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.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve been subject to sales calls this morning while I was trying to focus on editing an annual report. So I patched my land line to my mobile and then switched my mobile off. Blissful silence. When I do this, I access my messages at regular intervals and respond when I’m taking a break from writing.

  2. says

    I just got a smart phone, now everyone I call can barely hear or understand me. I have had better results from phone calls than emails. It is hard for clients to give their personal server validation credentials in an email than a phone call.

  3. says

    I use RingCentral so when I need to go dark I set the phone to DND, at other times I can screen even as the caller is leaving voicemail. If it’s an urgent matter, I can interrupt and take the call otherwise I can return the call later. I try to schedule calls as well so that I an manage my time. I find that clients do not expect you to immediately answer every call or email. I record calls when there is a need to capture a lot of information (again RingCentral) which allows me to focus on what is being said and have a record for me and the client later.

  4. says

    Well there are 2 ways to do this right. Get a virtual receptionist to answer all calls or on your voice mail tell them when you will be responding back. Example every half or every hour I will check my messages. If they leave no message than the call is not important.

  5. says

    I have an unfair advantage and rarely use the phone (it’s this thing called deafness). Because of this, I could see how phones can swallow up my coworkers’ time. I believe if you set rules, you can reclaim some of the time — but that would be hypocritical of me, wouldn’t it?

  6. says

    Google Voice is a must, especially now that it’s out of invite only stage. I’ve set it to always ring my skype line and only ring my office line from 9 to 5. And when I need to go dark it’s a quick flip of the switch to shut my phones down. Any voicemails or texts get sent to my email where I can respond back when I’m free.

  7. says

    my policy is to answer the phone if its a time when i’m not in the middle of a project. I’ve also updated my outgoing voicemail message to include “please note that we only check voicemail messages once a day, so if this is an urgent message, please followup with an email to….” And that seems to help a lot in getting people to email me instead of calling.

  8. says

    I’m another Google Voice fan. I have it set up to ring my phone only during certain times of the day. Now, I can call out from it as I choose but it keeps the distractions at a minimum. Thankfully most of my clients thus far have been understanding of this fact and will generally email me when they need to talk. This leaves the ball in my court and I’m able to get back to them on my time.

  9. says

    Great tips!

    Freelance FactFile, Melissa–I think having a good answering system in place is vital.

    Jordan Walker–So, are you having trouble with your reception?

    Karen Swim–Ring Central sounds like a good option…

    HFB Advertising Agency–You check messages every half hour or hour, that’s pretty frequent.

    Meryl K Evans–Thanks! I think you do have valid insights.

    Adam Pieniazek, Kristina Hansen–Google voice sounds like a good alternative.

    Keep the ideas coming!

  10. says

    Laura – No, it is actually the phone itself : Motorola Droid. Something to do with the voice input. Looking into getting a blue tooth for hands free. Any suggestions?

  11. says

    I hate phone calls, especially with potential clients because they can get soooo long and kill your day. I adopted the lawyer rule though and let it go to voicemail then answer back within 24 hours. Otherwise answering them as they come in ruins the momentum of whatever work you are doing.

  12. says

    I’m the type of person who hates talking on the phone. It doesn’t matter if it’s my family, friends or clients… I just generally do not enjoy talking on the phone. It’s probably because I’m a visual person and having to focus on auditory input makes my mind wander.

    So I have a no-phone policy. When a prospect or client requests to speak to me, I set up a Skype call. That way, I can record the call and not have to take plenty of notes. Occasionally, someone will prefer the phone to Skype and, when that happens, then I accommodate them. However, that doesn’t happen often at all.

    I don’t see anything wrong with having set times to take calls. If you do publish your number, you can indicate the times when you’re available. Otherwise, just let voice mail do its work.

  13. says

    Jordan–I don’t have a Droid, but if I did and had the problems you describe I’d be ticked off. Hopefully someone in the community can help you.

    Johnny–Yep, those lawyers know what they are doing, don’t they?

    Lexi–I love voice mail. It is such a help. Most people don’t realize a disruption costs more time than the actual disruption itself–losing your train thought can be costly and time consuming.

    Mark Barrett–LOL. Exactly. I think I was lucky to “lose” that particular “client.”

  14. says

    I’m one of those with a no-phone rule. It’s not because I don’t enjoy talking to people – I do, and I talk extensively and happily with several people.

    But I have found that 95% of client calls are:

    1. Long for no reason
    2. Often off track and irrelevant
    3. Difficult to follow (see number two)
    4. Take up precious time
    5. Aren’t productive because it’s not my best medium.

