Call a stranger part two: calls that get returned

Image of a text bubble that says, "New business, who dis?"

Once upon a time, business etiquette dictated that everyone returned all their phone messages. That’s definitely not the case today. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be leaving messages. In fact, the opposite is true.

Being overwhelmed, a constant in our business lives, impacts how we communicate, as well as how and why we leave phone messages.

The growth of “noise”

When I started my first business, way back in 1987, one of our first clients was the professional services firm EY (Ernst and Young). They stayed our client for over 14 years and throughout this time we always worked with a man named David.  Once a year he and I would have a detailed conversation about successes, expectations and new challenges.

In 1996 (approximately) it took me six months to reach David for our annual conversation. When I finally got him on the phone, I was nervous that something had happened to damage our relationship.

He assured me this wasn’t the case:

Mary Jane,”  he said. “When you and I first spoke in 1987, you were one of about 80 messages I received each day. Today, you are one of about 300 messages I get daily. Every time you called, I wrote down to call you back, but you never made my top ten priorities.

What had changed? Well, in the late ‘80s, David had a phone on his desk that provided callers with a busy signal when he was talking to someone else, and he had a receptionist.

By 1996, his office phone took messages when he was speaking with someone else, his cellphone took messages, his computer was delivering email and his receptionist continued to field calls. It became impossible for him to return messages promptly.

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The rise of competing priorities

More recently, I spent a few years working with the Vice-President of Regional Marketing for a large drug store chain. Her job involved meeting after meeting after meeting, as well as a lot of travel. She was clear with me that her preferred method of communication was email – and most of the time this worked out perfectly.

But one day I had difficulty creating clarity in an email about a specific issue. Rather than put effort into what might become a big circle of text messages, I decided to call her. She was kind enough to return my call. When I picked up the phone she said “It’s Suzanne calling from ABC Company. I’ve got 5 minutes to return 50 calls. Talk fast.

To this day, whenever I leave a message for someone, I think of Suzanne and her crazy schedule of meetings and travel.

Becoming the top priority

Today the focus of your voicemail messages must be to inspire people to call you back. Why? This helps them place you higher on their priority list and begins the process of dissolving defensiveness. When someone returns your call, they feel in control. They’re not averse to speaking with you and, in the majority of cases, they will have set aside time to have a conversation.

By making small shifts in how you leave messages, you will book more meetings and demos and you will see your revenue increase.

Seven steps to getting your calls returned

Here are the seven steps I encourage you to take, as well as sample calling scripts to help you get started:  

1. Do not judge anyone for not returning your call. You have no idea what’s going on in their world. An unreturned phone call is never personal and it rarely means “no”. In fact, if the answer is “no”, someone will usually call or send email to tell you. Silence means “We are still thinking about it” or “Our priorities have changed for the time being” or “I’m going to call you back as soon as things calm down”.

2. It is not their responsibility to call you back. They’ve got innumerable other responsibilities that need their attention. It is 100% your responsibility to communicate with your clients, prospects, suppliers, investors, etc. When you remember this, own it. It is much easier to make these calls and leave professional messages.  

3. Stop creating phone tag. Everyone is tired and frustrated by the back and forth of voicemail messages. It wastes so much time, contradicting your desire to demonstrate respect for the other person’s time, build relationship and create trust.  

Here’s a sample message that eliminates phone tag:

Hi David, this is Mary Jane calling from The Phone Lady. I’ll be available today until 2 pm and you can reach me at 1-877-404-3290. That’s 1-877-404-3290. If we don’t connect by 2 pm, that’s fine. I’ll follow up with you again on Friday (or later this week, or early next week, etc.).

If David picks up this message at 2:30 p.m., he immediately experiences my respect for his time. Not only that, I’ve indicated that I’m going to take responsibility for connecting and, because I’m going to continue to call, I’ve let him know the call is important.

4. Work with the power of human curiosity. Use words and phrases in your voicemail messages that grab the attention of your audience and inspire them to return your call.

