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Managing Phone Calls

The telephone is an interruptive device that allows people to invade your quiet time and insert their agenda ahead of yours. Phone calls have been a major Time bandit for the last 30 years at least, and while they have been joined and probably overtaken by e-mail, they remain a huge drain on executive productivity.

There are some fundamental things that can easily be done to minimize this problem.

Manage the phone calls that you receive.

My first rule is that you should never answer the telephone if you don't know who is on the other end... and never ever ever if they show up as "unavailable". I am also pretty suspicious of 800 numbers these days.

How many times have you answered the phone only to find that you wish you hadn't? Maybe it was somebody trying to sell you something you didn't want or somebody who you really didn't want to talk to.... either just at that moment or, more damagingly, ever.

It always amuses me when people answer their phone when I call and proceed to tell me that they are too busy to talk to me. Politeness prevents me from pointing out to them that one of the reasons why they are too busy is because they answer their phone and talk to people who are quite simply wasting their time (though not in my case I hope!).

Caller ID can solve some of these problems, but on many phone systems it is ineffective. The cost of answering the phone when you don't know who is on the other end is so great that it is worth a significant investment to get a good caller ID solution so that you can identify who the callers are. That way, you only answer the calls that you want to receive.

At one of my time management seminars, one of the attendees said that his biggest customer showed up as "unavailable" and that, of course, everybody who called from there expected him to be instantly available. The suggestion that came from the other people in the room was that he should install an inexpensive VOIP phone line and give the number just to them and then program it into his main phone system so that it came up with a different ring when they called.

My second rule is that you should never answer calls if you are doing something important. This applies during Prime Time and Quiet Time and during meetings.

The whole point of quiet time is that it is time that you have set aside to accomplish something that is important to you on your agenda, and allowing somebody else's agenda to trump yours is a really stupid thing to do. The usual objection to this is that there are important customers, people you can never reach etc who simply must have instant and unfettered access to you.

Think for a moment about what that attitude says about your relationship with time. Then consider the cost of the interruptions that you allow vs the inconvenience of playing telephone tag with people. I would suggest that there is nothing that is so important that anybody can't wait an hour or so until you get in touch with them.

I believe that the worst thing you can do is to take telephone calls during meetings. The person who is meeting with you has a substantial prior claim to your time over anybody who simply chooses to call you because it suits their agenda at that time. Why would you plead to a client or prospect that the telephone call is more important to you than they are? What message does that send, and what message do you want to send?

The usual counter-argument I get is that taking calls in meetings shows how available you are to your clients. That may be the effect...but I would suggest that the more likely interpretation is that it is both rude and unprofessional. Think about it; you may not agree, but I think that it should be avoided at all costs.

At one of my time management seminars, one of the participants told the group that he had "lost a bride" as a result of taking telephone calls during meetings. The room was stunned until he went on to explain that he is a florist and that he had a bride in his store talking to him about doing the flowers at her wedding. He took not one call but two, and when he looked up from the second he found that she had walked out of the store.

In his estimation this was a $20,000 sale that he lost. He told the group that the reason he answered the telephone was because the likelihood was that the person calling him was a prospect. This was somehow more important to him than the live prospect sitting in front of him...and he realized, to parody a proverb, that "a bride in the store is worth two on the phone".

This is a salutary lesson to any of us who engage in this kind of behavior, and we deserve whatever comes to us if we juggle our priorities in this manner.

Manage the phone calls that you make.

The rules for outbound phone calls are a little simpler, and with apologies for the hectoring tone from the above here is a rather simpler list of some things that you can do to make yourself more time effective in this area:

  • Group the phone calls that you make to be early and late in the day
  • Avoid unimportant/routine calls during what you identify as your "prime time"
  • Set a goal every call that you make
  • Keep an egg timer by the phone so that you can keep track of how much time you are really spending
  • Keep something on your desk that you really want to do next so that you have less temptation to stay on the phone and chitchat with the other person and waste your time. If the next thing that you have to do is a "frog' something you really don't want to do, then you'll spend longer on the call....and effectively waste your time

In phone call management, always remember...wasting your time may be the only thing you do effectively all day!


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Time Management Tips

  • When somebody interrupts you when you are busy, don't let them interrupt your train of thought. Ask them to come back and see you at a specific time – you may be surprised that they actually figure out the answer and don't come back to ask you.

  • Everybody has about three hours during the day when they are at their best. Figure out what your "Prime Time" is and then plan your day around it. Make sure that you dedicate that time to focus without interruptions on the activities that are of most value to you.

  • It is all too easy to waste time on phone calls. Keep an egg timer next to the phone to keep track of exactly how long you are talking. It will keep the time you are spending in the forefront of your mind and will help you handle the call more efficiently.

  • Never go to the bank to deposit checks, it is a Time Bandit way below your pay grade, and claiming it is therapeutic and gets you out of the office is deluding yourself. Send somebody else!  Better still, get a check scanning machine...and make sure the bank pays!

  • Organize your office so the door isn't in your immediate line of vision. The big payoff is that people can't appear at your door, hover, catch your eye and distract you. If you make it harder to interrupt you, people may figure out answers themselves rather than asking you.

  • When you have to give out an e-mail address to somebody who's going to send you things you don't want in your inbox, give them a special "junk" e-mail address. Then set up a rule so that everything to that address goes to a folder you review on your timetable.

  • When somebody interrupts you to ask you a question always reply with a question back. Ask them how they would deal with it, and make them think proactively rather than just relying on you. A good technique is to ask: "If I wasn't available today, what would you do?"

  • If your key customers expect you to answer the phone at all times, get an Internet phone line and give them a "VIP" phone number to call. Set it up with a unique ring on your system and you'll know that calls on that line are from your most important customers.

  • Most people have a “To Do” list to record the tasks they need to "Get Done", but it doesn't help identify what you shouldn't do yourself. For that you need a “To Don’t” list. Identify the culprits, put them on the list and defend your time by assigning them elsewhere. 

  • E-mails have overtaken the phone now as the most dangerously effective of all Time Bandits. Turn off your e mail alert and check your e-mail only four times a it on your schedule not the schedule of the people who are interrupting your more productive work.

  • E-mails have overtaken the phone as the most dangerously effective of all time wasters. The worst thing is the e mail alert that pops up on your computer screen. Don't let other people interrupt you in this way and take back control of your time by turning the alert off

  • When somebody interrupts you while sitting at your desk, stand up. It changes the pace of the interaction and sends a message to the interrupter that they have invaded your time. The more you can send this message, the more effective you will become at protecting your time.

  • When somebody comes to you with an issue they should figure out themselves, don't allow yourself to relieve them of the burden and take it on yourself. Instead of saying "leave it with me" when this happens, say "never delegate upwards" and ask them for their solution.

  • Entrepreneurs wear so many of the hats in their business that many of the tasks they carry out are at a level way below the real value of their time. Are you working below your pay grade by not handing off menial tasks that should be done by others?

  • When you are hiring new employees, ask candidates about their time management abilities. The best employees are those that can prioritize their work and handle interruptions, so be sure to ask relevant questions to probe in those areas so that you hire somebody who has those skills.

  • Email has become a huge time-waster and taking control of your Inbox is becoming more critical than ever. The ideal state is only to have things in your Inbox that are important, urgent or time sensitive, and to put everything else automatically into folders using Rules governing what happens when they come in. I’ve been using Outlook Rules for a number of years to sort specific topics, but I recently came across a new rule that makes a dramatic difference.

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Entrepreneurs wear so many of the hats in their business that many of the tasks they carry out are at a level way below the real value of their time. Are you working below your pay grade by not handing off menial tasks that should be done by others?