes back and says that our chat made a difference in their business.

The truth is I think that it’s part of human nature to want to try and help others so you’d be surprised how many people will find ways to help if asked appropriately or by the right person.

So when a person calls me and we’re 10 minutes into the call and it’s not clear why they’re calling I’m usually thinking to myself, “what was the reason they wanted to call me in the first place?  What are they hoping to achieve?” and mostly, “How can I help?”

Most people don’t get to the point and since the distance between my random inner-head mutterings and my mouth are too small and my ADHD too great, it often just blurts out of me like Tourette’s syndrome, “Let me just stop you there.  How can I best help you?”

It’s what we want.  It’s what you want.  Let’s be explicit about it.

So here’s my advice:

1. You can start informally with banter - If I’m calling somebody I know a bit I usually try to start with a little friendly banter.  If I know they like a sports team that might be a good start.  If I saw their company in the press, heard that they saw somebody at an event that I know, they live in a town where a storm just rolled through – whatever.  I think trying to humanize the call from the outset is good.  When you jump straight into “sales pitch mode” it feels a bit strange.

Two things to watch for: 1) if you’re trying banter to build rapport but not “feeling it” then quickly shift to business.  Some people just aren’t “chit chatters” and prefer to get on with things. I find that kinda boring, but I know some people are just wired that way.  2) some callers take this banter too far  It starts to border on disrespectful of the person’s time or wasteful of your 15 minutes.  Don’t be that person.

How long you go for is really a judgment call because there’s no right answer.  If it’s somebody that I know really well and I confirm that they’re not rushing to do something else I might even take 10-15 minutes just to “catch up.”  If it’s a general acquaintance it’s probably more like 3-4 minutes.  If it’s a first time call you might try to keep it at 2 minutes or less.

So even if the person you called is really chatty don’t be undisciplined and let them talk too long.  You have limited time on the call, presumably you called for a reason and you’re chewing up your valuable clock.

2. Let them know why you’re calling – When you’re ready to pivot the conversation your next line should be some derivative of, “listen, the reason I’m calling is … blah, blah, blah”  25% of people or less actually do this.  They just talk and I’m not really sure why they called.

If you’re calling for a reason, the sooner the recipient knows the sooner they can help.  If the clock runs out they’re not going to be able to help.  Even if you don’t have a single “ask” I recommend saying something like, “listen, I’m going to make this call short.  I don’t have anything I’m asking for, I was just hoping to get 10 minutes of your time to tell you what we’re up to so that the next chance we get to meet down the line you’ve got more of an understanding.”

3. Don’t hang yourself – One of the other big mistakes callers make is going “off to the races” talking about their business without getting any feedback from the recipient of the call.  This is bad enough in person but I promise you if you do it over the phone the recipient will start to tune out.  If you listen closely you’ll probably even hear the tapping of a keyboard.  You can talk for a bit but then seek feedback and make sure the other person is “with you.”  When I used to do a lot of recruiting we used to call it “hanging yourself” because people who talk for long periods of time without seeking feedback are generally not self-aware or good at human interaction.  Don’t be that person.

4. Ask questions – The best trick for creating a two-way conversation is to ask questions.  You can do this too early in the call and you can’t be an interview factory, but polite questions relevant to your topic are appropriate.  It will help ensure that you don’t do all the talking.  Plus, when you listen you learn more anyways.

5. Know what “the ask” is – If you’re set up a call with somebody then know in advance why you’re calling and what you plan to ask for.  Don’t ask for four things or you’ll get none.  Don’t ask for big favors unless you have a tight relationship.  Don’t assume that this will be the one and only time you’ll ever talk to the person.  If you cultivate a good long-term relationship through patience, persistence and reciprocity there will be many more occasions.  So by all means have an “ask” but make it: obvious, easy for them to achieve and of a limited number – preferably one.

6. Stick to your budgeted time – maybe less – When you think of your relationship with the individual as a relationship you’ll build over time and over many calls, discussions, chats at conferences or whatever you’ll realize you need to be known for being respectful of other’s time.  If you’re known as the person who’s always long winded you’re less likely to get the next few calls on the calendar.  Less is better, I promise.

Now go pick up the phone and stop hiding behind emails.  You build real relationships on the phone and in person.  Good luck.

  • Gregmand

    Great tactical post Mark. Just finished up a call and applied a number of these ideas already (which I have tried to do anyways over the years). As a BD guy I spend a lot of time on the phone and knowing how to do a phone call the “right” way can make a big difference in developing a relationship. Thanks for the post and go Iggles!

  • http://www.nburmandesign.com/ Media Designer

    Great article. I like what you said about banter. Your phrase 'some people aren't wired that way' explains why some are brief, which can come across as rude, and some are chatty, which can usually waste your time.

    I've had a few calls from a local publisher looking for advertisers that I found very offensive. It's a female calling, and they start with the familiar banter immediately. My first thought was 'oh crap, who is this girl, and why do I get the feeling I know her?!' Then they go into a slightly off colour joke. Not funny. For one thing, I'm not the 'guy at the bar laughing with his mates' type, so sexist jokes don't go over well with me. Secondly it's a big waste of time.

    Ok, I've wasted enough of your time here too, but just wanted to say thanks for the informative post. Brilliant!

  • http://twitter.com/blakewilliams Blake Williams

    “…stop hiding behind emails. You build real relationships on the phone and in person.”

    For me, the most important snippet from you post~

  • http://twitter.com/BrowseMob Matthew Hurewitz

    The same goes for emails, phone calls, bumping into someone at a conference, etc. Short is always better than long and making sure you have an 'ask' is critical. Also, I find leading with something tangibly good news (metrics, customer acquisition, etc) before the ask is the equivalent of the mini-close before the close in sales. Whenever you ask someone for help, you are asking for them to co-sign you, whether it's for an intro, investment, advice, whatever. Taking a few steps to demonstrate why you are worth the effort goes a long way. Most VCs/thought leaders have considerable social / network / intellectual capital. Before you ask them for anything, you should convince them that spending it on you is a good investment.

  • http://lmframework.com David Semeria

    As an ex-stock broker I know the phone game well.

    Quick intro and get straight to the point.

    Key line: “the reason I'm calling you is..” – get there in under a minute, better 30 secs.

  • robynscott

    Excellent post. I also find it's worth asking – before or during the banter prelude – if it's still a convenient time to talk. Often something pressing has come up. While it might not be urgent enough for the person you're calling to ask to reschedule, it can reduce your chances of having a good call. Either way it's a courtesy usually appreciated and often leads to a better deferred conversation.

  • http://byJess.net Jess Bachman

    So how do you get off a call that has gone on for too long with diminishing returns?

  • inm

    Talking on the phone is more immediate and best for business, but if you're not great at dealing with people, it's harder to make quick decisions on the fly against experienced businessmen who are used to pressuring people. Also, with sites like http://dirtyphonebook.com out there, you have to be careful who has your phone number, which is a larger concern when you have to have your phone on 24 hours a day. :(

  • marilynbyrd

    Robyn, this is a great add on to Mark's excellent post. I make a lot of phone calls and asking if I've reached someone at a good time or a bad time, immediately demonstrates respect and therefore establishes a better foundation for a successful phone call.

  • Kylepearson

    I think every student should read and apply this post. Not just the elevator pitch, because we all get that drilled into us, but the art of the ask and not hanging yourself when talking to potential employers / resources. I should have read this post 20 minutes ago because I actually JUST got off of a call with a VC where I unconsciously implemented 2,3,5, and 6. Should have tried 1 and 4 also!

  • http://www.howardlindzon.com howardlindzon

    He has great hair too. It bugs me a little. David is hustling .

  • http://www.howardlindzon.com howardlindzon

    I like that you are tackling this stuff but also glad this is more of an art than science so these whippersnappers cant catch me yet

  • http://www.howardlindzon.com howardlindzon

    Or, get on angel list in quarter 4 2010 and never take a phone call :)

  • davidtisch

    Thanks Mark… Cannot tell you how meaningful those compliments are coming from you. Truly appreciate it. And also agree on every substantive word in the post – Calls + Emails + Meetings = simple things… So easy to get them right, so easy not to… This guide is gold for any business interaction.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    what a game Monday night, hey? Big one next Sunday!

