I hate talking on the phone to people I don’t know. Hate it. For one thing, meeting new people just makes me nervous. I can’t help it. Second, I’m not a big talker unless I know the person very well. In person or online, this doesn’t matter. Online, I can take the time to think about and write out every response just the way I want it to sound. In person, my expression and physical engagement (listening closely, keeping eye contact, etc.) let people know that I’m interested in what they have to say even if I’m not a Chatty Kathy. On the phone, any sort of pause feels like an awkward, business-crushing chasm that I’m slowly sliding into, nails digging into the earth of the precipice.
However, talking to a client on the phone is sometimes essential. It’s hard to ghostwrite someone’s book, capturing their voice and getting personal information from them, in an email. And I have only ever had one local client that I could actually talk with face-to-face. So, I’ve picked up some experience conducting client phone calls, and I do feel better about them, though I still feel slightly nauseous the first time I dial a brand new client’s number. I’ve learned a few tricks to make things less terrifying and keep me from screwing up so bad I want to go hide in a closet until my rumbling stomach inevitably drives me to once again seek the light.
Two Case Studies
Before I dish out my tips, I want to share two very different phone experiences: one that landed me a wonderful long-term client and another that still haunts me in the dead of night.
Let’s start off with the bad and just get it over with. When I was still working part time and hadn’t quite figured out what I was doing, business-wise, I answered a job board ad of a man looking for editing on his first novel. He was an older gentleman, and he wasn’t too fond of email. After sending a message saying he liked my resume and wanted to discuss things further, he requested that we chat on the phone more about the project. He said he would call me, and gave me a general time frame of “tomorrow afternoon.” Well, he called me when I was at the dog park. Luckily, my husband was there, too, so I rushed out of the fenced-in area, trusting him to be on poop watch while I answered the call. The guy hadn’t told me anything about the project in his brief email exchange, so I didn’t know what to expect and hadn’t really prepared for the conversation because, well, I was at the dog park. I tried to ask prompting questions like I’d been taught in my communications classes in college. Well, college isn’t for nothin’, because it worked. I survived that initial interaction because he did most of the talking, explaining what he was looking for. Still, I was super nervous and didn’t feel professional. We agreed he would send a sample for me to look over, edit, and send back before things went further. Well, I did the sample, but he didn’t want me to just email it back. He wanted me to call and tell him what I thought of the work and if I was interested. I called … and got voicemail. I despise voicemail, and I hadn’t expected it because he had given me a time to call him, and I was right on the nose. What followed was a stammering, stumbling, idiotic mess that I don’t want to talk about. You want the dirt, don’t you, you nosy thing? Well, I flubbed his last name right out of the gate, which resulted in the nervous giggle of a stereotypical airhead in a teen comedy that took me entirely by surprise. From there, it got so bad that I actually paused in the voicemail for a solid five seconds trying to figure out how to delete the whole damn thing. Couldn’t figure it out and had to keep on truckin’. Dear. God. When he called back, he lead with, “I … uh … got your message.” Kill me now, merciful Lord. Luckily, my sample edit was badass, super detailed, and gave him a fair amount of feedback that I don’t think he was expecting, and he actually hired me. Booyah! But that voicemail, though!
Let’s please move on. One of the first clients I landed after switching to full time and launching PurpleInkPen is still a current ghostwriting client whom I’ve mentioned here on many occasions. I answered his ad on a job board looking for someone to help him write a book for parents of drug-addicted teenagers. This phone story is short and sweet. He, like that other client, was very impressed by my resume and portfolio and wanted to chat on the phone about the project. I gave him time ranges that were best for me and told him to pick which one worked best. I called him at a prearranged time. I had a list of questions prepared. I had my brand new rates in front of me, and I was prepared to explain what that money would go toward. I explained standard book sizing, let him know I could do formatting if the need arose, and even steered him in the direction of a printing company (run by my mentor) who could help him out with self-publishing after I’d done the writing portion. Slam dunk. No cringing required.
See the Difference?
There are a number of things that differentiated that first, horrible experience from the highly successful one. There is no need for anyone to suffer the life-scarring embarrassment (just kidding … sort of) I went through. Here’s some dos and don’ts to get you through it.
Don’t: Set a vague call time like “tomorrow afternoon” or “Monday morning.”
Do: Give the client some time options, but make them choose a specific one. And you call them. By making the call yourself promptly at the arranged time, you show discipline and attention to detail.
Don’t: Pick up the phone blindly. If a client wants to discuss things over the phone, it usually means the project is large and it’s going to take some time to discuss all of the client’s needs and concerns. You want to have some idea of what the project’s about before the phone call so that you can adequately prepare.
Do: Ask some preliminary questions. If the job board post was vague, ask some questions at the end of your cover letter when you apply and ask the person to let you know the answers if they’re interested in hiring you. That way, if their responding email asks for a phone call, you have a better idea of what will be discussed. You can also just ask them to answer a few basic questions when they ask for a phone call, just make sure you let them know that you’re asking to better serve them and make the phone call the most productive it can be.
Don’t: Shoot yourself in the foot by not taking steps to prepare. You want to be able to fill in those natural, but often awkward, gaps between conversation with knowledgeable questions and information. If you don’t prepare, you’re going to scramble for something to say in those pauses, and the things that slip out of your mouth may surprise you. Sometimes in a pleasant way … but usually not.
Do: Write that shit down! Vaguely preparing what you’re going to say in your head can easily backfire. If you suffer from nerves or if a client says/asks something unexpected, chances are that your mentally prepared answers are going to fly out of your head without so much as a goodbye. If you have a typed document pulled up on your screen or a sticky note near you that lists what you need to ask and how you’re going to sell yourself/your services, you can just glance over at it. That’s all it takes for all those pretty thoughts to come pouring back into your head. I go so far as to anticipate what I need to say or ask next if a client says yes or no to a question. You don’t necessarily have to go that far, but after that nightmare experience, I no longer trust my own tongue. And that reminds me, please, for the love of all that is good in this world, write yourself down a little script of what to say if you get the client’s voicemail.
Don’t: Rattle on about yourself. Yes, you have to sell yourself. You have to prove that you have the experience, know how, and drive to complete the client’s project better than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean talking about what you did for your last client, where you went to school, and what your favorite Edgar Allan Poe poem is. Unless the client asks, that is.
Do: Engage the client. Instead of rambling on about why you’re a stellar human being, listen to the client’s needs and meet them. Ask prompting questions like “Do you have a date you absolutely need this done by?” or “Will you need me to handle the preliminary research for you, or will you supply me with the material you want to use?” or “How do you plan to publish? Have you thought about it?” This keeps the client talking so you don’t have to, while also serving the dual purpose of letting you know about the project while convincing the client that you’re a complete professional without you saying all that much. Win, win.
If you’re one of those blessedly confident and outgoing people who can easily slide into conversation with anyone, well then, I hate you (half kidding). But odds are that if you’re reading this, you’re at least a little like me when it comes to phone conversations with strangers. To all you fellow anxious souls, I promise you it really isn’t that bad so long as you don’t just call up a client with your fingers crossed. If you take the time to sit down and correctly prepare (and maybe repeat the client’s last name aloud a few times before dialing), you’ll automatically feel more confident, which is key to avoiding awkward stammering or pauses. And remember, even if you do something silly, you can let your work speak for itself and still land the gig.