How to start phone calls in English
Summary: How to begin telephone calls, chat at the start of calls and move smoothly to the topic of the call, for both callers and people answering the phone.
This article is a brief guide to the best way to begin telephone calls, including how to avoid typical errors at the start of calls. For over 100 pages of stimulating practice of this and other important points like taking messages and ending calls, with model dialogues and realistic self-study speaking practice, see Really Learn the Most Useful Telephoning Phrases ebook.
Many people hate having to communicate on the telephone, particularly in another language. However, telephoning is in many ways easier than face to face communication, because calls usually have quite a fixed structure and language, and you can often plan what you are going to say before you pick up the phone. These two advantages are particularly true of starting telephone calls. This article gives a full review of how to begin phone calls, including tips and language for both receiving calls and calling other people. There is also information on things which you shouldn’t say and things which people rarely say and so are probably best to avoid.
How to answer the phone
The standard way of answering the phone in business is some information about the person answering the phone plus an offer of help. The longest standard one is something like:
Receiver: “Good morning/ afternoon/ evening. ABC Limited. Design Department/ Division/ Section/ Team. Alex Case speaking. How can/ may I help you?”
It is also correct to say “This is Alex Case speaking”. However, the phrase above is already very long, so the shorter “Alex Case speaking” version is probably better! “This is Alex Case” is used by the caller and so is wrong when you answer the phone.
You might sometimes hear people use “Can I help you?/ May I help you?” when they answer the phone. However, but this Yes/ No question should only be used when the answer could be “No, that’s okay, thanks”, for example in a shop, and so doesn’t make sense on the phone. There is also the even more formal version “How may I be of assistance?”, but this is rare and even rarer on the phone.
Particularly when you know that the call is coming from someone inside your own company, shorter phrases for answering the phone might be okay, for example “Design Department (How can I help you?)” or “(Hello). Alex Case”. It is also fairly common nowadays to go straight to “Hi John” if you know who is calling, for example because their name came up on your mobile phone screen.
There are also phrases for answering someone else’s phone, usually:
Receiver: “Susan Edmonton’s desk/ phone/ office (Alex Case speaking. How can I help you?)”
There are also some ways of answering the phone which are rare in business but might be okay when answering your own (home) phone, for example “098 777 8899” (= your own phone number) or just “Hello?” You may also hear “Case residence” in movies, but that is rather formal and old-fashioned and is only really used as a joke nowadays. You might also hear angry bosses in movies just shouting “Yes?” when they answer the phone, but this is very rude in real life and shouldn’t be used.
How the caller should start a phone call
It is easy to forget this, but obviously the first thing that the caller should do is to greet the receiver. This is often the same greeting as the receiver used when they answered the phone, for example:
Receiver: “Good afternoon. Rogers Consultants. Dan Brown speaking. How can I help you?”
Caller: “Good afternoon,…”
If the caller and the receiver already know each other well, it is usual for the caller to answer with a friendlier greeting with the receiver’s name, and then to say who you are, for example:
Receiver: “Good morning. Red Line Accounting. Dawn Harris speaking. How may I help you?”
Caller: “Hi Dawn. This is Ahmed (Hussain from Jones Construction) (again)”
Receiver: “Oh, Hi Ahmed…”
You usually then move onto some small talk.
How to introduce yourself on the phone
If the receiver is the person who you want to speak to but they don’t know you yet, you need to use introducing yourself phrases to mention your name (not the “This is…” phrase above). These phrases are the same ones as you would use when you introduce yourself face to face:
Receiver: “Good afternoon. Rogers Highway Construction. Yasmin Jones speaking. How can I help you?”
Caller: “Good afternoon. My name is Julian Temple. I’m calling from/ I work for YRF Corp (in New York)…”
Make sure that you don’t say “This is Julian Temple…” in this situation, as the person who answers the phone may think that you know each other but they have forgotten having spoken to you before! “Julian Temple speaking” is only used by the receiver and so is wrong when you are the caller.
If you have already been in contact (e.g. by email) but have never actually spoken, it’s not 100% clear if you should use “This is Alison Kray (from GDY PLC)” (because they know you) or “My name is Alison Kray. I’m calling from GDY PLC” (because you haven’t spoken to each other before). Generally, I would recommend “This is…” if you know each other well and/ or they are expecting your call, but “My name is…” if you haven’t had much former contact or your call is unexpected. If you are not sure which one is more suitable in your situation, “My name is…” is probably the safer choice.
There are some rare occasions when it might be okay to say just your position instead of your name, with expressions like:
Caller: “Hello. I’m calling from JUPG PLC. We got a message from this number about…”
Caller: “This is the Accounts Department. I’m phoning because we need some information from your section on…”
However, it is usually both more polite and friendlier to give your name in those two situations, even if your name isn’t actually something that the receiver needs to know.
