I’ll let you in on a secret of business communication: speaking in a formal way doesn’t always make you sound professional.
In fact, dear sirs and madams, one’s thoroughgoing and gratuitous reliance on the utilization of ostensibly pro forma linguistic habits can have the unintended consequence of causing said individual to stultify, obfuscate, and alienate.
See what I mean? Formality can sound dull, stilted, and old-fashioned. It can make you seem robotic—or like you’re overcompensating for a lack of confidence. And ultimately, it can push people away rather than drawing them in.
But you also can’t talk to every caller the way you’d talk to your best friend. Professional business etiquette—be it over the phone, in person, or via text, chat, or email—is a delicate balance. It requires an awareness of context and a sensitivity to your audience.
You want to be friendly and make a personal connection. But being too familiar, too fast, can make callers respond like Stephanie Tanner.
For callers, overly casual translates to “rude.”
What does proper business phone etiquette sound like? What does it take to answer in a way that sounds friendly, yet professional?
It’s easier to answer these questions in the negative. Here are a few things not to say when picking up the phone:
“What do you want?”
Notice anything about these kinds of greetings? They’re all abrupt and unhelpful. Not only are they startling to the person on the other end, but they fail to provide any useful information for anchoring the conversation. The most we’re getting is a name—nothing about what the answering party can do for the person calling.
The key to effective and professional business communication—or any form of communication, for that matter—is to focus on the other person. Make them smile. Make them feel comfortable. Listen to them. Serve their needs. Treat them how you’d want to be treated.
Of course, this is easier said than, well, said. Etiquette doesn’t come naturally for everyone, and calls don’t always arrive at opportune moments. You may be busy, tired, stressed out, or flustered when the phone rings. You might panic and start overthinking.
Four tips for keeping business communication friendly and helpful.
Don’t worry—if you’ve ever engaged in a conversation with a stranger, you know how to do this. The next time you get a call, pause, take a deep breath, and remember these four tips:
1. Enunciate and use standard grammar. This goes for every medium your company uses to communicate with customers, from phone calls to email to social media. It can be tempting to respond quickly with a “thx! ur awesome!”—especially when you only have 280 characters to work with. Spelling out words completely and correctly and using proper punctuation is worth the extra time; your customers will appreciate the extra care and, more importantly, the clarity.
2. Stay positive. Expressive phrasing can make a huge difference in the tone of the conversation. “Absolutely!” and “Certainly!” sound much more enthusiastic than “Yeah” and “Sure.” You’re glad to have their business—don’t be afraid to show it.
3. Offer assistance. Keep on the lookout for additional ways to help. If you’re unable to do something, propose a different solution. “Let me…,” “I’d be happy to…” and “I’ll gladly…” are just a few effective solution starters.
4. When in doubt, think of Grandma. Here’s a fun and useful mental exercise: think about what it would sound like if you added “Grandma” to the end of your sentences. “I can’t do that, Grandma.” “What do you want now, Grandma?” Yikes! Just writing it makes me want to call my grandmother and apologize.
Balancing formality and a casual attitude can be challenging, but remember: it’s all about your customers. Your job is to make them feel comfortable and create a connection. After all, people do business with people they like. Plus, if you can delight your callers, you might just find yourself starting to enjoy talking on the phone.