Tom PericIn a previous column, I observed that in some instances the telephone remains a superior tool for reaching people or simply getting information when compared with the Internet.

I still hold to the notion, one with which I badger my assistants when they’re not getting any email response: “PICK UP THE PHONE” is my refrain. It probably harkens back to my reportorial days when the telephone was the tool of the trade (after the typewriter, of course). In recent years, however, I’ve noticed a phenomenon regarding businesspeople who seem not to employ what I consider is a basic rule of etiquette: the callback.

While I haven’t kept a detailed diary nor have a catalogue of the types of business that appear to breach this brand of etiquette, it seems to be particularly true in the trades.

In recent times, I’ve witnessed a horticulturist, plumber, handyman, landscaper, editor, various business owners in the HVACR industry and a public relations account executive fail to return a phone call.

My wife has also been a “victim” of the “no callback.” We always look at each other and ask that rhetorical question: “Didn’t we just emerge from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression? Who can afford not to talk with a potential customer?”

I realize that sometimes the other person might NOT want to talk with me. They might think that I’m trying to sell them something (almost never), they’re uninterested in whatever I’m proposing or they simply might not need my business because they’re overloaded with customers.

Whatever reason, for the lack of a callback, the message they send is very simple: I’m unimportant. I don’t warrant a callback. I would wager that if I were the person’s lawyer, accountant or doctor, I would get a callback. But in the capacity of a consumer, editor and small-business owner, I just don’t matter enough. Fair enough. It’s a free country, and you don’t HAVE to call me back.

But for those who are, overall, polite enough but have been selective or inconsistent about telephone callbacks, here are a few helpful tips.

Schedule it. Most time-management experts will tell you that if you set aside time to return phone calls (much like answering emails), you will meet this obligation dutifully. I particularly like some businesspeople who leave a message promising to return the phone call within 24 hours. Very impressive, and it says a lot about the person I’m calling.

• Keep it short. If you’re concerned about losing time on the phone, return the call, and if you connect, tell the person you’re heading into a meeting (aren’t you always?) and tell them you have five minutes. Make them focus on the message.

Call after hours. If you really don’t want to talk to me but feel obligated, call the office number,
after hours or on weekends. This way, you’ve met the politeness obligation yet were able to refrain from actually calling me. All you have to say is: “Tom, thanks for the call, but I’m booked up for the next six months. If you’re still interested in me coming out and giving you a price for cutting my grass, just call.”

Leave a voicemail. If you actually return a call and get voicemail, here’s how to avoid the need for future callbacks. Answer any questions the person might have left you on your voicemail. If you can answer the questions completely, do so even if it ends up taking a few extra minutes. I often then apologize with something like: “Sorry for the lengthy voicemail but wanted to give you a complete answer.” If you don’t have the answer, acknowledge it and be sure to tell them who has the information they need, whether it’s a person or a website, so that you’re removed from the telephone loop.

Use email. If you have the email of the person who called and don’t want to get into a voice conversation, send them an email. Tell them it’s your preferred method of communication. I often use “return receipt requested” (If you don’t know this feature in Outlook, learn it pronto. It’s simple and invaluable.) to ensure that the person received your email AND opened it.

Mission accomplished. You have now returned the call, presumably answered the question and kept your credo of maintaining good manners. At the very least, you’ve avoided any perception of rudeness on your part. Besides, you never know when YOU might need a callback from them.