Is the Return Phone Call an Endangered Species?

Is the Return Phone Call an Endangered Species?

I ran into someone at the 2013 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show who apologized profusely.

“I was meaning to call you back,” he said. “I know you left a message.”

“The one from 2012 or the one from 2013?” I inquired as nicely as I could.

Why don't people call each other back anymore? What is the psychology behind not returning phone calls? Do you have a group of friends or business associates in your life who will NEVER call you back, no matter what? The sad fact is that most of us do.

 Not returning phone calls has become an integral part of our society and a trademark of our times. And with all of the technology out there making it easier to connect (like smartphones, email, and text messaging), people have more ways than ever to not get back to you. So, the question is simple—is the  telephone no longer the best way to connect with people and if so, what is the preferred method?

In an attempt to analyze this phenomenon, I have spoken with a wide range of people about the subject, including body shop owners, insurance agents, parts managers, and general managers of large MSOs. And this is what I’ve learned: Most people tell me that the anonymous nature of a phone call or phone message makes it very easy to disregard. Their attitude is that if the caller wants to contact me that badly, they'll call back or text me or email me. Others believe that they’re already on the phone way too much as it is, so that’s why they only return those calls that seem pressing and/or important.

“I spend an inordinate amount of time on the telephone, and I just don't have the bandwidth to call everyone back,” one body shop’s marketing manager said. “Email is the best way to contact me, followed by texting—but phoning is a distant third.”

“I get way too many sales calls,” a body shop owner exclaimed. “And that makes me leery about returning any phone calls because I don’t want to sit through a sales pitch. I’m always doing five things at once, so if something needs to get cut, it’s probably going to be your phone call.”

And for others, it’s all about the quality (and brevity) of the phone call. “Some people are engaging and they know how to talk on the phone,” one insurance agent said. “Others get too chatty and for those people email is better. I don’t feel a need to respond immediately to an email, so it’s less stressful than a phone call.”

While most people won’t rush to return a phone call, there are still a few “old school” types out there who will go out of their way to return a phone call, even if they’re busy or on the road. In my opinion, those people stand out because they’re the exception rather than the norm. I am often surprised by who returns calls because some of them are big names, yet they always make the time to reach out to me.

In his book The Art of the Deal, originally published in 1987, Donald Trump discusses his theory surrounding the telephone and how it can be used as a tool. First off, Trump claims that he returns every phone call he receives because he realizes that each one represents an opportunity to make a deal. He talks to salesmen, office managers, and even janitors because they can give him information he can possibly use to get any advantage in the future. In addition, Trump limits all of his phone calls to three minutes and actually uses an egg timer to do the job. That way he controls chatty callers and keeps everyone on point.

I always ask salespeople about the subject of return phone calls because it’s their job to communicate with their customers, and most of them make multiple calls on a daily basis. When it comes to business, people have an entirely different theory about returning phone calls. If a salesman calls them, for instance, they will almost never call them back.

“It's their job to get a hold of me,”  one collision center manager said when referring to salespeople. “If they're selling something, they had better adapt to my schedule and figure out the best way to contact me. If I’m not interested in your products or services, I’m not going to call you back because I don’t have time to call you and tell you no thanks. Not calling you back is my way of telling you exactly that. Some call it the ‘Hollywood Brush-off,’ but I call it reality.”

In an article called “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You” that Pamela Paul wrote for The New York Times in 2011, she announced the demise of not just the return phone call, but the phone itself. “I don’t think it’s just me,” Paul wrote. “Sure, teenagers gave up the phone call eons ago. In the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone—land line, mobile, voice mail, and all. According to Nielsen Media, even on cell phones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.”

Paul interviewed an interior designer who made some interesting points about phone calls and their diminishing role in today’s society. “I literally never use the phone,” Jonathan Adler told Paul. “I’ve learned not to press ‘ignore’ on my cell phone because then people know that you’re there. I remember when I was growing up the rule was, ‘Don’t call anyone after 10:00 p.m.,’ ” Adler said. “Now the rule is, ‘Don’t call anyone. Ever.’ ”

After looking at this topic from several different angles, I have come to the conclusion that you should not take it personally if someone does not return your phone calls. It doesn't necessarily mean they don't want to speak with you. And if you work on your phone skills and become more pleasurable to speak with, you'll find that more of your friends will call you back.

I wish that I could have done a more thorough study of this subject, but most of the people who I called to interview never got back to me. Everyone interviewed for this piece asked to remain anonymous because, sadly, they don't want anyone calling them either.

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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