Telephone Technique, Part One

(Kelly Krause, AAAS)

Not enough has been written about that power tool you have on your desk and how it can benefit your job search. No, I don’t mean your laptop computer or your smart phone; I’m talking about that old-fashioned telephone right next to those items, the one with the cord attached to the wall. It’s old school, but it’s effective.

Do you think you already know how to use a telephone? Think again. Sure, you probably know how to use more of your smart phone’s fancy features than I do. But that’s not what I’m writing about. I’m writing about whom you call, when to call, what you say, and how you say it. Follow my advice and you’ll be far less likely to drop your job-search connection.

 Another concern is call quality; as your voice fades out on the other end of the (virtual) line when you’re chatting with that director of research, your chances of getting hired might be fading in much the same way.

Consider the hardware

If you’re like most people, you’ve got at least two phones, a home phone and a cell phone. You may have your own business phone, too, and for reasons I haven’t yet plumbed, some people seem to have more than one cell phone.

Some people use a cell phone as their sole telephony instrument. That’s OK, but it’s not ideal. Business calls are so important (especially in a job search) that you don’t want to drop them—and cell phones do drop calls. Another concern is call quality; as your voice fades out on the other end of the (virtual) line when you’re chatting with that director of research, your chances of getting hired might be fading in much the same way. So it might be worthwhile to spring for a landline or maybe a phone from your cable company. The former is better—landlines are rock solid—but a cable phone is cheaper and usually includes unlimited long distance.

If you do choose to employ just a cell phone, make sure you have one of those pocket batteries that allows you to get an instant charge when the “battery life is at 10%” notification pops up on screen, and keep it with you at all times. Figure out where in your house you get the best reception. Above all, stay in one place when you’re on an important call. If you’re driving, pull over.

Finally, get a good pair of headphones with a corded microphone—especially if you use a cell phone, which usually has inferior audio quality. When you’re forced to use Skype or some other form of online voice communication tool, a high-quality headset can eliminate (or at least reduce) that annoying echo.

Business protocol

Most scientists starting a job search think that networking is something you do on a computer: updating your LinkedIn page, responding to online advertisements, and sending a CV package to a new contact referred by a friend. These are all valid job-seeking activities, but they’re all preliminary to the hardcore, productive networking that starts when you finally talk in person (the first choice) or by telephone (a solid second choice). I know this sounds old fashioned, but trust me: The business world still runs by telephone conversations and face-to-face interactions. Your computer can hold you back, if you hide behind it. It might be best to think of your computer as the world’s greatest phone book, a mere accessory for the telephone in your hand.

Are you convinced that you need to use the phone? Good—but that’s only a start. While anyone can make a phone call, not everyone can use their voice to make a positive impression, or to leave a subtle, positive message behind. Skills like that can get you hired. If you want to become a telephone pro, you’ll need to work on it over time, but I can help you get started. This month, I’ll focus on phone protocols for networking. Here is a list of my best advice.

  • Every time you make a new LinkedIn connection, reach out by phone and thank them. Make it quick. Offer assistance. “I’m glad to be connected, please be in touch at any time if I can help you.” Do not, under any circumstances, ask for anything. Before you hang up, make sure they have your phone number. For each new connection, do this just once; no follow-ups allowed. If you don’t get an answer the first time you call, leave your message on their voicemail and move on.
  • Call people you don’t know. As I’ve written many times before, you want to find people on the career trajectory you picture yourself on, but one or two steps ahead. Use LinkedIn, Google, or any other means to initiate a connection. If you can find a phone number, give them a call. People in industry get networking calls all the time; it’s a part of their daily work life.
  • When making “cold calls,” promise you’ll keep it brief, and then keep your promise. “John, I’m Bill Flemming, calling from ASU. I have a question for you about a project. Do you have 3 or 4 minutes, or would it be better to talk at another time? I promise not to take up very much of your time.” People can take a few minutes, usually, but they’ll turn you down if it sounds like your call will require a substantial time commitment. What’s the “project” you’re working on? It’s your research on how others with your background have moved from academia to industry. Your question for John—who has a background similar to yours—is how he landed his position at Merck. Networking by phone is just another kind of research; it’s just what you’ve been trained to do. Networking is gathering information.
  • Never ask for a job. Your phone call is really about exploring how other people have made transitions you are considering. It’s true that if things go well, you might agree to send along your CV, and that’s OK if it works out that way. But don’t force it. Focus the conversation on information gathering. Avoid making a sales pitch.
  • Call them what they want to be called. If I answer my phone, “Good Afternoon, this is Dave,” you’d best call me “Dave,” and introduce yourself by your first name. More than two-thirds of the people you call will expect you to address them by their first names. You might think it more respectful to address them as “Dr. Smith,” but in doing so, you are subtly (and unnecessarily) positioning yourself on a lower plateau. On the other hand, if someone answers their phone “This is Dr. Smith,” that’s your cue to call them by the “doctor” designation. Should you then follow that person’s lead and call yourself “Dr. Lowenstein”? Not necessarily. If they’re far more senior than you are, they might be expecting some hierarchy. So a good approach is to leave the decision up to them by identifying yourself by your full name, then mentioning your credentials. “Hello Dr. Smith. I’m Fred Gonzalez, a postdoc over at Rockefeller.” That way, Dr. Smith can decide whether to call you “Fred,” “Dr. Gonzalez,” or something else. 
  • The sound of your voice makes a big difference. One of the biggest determinants of successful telephone use is the way you sound on the line. If you speak in a quiet monotone, your job-search results may be similarly monotonous (and not in a good way). On the other hand, you’re unlikely to come across well if you try and fake enthusiasm. You need to seem relaxed, upbeat, and authentic. For most people, that takes practice. Meanwhile, the advice I give people is to care a bit less about the results of the call. That may sound strange, but if you’re hung up on making sure that every call goes perfectly, your anxiety will be audible. If you care a bit less and just have fun with it, you’ll achieve a better vocal quality, and that will get the attention of the other party.

In next month’s Part Two, I’ll consider how best to handle interviews, and how to follow them up using your new favorite communication device—your telephone.

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