Don’t Brand Yourself a Telephone DumbBell: 12 Off-the-Hook Rules for Client Communication

I break rules all the time – other people’s rules. I’m usually the zigger among the hordes of zaggers because, well, I’ve never wanted to get lost in the crowd. I usually hold fast, though, to the rules I make for myself or recommend to others.

But I don’t follow them blindly, and I modify or toss them when appropriate.

In the fall of 2013, when I’d recently been introduced to Paul Biedermann, we shared a lively exchange about email etiquette, the subject of an article he’d written for 12 Most, a publication he founded with Peg Fitzpatrick.

At some point during the exchange, we started talking about phone manners, and Paul invited me to write about them for 12 Most. I happily accepted.

I am republishing the piece here on the KOTAW blog for two reasons:

1. I recently violated Rule No. 9 by failing to return a person’s phone call and, since I believe I was justified, I want to amend that tenet.

2. The post still makes me laugh – and think – when I reread it, so it meets my standards of encore-worthiness.

I hope you agree.

Client Communication in a Digital World: How to Rock Relationship Marketing


Relationship marketing in a digital world | KOTAW Content MarketingAlexander Graham Bell received unfair credit for inventing the telephone, so fair or not, he should take the blame for 137 years of poor phone etiquette. In June, 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring that Bell fraudulently obtained a patent that rightfully belonged to Antonio Meucci, who introduced his “teletrofono” in 1860.

Bell earned enough acclaim — and money — for the device he patented in 1876 to endure a little post-mortem criticism for the rude, insensitive and bizarre ways people have used the telephone ever since.

Besides, Bell didn’t get telephone etiquette off to an auspicious start. His first words, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you” violated the first rule of telephone manners:

1. Identify yourself

Maybe — probably — Thomas Watson knew it was his boss on the phone. And it’s a reasonably safe bet that your mom, best friend and lover recognize the sound of your voice.

Don’t make anyone else guess. Caller ID does not replace good manners or common sense. If the person on the other end is trying to figure out who you are, he’s not listening to your urgent request, knockout pitch or eloquent plea.

Don’t be a dumbbell. Begin every telephone conversation with a greeting and your name.

Here are 11 more ways to keep you off the telephone dumbbell list:

2. Leave a message

Telephone answering machines became as ubiquitous as bad hair in the 1980s, and voice mail is a feature on even the cheapest cell phone. But while most people have managed to tame their hair in the past three decades, an alarming number have failed to train themselves to leave a phone message.

If you want someone to call you back, leave a message. Only debt collectors, stalkers and dumbbells don’t.

3. Leave a coherent message

For every person who won’t utter a single word on voice mail, there are a dozen who ramble, mumble, slur or rush hundreds of words into an incomprehensible mess.

Unless you’re delightfully witty and charming, keep your message succinct. Only two things are worth repeating: your name and your phone number. Say both clearly. If a person can’t figure out your phone number after listening to your message twice, guess what, dumbbell? She won’t call you back.

4. Keep your message polite

You may have every reason to be annoyed or angry with the person you called — and getting connected to voicemail undoubtedly notches up your frustration level.

But don’t scream or rant in a phone message. It could come back to haunt you if the message is made public. An angry message also decreases the likelihood that your call will be returned. (Unless the person you called is a bigger dumbbell than you, he won’t hurry to dial back the person who called him a f*#king imbecile.)

5. Don’t zone out on time zone differences

Whether you’re scheduling a call or leaving a message, include your time zone. If you simply say, “Let’s talk at 2,” you could end up getting a call in the middle of the night or a day later than you planned.

And, if someone starts the time zone dance with the question “Your time or mine?” take the lead — and end the confusion — by specifying the time zone you’re in and the current time.

Don’t make the other party feel like a dumbbell. Not everyone understands time zone designations such as “UTC/GMT-8.”

Keep the time zone explanation simple with something like, “I’m in New York and it’s one in the afternoon here.”

