How To Make Better Phone Calls in Business

Posted on Jun 25, 2013 | 41 comments


Phone calls. We all have important ones and want to maximize the impact, which can be hard to do when you aren’t face-to-face.

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.  

I’m not talking only 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. Prepare! Write your set of bullet points on paper before the call. Write out the reason you’re calling, your key points and “the ask” in advance and your time allotment so you can always refer back and make sure you’re tracking to your plan.

2. 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 the banter 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.

3. 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.”

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

  • http://www.vc-brazil.com/ vcbrazil

    A good piece of advice I heard about important phone calls: stand up during the call.

  • Yoyo

    One more: start with “Is this a good time for you?” or “do you have a few minutes now?” -> people’s plans change, sometimes it’s actually a bad time, even if you scheduled it in advance. You want to avoid having an important conversation with someone who is distracted or is very short on time.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    I never do cold calls of importance.

    I’ve either greased the social slide with comments on their blog or emails prior
    or
    I call when I already know them w/o a schedule if there is some urgency.

    Deciding how to use the call in a relationships is as important as how you manage your time on the call.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I do that almost always.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes! I always ask, “is this still a good time to speak” and often “how much time do you have?”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed. But I’m not even talking about cold calls here. I get intro’s or talk to people I know and still wonder, “OK, what is the point of the call? Just a catch up? You need anything? How can I help?”

    It’s ok if it’s just a general catch up but useful to know.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    Agreed.

    Your point that I use all the time is ‘What’s your ask?”

  • Greg Mand

    Hi Mark…I try my best to pause frequently in calls and ask “Does this make sense?” (or something along those lines). Curious…does this Yes/No question as a pause seem effective or something more open-ended like “What is your take on what I just mentioned?” Intend it as a true break to get feedback. Thanks…and always happy to banter about the Phils despite their record. :) Hope you can make a game this week in LA.

  • egalston

    I also recall studies that show that dressing professionally versus sweats or tee & shorts has a big impact on performance in-call. I can’t find the exact study, but gist is here: http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2012/05/23/dress-code-or-not-what-you-wear-matters/

  • http://www.hypedsound.com/ jonathanjaeger

    Agree with all your points. One of my favorite cold call stories is when Brian Lee of Legalzoom called famous lawyer Robert Shapiro to tell him about the business. He called him afterhours when an assistant wouldn’t be there to intercept or say ‘no’ to the call. He had his whole voicemail message prepared but was so taken aback that Shapiro actually answered the call. He finally got into “pitch mode” even though Shapiro wasn’t interested in any business ventures. Lee said, you haven’t even heard the pitch yet! Shapiro ended up really liking the idea and they set up a time to meet.

    Timestamped on This Week in Startups: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ycolxc5wtI#t=15m

  • MJGottlieb

    Hi Mark- Great post. I think 4 & 5 are extremely important as I feel that interaction is a necessity. I also think that people are not comfortable asking for help, despite the fact that you are willing to give it. Many people think that asking for help is a weakness (I was the poster-child for this for quite a while) so they tend to skate around ‘the ask’ for quite a while. In the long run, it ends up hurting everyone as time is one of, if not the most value commodity we have. I also love your expression, “hanging yourself” I have never heard it before.

    I very much enjoy your blog, and I have meant to comment and tell you this for a while as I think you offer very valuable content and great perspective from your side of the table. Best – MJ

  • LaVonne Reimer

    Great tip. Another is if you’re seated put your feet up on the desk or table in front of you. Makes you lean back which I have experienced as giving a feeling of expansiveness and confidence.

  • http://tomordonez.com/ Tom Ordonez

    I wrote an article that might help people with phone calls. I keep on meeting people that rely too much on emails. I learn a lot from sales people cold calling me. http://www.tomordonez.com/blog/2012/09/12/learning-sales-skills-from-sales-people-cold-calling-you/

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan

    And SMILE – It somehow comes through

  • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    I don’t agree. If the person picked up the phone then you are wasting their time asking the question.

  • http://www.hanypham.com/ Hany Pham

    Haha I was met with this exact scenario the other day when I called one of our investors to give him an update. I asked: “Can you talk for a sec?” upon which he replied “I wouldn’t have picked up the phone if I didn’t!”

    He then proceeded to tell me what information he did or didn’t want to be updated on, which I found very useful. Perhaps you could post your views on this too Mark, or alternatively direct me to an article where you’ve written about it before? Thanks.

  • http://cafepeople.com/ Pete Meehan

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

    That last line says it all!

  • http://cafepeople.com/ Pete Meehan

    Very true.

  • http://cafepeople.com/ Pete Meehan

    Am gonna wear a tuxedo next time I ring Mark.

  • KritikaP

    I guess, their could not be a formula to a discussion. But broadly, open ended works if your tone in the dialogue in explanatory and you place the question just once, where you doubt there is a chance the person has drifted away or lost.

  • PeterisP

    I’m not so sure. I often pick up the phone when I’ve got 2-3 minutes to talk but definitely not 15 – and if you’ve got a 15+ minute topic, then we can just schedule time for that.

  • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    If you have a 15min topic you need to schedule the call.

  • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    The right way to ask questions could be a whole blog post in itself.

    This is one of those ones where there is a delicate line.

    Ask to many and the person immediately will withdraw.

