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Are You Smiling?
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Are You Smiling?

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Whenever I’d call my mother on the phone when I was a kid, she’d start the conversation by asking me, “Are you smiling?”

Back then, I never gave her greeting too much thought because that’s what young people do: They ignore their parents’ wisdom until they realize at some point just how smart the old folks could be. As I’ve grown older and gained experience in business and life in general, it has occurred to me that my mom’s question is important and even a bit profound.

At first blush, this notion of smiling on the phone is sort of silly. After all, no one sees your face when you’re on the phone, so who cares about the expression on your face? But the truth is, this question of whether or not you’re smiling on the phone has everything to do with the way you come across to the person on the other end of the line. Mom knew this – and pounded the wisdom into me through years of our own phone conversations.

It all came together for me several years ago when I attended a seminar on telephone etiquette. One of the things the instructors pointed out was that the tone of your voice is very important – often far more important than the specific meaning of the things you say. In other words, most people know intuitively whether or not you have a smile on your face when you start talking on the phone!

RIDING ON HELLO

I consider this to be the first in a string of important ideas that relate to how one communicates, both in business and in every social exchange in life. And it occurs to me, as we step into the New Year, that this issue of communication and the quality of our communications with our clients, colleagues, vendors and everyone else we come in contact with has become more significant than ever before.

I won’t dwell on how much the world has changed in the past few months, but the fact is that things are different in ways we probably never really considered even a few short months ago. We’re all feeling uncertain, and now, more than ever before, we need reassurance and comfort from the people we encounter in our daily lives.

In this environment, things like common courtesy, mutual respect, attentiveness and concern have, I believe, become factors that have an enormous effect on our experiences in all walks of life. I’d rather see this as something to prize rather than something to be gloomy about, because the rewards that will come in this environment from doing a good job of communicating can and will reap rewards in unanticipated ways.

Since I’ve become aware of the importance of things like phone etiquette, I’ve paid an unusual amount of attention to the way I feel when I’m greeted by another person on the telephone. You don’t have to be a psychologist to recognize that, all things being equal, most people will choose to deal with someone who is friendly and courteous as opposed to someone else who isn’t.

Looking at this from the standpoint of running a watershaping business, it’s fairly obvious that in these toughening times, we need to take advantage of opportunities that come our way. We all know that first impressions are often lasting impressions, so it’s not overstating it at all to say that the very first words a potential client hears when they call can have a determining effect on their decision to buy or not to buy from you.

In my own experience, I’ve found that those very first words I hear on the phone sometimes tell me too much. When an indifferent monotone or, worse, a snippy or curt voice greets me, my mindset is affected instantly. That’s not necessarily a fair or informed reaction and doesn’t necessarily reflect the nature of the firm or individual I’m contacting or the caliber of its work, but nevertheless my immediate response has occurred and my mood has been influenced.

BAD TO WORSE?

Overcoming this instant, negative impression can be difficult.

It may be a case of the person on the line just having a bad day, but once that bad taste registers on my palette, something remarkably positive needs to happen – and soon – to get me to change my mind.

Dead Air

It’s a point I’ve made before in this column: One of my biggest pet peeves is people who don’t return phone calls!

Not only is this rude, it’s also completely self-defeating. You spend time and money trying to generate business, so why on earth would you fail to return calls when they come your way?

I bring this up once again because it continues to be a problem in our marketplace. I hear it from clients all the time, “I tried to contact so-and-so and they never returned my call.” I can’t even begin to calculate the number of projects that have fallen into my lap simply because someone else in the trade didn’t bother to return a phone call when I did.

I understand that it’s possible to get ridiculously busy and that it can indeed be tough to return all of your calls. But if it’s a problem for you, that’s all the more reason to make it a priority by setting time aside to do your phone work. Many people use time in the car to return calls, and that can be a good solution (if you don’t compromise your safety by becoming distracted). It works for me when I’m on the road – particularly when I’m caught in traffic and can turn what would otherwise be down time into very productive time.

If you can’t do it yourself for whatever reason, it would be worthwhile to pay someone to do it for you. Ultimately, of course, you’ll have to pick up the phone yourself if you’re running the show, but having a trained, intelligent, caring assistant return calls is far better than letting calls go unreturned.

In other words, how you communicate sends a powerful message. Just consider then the awful statement you’re making when all your clients and colleagues receive is a deafening silence.

— B.V.B

And that does happen sometimes. But more often than not, I find that an unfriendly greeting is all too often perfectly indicative of the rest of the conversation, and there are times I just can’t wait to get off the phone. Sometimes it has little or nothing to do with the actual content of the call: It’s all about the unspoken attitude behind the words.

Bringing this discussion closer to home for watershapers, consider how important first impressions can be for a client who’s in the process of considering whether (or not) to spend tens of thousands of dollars, or maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the person they’re calling.

People making big decisions about spending lots of money need to feel comfortable, and because you can never really be sure where any call you receive will lead, it’s important always to be smiling when you or the person who answers your phone says “hello.”

It is therefore desperately important that whoever answers your business line does so in a friendly and professional manner. It’s so important, in fact, that I’m a big advocate of seeking professional help if you need it. Lots of sources offer guidance and training, from the simple seminar I attended to consultants who will come in and train you and your employees. There are also many books, videos and audiotapes that can be extremely helpful.

As friendly and outgoing and focused as I think I am on my own, I know for a fact that I have benefited from the seminars I’ve attended. I’ve also read my fair share of inspirational books on the subject and I know I’m the better for the effort.

SWEETNESS FOLLOWS

When it comes to phone etiquette and the art of saying hello, I always fall back on my mother’s wisdom.

