10 ways technology can help (or hurt) your professional image

Increasingly sophisticated communications options have introduced a number of gotchas into the business world. Calvin Sun looks at some phone, email, and voicemail best practices that will help ensure that you make the right impression.

Increasingly sophisticated communications options have introduced a number of gotchas into the business world. Calvin Sun looks at some phone, email, and voicemail best practices that will help ensure that you make the right impression.

Technology has assumed a huge role in our professional lives. Almost anything we say and do can be seen by hundreds or thousands of co-workers, clients, and bosses. The small things you do, or fail to do, with respect to technology can affect how you're perceived. Below are some examples.

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1: Premature or ill-advised email sending

A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.

How many times have you sent an email prematurely? Maybe, instead of thinking first, you simply did a "reply-and-run" to that upsetting email. Maybe you hit the Send button by accident. In either case, to prevent premature sending, try leaving the addressee field blank until just before you're ready to send. That way, even if you hit Send by accident, nothing will happen. Only when you are ready to send should you fill in that recipient field.

If you're replying, rather than composing a new message, you'll need to take an additional step: cutting the address of the original sender (who's now your recipient) and pasting it in the body of your note (so you don't lose track of it). Once you're reading to send via the reply, simply cut and paste that address back in the addressee field.

2: Forwarding sender's email vs. merely providing an address to sender

A few weeks ago, a company executive sent me an email and suggested that I contact one of her peers. In that email, she gave me only his name. I thanked her and asked if she could forward him some information I had sent her earlier. She responded in a later email by giving me his email address. As far as I know, she never did forward my email to him.

I eventually was able to connect with him, but I had to take additional steps that would have been unnecessary had the executive merely forwarded my information. More significantly, her handling of the matter gave me the impression that she was passing the buck, and that the two of them really didn't work well together.

I'm not going to tell you to do it one way or the other. I AM suggesting, though, that you think about the implications of whichever way you choose.

3: Including an email signature line

In talks I do on customer service, I often discuss the importance of having a signature line in your email. By including your phone and fax number in the signature, recipients can contact you more easily. I can't count the number of signature-less emails I've received, many of which come from directors of training and development organizations, who should know better.

Of course, maybe you don't really want recipients to contact you. If you feel that way and therefore decline to use a signature line, it's your right. However, as with the matter of the forwarded email, have a clear reason for the option you choose and be aware of the consequences.

4: Did you really end the call?

Remember Friday the 13th? It's that series of movies about Jason, the villainous murderer who never seems to die and returns again and again. Or how about the Energizer Bunny? Or how about those trick birthday candles that always re-ignite after you think you've blown them out?

Make sure you really end your telephone calls. My Samsung flip phone has a convenient speakerphone feature. You activate it by pushing a button on the side of the phone. However, when that feature is active during a call, that call continues to be active even if I flip the phone shut.

Check your own phones to see whether they have this feature. A few years ago, two male employees of a Pennsylvania utility company got into trouble during a conference call with their female supervisor. The two men, thinking they had ended the call, began making negative gender-based remarks about the supervisor, who heard every word.

5: Inadvertent dialing

In the same way, be careful about inadvertently dialing a call from your phone, particularly if you have an exposed keypad and your car seat belt touches it. Even if you have a flip phone, be aware that if you press certain buttons or cause them to be pressed, you could activate voice recognition, which could cause the phone to dial a call.

If, upon driving home, you find that your daughter has the entire contents of the George Strait Troubadour album on her voicemail, you probably dialed her by mistake in this way.

6: A conference call trap

Suppose you and a co-worker are talking to a vendor via conference call. Suppose further that all three of you are in different locations and that after jointly talking with the vendor, you want to talk separately with your co-worker. Suggestion: Instead of remaining on the call with your co-worker, hang up after saying goodbye to the vendor. Then, redial your co-worker via a separate call.

The reason? That vendor may not have actually hung up. He or she may simply have muted the phone, remaining on the line and able to hear everything you and you co-worker say. Making a separate call prevents this situation.

7: Outdated voicemail greeting

Updating your voicemail to reflect a temporary absence helps your callers and helps your professional image. When you do so, you show that you're on top of your schedule. Of course, I sometimes wonder why people change their greeting when they never answer the phone, but that's a different matter.

If you've set a temporary greeting, though, make sure to change it back after you return. If your voicemail system lets you program the changeover to happen automatically on a given date, take advantage of it, if you can figure it out. Otherwise, consider a simpler reminder, such as merely putting a Post-It note on the handset. People will generally have no problem if you're a day or two late in changing your greeting back. However, if your greeting still references your visit to Beijing for the Olympics, you're way overdue.

8: Surrogate voicemail

How many times have you dialed a (usually) male person, and found that his voicemail greeting was that of a (usually) woman? In such cases, the greeting is a third-person rather than first-person greeting, right? That is, instead of "I'm away from my desk," it's "He's/She's away from his/her desk." Of course, that person had his or her assistant record the greeting.

If you fall into this category, think about the message you're sending. One possibility: You're too important to be bothered with setting your own greeting. The other, more serious one: You're too clueless to set that greeting. So on the one hand, you're telling people, "I'm competent enough to handle this multi-million dollar systems project." On the other hand, you're telling them, "But by the way, I'm too incompetent to set my own voicemail."

If you have trouble handling minor matters, why should others trust you with major matters?

9: Looking clueless on the transfer

How often have you called person A, asked for person B, and were then connected to person B's voicemail? It's probably happened often, because I read somewhere that something like 60% of calls fail to reach their intended person. Now, it's one thing if your voicemail encounter happens when you call the company receptionist. After all, depending on the size of the company, few people would expect the receptionist to know the whereabouts of everyone in that company.

However, the situation changes if the person you reach is the personal assistant of person B. In that case, if you are that person B, think about how the caller will react. Your assistant probably has answered the phone with "Hello, [person B]'s office, [assistant's name] speaking." The caller identifies himself and asks for you. Even though you're out, the assistant puts your call through, and the caller gets your voicemail.

Be aware that the caller might be annoyed or irritated. Why? Because that caller presumes that your assistant knows where you are and probably presumes that the assistant sits right outside your office. Therefore, ask your assistant, if you have one, to alert callers before putting them into voicemail. That assistant, and you, will look more professional.

10: Inability to place caller into voicemail

Too many times, I have called someone and reached the person's assistant. When I ask for voicemail, the assistant says, "Sorry, I don't know how to put you into voicemail. Can you call again, and I simply won't pick up?"

Whoever is covering the phone should know how to put a live caller into the intended recipient's voicemail directly. This skill is important not only when the recipient is away, but also when the recipient IS available. A caller might not really need to speak to the recipient or might not want to disturb the recipient, preferring to simply leave a voicemail. In this case, asking someone to call again not only inconveniences the caller, but bothers the recipient as well.