    4 and 5 are clinchers for me. I know that it’s good to offer people several ways to communicate with you, but I also know that giving my clients top quality and my best work is *everything* to me. And if I’m not at my best on the phone for questions that require my top thoughts, then I’m not giving my clients 150%.

  15. says

    I know which clients are more likely to disrupt my focus, so when their number is on the caller ID, I let it go to voicemail and usually follow up with an email response.

    Voicemail greeting has a “for faster response, send us an email through our Help Desk.” Between this and the above practice I feel like I’ve set the tone.

    Personally those virtual receptionists are too easy to see through, and I find myself annoyed by the barricade after 1-2 calls to clients that use them. You might as well have a pager, because that’s basically all they are.

    PS – if you bounce your landline to your cell so you can turn it off (a great idea by the way, @Freelance FactFile) don’t forget to change your cell greeting so it doesn’t say “call me at the office”, you’ll end up looping your customers around in circles :)

  16. says

    Thanks James Chartrand–I totally agree with you on most of your points. I don’t have a “no phone” rule because I understand that some folks are more comfortable communicating that way, but I do require appointments for phone conversations. That way I get to keep my concentration and those who need it can communicate in the medium that they are most comfortable with.

    Stephan–Good warning about the loop. I could see that happening and I think cients would get justifiably frustrated if it did. :-)

  17. says

    I have a Google Voice number that is posted on my website. However, the number is never forwarded to my cell phone. Voicemails and text message are sent to my email which can be viewed on my cell phone.

    I get very few people contacting me via phone but it give them an option. I will then contact people from my cell phone. I also give out my cell phone number to my clients but try to schedule calls. There is one client that loves to set up calls (and skip them!) as he does not like asking for updates via email. I do struggle with him…but oh well. :)

  18. says

    I also have a Droid and have similar problems. I’m sorry to hear that others are having the same difficulty. Phone calls are quite a challenge for me because although some calls are important, that can be time wasters that disrupt your time schedule for the rest of the day. I prefer e-mails but I hate to lose people who prefer the telephone. A work in progress, but I have received some great ideas here.

  19. says

    I HATE the phone (I get panic attacks if I’m on too long and feel like I want to chew off my own hand if it will release me from the bloody phone). However, sometimes your client/potential client just NEEDS to talk to you on the phone and in those instances, I schedule a phone conversation. If its an emergency, I asked my clients to email me with ’911′, ‘Urgent’, or ‘Emergency’ in the email subject so I’ll know to drop everything and immediately attend to them.

    For clients who have problems with not being able to contact you at the drop of a hat, I explain to them “by having you express what you want in your own words in an email, it lessons the potential for miss-understandings AND I’ll have it in your file to refer back to while I’m working on it’

  20. says

    I schedule my calls and I have a Google Voice number that I publish on my website(s). If I’m not working on a task (and I most often am), I’ll answer the phone. But for the most part, I try to turn that call into a scheduled call by setting a time for us to discuss the potential project (this most often allows me to weed out uninterested parties as opposed to chatting on the phone for an hour).

    With clients on the other-hand, I answer the phone all the time.

  21. says

    Laura, great article and conversation you started!

    We also explored this topic from at startup point of view:
    http://blog.chrometa.com/when-should-startups-answer-their-phone-or-ev

    At Chrometa, we do publish our phone # on our website, and we generally answer it (unless it’s an obvious telemarketing call – details on how we screen those on our post)

    But I think we are in a slightly different boat as a product company…the phone is a great place for us to gather product intel. What people like, what they don’t like, etc. This was very important for us early on, and remains a key “secret weapon” of ours.

    Finally one last note – to accomplish this, I do take most of our phone calls, so that our developers can program in peace :) If you’re a one-person show, that’s not really an option..but small companies can and are probably best served to assign this task to one person.

    Again, our full thoughts on phone answering from a product company perspective are at http://blog.chrometa.com/when-should-startups-answer-their-phone-or-ev

  22. says

    I used to work for a high volume web dev company. The calls, as you say, were a mixed bag. Some calls were calm while others had a higher decibel rating that destroyed my eardrum.

    Scheduling works
    Emails are better
    Using the online ticket system was the best (provided transparency on both sides)

  23. says

    Currently I have a no phone policy although I do ask for a clients phone number just in case.

    As I spend my productive time at my computer I find it easier to read and respond to an email as soon as it’s sent, or earliest convenience, over taking a phone call at the exact moment a client dictates. I don’t believe there are many situations that require an absolute immediate phone resolution to warrant the hassle.