How to ask to speak to other people on the phone
It is often the case that the person who answers the phone is not the person who you want to speak to, for example because the receptionist has answered the phone. In that case, you obviously need to ask to speak to the right person. In some cultures it is also polite to give your name first in this situation. However, I would generally recommend not giving your name before you ask to speak to someone else, because the receiver will ask for your name if they need it. They might be embarrassed if they miss your name when you first say it and so have to ask you to repeat it with a phrase like “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name” or “Sorry, could you tell me your name again?” Therefore the first line by the caller in this situation will probably be just something like “Good morning. Can I speak to Greg Forman, please?” with the receiver asking something like “Can I ask/ take your name?”/ “Can I ask who is calling?”/ “Who shall I say is calling?” if they need your name before they put you through. Note that phrases which are sometimes used in similar face-to-face situations like “And you are?” are impolite on the phone. “What’s your name?”, “Who are you?” and “Who is that?” are even ruder, so the receiver should stick to only “Can I ask/ take your name?”, “Can I ask who is calling?” or “Who shall I say is calling?”
The topic is sometimes as important as or more important than who the caller is. In that case, the receiver can ask something like “Can I ask what it is concerning?” to check why they are calling (instead of or as well as “Can I ask who is calling?”)
When you ask to speak to someone, instead of “Can/ Could/ May I speak to (name), please?” you can ask:
Caller: “Can/ Could you put me through to (name), please?”
Caller: “Can/ Could you connect me to (name), please?”
Caller: “Can/ Could I have extension 123, please?”
I also sometimes hear “I need to speak to (name)”, but this seems a bit too forceful and direct to me. “I want to speak to…” is very impolite, but “I’d like to speak to…” is okay. The imperative is definitely rude, so you should be careful not to say “Please put me through to (name)” or “Please connect me to (name)”, which would be commands rather than requests and so mean something like “You have to put me through to…” The imperative is rude even in informal situations, but the more casual versions “Is Kim (Smith) available?”, “Is Kim (Smith) there?” and “Is Kim around?” are very useful in the right situations.
If you know the person who answers the phone but they are not the person who you want to speak to, you should probably still start with “Hi (name). This is (name)” and some small talk. You can then move onto “Anyway,…” plus one of the phrases above like “Can I speak to…?”, or a more informal variation like “Is (name) available/ there/ around?” whenever it seems like the right time to do so.
“Can I speak to…?” is also the most common way to start if you think that the person who answered the phone is the person who you want to speak to (for example because you recognised their voice) but they didn’t say their name when they answered the phone, for example:
Receiver: “Hello. HR Department”
Caller: “Hello. Can I speak to Fiona Freeman, please?” Receiver: “Speaking”/ “This is Fiona Freeman (speaking)”/ “That’s me”
Caller: “Hi Fiona. This is Alex (again)”
Other ways of asking about who is answering the phone include:
Caller: “Is that Kim?”
Caller: “Sorry, who am I speaking to, please?”
Caller: “Is this the right number for…?”
Caller: “Is that the HR department?”
Caller: “Are you the right person to speak to about…?”
How to be friendly at the beginning of phone call
If you know the person who answers the phone, it is normal to have at least a little light chitchat before you mention the purpose of the call. The standard small talk question in business is probably “How are you?” However, “How are you?” is unlikely to start much of a conversation and it can also be too formal with people who you know well. The more formal version “I hope you are well” is only really used in writing. Instead, it is usually better to start with a more casual version of “How are you?” such as “How’s it going?”/ “How are you doing?”/ “How are things?”/ “How’s life?”, as long as these phrases are not too informal. If you really want to start a conversation, it is usually even better to ask more specific “How…?” questions like “How was your weekend?”, “How was your holiday?”, “How’s work?”, “How’s business?”, “How’s your week going?”, “How has your week been (so far)?” and “How’s your project going?” Along with work and free time, suitable topics for small talk at the beginning of a phone call can include the weather, the news, and time differences, particularly if the other person is in a different country. Other nice phrases include “I guess you (are looking forward to Xmas)” and “I heard/ read that (there has been flooding) over there”.
Especially if it’s been a while since you’ve been in contact, it is sometimes nice to start with a more enthusiastic expression before moving onto actually small talk. Possibilities include:
Receiver: “It’s so nice/ great to hear from you (again)”
Receiver: “This is a nice surprise”
Receiver: “I was just thinking about you”
Receiver: “I’m so glad you phoned because…”
Receiver: “I’m really glad I caught you because…”
You need to be careful with your intonation and how often you use those kinds of phrases, as there is a danger of sounding insincere or even sarcastic if you use them too much or say them in the wrong way!