    I guess for biz dev people like yourself this is probably second nature. But judging by calls I receive I can say it's not often put into practice.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks. and off color jokes are never appropriate. people should always err on the side of not offending …

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    oooh, maybe I shouldn't have buried it then!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: key line, that should have been my title or my in my paragraph. really, that's the main take-away I was trying to get across

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I should have added that – thank you. I always start with “is it still a good time to speak.” Almost always my first line. From their response you can get a sense how quickly you need to move through the call.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I always, say, “listen, I have about 5 minutes left. I just wanted to warn you early so that you could pace yourself if you have anything you want to be sure to cover.” I must say that at least 3-4 times / week.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    ha ha ha. Having seen his icon on Twitter I was expecting it to be even more outrageous! I took it as a sign of his individualism. Awesome.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    nobody will be able to catch up with the humor and schtick you have ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/AlexCapecelatro Alex Capecelatro

    Great post. As always, you give some good relevant advise. Much appreciated.

    Hope you enjoyed NY.

  • http://analyticasystemsinc.com/blog/ John R. Sedivy

    This is a tricky act – balancing relationship building, getting to the “ask” while being concise. Great advice which will help me improve my approach!

  • gaurav chaudhary

    Great post Mark.. One of the other things which I try to get a hang of early on in the conversation / before the conversation is how much time the other person has for this call. Accordingly, get on to the point and discuss / elaborate as required.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    I love it when you get tactical and try to help entrepreneurs learn without having to do it the hard way! Solid post and great reminders.

  • davidtisch

    I have to grow it while I can CC: Howard… And Mark – I shaved the night before, it would have been a messier situation if not…

  • http://www.facebook.com/bjornhendricks Bjorn Hendricks

    Mark, great post! It's amazing how much of this isn't already just common sense for most people. It's a matter of respect of another person's time and being genuinely appreciative of them giving you an opportunity. I must say though….As much as I am a fan of that “personal touch” (being the people person I am), I would have thought that most Angels/VC's are so busy that they would actually PREFER email over phone calls. But I guess that depends on the situation and any pre-existing relationship.

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    such a great post Mark. i reblogged my favorite part at fredwilson.vc

  • http://blog.suretomeet.com CliffAllen

    For people who call with an “ask” I suggest that they e-mail me material on the topic so I can review it and schedule a more in-depth call. This let's them know I'm interested in helping them, but want the call to be more efficient than the initial call would have been.

    And, when I call someone with an “ask” I try to have my talking points written out so I can cover those items as quickly as the other person has time to discuss.

  • http://www.facebook.com/modza Michael Odza

    I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who wrote, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have time.”

  • http://twitter.com/ken_rosen Ken Rosen

    Beautiful list. My first “real” job was selling to businesses over the phone. Not only did I need to learn these tips the hard way, but I'm still grateful for having had that experience. The phone really is a “tool” one needs to get good at. Thanks for the reminders.
    Ken Rosen
    Performance Works: http://www.PerWorks.com
    Performance Talks blog: http://www.PerTalks.com

  • http://growingforward.net Scott Asai

    “You build real relationships on the phone and in person.”

  • http://twitter.com/InternetVC Jeff Robinson

    Emails go back and forth from B to C, and C to B and nothing gets accomplished. Emails should be used to “support” your telephonic conversation. You want sales? Then DIAL FOR DOLLARS !!!!
    Jeff Robinson
    http://www.webtradex.com

  • Carter

    Great post. The initial “banter” portion is so interesting because it is generally not the topic of the call yet it can make or break it.

    I might add a 7th point of “Keep the Door Open.” Any time I'm speaking with someone and want to build a relationship with them I try and end with something like “I appreciate your speaking with me today and would like to stay in touch. May I call you again in a couple of weeks/months and update you on our progress?” It's always easier to speak the next time when they have opened to it previously.

  • http://www.gordonbowman.com Gordon Bowman

    I second this. I made this mistake often in my early days, just going straight into my pitch or “asks.” Asking if now is still a good time to talk sets up a better conversation either way. It's also a good segway into the banter.

    Seems obvious enough but a good tip.