Do You Return Phone Calls?


“Your call is very important to me. Please leave your message, and I will get back to you as soon as I can. Thank you.”

Welcome to the biggest lie in business!!

Unfortunately, most people in business are not returning phone calls or reading and responding to E-Mails promptly. This guarantees sub-standard performance from you as a leader and your organization for several reasons:

  1. Every day, it sets and reinforces a perfect example of lack of accountability
    1. You, your people, and your company are not doing what was said
  2. It kills time
    1. Urgent issues are not promptly addressed
    2. Due to all the delays, tasks that can be done reasonably quickly drag out or are not done at all
  3. It is just rude
  4. It increases inefficiency
    1. People will leave multiple messages, just to get ahead in the queue
    2. E-Mails fly about that are read by fewer than half the people in the group
    3. Supervisors waste time holding meetings to repeat things already written in E-Mails in order to be sure that the message is communicated because people are not reading their E-Mails.


Guess what? Immediately returning your phone calls and reading and responding to E-Mails will make your life much easier and simpler.

How do I know?

I know, because I have being doing exactly this for 15 years. And you can do it too!!

Returning Phone Calls

In the early 1990’s, I read an article about the Hollywood agent business and Michael Ovitz’s CAA. In the article, it was mentioned that all CAA agents were required to return all their clients’ calls by the end of the day or they could be fired. Working in a bureaucratic organization at the time, this sentiment resonated.

As such, I came up with a simple statement which I then shared with everyone (colleagues, employees, customers, suppliers):

  1. “I will return your phone call within 24 hours (by the same time the next business day) or I will pay you $100.”


Simple statement. Actually quite simple to do (most of the time).

In the last 15 years, I have written a $100 check once, but the person involved refused to cash it. After receiving the check from me, he found out that while I had not gotten back to him directly within 24 hours, I had left 3 messages with his assistant who had failed to relay these messages on to him. I really wanted him to cash the check, because it was my responsibility to get back to him, and I did not do it. I also wanted him to cash the check because for $100 it would make the story stick and resonate even more.

As I have been in the role of President of a $200M division, the reaction from most people the first time I return their call promptly is usually shock.

  1. “Oh my gosh, I did not expect your call.”
  2. “I cannot believe that you actually called me back.”
  3. “Thank you very much.”


For customers, it is truly win-win, they are so appreciative to have somebody actually return their phone call, actually speak to them, and actually address their concerns that your rating with them as a supplier sky rockets.

Yes, it can be a pain. On business in Europe, being up in your room at 1:00 a.m. responding to routine calls. But, that does not happen as much as you would think. And, even if you get voice mail when returning the call, you can leave a powerful message to your customer, supplier or employee that they matter.

“Sarah, I know it is 6:00 pm where you are but I was hoping that I could get you. I am returning your phone call from early today. I am on business over here in Ireland. But, I will be up for another hour so if you get this give me a call back and we can talk.”


I hear you saying. “I got so many calls that I cannot possibly return all of them.”

Yes, that will be a challenge at the beginning until you set out the rules of the road in your company, with suppliers, and with salespeople. Customers can also be cautiously and carefully trained, but that is less important since they are your customers and you want to be responsive to them under all circumstances.

Some rules to reduce the call volume and make you and your team more effective:

  1. Require people to leave a real message about what they want or need. This allows you to think about the response and get to the point when you call them back.
    1. No more: “Hi, this is David. Can you give me a call back?”
    2. Better: “Hi, this is David. We just had another large order from a solar company. As such, I am beginning a marketing campaign focused on alternative energy (solar and wind). I want to get your marketing insight on our approach. Please call me back to discuss.”
  2. Batch (or aggregate) phone calls and communication
    1. Unless urgent, require your people to only call you once about 3 items instead of three times about one item each time
    2. As the leader, this applies to you. Do not constantly be calling and disturbing your team. Aggregate your own communication, calling them when you have multiple things to discuss.
  3. Get to the point in all conversations and in call-backs
    1. If you get voice mail when you call back, then leave a substantive message as this can often resolve the issue in question without further phone calls
  4. Require salespeople that call you to do some work and follow up in order to earn the time to talk to you
    1. My preferred is to call back a salesperson and tell him or her that I would like a one-page summary of what they are offering and why I should be interested sent to my E-Mail within one day. If they do that, I would then talk to them. If not, I will not be talking to them.
      1. My experience is that 95% of all salespeople will not complete this simple task. As such, the other 5% would be the only ones worth talking to.
      2. To the point – yes. Polite – maybe. Effective – yes.


