How to Take a Good Phone Message

The Public Speaker offers tips for good customer service and taking better phone messages at work.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #277

Chris from New Jersey sent this question to The Public Speaker email inbox recently:

“Can you provide simple guidelines I can share with my secretary for taking messages when I am unavailable to speak on the phone?"

Chris goes on to say:

“Many callers will not reveal to my secretary who they represent or what the purpose of their call is. I generally make it a policy not to return calls unless I have this information as my time is very limited and I like to spend it productively. However, I worry that I might be missing out on new opportunities or offending a past client.”.

Chris makes a great point. If his time is limited, who will he most likely call back: Joe who wouldn’t leave a message or Diane who asks that he call her back to tell her how many tickets he wants to the fundraising event next week?

Chris, here are some tips for how to take a good phone message that you can share with your secretary:

Tip #1: Make a Good First Impression

Strong customer service skills are important for making a good first impression and gaining the caller’s trust. These 3 simple tips will help you make a strong first impression over the phone:

  • Answer the phone within a few rings. Take a deep diaphramatic breath on the first ring to give your voice good tonal quality when you pick up.  

  • Once you pick up, state the name of the company and then the name of the person you support. For example: “Chris Matthew’s office, this is Sam, how can I help you?”

  • Use a friendly tone, but keep it professional. Too much small talk wastes everyone’s time. For example, "Chris is unavailable right now. But if you briefly tell me the purpose of the call, I can give him a message."

Tip #2: Take an Accurate Message

All messages should include the name of the caller, the name of the business, a phone number to return the call, and brief message stating the purpose of the call. You can start by asking for the person's name, their call back number, and the name of the business. 

Once you have all that information, ask for the specific message.  Say something like, "If you'd like Chris to call you back, you'll need to provide a brief message." Repeat all the information (including the short message) back to the caller to make sure it’s correct. Double check the spelling of names if necessary. 

Tip #3: Common Phone Message Pitfalls

So what do you do if the caller is unwilling to provide all of the requested information?  Here's how to handle the 3 most common situations:

  • “He’s already got my number.”  Respond by saying “I’d like to write it down for him because sometimes he doesn't have access to his contact info and this makes it much more efficient for him.”  It turns out that when you make a request and you include the word "because" you are more likely to get compliance with the request. 

  • “He knows what this is about.”  If the person responds to your request for a message by saying, "He knows what this is about." Then I suggest asking one more time. “The reason I ask is because Chris asked me to include a short purpose for every call so he can efficiently respond to your message. Would you help Chris by leaving a very brief message?” Then pause.  And wait. Pausing should cause the other person to speak.  In addition, again, you've used the magic word "because" and you've also used one more powerful trigger: you asked for the callers help.  It's unlikely you will still get resistance from a legitamite caller. If you still get resistance even after this second request, you can say the following, "Of course, I'll pass your information along. Oh, and just to let you know, without a message, he may not call you back." 

  • “This is a private matter.”  Occasionally, there are messages that can’t be left with someone else. In this case, you should say, "If this is a private matter, you may want to use the alternative contact information he provided you or perhaps just leave a very, very brief, message with me that only he would understand."

Tip #4: Deliver the Message

The last thing to do is to be sure that the message is delivered to its intended target in an efficient manner (which means no more than a few hours after the call).

Good customer service skills and follow-up questions should help ensure the messages you receive are useful and can be returned quickly. Finally, keep in mind that if this is a new opportunity worth pursuing or a previous client of yours, the caller should be willing to leave a brief message.

This is Lisa B. Marshall, Helping you maximize sales, manage perceptions, and enhance leadership through keynotes, workshops, books, and online courses. Passionate about communication; your success is my business. If you want even more success in your life, I invite you to read my latest book, Smart Talk and listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk:  Inspiring Conversations with Exceptional People.

Customer service assistant and note taking images courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.