Working from home as a contractor can be a liberating experience, in that you can often make your own rules, but when it comes to telephone calls with employers, standard rules of business do apply.
Here are some basic phone manners you need to master whether talking one-on-one with your employer or engaging in a conference call:
1. Eliminate distractions. Do whatever you can to quiet your surroundings. This may mean turning down your radio or it may mean locking yourself in the bathroom.
2. Greet your employer and identify yourself. Yes, your employer's caller ID may have already told him it's you calling, but you still need to say: "Hi, Employer. This is Contractor X. How are you?" If you are answering your own phone, start by saying: "Hi, this is Contractor X."
3. Don't talk over others. Be mindful -- especially on conference calls -- of not interrupting. Practice patience. Focus on politeness. If you start to talk at the same time, always offer to let the other person go first. Listen more than you talk.
4. Keep it clean. Most contractors barely know their employers, so it's important to observe respectful boundaries: don't swear, don't gossip, keep it clean. (Besides, a lot of people record calls, you know -- would you really want some things repeated?)
5. Practice reflective listening. This skill is especially important during one-on-one calls with your employer. When you've been given a directive ("Here's what I need you to do...") follow it up by confirming what you've just heard ("So, you'd like me to..."). Echo instructions. Echo deadlines.
6. Know when to cut the small talk. Engaging in a little chit chat can be good for your rapport with your employer, but know when it's time to get down to business. Listen for cues. On a conference call, follow your employer's lead. If she is being chatty that's great, feel free to engage. But do so carefully: no long stories, heavy opinions, or tangents.
7. Don't put your employer on hold. If you can, avoid ever putting your employer on hold. In fact, when something important does come up -- like your son injuring himself while you are on the phone -- don't say: "Can you hold while I check on my son?" Instead say: "I'm sorry, a little emergency just came up here. Can we reschedule or can I call you back once I get things sorted out?"
8. Don't talk to others while you are on the phone. This is pretty much the same as putting your employer on hold ... only worse. Again, if a crisis comes up, then get off the call quickly, rather than trying to juggle the call at a bad moment. (Your employer doesn't want to listen to you tell your roommate how to get red wine out of the carpet.)
9. Keep calls brief. While you may not be able to control the length of every call, we encourage you to not linger after the necessary information has been communicated. If you are the one who made the call, it's great to close with: "Well, I'll let you get back to work now. Thanks for your time."
10. End with assurances. When closing down a call, reaffirm or re-communicate the next time you'll be talking or touching base. For example: "I'll email you those files, and just to verify, our next call is two weeks from today at two, right?" It's a great way to end on a positive note.
Tell us: Have you ever lost a client over a phone call? What aspects of phone manners have you had to learn the hard way?