6. Don’t turn a phone call into a covert operation

Simple phone calls shouldn’t require secret codes. Just because you’ve invested in Go To Meeting or similar software doesn’t mean you should use it for every phone call.

A CEO sent me an email asking if I could call him in an hour. Then he sent me an invitation and a code along with instructions on how to enter the code on my phone. Then he changed the time — could I call in 30 minutes? How about in 15 minutes? What about now?

Four emails and four secret codes later, we finally connected. And, guess what? It’s been a year, and I still remember the final code. But I don’t remember the conversation — or the dumbbell’s name.

7. Don’t turn a phone call into a televised ambush

Jane Jetson was always camera-ready when husband George or daughter Judy called. But she lived in the fictional space age in which a robot and animation artists kept her perfectly coifed at all times.

If you want to converse via Skype, Google Hangouts On Air or other forms of video chat, make an appointment with the other party. An engraved invitation isn’t necessary, but a 10-minute warning should be the bare minimum. Give the person a chance to log in, locate headphones, turn speakers on — and check her teeth for chocolate stains.

8. Don’t turn your phone into a power tool

I know an unusually friendly and accessible entertainment lawyer who answers emails at 11 p.m. on Sunday nights and calls clients on holidays to inquire about their pet’s health, but never initiates calls with agents or lawyers and never picks up their phone calls until they’ve made at least three unsuccessful attempts to reach him. He says it’s a Hollywood game he has to play in order to maintain his powerful reputation.

The guy is mega-successful in a tough town, so maybe there’s some justification for his phone arrogance. But I’ve also witnessed this Hollywood power play practiced by eBay resellers and unpublished authors.

Until — unless — you’ve established the authority to play phone power games, don’t be a dumbbell. If your phone rings, pick it up!

9. Return (most) phone calls

In a 12 Most post about email etiquette, Paul Biedermann urged readers to promptly answer emails out of respect for people and their time. “After all they took the time to contact YOU! Let them know they exist.”

Good manners and respect for others also demand that you return phone calls.

Responding by text message, email or tweet doesn’t count. It’s a nice gesture if you can’t phone back right away. But if someone took the time to pick up a phone and call you — a grand gesture in an era of typed, emoticon-infused messages — return the phone call.

Recently, I deliberately ignored someone’s phone calls. I’d already asked the person to text rather than phone because our household was in turmoil and his calls were disturbing what little sleep anyone in the KOTAW Girl Gang was getting. His response was to call seven times in an hour – without ever leaving a message – and to send a series of texts that said “call me.” I might have given in for good manners’ sake, but when I had the time to note the hang ups and texts, I discovered that his last message – 30 minutes after the first – contained nothing more than this: “????????????????”

I never called the person back, and I’m letting myself off the hook for the transgression. I’ll give you a pass under similar circumstances. When rudeness and arrogances are topped off by junior-high-school level harassment, don’t reward the behavior with a return call.

Only a dumbbell would.

10. Use the hold button sparingly

Sometimes an incoming phone call is more important than the one you’ve already taken. Urgent matters must take precedence. But don’t put someone on hold without a good reason — and don’t keep him there any longer than necessary.

If the incoming call can’t wait, apologize to the first caller and arrange to call her back. If the call can wait, stay on the line.

No one likes to be put on hold and almost everyone takes offense when it happens. Remember how you felt the last time someone placed you on hold? Only a dumbbell would want to make another person feel that way.

11. Remember that your phone won’t kiss you back

People love their cell phones. Some people love them too much. They not only take them everywhere — fancy restaurants, trendy nightclubs and luxury hotels — but they pay more attention to their mobile devices than they do to their dinner, dance and sex partners.

If you think your phone is more entertaining than the people in the room with you, buy a duller phone or find more interesting friends.

12. Don’t forget that your phone is, well, a phone

Yes, you can use your mobile phone to navigate, take pictures, pay bills, order pizza and watch House of Cards. You can use your phone to check email, buy stock, sell shoes and estimate the wait times for Disneyland rides.

