Why people don’t return your calls

During my visit to the denim processing plant yesterday, I was struck by the idea that there are distinct cultural and occupational differences between designers and production people which could explain -in part- why so many of you have problems getting people to return your calls. Before I go on, this is not directed at anyone who’s called me recently (pinky swear). This is mostly general courtesy and professionalism (along the the lines of how to write an email) but specific to the occupational conditions typical of our industry. At close, you’ll see the number one reason people don’t return your calls even if you do the rest of this right.

In the trade, you should assume the person who will process the message is not the same person whose voice is on the machine. Assume this person speaks English as a second or third language. Pronounce your words clearly. Make sure the phone quality is not muffled (call a friend). The ideal message is under 30 seconds. It goes something like this and in this order.

  • State your name and company.
  • Recite your phone number slowly.

Speak slowly enough that someone who speaks English as a second language can write it as you speak. This is my single greatest frustration because I have a severe auditory processing disorder*. Many production people are learning disabled.

No matter how well you know the person and even if you know they have it, leave your number. They might be calling in from the road. You recite the number at the beginning in case if they have to replay it. This way they don’t have to listen to the whole message again. There is nothing worse than getting a long rambling message with the number recited rapid fire at the end.

  • Explain why you are calling.

Less is more, note the 30 second limit. Be succinct, one topic is best. Do not say “I need some styles put together in two weeks”, they won’t call back because there’s too many unknowns and it could be time-waster for them to sort out. If you’re all over the map, they won’t call back to say they can’t help. It’s better to say “I’m looking for a pattern maker who can make patterns for casual knit toddler bottoms and tops. I have sample fabrics, sketches and specifications”. It would not hurt to say you will call again on a given day as long as you follow through.

  • Thank them for their time.
  • Again state your name and company.
  • Again recite your number.

You have to repeat information because few people (even you) are listening fully at the outset of a message. They’re waiting till they get to the “what’s in it for me” part. Repeating your number and spelling your name (if needed) at close saves them the trouble of having to replay the message.

If you happen to reach a live person:

  1. Say hello and introduce yourself. You’d be amazed how many people don’t do this.
  2. Ask if this is a good time to talk. I can’t speak for you but I’m embarrassed when I run off at the mouth after my introduction and the person has to interrupt me to ask me to call back later.
  3. If yes: Briefly explain why you are calling, same format as the message.
  4. If not: Ask when is a better time to call back. If they say they’ll call you back and take your number, that’s great. Kind of. It’s best to assume this person is not at their desk (a small production business owner rarely is) and will lose the scrap of paper your number is written on. I usually do more often than not.
  5. Follow up. If you’re asked to call back, do it. It’s disappointing when we get a call that sounds interesting that we can’t take at the moment and then the person never calls back. We won’t tell you to call back if we don’t want to talk to you.

Why people don’t return your calls
The major reason people don’t return your calls is because you wear out your welcome. The fellow I spoke to yesterday specifically mentioned this and it happens to me a lot too (“since I have you on the phone, can I ask you just one more question?” and then another and another…). It starts out well enough and we’re happy to help but if it goes on too long, the more we feel put upon because we can’t get back to work we’ve committed to completing. You might wend your way in once and having invested in the conversation, they won’t be rude but they will delay, perhaps indefinitely, to call you back on another occasion or decline your call altogether if they suspect it’s going to take too much time.

Most contractors haven’t structured their enterprise to permit this expenditure of time. They work the floor. Every minute they’re talking to you is time they’re taking away from other customers. In smaller businesses, most of these guys are never at their desks and when they are, they have stuff to do. They don’t have time to read a book (email) or give blow by blow advice on things that don’t even pertain to what they know. The guy I spoke to yesterday didn’t even have a desk; he was on the floor the whole time. Meaning, not only is he not working during a long call, other people who need his attention aren’t working either or just doing busy work till he is free. The call is costing him more money than the profit of your contract. Don’t be so hungry that people avoid taking or returning your calls. If you’re so small as to need free advice, the profit on your order is small to none so there’s no advantage to educating you on their dime. It’s better to pay a small fee toward your own education for other resources rather than ruining a promising relationship.

Reminder: Your emails should be structured the same way. No one has time to read a book or write one in return. If you can’t drill it down to single topic bullet points, write separate emails. And while I’m thinking of it, if you want someone to take the time to respond, take the time to write a good subject line. Some days I’m so busy that I’m forced to delete emails that just say “Help!” or “Question” in the subject line.

*OT: Let me explain what auditory processing disorder means in my case. It means I may not recognize sounds as words. Even if I do, I have another hurdle -I think in pictures, not words. This means I must first recognize your spoken words as representing symbols, then visualize those symbols in my head to see them before I can “copy” the visual symbols in my brain onto a piece of paper. It takes longer than you’d think, probably equivalent to a first grader and it requires intensive concentration. If you don’t enunciate clearly, I become incredibly frustrated. My hearing is normal if not better than average but only rarely can I discriminate from b/v, m/n, f/s etc, especially over the phone. Some callers are rude if  I ask them to repeat information that they ask why Kathleen would hire a ‘retard’ to take messages.  I tell them the company is owned by a retard and that they shouldn’t do business with us.