Here’s my favorite:

“Hi David, this is Mary Jane calling from The Phone Lady and I have one quick question for you. I’ll be available today until 2 pm and you can reach me at 1-877-404-3290. That’s 1-877-404-3290. If we don’t connect by 2 pm, that’s fine. I’ll follow up with you again on Friday (or later this week, or early next week, etc.).”

For some of your audience, this notion of a quick question will inspire them to call you back. They will want to know more about you and your question.

5. Don’t leave all the details, especially when calling prospects. This common mistake prevents a lot of connections and sales from happening.

Here’s an example:

“Hi David, this is Mary Jane calling from The Phone Lady. I provide companies like yours with training that makes their sales teams more effective on the phone. I’d like to book a meeting with you and talk about how we might work together.”

While this seems like an efficient message, it isn’t helpful to anyone. Because David is incredibly busy, when he picks up this message, he will make a decision based on the details I’ve given him—without ever speaking to me. Not only that, because he will make this decision while listening to the sound of my voice, he will think he’s told me. Oh my!

Of course when you and the person you’re calling are already working on a project together or have a long-standing relationship, detailed messages are extremely efficient.

6. Persistence is essential. When you reach out to a someone you don’t know, you might need to leave five to seven messages before you’ll connect. While this likely makes you uncomfortable, you have to think about it from their point of view. You’re  a stranger to them. They’re incredibly busy. If you only leave one, two or three messages and then stop, they’ll think “Well, I guess that wasn’t too important.”.

When you’re persistent, you clearly support the fact that there is value in connecting. You also clearly tell them they’re important to you. They are not one of hundreds of people you’re trying to reach—you want to reach them.

Know that often your first and second messages are greeted with “I don’t know this person. If it’s important, they’ll call back.”

When the stranger receives message three and four and five, they decide it’s important, and they make a note to call you back but … their day gets hectic and it slides off their list.

In the my 31 years calling strangers and being very persistent, maybe four people have been annoyed out of thousands. What I hear most often is “Thank you for calling again” or “I’m so sorry for not getting back to you.” From here we easily move into conversation.

When you do have to leave a fifth message for someone, here’s what it should sound like:

“Hi David, It’s Mary Jane calling from The Phone Lady. Sorry that I’ve missed you. Know that I do have one quick question for you and I encourage you to call whenever it is convenient with your schedule. You can reach me at 1-877-404-3290. That’s 1-877-404-3290. Thanks, David.”

Because I haven’t indicated that I’ll call again, this message keeps the possibility of connection in place, but also allows me to move it ahead in my system for a future round of calls.

7. Combine voicemail and email/text messages to book a phone call.  You can increase the number of phone conversations you inspire by approaching strangers in multiple ways. If you do have their email address or cell phone number, follow these steps to organize a phone conversation:

a. Leave a voicemail message first and include “I’ll also send you an email/text in case that’s easier for you.” This helps them notice your message in their busy inbox, or check for it in spam.

b. If sending email, use a subject line subject line such as Re: My voicemail message earlier today. The “Re” indicates to spam filters that your message is part of an ongoing conversation and increases the likelihood it will make it to their inbox.

c. Use the written message to book a phone conversation, i.e. I have a quick question for you. When is a convenient time for a 10-minute phone conversation?

d. Use appointment booking apps (my favorite is Calendly) to help confirm a time and date for your phone conversation. More and more of us are treating phone calls as meetings and will say “yes” if booking the time is a simple process.

Leaving effective and inspiring voicemail messages builds your credibility, illustrates your belief in your value, starts the process of creating trust and increases your ability to book meetings and demos.

The majority of my clients experience a 25% to 30% increase in messages returned simply by following these seven steps. If this is true for you, what will it mean for the growth of your business?

What to do when they call back

Keep following this series—part three will cover how to inspire a conversation when a stranger answers your call.

Categories:   Insights
Mary Jane Copps
By Mary Jane Copps
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