How to Handle the Telephone Problem

Phone-ProblemDid you ever wish that you could leave your phone off the hook to minimize the interruptions?

Sometimes I wish that I could. Eventually, most freelancers will face the question of what to do about business phone calls.

Personally, I’ve found business calls to be a mixed bag. While some calls may bring new clients and new business, many are just time-consuming interruptions to my already busy day.

There’s nothing more frustrating that being in the middle of a project, focused on a goal and working hard–when suddenly a ringing telephone interrupts you. After such an interruption, it’s not unusual for me to lose my train of thought completely. An interruption can sometimes mean losing as much as twenty minutes worth of work.

Developing an effective telephone policy can be a real challenge for a freelancer. It’s not as though we are corporation with a receptionist available to answer the phone each and every time it rings. In this post, we’ll discuss how you can determine your best strategy for handling phone calls during your work day.

The Temptation

As a freelancer, our income depends on our clients. This fact alone can make it very tempting to answer every single phone call as soon as the phone rings. After all, that phone call might mean new business, right? Several gurus indicate that the quicker you are able to answer a new prospect, the more likely they are to become a client.

New business means more money, so the temptation is very understandable. However, not every call will bring new business. Some calls are from sales people, or even worse, are from friends and relatives who don’t yet understand your freelance work schedule. (She’s at home, so she must be available to talk…)

Even with Caller ID turned on it can be difficult to know beforehand whether an incoming phone call is going to increase your bottom line or simply waste your time.

Developing a good telephone strategy can help.

Three Approaches to Handling Phone Calls

Basically, there are three approaches freelancers can take towards phone calls. Each approach has its pros and cons, which I’ll mention.

Here are the three approaches:

  1. Answer all phone calls. This approach works very well for freelancers who aren’t bothered by interruptions. If you’re used to interruptions and rarely lose your train of thought, then you may want to consider this approach. If you do, be sure to include extra time for talking on the phone in your project estimates.
  2. Ignore all phone calls. Some freelancers have a strict “no phone” policy. They refuse to take phone calls and will only deal with clients through email. While I can sympathize with this approach, a big con to it is that you will definitely lose some clients who are more comfortable talking with a live person.
  3. Schedule phone calls. Often, it is possible to initially let your phone calls go to voice mail and then return them at a set time each day. You can also contact clients and potential clients through email to schedule a mutually convenient time to talk on the phone. This approach satisfies clients who prefer talking by phone while preserving your concentration.

There are a few other concerns that you should think about when it comes to the telephone and your business.

Other Concerns About Phone Usage

Two other questions that freelancers may have regarding phone use include:

  • Should I publish my phone number on my website, or not? While including a phone number on your website may be preferred by many clients, it could cause problems if you don’t have a separate line. You probably don’t want your kids accidentally taking a business phone call for you. Also, publishing your number opens you up to receiving a lot of sales calls and even prank calls.
  • How can I keep an accurate record of a phone conversation? One benefit of using email over phone calls to nail down business decisions is that there is a built-in record of your discussion. Of course, this problem can be solved by diligently recording a telephone conversation and emailing a summary to your client.

My Solution

While distractions may not bother some, they do bother me. My solution to minimize phone interruptions is to choose the third options–I encourage clients to schedule appointments in advance to speak with me. In the meantime, they are encouraged to leave me a message and I’ll return their call during time set aside for that purpose.

Scheduling phone time is actually a very common practice among professionals. I have noticed that when I call my attorney he is never available immediately. I nearly always have to leave a message with his receptionist. The same is true of my doctor. Her answering service has a message that states something to the effect of: go to the emergency room if this is an emergency, otherwise leave your message at the tone. I’ve noticed that her nurse always returns my calls at the close of the business day.

As freelancers, we should view ourselves as professionals and accept that we are entitled to the same professional courtesies as other professionals.

In terms of the other two phone issues, I have chosen not to publish my phone number on my website. However, the number is available upon request to paying clients after I have been selected for a project. While many clients never ask for it, I know that a few clients feel better having it.

I do take copious notes of my phone conversations with clients. If any agreements were reached, I try to summarize those agreements and send them back to the client through email.

Have these policies lost me some potential clients? I think that they have, a few times. Once I remember a prospective client being really irritated because he wanted to be able to reach me by phone at all times. Or, in his words, “I want to be able to just pick up the phone and call you whenever I need you.”

Personally, I feel like these policies help screen out some possible bad clients from the mix. After all, a client who wants me to be available at a moment’s notice is likely to be a pretty demanding client and probably not a very good fit for my business.

What’s Your Solution?

Do you have a phone policy for your freelancing business? Do you publish your phone number on your website?

Share your telephone policy (and experiences) in the comments.