    Ask annoying yes/no questions to force the person to say yes, i.e. would you like to make more money, etc = me asking one back, like would getting hit with a baseball bat in the head hurt?

    But you do have to ask. You want to get the person talking and you want to really understand what they mean.

    It definitely is an art.

  • jamesoliverjr

    That last last paragraph is oh. so. true.

    Another good post. I’ll keep all that in mind if I ever get up the stones to actually call you about something.

    Btw, I’d love to give you a 6′ x 4′ WeMontage for your office. Lemme know.

    Suerte!

  • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

    Mark your getting lazy with those stock images again. I would have used this old Bell ad. http://i.imgur.com/26lqUkt.jpg

  • AndreaM

    Happened to come across this post right before a phone call I have with someone in 15 minutes! Just what I needed to hear. Applies in both business and life too of course, which is the best part.
    Thanks for taking the time to share the advice! You’d make a fabulous mentor.

  • http://deliciouskarma.com/ Michelle | Delicious Karma

    Yes! This is SO true! It helps make the call more friendly and even energetic. One has to show emotion and passion… because if you’re not passionate about the topic of conversation, the person on the other end sure won’t be!

  • http://deliciouskarma.com/ Michelle | Delicious Karma

    A fantastic post with some really terrific, useful, inspiring advice. As someone states below, it’s not always easy to ask for help. People often WANT to help, but they can’t without you being clear on exactly what you need. You need to help them help you. For example, if I am asking for an intro to someone, I will offer to write a blurb they can use in the email to describe either my company or what I am seeking…so it makes it easier for them.

    The follow-up comments were also great…particularly like the advice re: standing up during a call and smiling. I also added something about enthusiasm and passion. To keep the person engaged on the other end, you need to demonstrate both…because if you’re not excited about the topic, then the person on the other end sure won’t be!

  • http://veespo.com David Semeria

    Attaboy!

  • http://veespo.com David Semeria

    Bingo!

  • Lauren Lee Anderson

    Mark, you seem like an extraordinarily helpful guy. You’re a successful VC, you write a damn good blog chalk full of advice –you help. You possess a willingness that seems genuine. On the other side, as entrepreneur (the one who needs the help) I often find that in SV people are all-too-willing to say “How can I help” but then lack follow-through. Now that you’ve articulated the art of the ask by phone, how about a few words on what it means to say “How can I help” and then to show up and be good on your word. We seem to be too occupied and over-committed to actually help others that the query “How can I help?” risks becoming a disingenuous attempt to make oneself feel powerful or worthy of offering aid when the true follow-through is absent. Good on our word, that’s what it comes down to –accountability. If you have something to say to this, I’m all ears.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I help existing entrepreneurs and even random people I don’t know constantly. But … obviously I am one person and there are only so many calls I can physically made. Ditto every other VC. So I don’t think it’s realistic to expect VCs to simply help everybody.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan

    Agree!

    Best Wishes,

    Rohan

    http://www.ALearningaDay.com – Never failure, only learning and never older, only better..

  • Lauren Lee Anderson

    Totally, of course not. I mean that a lot of people offer help when they have no true intention of actually taking the 15 minute phone call. I bring this up as you seem true to word –when you offer help, you take the phone call when it comes in. I’m saying that way too many people offer help disingenuously and it feels symptomatic up here in SV. Don’t offer if you can’t follow through. I don’t care how much you like my idea, don’t tell me to call if you’ve no intention of taking the call. Mark, thanks for being a good example of this kind of accountability. Everybody wants to be helpful but before we offer we should really consider what we have to give (in time, resources, advice, etc) or we end up doing a disservice to someone that could have really used it.

  • orthorim

    This is good, but way too long. I need a short version, like:
    - Prepare
    - Ask your question in the most direct way possible. This is why you call. Do it. Then listen very carefully. The main purpose of the call is to listen and learn, after all.
    - Don’t be a douche. That’s the banter part. I think it’s impossible to be more specific than this; “social skills”.
    - Don’t assume this is the last time you meet.

    That last point is brilliant – made my day. I never thought about it this way even though in hindsight, it’s perfectly obvious. I call because I am expecting something positive. If that happens, then it won’t be the last time we meet.

  • http://www.iheavy.com/blog/ Sean Hull

    All good advice. I’d add sit up straight, take deep breaths and talk slowly. Surprising how this adds a lot to how your project yourself.

  • http://www.callboxinc.com/ Amber King

    One thing to remember is be polite always. There will be calls that you will be shouted at or refused to be answered but still be polite. You have to bear in mind that you are the one calling and is taking the time of the person. Love the article by the way Mark. This is something that I should share to my agents.

  • jonrees

    Hi Mark. Many thanks for some good reminders and useful tips. I’d like to add one caveat and another tip:
    Caveat: bear in mind the cultural norms for the person you are calling. Some cultures require banter b4 business, others business b4 banter. Important to know which if you’re going to build rapport.
    Tip: Have a picture of the person in front of you. Seems odd, but somehow always results in a richer conversation.
    Thanks !

  • vs

    Tom, what’s with the font size on that blog post? :)

  • http://tomordonez.com/ Tom Ordonez

    my grandma wanted to read my blog posts so I made them big :)

  • http://sel123.ru/ Vilnis

    Hi, Mark,
    thanks for ideas. I think it will be interesting for my russian readers at sel123.ru too.