  24. says

    I like to talk on the phone so this is not a problem. I have my home phone number on a landline, and use my cell phone as my business phone. This number is published on my Web site.

    It’s great to have emails to document client approvals, etc. But sometimes it’s easier just to have a conversation about something rather than sending emails back and forth, especially if you’re trying to answer a question or set up a meeting.

    I just completed an assignment for a woman who did not take ANY phone calls at work — not even internally. I had to work at her office in another building, and the only way I could get question answered was to get up and walk to another building and find her. Talk about time consuming!

    I must be a really strange freelancer. I actually ENJOY face-to-face contact with clients and potential clients! I also prefer talking about difficult issues over the phone, because then you can hear tone of voice, etc., and respond appropriately.

  25. says

    I’ve seen some good ideas about using Google Voice to handle this type of problem.

    The vast majority of my client prefer email or Skype, so the phone hasn’t been as big of a problem for me. As far as friends and family members go, I’ve never been a phone person-more of a texter, so they’re fairly use to me calling back later.

    But, overall, I find that scheduling a time for meetings and phone calls works well for me. I try to do it in the afternoon-many of my clients are on Mountain or Pacific time and I never have much luck working on projects then anyway.

  26. says

    Big fan of Google Voice here. I have it set up so if anybody other than my close friends or family call (i.e. clients), it leads them straight to voice mail saying to either leave a message about the details of the project or better yet send me an email. I let them know that email is preferred. I also just started using Voice as an alternate way for clients to leave testimonials on my site.

  27. says

    I don’t have a phone problem because I refuse to share my phone number with everyone. Almost all of my queries come first by email. If it is a project I can take, then I follow up with a phone call.

    I’ve been working remotely a lot this summer, so even if the phone were to ring I am not around to answer it.

  28. says

    I have a phone right next to my computer and I keep a specific note book for calls only, I make sure to keep very neat and detailed notes when i get calls. I guess I am used to the interruptions and it doesn’t bother me so much.

    That being said I make a note to end any non-relevant calls quickly,

    Shawn

  29. says

    I don’t have a telephone policy that my clients can follow since we communicate via email and instant messaging only. As for my friends and family, my sister is the only one who phones me and she usually does so late at night when I’m done with work.

    It’s good though that we all have a policy for everything, including phone calls. The distractions and interruptions can really affect our workflow and it’s important to implement a system to minimize these.

  30. says

    What a controversial subject this is. Phone calls can be a big part of your business in bringing in clients and sales, but at the same time can be such a time waster. I would love to know the magic trick in balancing this act.

  31. says

    I’ve just signed on to help out an agency with some web development work while they are looking for someone new to bring in-house. I thought that it would be a pretty simple task, get some jobs and minor updates to clients sites, however i’ve found that because of this one pestering client I may have to change my whole phone policy.

    I’m generally pretty OK with answering the phone during the day, I can get rid of marketers pretty easily, and most of my clients prefer to use email, but if something is urgent they will ring. I have explained to my clients that I have bad reception and that it would be better to get ahold of me via email, but i’m happy to work with certain clients.

    However, this new client called me about 8 times in a 45 minute period last week when I was at the gym, trying to get ahold of me, apparently i had to tell them when I was doing things other than their work. I hardly think so. the 3 week retainer has ended and I don’t think I’ll be doing any more work with them, but first thing monday morning I’m going to change my voice mail using some of the tips above, and make sure that I check and return my calls regularly, I schedule email, so why not phone calls.

    Sorry for the long winded post, but it’s really got under my skin lately :)

  32. says

    In my business world the phone weighs more than my arm can stand. But really it is one of the hardest and most challenging parts of my day. I find it much easier to communicate through facebook and e-mail but I know I am missing that personal connection. So I try to get my calls out of the way first thing so my procrastinating doesn’t weigh down the rest of my day. Still a work in progress.

  33. says

    Phones are great for connecting to those who you can’t get together with in person, but it can also be a big time waster due to calls from solicitors. If I know who it is I try to answer as much as possible. Otherwise I set aside a specific time each week just for phone calls that I personally make to keep that personal rapport going. Technology is great for a lot of things but not that personal connection.

  34. says

    I personal despise talking on the phone. I know they say woman love to talk on the phone, but not this one. I personally prefer technology such as Facebook and e-mails, but also find that you don’t get that personal connections. So I force myself to set aside a specific amount of time for phone calls each week to ensure my team and I are getting that personal connection. It makes all the difference in a working environment.

  35. says

    When I am in the middle of crunch time I usually turn my phone off. I know I might miss some calls but I figure if it’s important enough, they can leave a message and I can always call them back when time allows.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>