In an era when people think it's okay to communicate in emoticons, it seems odd that several recent hit songs, including Adele's Hello and Drake's Hotline Bling, are all about talking on the phone. Maybe it's nostalgia, or maybe they've discovered anew that to have a conversation with someone, you really need to hear their voice.
Speaking on the phone also remains an important business tool – and one that's increasingly in short supply, according to Mary Jane Copps, who calls herself the Phone Lady.
Ms. Copps, 58, said that spending hours on the phone as a teenager taught her practical skills she was able to use in her work as a journalist, a manager, a researcher and a fundraiser. Today, "phone skills" involve your fingers, not your voice, which can be challenging when entering the work force.
"Business still happens on the phone and when I deal with graduating students, they might want to get into [an industry such as] financial services and they suddenly realize they have to talk to clients on the phone and they are not prepared," Ms. Copps said.
"This is terrifying for them, since many of them have never spoken on the phone and if they have, it's only to their mom," she added.
A lack of phone skills isn't merely a generational failing, Ms. Copps said. Many professionals in the workplace have been relying on e-mail as their primary communication tool for years, leaving their phone skills rusty. This can become problematic when companies decide that their employees are overwhelmed by e-mail and want them to get back to using the phone.
One such company is Felicity, a Toronto-based communications agency with 35 associates across Canada, the United States and the U.K. Amy Laski, president of Felicity, said having no physical offices can lead to an overreliance on e-mail. To combat this, her team has instituted a "just-call commitment." That means everyone picks up the phone and calls each other rather than engaging in lengthy e-mail conversations.
"It sounds simplistic but it is a small thing that makes a big difference accomplishing in a two-minute phone call what would otherwise take several e-mail exchanges. While this helps in particular with internal e-mails, we also aim to do so with external communications as well," Ms. Laski said.
Emphasizing phone calls takes some getting used to, admitted Ms. Laski, but she insisted the method works and saves the company time and money.
"It helps close business quicker because even IM [instant messaging] is not a true two-way conversation. There are subtleties that are captured in conversation that can't be gleaned in any other way. You can also convey your passion better," she said.
That may be true, but for a lot of people, being on the receiving end of a phone call can feel like an invasion of privacy. Ms. Copps chalks that up to 50 years of telemarketing, when answering the phone at suppertime was often an exercise in frustration.
While business calls are "valid" reasons to reach out to people, it's the caller's responsibility to diffuse the receiver's defensiveness quickly, she said. That means avoiding opening lines such as "how are you doing today? Those questions jumpstart our telemarketing reflex and we immediately feel that we are about to be asked for our credit card number.
Another mistake is asking: "Is this a good time?"
"When we ask that question, it is almost as though we are saying 'I assume this is a bad time,' so you are setting yourself up to not have a conversation," Ms. Copps said. Rather than ask, she suggested paying attention to what's happening in the receiver's world when you call.
So how do you make a successful phone call? When you pick up the phone, Ms. Copps explained, the receiver has two questions: "What is this about?" and "What has it got to do with me?" To engage in a successful conversation, the caller needs to get right to the point, make it about the listener and ask open-ended questions.
Whatever you do, avoid phrases such as "I'm just calling," or "Try to call me back." That type of wishy-washy language merely says I hope you will call but I don't expect you to.
For those who are still reluctant to pick up the phone, remember there are still many people who prefer the sound of a human voice to a text or an e-mail.
Jane Ulrich, principal of Jane Ulrich & Associates and a business coach based in Peterborough, Ont., counts herself among them.
"I much prefer a phone call. People cannot always articulate what they are trying to say in a short message and can say it better if they just picked up the phone. It's in your hand anyway, right?"
So take the plunge and start using that function on your cellphone that actually makes calls. Perhaps – unlike the object of Adele's phone call – yours will pick up.
Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler