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When asked, scientists and engineers always think that it will be their technical skills that will get them in the door at a company. While it is certainly true that the technical skills you bring to an employer will be among their major considerations in offering you a job, there is something else that you'll need first. You need to get a listen. With today's employers, you can have all the technical savvy in the world and still be "outside looking in" if you can't get them interested on the phone.

I know how important the telephone is because it is my constant companion. It almost literally never leaves my ear. While that can be tedious, it also has an advantage. Anyone who is on the telephone a lot learns to listen very well. Just as the blind develop other senses, my sense of hearing benefits from this reliance on the phone. I didn?t realize until recently, however, that I am often influenced subconsciously by the sound of other?s voices, and that some people know how to use this to their advantage. The best job seekers know that how they sound has as much to do with their success as the words that they choose to speak.

Two weeks ago I was in my office on a busy Friday afternoon talking to a client when I got another call. My colleagues had all taken off right at the stroke of 5 p.m., so I was acting like a receptionist and swapping phone lines every couple of minutes. I hate to ask a client to hold while I grab another line, but for some reason I did just that. The caller was a gentleman with a distinctly Asian accent and a very polite and professional demeanor. In a rushed tone, I explained that I was on the other line and asked him if I could have someone in my office call him back on Monday.

And yet, I found myself returning his call myself just 10 minutes later.

What was there about this brief chat that made me pick up the phone and call him as soon as I completed my other conversation? It wasn?t entirely in the words that he used, although it sure helped that he had obviously thought about what he would say when he reached me. (I had considered putting the brief text of our 1-minute chat into this article, but on paper it is just a normal business conversation).

Instead, my response had something to do with the sound of his voice. Trying to describe this is difficult. My notes from the conversation say that he was "very professional sounding" and that he "seemed to be the sort of person who deserved a polite response." I almost scrapped my plans to write this article because I began to think my response was simply a fluke.

Within a week, however, I had no fewer than six other situations come up where I was influenced either very positively or very negatively simply by the sound of the caller?s voice and by their first comment or two. I knew that there was something here that was a lot harder to pin down than other job-seeking skills. How is it that I could develop an instant respect for someone that I had spoken with for only a few moments?

Key Elements for Commanding Respect Via the Telephone

In each situation that I have analyzed since I started taking notice of these subconscious decisions, I have found that the caller either generated my interest or turned me off entirely within the first 2 minutes. I would never have admitted that before I did some research and found that I am not alone. Renee Grant-Williams, author of the excellent Voice Power (Amacom, 2002), refers to this subconscious decision as the "gap between people simply hearing your thoughts and actually remembering and acting upon them later."

Here are the two elements that are going to determine your credibility and respect on the phone--the Message, and the Package in which it is delivered.

Element #1, the Message: If the telephone activity that you?d like to improve is the difficult networking call, you already know how important the right message is. You can?t call a hiring manager, for example, and ask for a job. You?ll get what I call the "HR shuffle." (That?s where you ask, "Are there any openings?" and the person on the other end of the line passes you on to the human resources department). Your message has to be developed carefully in combination with a specific goal for each call.

Because there have already been a number of good articles on Next Wave over the last few years that will help you develop the proper networking message, I won?t duplicate that information here. However, a few points are important enough to warrant repeat mention:

  • Always have the message written down and studied in advance. Even the most experienced headhunter has a script at hand for each and every "exciting job opportunity" that he or she is calling about. If you have a question to ask a person about their job responsibilities or their networking recommendations, have that question in front of you. Never "wing it."

  • Know what the goal is before you pick up the phone. People appreciate when callers know what it is that they want to accomplish because it helps move the conversation along. A person with an agenda is a person who commands respect.

  • Make it a 5-minute call. Don?t plan on reaching a busy person in industry and taking 15 or 20 minutes out of their morning. Whatever it is that you want to accomplish in the call needs to happen in 5 minutes or less. Don?t be offended if you get only 60 seconds. Count your blessings if you get anything more than this usual 5 minutes.

Element #2, the Package: This is the piece that hits hard on a subconscious level. It is, quite simply, the sound of your voice and the few things that you might say to establish your professionalism. It is what separates a winning phone call from one that is considered an "annoyance call." Here are a few tips:

  • Start your phone calls with a courteous opening query. "Do you have a moment for a brief question, or am I catching you at a bad time?" works very well. This sets the stage for immediate attention to your message by showing that there is a respect for the called party?s time.

  • Speak up and express your confidence. Many scientists are quiet, reserved people and making a phone call to a stranger is discomforting. The pitch, volume, and tempo of your voice tells the person on the other line, at a subconscious level, how comfortable you are and how much credence they should put into your requests. Push your fear away by concentrating on how you sound.

  • Use frequent pauses to invite a response. Don?t get caught reading off a prepared "pitch" that doesn?t have a natural break to get the other party talking.

  • Pace yourself according to the conversational style of the other person. If you have contact with a person who is a slow-paced, thoughtful type, don?t try and jam your message down his or her throat in 20 seconds. Adjust your pace accordingly.

A Tool We Use When We Can?t Have Real Communication

No one who uses the telephone a lot believes that it is the only way that communication should proceed. The phone is only a crutch--something that business requires in situations where real communication on a face-to-face level cannot occur. Unfortunately for the job seeker, more and more often we can?t get to face-to-face situations unless we pass the gauntlet of a successful telephone conversation.

This may be a networking call, or the even more stressful telephone interview. Regardless of what the scenario is, if you concentrate on delivering a clear, consistent message wrapped in a professional sounding package, you?ll make the headway you need to get to the next step.