Freelancer Cell Phone Etiquette 101

Georgina Laidlaw

Is it okay to take client calls to your cell or mobile phone in public places? Or call your clients outside work hours? Many freelancers operate on both sides of the client-contractor equation, so it surprises me that so many aren’t sure of the proper phone etiquette. Here are what I consider to be the basic rules of play for client-freelancer cell etiquette.

If You Call…

1. Have your game plan sorted before you call.

Okay, so you need to contact your client. What will you do if they  don’t answer? Will you leave a message and wait for them to call you back? Will you send them an email instead? Or will you get flustered, leave a thinking-on-the-fly message that ends up with you telling them you’ll send an email, then send that email, then call them again to leave another voice mail that explains something you forgot to make clear in your email?

If you’re calling to communicate important or time-relevant information, decide before you call what your plan b is for communicating that message. That way, you’ll maintain your professional appearance, and stay cool as a cucumber no matter what.

2. Ask if they can talk.

Cell phones are as inconvenient as they are convenient. About 50% of the calls I make to clients’ cell phones come at inopportune times for them. So when a client answers their cell, after you greet them, ask if it’s a good time for them to talk.

This gives your client the chance to opt for a better time if they need to, and avoids the awkward situation in which they have to cut you off mid-sentence with the words “I can’t really talk about this now.”

3. Make sure it’s within work hours.

If you respect your client, you have to respect the fact that there are times when they’re not really your client — when they’re a mum, a brother, a partner, or a goalie. Yes, you may have told the client that you’ll be working on their project all weekend, but if they didn’t specifically invite you to call if you needed anything, don’t.

If a situation arises in which I really need to contact a client out of work hours, I’ll send them a text message rather than call. This leaves the ball in their court: they can call me if they’re able to, and if they’re not, the job may stall until Monday morning. Either way, it’s their choice, and I’m not in the undesirable position of interrupting my client’s grandma’s 90th birthday, their daughter’s first school play, or Fido’s funeral.

If They Call…

1. Tell them up-front if you can’t talk.

Every contact you have with your client will contribute to their perception of you. Before you answer the phone, think about where you are, and whether it’ll make a negative impression.

If you take client calls in bars or cafes where there’s loud music, or while you’re out at lunch with friends, you’ll be lucky if you can communicate that you can actually hear them, let alone that you’re listening and focused on what they have to say. Take client calls while you’re waiting for your number to be called (any second now) at the butcher/doctor’s office/tax accountant will likely see you have to cut your client off and the call short (or speak to someone else while you’re supposed to be attending to your client).

When the phone starts to ring (or even beforehand) think about where you are, and whether you should a) step into a quiet location like a hallway or tea room to take the call, or b) let it go to voice mail, and return it when you’re in a good position to do so.

2. Tell them if you’re in a public space.

I’m often out and about, so I frequently receive client calls while I’m in public spaces like trains or (quiet) cafes. Although it’s not noisy and I can concentrate on the call, I’m not alone — others can hear what I’m saying. That kind of situation can make you feel self-conscious, and if that’s the case, I usually ask my client if I can call them back in 15 minutes when I’m in a better position to talk. But even if I’m fine to talk in the public space, I make sure to tell them that’s where I am.

Many clients won’t want you discussing the finer details of their private business in a public space — some of the work-related phone conversations I’ve overheard in public spaces have been absolutely hair-raising. If I’d been the client, I’d have been horrified to know that other people were able to hear the other end of the conversation I was having. Also, it may sound paranoid, but that guys sitting three seats away, apparently staring out the window in a daze (but who can’t avoid hearing every word you say) might be on the far side of the table in your next job interview or prospect meeting.

3. Don’t answer if you know reception’s poor.

Depending on where you live, and which cell provider you’re with, you might know of dead spots where you never seem to get reliable reception. Perhaps your phone always cuts out in lifts or in the subway, or on that stretch of road between point A and point B.

I know of several dead spots that I need to contend with, and I never answer my phone when I’m in those areas. I prefer to let calls go to voice mail, and call my clients back when I’m assured of cell coverage. I dislike being on a call that drops out and isn’t resumed immediately — whether I’m the caller or the callee. It’s disruptive, and those unfinished thoughts can make it hard to go and focus on other things. Also, it leaves a question over who’s going to call who when you both get reception again. Let the client leave a message, and you can call them when your reception is reliable.

I think these are the basics of cell phone etiquette. Do you apply any guidelines to the way you handle client cell calls?

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