Working the phones for audit purposes

Inc. published a short article on “working the phone” yesterday that touched on a number of things that anyone should take to heart if their job involves talking to people on the phone, which is to say, pretty much all office workers that do work.

This is one of the bigger differences between my previous gig in internal audit for a global building materials manufacturer and my current one with a national retailer. Before, I was doing a lot of traveling to various plants and subsidiary offices to conduct audits, and meeting face-to-face was much more important to getting work done. There were phone calls during the planning phase and weekly conference call updates on any issues that arose, but the majority of the time we were sitting across a table from each other.

Phone calls (and voice mail) are much more important in my current environment. Schedules are more structured, especially those of senior management. I’ve had to adapt to this by getting better at gathering information via phone calls and leaving voice mails that are more likely to get results.

Some of the highlights of the article as I see them:

Never have a business conversation, especially on the phone, without knowing exactly what you’re trying to accomplish.

Absolutely the most important point is to know why you’re calling and have an idea of how you want to get there. I’ll make notes beforehand in a Word doc and have it on screen when I make the call. I’ll even incorporate if-then conditional statements based on my questions and the possible answers I expect to get. They get thrown out the window if the answer is not one that I’d expected, but like a boy scout at least I’ve prepared.

It takes a bit of practice, but what you need to do is suspend your “what do I say next?” until after the other person is done speaking.

This is something I’m going to try to keep in mind in the future, more to assess whether I’m doing this already (the default assumption for most of us, I think) or not. Really consciously focus on listening and processing when my audit clients are speaking, which segues nicely to the next item…

When you pause before responding, the other person knows that you’ve listened.

If I’m speaking to someone for the first time and we’ve never met face-to-face, I want them to feel fully comfortable sharing information with me. For someone who maybe isn’t used to dealing with auditors, which will happen if it’s an area that doesn’t get audited often or hasn’t been audited at all, this is critical. This tip is going to be useful in achieving that level of comfort, and that should give me better results.

As you speak, gradually take on the least obvious elements of other person’s voice.

This is a subconscious rapport builder, and will work if it is subtle. If it’s not, it’s going to come off as disingenuous and have the opposite effect. So it’s a gamble.

In my previous job, I worked day-to-day with people from Ireland and the (US) South, and I found it impossible not to lightly pick up those accents when I was with them so much. (The company was headquartered in Ireland and the North American corporate office was in Atlanta, so most of the internal auditors were from those areas.) The combination is a bizarre one, especially peppered with Canadian “eh”s as well!

I’ve found it’s also useful to check people’s schedules prior to making the phone call, to anticipate whether they will be there to pick up or whether it’s likely to go to voice mail. If I need to call someone and they’re in meetings all day, I’ll draft the voice mail message before I call so I can be succinct and not forget anything.

My preference is to have a face-to-face instead of a phone call, because in-person meetings allow for body language and they just feel easier to make a connection with the client. Email is useful because it provides a record of the discussion that can be referred back to if needed. But for situations where immediate attention is best, the phone call reigns supreme.

Please share in the comments how you get the most from your phone-based interactions!