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  1. Gigi says:

    This is great advice for both business AND personal calls. I hate talking on the telephone and wish people would just get to the point after the obligatory “how are you?” (after which I always reply “I’m great, thank you for asking. How can I help you?” – or, for a personal call “what’s up?”). I know I sound cranky but I have plenty of friends already and, in business, I just want to get the job done and move on. I am amazed at how long callers want to keep me on the telephone when they must know (or so one would assume) that I have customers in front of me who need assistance. If we ask you to call back, please don’t take it as a personal affront. It’s only good manners that the person standing in front of me takes precedence over a telephone call.

  2. Dawn B says:

    I truly had no idea. Coming from an academic research background, the more you talk through issues the better! Though, the longer I’m in this line of work the more I’m getting clued in. When I’m trying to get sewing done and hold to a time schedule for production, it is so irritating when someone calls (for instance, my mom) to have a rambling chat. So on the one hand I get that. On the other, I think I’ve assumed that as the potential consumer of sewing services my questions would merit some time. The trouble is, as a newbie, it can be difficult to get right to the point because you’re not sure how to say things, or you need to understand more before you can communicate. Thanks for explaining the situation from the contractor’s point of view.

  3. LizPf says:

    Another good idea is to state the phone number and your name twice, at both the beginning ant the end of the call. The first time, assume they don’t have pencil and paper yet.

    Yes, we live in the age of voicemail and caller ID, but we shouldn’t assume the person knows how to use those tools.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Yes, we live in the age of voicemail and caller ID, but we shouldn’t assume the person knows how to use those tools.

    My computing skills are intermediate to advanced but I can’t work a regular cell phone or a TV remote. On my business cell (my personal cell is an iphone), my message says not to bother leaving a voicemail because I don’t know how to retrieve it so the caller should just call back because I never have a nine year old handy when I need one. If I’m on the road and calling in to the office for messages (assuming I remember how to do that), I don’t have access to caller ID or if it’s enabled, I wouldn’t have the first clue of how to get that information. Besides, it just takes time and the person may be surrounded by distractions at a trade show. Make it easy for someone to return your call. A lot of old timers in this business can barely use email. The admin assistant does computing stuff. The owner may only use the computer to check sports scores or to look at dirty pictures.

  5. My biggest gripe is one of your points: People rattle off their phone number at the end, and I can’t understand it. So I have to play the message through several long, boring times to get to the end to try to catch the number. I always give my number slowly, twice at the end, but I never thought of saying it at the beginning and repeating at the end. That’s brilliant. How I’d love not to have to play through messages to get to the end for the number.

    This helps me understand why contractors don’t return calls, but I can’t understand why reps never return phone calls or email. These aren’t random reps, these are MY reps. I have had experience with 5, and only one will regularly return my email or calls. It’s beyond frustrating. I don’t call often, it’s usually with a particular question, but it’s like pulling teeth to get a response.

    I’ve just decided that for some reason, no one in this business returns calls.


  6. Donna S says:

    You can’t say it enough. Say the phone number slowly and twice. If I play the message back three times and still can’t get the phone number because the person rattled if off as if they were in a speed talk contest I don’t call back no matter how important. I even tell them in my message to speak slowly and repeat the number. And blocked cell phone numbers are another annoyance. No one can be that important or need that much privacy!

  7. Y’know, I know all this, and I recognize and appreciate when other people do this, but I am sooo guilty of being long-winded. People watching me leave a message often start gesturing in alarm as I go on and on, and they aren’t even the ones trying to unwind my message from their mailbox.

    Good reminder. Now I’ll go off and whack myself over the head with a 2×4.

  8. Connie says:

    I agree with the idea of leaving the phone number twice, slowly and clearly. I often have customers call, leave a first name only and rattle off the number so fast that no one in the office understands it. I can’t look it up because I don’t have a first name.
    Almost as irritating is the person who calls and just starts talking without identifying themselves!
    Oh, and the person who calls your answering machine three times with every detail of their lives in the messages, except what you really need to know.

  9. Eric H says:

    This is even more true in this age when instead of a tape player you have a digital recorder that heavily compresses the sound. Mumbling and background noise may render an otherwise acceptable message unusable. If I am leaving a message with someone who doesn’t already know me, I try to leave the numbers at the beginning and end so that they get two bites at the apple each time they replay.

  10. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Yes, yes, and more yes. As a landlord renting property I come up on this telephone etiquette all the time. It’s just good business and as Alison says I am guilty of wasting other people’s time as well. Thank you for the reminders. Been on both sides of the fence and still working to get better.

  11. Vesta says:

    Heh, my dad is so bad about rambling on in voice mail messages that the entire family just instantly deletes his messages as soon as they realize it’s him. Then we call him back. He says, “Did you get my message?”. “Nope, but I saw you called. What’s up?” So at least he’s only wasting his own time with those messages.

  12. Danielle says:

    Not everyone has caller ID! I don’t. I still introduce myself at the start of every phone call, and people are always like “I know”… but I don’t know that you know so it just seems like the right thing to say “Its Danielle calling”.

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