Reading and Responding to E-Mails Promptly

My goal at the end of every business day is to have no E-Mails in my In-Box. That is the goal. I always have fewer than 10.


  1. Be organized. Be Ruthless.
    1. Scan your E-Mails for the ones that are most important first and then the ones that are most urgent.
      1. Read them once.
      2. Act on them.
      3. Delete the E-Mail.
    2. If you cannot immediately act on a particular E-Mail
      1. Set up a To-Do task and schedule a time that you are going to finish this task.
      2. Save any content that you need on your computer.
      3. Then delete the E-Mail.
      4. Don’t think about the task until it is the scheduled time.
  2. For any E-Mails where you are cc: or any E-Mails that are just “For your information”.
    1. Skim through
    2. Get the gist
    3. Delete
    4. Move on
  3. Require that you and your team always strive to resolve the issues on the E-Mail and to suggest solutions
    1. For my direct reports, I required them to come with their solution to any problem that they wanted my input on. Not only did this improve their strategic thinking and give them greater ownership of the solution, it also led to quicker resolution of the issues.
    2. By resolving and suggesting solutions, you avoid the endless and useless streams of E-Mail all of which really only say:
      1. “Yes, I read this E-Mail. I am passing my empty thoughts on to all of you for no reason other than to ensure that you know that I read the E-Mail and that my butt is covered.”


With these tactics, 95% of your E-Mails can be responded to and dispatched very quickly. To paraphrase General George Patton: “A good response, violently executed now, is better than a perfect response next week.”   

I know. I know. I will now climb down from my soapbox after making three final comments about returning phone calls and reading and responding to E-Mails.

First, as a leader you never want to be the cog in the wheel, the rate determining step holding up the flow of work. In business, time is the most over-looked element. Your slow response can literally have 10 people twiddling their thumbs for a day waiting for you to get back to them: ten people for one day at (say) $40,000 a year; that equals $1600. $1600 pissed away. Another customer potentially pissed off.

Second, if you really try, but are unable to answer back E-Mails promptly, then you need to think about why this is so.

  1. You may be patently un-organized.
  2. You may be in too many meetings.
  3. You may have too many things going on and thus are not prioritizing and focusing on the few critical issues.
  4. You may not delegate well enough.
  5. You may micro-manage and be too involved in what your team is doing.
  6. Or, as in the case of a failing colleague of mine who I once observed had 2,452 E-Mails in his In-Box, you may be all these things.

Third, I am not quite alone in my view of phone calls and E-Mails.

  1. In his book, Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School, Philip Delves Broughton relates some advice he got from Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans.
    1. Return calls and E-Mails in a timely way. That would put you 99.9% ahead of your competitors. People are shocked; people are in awe when you do this. They can’t believe it. And we can’t believe that people can’t believe it because we think everybody should do it.”
  2. Likewise, in a recent article in Fortune about Wal-Mart, CEO Mike Duke states:
    1. “I keep up with E-Mails. I don’t like carryovers. At the end of the day, I don’t want there to be any phone messages that haven’t been returned or E-Mails that aren’t addressed.”



Albert Schweitzer wrote: “Leadership is example.”

  1. What is the example that you show to your team and to your customers on a daily basis?

By not returning phone calls or responding to E-Mails promptly, you give the example of a leader who is not responsive, who is not organized and who is not accountable to the promise made. If you, as the leader of your organization, are like that…

  1. Why should your employees believe that they should be any different?
  2. Why should your customers believe that your organization will be any different?


Until Next Time


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
This entry was posted in Leadership, Perform / Execution and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Do You Return Phone Calls?

  1. Darla says:

    OH MY GOSH<<<, I am so sick of people not returning calls. Not just in the same day but sometimes 3 days go by. These are BUSINESS people. EVERYONE is busy. I love your blog!
    I have a few articles on ehow about business. If ehow were still allowing new content – I would write an article and promote you blog. I hope at least one biz owner read this and improves.
    twitter: @alrady40

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