Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Ringing Phone Does Not an Emergency Make!

Okay, it's another blog theme day. And that theme, of course, is helpful, practical tips. What's ruled in is anything that could save you time, money, or energy. What's ruled OUT is anything that is either incomprehensibly vague and therefore useless (i.e. 'follow your dreams') or what I call Ward and June Cleaver Morality Tales (i.e. 'don't to that, just because it's bad and we say not to.') To wit, I'll caution you not to bad-mouth your colleagues because of the myriad ways it could hurt you, not because *it's just bad,* no further explanation offered.

Okay, so back to the point -- Handling a ringing phone in your office during a meeting or appointment.

I must credit the Chief Petty Officer who taught me this, for he was right -- When you are in your office meeting with someone, and your desk phone rings, treat it the way you would another PERSON dropping in to talk; essentially, tell it to "take a number."

Once this was explained to me, I definitely *got* the lesson and have stuck with it ever since. Somehow we've developed this Pavlovian response to the sound of a ringing phone, which has of course only been made WORSE in the cell phone era (and yes, if I ever write a book, I've got a whole chapter's worth of material on cell phone etiquette). But really, there's no good reason to treat a ringing phone as some type of dire emergency that MUST be addressed, while simultaneously leaving the real person who really scheduled real time to meet with you out in the cold like chopped liver.

This all came back to me yesterday during a meeting.

I had to make a 30-minute drive to head down and meet with someone to discuss a plan of events for the year ahead. The total time of this meeting could have taken less than 45 minutes, but it stretched nearly three hours because EVERY time this person's phone rang, it was answered, and all the caller's questions or issues were fully addressed before we could recommence [if this sounds passive-aggressive, I'll just say there were positional differences that would've made it near-impossible to address this at the time].

It almost became its own absurdity play. Midway through a sentence, moving towards actual progress than then BAM! there went the phone again. Thankfully, I was in no great rush, but it begs several questions.

The obvious one is what would've happened had all those callers just been real live people waiting by the person's desk. And the obvious answer to that is that a line would've formed, and each person addressed one-by-one.

The next question is why can't people just use, and trust, voicemail? This one looms largest for me (those who know me know that perhaps my single biggest pet peeve are the missed calls to the cell phone that don't get the courtesy of the benefit of the doubt and a simple voicemail). Think about it, people somehow had to get by before answering machines (YES, I can remember those), and voicemail ever existed. But now that they DO exist, we treat them as an afterthought. Still, we assume the worst sometimes -- if someone doesn't immediately answer their desk phone, they must be out goofing off on company time; and if someone doesn't immediately answer their cell phone, it's seen by some as an out-and-out affront.

I'll admit I always love hearing a real voice on the end of the line, and I hate those pesky phone trees when all I want is a real person. However, I'll also admit you can go quite far when all parties assume the best.

It's like, if I call your office and you don't answer, I can assume the best and leave a voicemail explaining what I need and why I called.

When you get that, you can assume the best, take me for my word, and get back to me when you're able.

If I'm not immediately there to answer, you can assume the best, and the cycle continues.

Unfortunately, this isn't how things always work.

But the cycle of trust will only go stronger when we can start showing some respect during live meetings by not treating every ringing phone like the equivalent of an ankle-level fire in the corner of the room.

And we can reinforce that cycle of trust when we hear four rings and a recorded message, but don't slam the phone down in frustration.

5 comments:

C R Krieger said...

I am generally in full agreement with you on this.

However, there comes a time in a man's life when he has additional responsibilities and when one of those calls, he has to answer.  As Al Gore would say, "an inconvenient truth."  I am hoping to move beyond that at some future point.

But, a whole stream of such callers.  This is someone who has been trained by his callers, like that Russian's puppy.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

Of course. As in law, there could be a mythical "Reasonable Person" standard we could use to settle these things.

If it's really something important, the person at the desk could say, "Excuse me, I'm sorry, but I must take this," and at least acknowledge what was going on. But the idea that every ringing phone should be treated like a fire to be extinguished is a wrongheaded mindset, not to mention very rude to whoever's with you in person...

Robert said...

Apparently, United States Senators also have this problem:

http://www.politico.com/click/stories/0912/schumer_has_a_flight_to_forget_.html

Best, Flock

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The New Englander said...

Saw the Schumer piece and loved it. Doesn't surprise me at all, based on what I've heard about the guy. What's that they say about what power does to a person?