The Mentorist

Too Much of a Good Thing: The Art of Hanging Up

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I have a friend in the ‘service biz’ who knows he’s got a problem.

As a partner at one of Boston’s largest law firms, his world is ruled by clients:   At times when most people are sleeping — and at places where most people are loafing — he’s talking to clients, thinking about clients or doing work for clients.

Nothing new about that.

But my friend’s clients often come to like him so much they start calling simply to shoot the breeze or share their half-baked, ‘get-rich-quick’ ideas.

Being a well-bred sort, my friend doesn’t know how to get off the phone once these client feel-good conversations run on past their ‘sell-by dates.’  Meanwhile, work that needs doing right now piles higher, and another day at the office has been extended deep into the night.

(While billing his clients for their friendly forays might shut off this phone call spigot, my friend wisely realizes that these essentially ‘extra-legal’ calls are better chalked up to ‘relationship building.’)

Like most law firm partners, my friend is selling something that’s paid for in time-based increments.  (Billable hour, anyone?  For the moment, we’ll assume the wisdom of that system….)  If he wants any shot at attaining the utopian state known as ‘work-life balance,’ he needs to learn the art of hanging up.

Here are three techniques for controlling the length of a phone conversation that’s likely to go on for waaaay too long — or already has:

  1. The ‘time-box’ technique

    After responding enthusiastically to your client’s ‘hello,’ immediately announce that –- regrettably — you’re got a ‘hard stop’ at [fill in desired end time], but relish the opportunity of talking with your client until then.  (Any daughter of a loquacious mother has perfected this technique long ago.)  This lets you take charge of the call’s length from the outset.

    Be forewarned:  Technique #1 works only at the very start of a call.  Otherwise, it will come off as a contrived way of getting the other person off the phone.  (It is, of course, just that. But the other person should never feel so.)

    So, if you’ve missed your opportunity to employ this ploy, try….

  2. The ‘you’re-so-important’ technique

    After allowing the call from your client to have run its proper (as determined by you) course, take the opportunity presented by the next pause (it might not seem so, but, yes, there will be one) to say — with a tinge of regret in your voice — something to this effect:  ‘Well, [client name], I don’t want to keep you from [insert activity here :  use anything from a vague ‘getting on with the rest of your day’ to an over-the-top ‘making Wall Street safe for democracy’], so I’ll let you go now.’

    If your client is well-bred, he will realize you’re signaling that you have other things to do.  However, he won’t feel miffed because you’ve conveyed that message so graciously.

    If, instead, your client is on the boorish end of the etiquette scale, you’re still apt to leave him feeling good as you hang up the phone:  He’s basking in the notion that he’s so important you think his time must be valuable.

    Of course, there’s always the chance you’ve got some Seth Rogen-character for a client.  Suspect he’s going to respond by saying, ‘Well, actually, I have nothing to do but talk to you all day’?  Skip Technique #2 and move on to.…

  3. The ‘we’re-both-slaves-here’ technique

    Even if you’ve missed the chance to ‘time-box’ the conversation at the start of your call, you can control when you hang up.  However, you’ll need to trot out a reason for leaving in full conversational swing.

    Not any old reason will do.  You need to pick one that your client can identify with, in an ‘I-feel-your-pain’ (or, at least, an ‘I-get-it’) way.

    Is your client the proverbial family man?  Then, explain that — although you are thoroughly enjoying the conversation — you, unfortunately, must hang up in order to get to your child’s [insert activity here — e.g., piano recital / parent-teacher conference / little league game … you get the picture].

    [NOTE: If you’re female, use this excuse only with a client who knows –- from long-standing experience working with you –- that you’ve ‘got his back.’   A double standard still exists in most workplaces:  Men who leave to participate in their children’s lives earn kudos; women risk relegating themselves to the ‘mommy track.’  Sad.  And true.]

    Phone on fire-10289367_s copyDoes your client work at a place where the ‘top dogs’ call mandatory meetings?  Then explain (again, after assuring your client of how much you’re enjoying the call) that you need to hang up, because a ‘command-performance’ firm partners’ meeting is about to start and, if you don’t show up, you risk [insert humorous consequence here — e.g., having your desk moved to a basement office].

    Is your client a commuter?  Then explain that, unless you immediately leave for your 6:30 train, you’re going to have to [insert other humorous consequence here — e.g., walk to the suburbs].

    In other words, get your client to commiserate with your need to hang up by gently reminding him you’re both living in a world where others call the shots.  If you’re able to add a bit of humor to the situation, all the better.

    (Just be certain that you never — make that, never ever –- use another client’s matter as your excuse. The art of building (and keeping) great client relationships depends upon making each client feel as if he’s your only client.)

So, what to do with all the time you’ve just freed up for yourself? How about tackling the 283 e-mails that have landed in your inbox since telling your client ‘hello’?

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

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