How to be polite at the beginning of a phone call
Before or instead of friendly language like “How’s life?”, another possibility is to start the phone calls with a polite phrase, usually one starting with “Sorry for…” or “Thanks for…” such as:
Receiver: “Thanks for calling me back.”/ “Thanks for getting back to me so quickly.”
Caller: “Sorry to phone so early in the morning/ so late in the evening/ at lunchtime.”
Receiver/ Caller: “Sorry I didn’t have more time to speak earlier.”
Caller: “Sorry it took me so long to get back to you.”
Caller: “Sorry to phone again so soon.”
Caller: “Sorry to trouble you again but…”
As with friendly phrases like “It’s so nice to hear from you (again)”, there is a danger of these kinds of phrases sounding automatic and not really genuinely felt. This is particularly so if you choose phrases which are too general like “Sorry to phone you when you are so busy”, “Sorry for interrupting”, and “Sorry to bother you”, which are all best avoided, especially if you don’t know for sure that they are busy, that you are interrupting or that you are bothering them.
How to end the small talk and get down to business in phone calls
Moving from casual conversation to the reason for the call is another thing that has to be done with the right use of your voice. In this case the right pronunciation usually means saying a transitions phrase like “Well,…”, “So,…”, “Anyway,…”, “Okay,…” stretched out very long with quite soft, wavering intonation. There is a danger of sounding too impatient or rude if you pronounce the word quickly, particularly if you use a more dynamic phrase like “Okay,…”. “Right,…” is probably too forceful however you pronounce it, so it best avoided. You can make the transitions phrases softer by adding “… then,…” to make expressions like “Well then,…”, but note that “Then,…” on its own does not have this function. “By the way,…” is also not suitable, because it is used to go off topic, not to get to the main topic (making it kind of the opposite of “Anyway,…”)
As well as using the right length and intonation with the transitions expression, another way of making sure that you seem interested in the small talk is to use a reacting expression straight after what the other person has just said, such as:
Caller/ Receiver: “That sounds terrible/ great/ interesting/ relaxing/ stressful/…”
Caller/ Receiver: “I’m glad/ sorry/ happy/ delighted/ relieved/… to hear that”
It’s often nicer and smoother if it’s the receiver who ends the small talk and helps the caller get down to business, with expressions like:
Receiver: “So, how can I help you today?”
Receiver: “Well, what can I do for you today?”
The equivalent phrases for the caller are:
Caller: “So, do you have time to talk?”
Caller: “Anyway, have you got a minute (to talk)?”
Caller: “So then, are you free to talk?”
Caller: “So, is this a good time?”
Caller: “Anyway, have I phoned at a bad time?”
These phrases can also be dangerous, however. This is because they are sometimes used to begin particularly big and important conversations, including heavy topics like complaints or even firing someone! Therefore it is often best for the caller to just use a transitions phrase and move straight into the reason for the call with a phrase like “Anyway, the reason I’m calling is…”
How to state the reason for your call
The most common way to give the reason for your call is with “(Anyway,) I’m calling/ ringing/ phoning (you) about/ (in order) to/ because…” You can also use more formal versions of “about” such as “(Well,) I’m calling in connection with/ regarding…” You can also sometimes start with just “(Anyway,) about…” or “(Well,) regarding…”. However, longer is usually better to avoid seeming impatient, and the even longer version “Anyway, the reason I’m phoning is…” is perhaps the best phrase in most cases. Other more specific phrases giving the reason for the call include:
Caller: “I got a message that I should call you.”
Caller: “I just got your message.”
Caller: “Someone phoned me from this number.”
Caller: “I’m returning your call.”
Caller: “As promised, I’m calling you about…”
Caller: “Just a quick call to say…”
Caller: “I only have a minute but I thought you should know…”
Caller: “Sorry to phone again so soon, but…”
Caller: “I was given your number by…”
Caller: “I found your number…”
Caller: “(I’m not sure if I’ve got the right number, but) I need to talk to someone about...”
Caller: “I’m looking at your new catalogue and…”
Caller: “It says on your website that…”
Caller: “I’ve got your 2014 catalogue here in front of me and…”
Caller: “Did you see my email about…?”
Note that the “Did you read my email about…?” is a bit more direct and forceful than “Did you see my email about…?”
How to smoothly and politely end calls and different kinds of calls such as enquiries and complaints will be dealt with in future articles. There is over 100 pages of self-study practice to make sure you thoroughly memorise and can use the most important of those phrases in Really Learn the Most Useful Telephoning Phrases, along with lists of all the most useful telephoning phrases.
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