Your mobile phone is, indeed, smart. But you’re a dumbbell if you routinely let calls go to voice mail because you’re too engrossed in your all-purpose toy to answer the phone when it rings.

If an Apple a day is keeping your clients at bay, buy a flip phone. And use it as Meucci and Bell intended: to talk to people.

What are your pet peeves about people’s telephone behavior? Do you have any rules you want to add — or subtract — from this list? Do you know any telephone dumbbells? Please share your comments below.


  1. Loved this post then, and love it now, Katherine. Dumbells galore, and a kinder, gentler version of my “Dumbass” post about email etiquette, I think. :-) Your update to #9 is understandable, to say the least, and this line at the end is pure gold: “If an Apple a day is keeping your clients at bay, buy a flip phone.”

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Thank you, Paul. When I read “Dumbass,” I knew we were destined to be friends. I still remember your pet peeve about people (usually clients) not answering all of your questions in an email — questions you needed answered before continuing work on THEIR project. And, of course, this happened to me just this week (and my list was only three questions long) and it took five days and two more emails to get a response to the third question.

      (For those of you wondering about my reference, Paul’s brilliant take on email etiquette can be found here:

      Thanks for revisiting the post and this space. Always a pleasure.

      • So annoying, right? And even more annoying is when they get annoyed at YOU for “annoying” them with all the emails necessary only because they ignored your questions from the very first email. (At least with the phone you can just keep asking within the same conversation if needed.)

        • Katherine Kotaw says:

          Ha ha, I’ve gotten a lot of those emails. And there are only so many ways in which you can politely rephrase the same questions a half dozen times, so I am undoubtedly guilty of exhibiting irritation as questions continue to go unanswered.

          On the phone, it’s easier to lighten the tone and still get the (*&@!! answers you need to finish a project!

  2. MCatherine says:

    Oh Katherine, I think telephone etiquette needs to be a 12-step program these days. I am appalled by the way people are ‘umbilically’ connected to a phone when in the company of others; leave ringers on the highest possible setting when sitting in a restaurant (this happened yesterday in a Tea shop) broadcasting their popularity or self-importance to all within hearing; walk down the street with ear buds to a phone in one ear and an iPod in the other– I call these people ‘ISOLISTENISTS’. RE: Breaking rule #9: Dumbbell or not, I confess that recently I have taken to allowing calls from numbers with area codes I do not recognize to first go to voice mail simply because I am inundated with nuisance robo calls from Google wanting to sell me advert. space. PS: I appreciate knowing about Mr. Meucii… Thanks for the education!

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      “Hello, my name is John, and I’m a telephone dumbbell.”

      Ha ha, MCatherine, I think your 12-step program is desperately needed. Maybe even rehab centers where addicts would have to give up their iPhones for 30 days and practice the art of unplugged conversations before their release.

      Thank you for the early-morning giggle and for brightening my life at all times of the day.

  3. Aaaah…..I believe this post was on the ’12 Tips’ site, which is why I haven’t commented on YOUR blog!

    How do you infuse so much life into the most mundane topics, sweetie? I wonder when the rest of the content marketers will catch up with your effervescence, enthusiasm and energy! #HUGSSS



    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Well, then, I wouldn’t be special, would I? ha ha

      But I do wish content marketers would up their game. Kelsey said just yesterday, “Aren’t some of them boring THEMSELVES with their content? How can they stand to write the same generic thing over and over again?”

      You are never, ever boring. You understand the importance of being excited about what you write — enthusiasm is essential to good writing. If I can’t find a way to entertain myself when I write, I don’t write. So getting creative is sometimes an act of desperation!

      Thank you for stopping my. And thank you for being YOU!

  4. Alex Yong says:

    “If you think your phone is more entertaining than the people in the room with you, buy a duller phone or find more interesting friends.” I love all these, especially #6 and this, Katherine!

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      So nice to see your here, Alex! Thanks so much for stopping by. And so glad you liked this. For the record, I own a very dull phone and my friends are very interesting! :)

      Hope this finds you well and continuing to inspire the PR world to embrace digital marketing.

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