When the phone rings, I consciously make certain I put a smile on my face. When I’m busy or in the middle of some sort of crisis, smiling obviously can be a difficult thing to do, yet it’s at those times that remembering to smile when saying hello is the most important of all. I take a deep breath, and when I reach for the phone I give that person my full attention in a respectful and friendly way.

That said, it’s also important to point out that courtesy only begins at hello and that it is equally important to apply the same standard of courtesy and consideration in the rest of the conversation and in all conversations that follow.

One of the things I’ve done to help keep myself on track is to write down a saying or axiom on a card and place it by the phone. I have a bunch of them now, but one of my all-time favorites is, “People are interesting. I love them.” I’ve found this particular line to be useful in that it reminds me that I never know where the conversation I’m about to start will lead. That element of the unknown in each call I receive helps me see each one as a little chapter in life’s rich pageant or as part of an ongoing adventure.

I’m not alone in valuing these exchanges. Countless experts will tell you, as you work to increase the quality of your communication skills, that you stand a far greater chance of effectively extracting the potential that resides unseen in the people you meet, whether in person or on the phone, once you’ve developed the skills you need. And they’ll tell you those abilities don’t just come naturally: You need to learn them – learn how to ask questions, gather information and have an open mind for all sorts of possibilities.

More than anything else, they’ll tell you that being positive, kind and courteous sets up the foundation for dialogue.

As an example, let me tell you a bit about a friend of mine, Skip West. He works with a firm called Florida Solar in the Orlando area, and he does the best job of anyone I know of applying extremely high standards of communication and professional courtesy in his daily life.

He’s always enthusiastic, interested and polite in his dealings with people, and when he leaves a meeting with a client, he immediately makes out a personal thank-you card and drops it in the mail. Most of the time, the person receives the card the very next day. It’s a whole set of simple habits like these that have made major contributions to his remarkably successful career.

HOW YOU USE IT

I cite Skip as an example here not so much to stoke sales of thank-you cards, but to point out that aiming high means making a habit out of managing the details of day-to-day routines and not letting anything slip. I also use him as an example because he prefers doing business with the same level of personal attention that I strive to deliver to my own clients – and because I want to assure you that this is about much more than my personal practices.

In fact, many of the most successful people I know in the watershaping business pursue business in this way, and almost all of them will tell you that working this way, with this sort of passion and positive energy, makes everything easier, more fun and often far more profitable.

The Information Age

When it comes to managing our daily communications, I fear that many of us have come to rely on today’s gadgetry at the expense of the personal touch. E-mail, faxes, pagers, cell phones, and voicemail certainly all make communicating more immediate, but these things cannot take the place of personal courtesy and a positive attitude.

Consider cell phones, for instance. Yes, they are powerful tools and some of us look really cool when we whip them out and snap the receiver open. But stop and think how many times you’ve been meeting with someone face to face only to have those encounters repeatedly interrupted by cell phone calls.

I’ve been in situations where a person I’m meeting has received four or five calls in a matter of minutes. All of a sudden, I begin to feel slighted and less important than whoever it is on the phone. As a result, when I meet with people face to face, I leave the cell phone in the car or turn it off.

Voicemail and answering machines are also wonderful, but again, they’re tools – and can catch us up in seemingly endless rounds of “phone tag.” Most people accept this as part of living in the modern world, but I try to break that cycle by leaving messages that set up a time when direct conversation can take place. It’s a great way to cope with the vagaries of voicemail, and it clears a space in which I can give the other person my full attention.

E-mail is another fantastic tool for communicating. It’s convenient, and you can use it to provide a range of materials and images and links to clients, colleagues, family and friends. Nonetheless, e-mail is no substitute for direct, person-to-person conversations or even the postal service. For all the garbage that’s been happening with the postal system, there’s still something special about receiving notes, greetings and thank yous via “snail mail.”

Bottom line: When all of today’s technologies are used to supplement and facilitate personal communications, these devices are fantastic. But if you’re using these tools as a way to compensate for shabby communications practices, you might as well be using carrier pigeons.

— B.V.B.

Responsiveness and courtesy are at the heart of this approach. “Smiling at hello” works in building relationships, and it also works well during the course of the project, especially when things get tough.

That’s an important point: In my experience, there is no more crucial juncture in a project than the moment when a client calls with a concern or a problem. When you’ve established the groundwork for open and positive communication, you’re several steps ahead in solving problems when they arise.

I can’t count the number of projects I know of in which the work was done satisfactorily, but clients have been left with a bad taste in their mouths. It’s all about mood management, and if you can’t keep your clients smiling, you might be able to solve all the problems, but the hurt feelings and raw nerves will linger to the detriment of future business.

To illustrate this, let me use the classic example of a company in which the person answering the phone has been ordered (or takes it upon himself or herself) to screen calls for the company’s big cheeses. This form of intentional discourtesy sounds innocuous – the assistant who coldly asks, “And what is this in reference too?” – but it’s no more than a way to let the lowly caller know he or she needs to make a good case quickly or the call won’t go through.

I’ve never been impressed or pleased by that approach and, frankly, I regard it more as a sign of weakness in an organization – or at least a sign of delicate egos run rampant.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’m completely impressed when people in high places are not afraid to be accessible. I’ve had the good fortune of becoming friends with Norman Van Aken, a famous South Florida chef. When you call his office, no question hits you about the nature of the call: You’re put right through to Norman or to his assistant, Ana.

To my mind, this sends a message of personal respect and confidence, and it demonstrates that he recognizes the potential importance of each call.

At that level, I believe that communication is a sign of someone’s own emotional and even spiritual well-being. I’m not sure my mom would see it this way, but there’s no doubt in my mind that in her own way, she was teaching me that when you smile at other people, they’ll smile back at you – even when saying hello on the telephone.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected]

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