8 Steps To Actually Get Good At Phone Calls

Remember phone calls? You should, because they are often the best way to get your ideas across. Here's how to give good phoners.

We can't hide behind email. Why? Real business relationships are formed in two ways, says entrepreneur-turned-investor Mark Suster: in person and over the phone. The dude knows how to keep a phoner concise and effective-so let's heed his call to make better calls.

1) Get prepared

You don't have to be a politician to have talking points in your pocket—or, maybe more accessibly, written down before you make the call. From Suster's description, it's prep like how reporters do phone interviews: sketch out the points you'd like to cover, the "ask" that you're making, and how much time you have. This gives your call an anchor.

The best interviews are conversations, but as Miles Davis might tell you, it takes a lot of preparation to properly improvise.

2) Open with banter

Leaping into your hard "sales pitch" is awkward, Suster observes, so start soft: while you might consider yourself too cool to talk about the weather, asking what the other person is experiencing is an easy way to build empathy and co-investment. But if the rapport isn't rising, it's get to business time.

3) Be explicit

Once the banter buffer has been built, transition to the matter at hand—and let the other person know what it is (they can't read your mind, especially over the phone). Suster says you should say something like "listen, the reason I’m calling is..."—which is as direct as it is useful and helps each of you align your interests.

And if you don't have a specific ask, you can say something a simple as "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 monologue

Yes, you're excited about your business, but a phone call is a dialogue, not a monologue.

"This is bad enough in person but I promise you if you do it over the phone the recipient will start to tune out," Suster says, "If you listen closely you’ll probably even hear the tapping of a keyboard."

To prevent that, you can pause your pitch to ask if they're with you and maybe gather some feedback—which will make you smarter on your next call.

5) Know your ask

"Don't ask for four things or you'll get none," Suster quips, and your one ask should be obvious, easily achievable.

6) Know the relationship

Don't ask for a big favor lest you have a tight relationship, Suster says. Your network isn't just the number of nodes, we've learned; it's the quality of relationships.

7) Know the timeline

Assume this won't be the only time in your life that you'll talk to them, Suster says, so you don't need to fit everything into a single conversation.

"If you cultivate a good long-term relationship through patience, persistence and reciprocity there will be many more occasions," Suster says, echoing the tenets of scum-free networking.

8) Keep it short

Your reputation is the sum of the interactions people have with you. Phoners are a part of that process, Suster says:

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 others' 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.

Hat tip: Both Sides of the Table

[Phone Call: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • Sjsanfran

    Listen, I am commenting here.  Rude, isn't it.  So is this, "listen, the reason I’m calling is..."  Assuming you are an East Coaster and it is just part of your dialect.  But I tune out the second someone tells me to listen.  

  • Denise

    Great comments!  I disagree with #2 about opening with banter.  While I agree it is absolutely essential to establish rapport, true rapport building is not about small talk.  It is about speaking the language of your prospect/client, their needs, challenges, aspirations, etc. 

    My prospects are C-level executives who like all communications to be direct and bottom-lined.  I would lose them with banter.  If I start out by sharing something about them, their company, that is what they will respond to and will get their interest.

    Also regarding phone vs. email,  I do both.  Start with the call (rarely get people) and then follow-up with email summarizing why I called, along with call to action.  Usually most people respond via email if they respond at all.

    Denise Corcoran

  • Prialto

    Love the first point you made - that real business relationships are formed in person and on the phone. Unfortunately, that (and the monologue problem) is not something that email or IM will ever be able to match!

  • sachin Innani

    A very helpful article. Got to learn few mistakes which i do. Thankyou Sir.

  • Logan Vickery

    Since when did writers become so poor with grammar? "Ask" is a verb and the noun you are looking for is "question". You are propagating ignorance.

  • Jamie

    A quick google shows that ask is indeed used a noun, it's just not very popular. Also, "question" wouldn't be the most appropriate alternative as he he is most likely asking for or requesting an action.

  • Jim Cricket

    This is all good advice but it has one big assumption: that you can get the person (buyer) on the phone in the first place. I've been running my business for nearly 24 years, and I've noticed that is getting to be  increasingly impossible. The latest was with a new buyer whose store has had success with my product for 20+ years. She's been in the position now for 2 years, and I've never gotten the opportunity to talk with her since she made clear every early on that "email is the best way to reach me". With this one rule, she gained the upper hand, by disallowing any conversation, any give and take, and possibility that I might be trying to trick her into buying something. She ordered regularly some products, but not others I was certain, based on the past sale, would succeed. Her response was simply "No thanks".

    Then I noticed that she hadn't placed an order for a year. So I finally called. Of course I got voicemail. ANd I left a detailed message what I want to talk about. No reply for a week. So I emailed. And to that she responded within a 1/2 hour. Saying thanks for the phone call, email is the best way to reach her, and did I have anything new.

    At that point I complained to superiors, but likely that won't solve anything. What I fear we're seeing is a generation brought up learning to communicate through typing, chat or email, and either completely ignorant of how to talk to a real person in real time, or completely fearful of it.

  • Greg O.

    You said it Jim.

    It's all about the fear of having to interact with a living, thinking person who might at any time bring up something that she/he might not know how to respond to (I would add a pop culture-conditioned short attention span to the equation also).

    I believe part of the problem resides with our current education model that is based on rote-learning as opposed to the teaching of critical thinking skills.

  • Steven Lacks

     As a buyer and seller, I prefer email for buying, and I prefer what my customer prefers for selling (which is also usually email).

    Email gets work done. I show them that they can rely on my organizational skills and expertise, and they trust me.  I sell more than the pitchers and shmoozers, because I respect my customers, value their time, and make it easy for them to deal with me.   My grammar isn't perfect, my messages are short, and my info is spot on.

    If a sales person can't email me in a timely manner, then I don't have time to deal with them. If there product is great, then it's a real shame that their bosses don't understand that service and trust is more important than the product. I can buy what you have from 1000 different sources.

    Pitching me does me know good.  Earn my trust.  Trying to sell me some new, exciting service or product is not how I buy, I am not a beta tester.  I am not a price shopper. I am not an audience for your pitch. I have business goals and maybe you can help me, but it's not going to be from a pitch.

    Good for me and them, I am not afraid to say "send me product info and an idea for pricing."  Rehashing a live pitch wastes the company's time and mine.

    I hope the sales dinosaur goes extinct soon.

  • Jim Cricket

     Fair enough. I understand your desire for the extinction of the so-called "sales dinosaur". But what if there is such a thing as an honest offer? What if it helps to have a conversation about that? Not all conversation means trying to persuade in a sly way. If you're smart enough to see through false sales pitches, that's terrific. But then likewise you should be smart enough to understand that sometimes a simple dialogue expressing "needs" and "offers" is a good thing.  And at least to my way of thinking, a conversational dialogue is the quickest, most efficient, decent, and dare I say, pleasurable, method. You do yourself as much a disservice by refusing to have that dialogue. You fool yourself by thinking email is the most efficient simply because of time saved.

    I'm amazed and saddened that it has even come to have to explain this. Shows my age I suppose.

    But if you are solely relying on email, might I humbly suggest you give
    the English language a break, and learn "no" from "know" and "their"
    from "there". If you refuse to present yourself as a real person at
    least present yourself as a moderately intelligent one. Otherwise all
    you do is spread cynicism in relations, and degrade language.

  • Jodi Blackwood

    Jim, we are seeing a tremendous change in how people communicate, and yes, it is leading to an inability and lack of understanding as to why in-person communication is so important. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the trend will be changing any time soon, whether we like it or not, so we must work with it if we wish to move forward. What you are facing is a customer service issue, and when it comes to customer service, it's important to remember that we treat the customer not as we would like to be treated ourselves, but as they wish to be treated. Your new buyer prefers to be contacted by email, so that is the direction you must go.

    Communicating by email is a different animal, so to speak, and as it sounds like your buyer may be a "direct, to the point" type of person, may I make the following suggestions?:

    1.  Put your most important point in the first paragraph -- why are you writing? Paragraphs should be no longer than three to four lines; a block of text is off-putting, and people will skip over it, rather than read it. (There is a difference reading text on paper vs. reading it on a screen.)

    2.  Highlight specific information by using bullet points; it makes it stand out and grabs the reader's attention.

    3.  Keep emails relatively short; again, long, detailed emails will be skipped over.

    4.  Make good use of the subject line -- how will your email benefit her?

    The key is to catch her attention; will one of your products save her money or increase her productivity? Approach her from that perspective -- how will taking time to read your email (and hopefully, following up with you) benefit her?

    If you are not familiar with Jeffrey Gitomer, I would suggest you take a look at his weekly ezine (the back issues). https://www.gitomer.com/sales-...  Sales are his specialty, and he offers great advice for situations very similar to the one you are experiencing.

    I wish you success in your endeavors!

  • ari9999

    Woof. All great advice. 

    Here's another bit. Ever get a call at an awkward moment? You're about to leave, or call a client, or hit the bathroom, or hang a left in heavy traffic — whatever. You may half-listen and then cut the caller short. When I'm the caller, I try to anticipate. After saying who I am, I often ask: "Is now an okay time to talk?" It demonstrates respect for the other person's time and helps ensure that when we do talk, I'll have more of their attention. 

    p.s. Love dog. 

    p.p.s. Disagree with Kar's comment. A few verbs are now commonly used as nouns, a la "the reveal".   "The ask" fits nicely in this genre. However, we each have our own curmudgeonly quirks. Example: The noun "impact" is now almost universally (mis)used as a verb. Why can't people say "affect"? A meteorite impacts on Earth's surface: correct use of verb. My wisdom tooth became impacted. Okay (for the grammar, not the tooth). But do we have to dramatize every minor use of "affect" by breathlessly proclaiming that something "impacts" something else? It's like using multiple exclamation points — ad nauseam. 

  • Peter Graham

    it's not what people are saying, it's how they're saying it. picking up on emotional intonations & information can turn a call if you have to stones to comment on any of the numerous things that can be going on in all of the dynamic aspects of a cold call.

    Why should this person meet with you versus the other 30 people calling for the same thing? Operate from  you guts, not your head. Remember, the most difficult word or phrase to use when people flat out tell you "no," is  "why" not if I may ask....politely always stand your ground & always obsess over what you could have said differently any time you get kicked off a call

  • Brad Apling

    Re: #3 - Explicit means to cut the unnecessary. "listen, the reason I'm calling is..." is unnecessary. Just start with "I'm calling you to {specific}...". What you are stating is 'the reason'; it is being redundant otherwise. The same with the latter example. Cut it down to "I would like just ten minutes of your time to update you on what we're doing." A person can still be social without adding extra verbiage. 
    All in all, a good article and very important points made - especially on having your main talking points written down beforehand. Don't try to rely on your memory.

  • Greg O.

    Two other things that I also apply to meetings: 

    1) Effectively and clearly impart the information or call to action that is the point of the call/meeting— even if it means writing it down beforehand.

    2) Know specifically what I NEED from the person on the other line— again, even if it means writing it down beforehand.

    Both are tied into of steps 1, 3 and 5 in the article.

    The "KNOW YOUR ASK" point is well taken. I've learned (this applies especially to emails) to keep the point clear, concise and to ask ONE specific thing of the person.