Expert Commentary

The Telephone Bug

Telephobia—the fear of using the telephone—is 1 of 12 types of Sales Call Reluctance. This article explains how telephobia can paralyze the most determined salesperson and explains how Threat Desensitization can be used to cure it.

Eradicating Sales Call Reluctance
February 2001

"That's stupid! How can anyone be afraid of the telephone?"

My daughter, Dixi, was responding to my description of telephobia—the fear of using the telephone, one of the 12 types of Sales Call Reluctance. Her test scores showed she did not have this type, and her derisive outburst made it even more obvious. I responded in the only way I could to a teenage daughter at that time, "Wait until you grow up and you'll understand."

She taught me a valuable lesson by her remarks. When someone does not have a certain type of call reluctance, it is very difficult for that person to understand how someone else could have it. Not only do they not understand the fear, they regard it as a weakness or a fault. In Dixi's case, she saw it as "stupid" and incomprehensible.

Telephobia is not the fear of the telephone!

Telephobia has actually got nothing to do with the telephone! We know this because people with high scores have no difficulty using the telephone to order a pizza or chat with a friend. In fact, they prefer this use of the telephone. It's only when they have to use the telephone for prospecting or self-promotional purposes that it becomes a monster machine, ready to bite their ear off if they hold it too close.

Telephobia is often misdiagnosed. When salespeople avoid using the telephone, the obvious diagnosis is telephobia, and managers jump on it. However, any one of six other call reluctances can masquerade as telephobia: Doomsayer, Hyperpro, Overpreparer, Yielder, Social Self-Consciousness, or Stage Fright. Any one of these can cause the same apparent avoidance behavior in salespeople.

This is when a more accurate diagnosis is essential. The SPQ Call Reluctance Test is particularly useful in this case because it pinpoints with laser-sharp accuracy the types that prevent sales success.

  • When Doomsayers avoid the telephone, it is usually because they are afraid of a bad outcome. It has nothing to do with the telephone itself.
  • Salespeople with Hyperpro Call Reluctance often avoid using the telephone because they are afraid that this does not appear professional.
  • Overpreparers never feel ready to make those telephone calls.
  • Salespeople with Stage Fright Call Reluctance avoid the telephone but only in crowded situations when there is a perceived audience.
  • Yielders, afraid to intrude, avoid the telephone because they have somehow intuitively discerned that the prospect is otherwise occupied and not ready to talk to them.
  • Salespeople who suffer from Social Self-Consciousness will make calls—but only to those they consider on or below their own levels.

When telephobia is telephobia, it is always easy to correct. True telephobia is the fear of using the telephone to prospect or self-promote, and this fear is related directly to the telephone. Sometimes even the sight of the telephone is enough to trigger this fear response.

Without proper testing, this trigger is hard to determine. One way is to examine the object or event that triggers the avoidance behavior. This is not easy since the person with telephobia is usually ingenious at explaining why he or she will not use the telephone.

One of the most common comments from people who score high on this scale is, "I prefer to deal face to face with a prospect." Somehow, they think all other salespeople feel the same way.

When confronted with high telephobia scores, denial is a common response. "Actually, I'm not afraid of the telephone," they will tell me, "It's just the way the questions were asked on the questionnaire." What they fail to recognize is that the questions are the same for everyone who completes the questionnaire. When that is pointed out to them, their next defense is proof. "Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am on the phone all day."

High telephobia scores indicate that either the salesperson is afraid to use the phone or is conflicted about the fear. When this is explained, the next rational explanation becomes, "Well, of course, I am conflicted. It's because of all those pesky salespeople that call me when I'm about to have dinner. You get them too, don't you? You hate them too, don't you?" Yes, but that does not cause telephobia. If it did, then just about everyone in the country would have it, including the pesky salespeople who call us.

With no defenses left, they resort to, "Well, I need to think this one through."

Telephobia Does Not Mean You Won't Use the Phone!

Too many times it is assumed that telephobia will stop salespeople from making calls altogether. It probably will not. However, salespeople with high levels of telephobia will almost always make fewer telephone calls than others and will tend to stress themselves out more than most because of it. I have watched salespeople with telephobia "psyche" themselves up to make a call.

In one mortgage office where loan officers were expected to make many telephone calls during peak calling times, I watched one loan officer make two calls in an hour, and both times he did not connect with anyone. He looked busy though. He strained to study something on his computer screen, wrote furiously on a notepad, then leaned back as if contemplating something profound. When he finally dialed the number, his fingers were visibly trembling. When he got a recording, the relief on his face was evident, and he gladly left a message asking the prospect to call him back. He now had something to write in his log, and he took some time doing it.

I could only imagine the stress this was putting on his mind and body. As I watched him, I imagined his muscles tensing, his heart beating rapidly, the knot forming in his stomach. I could see the tension in his face and the flush of fear. I could also see the visible loosening like a rubber band that had just been relaxed when the ordeal was over. This is what salespeople with high doses of telephobia go through all day, everyday—until they learn to take control.

Is He in the Wrong Job?

Several years back, I spoke to the managing director of a telemarketing company in New Zealand. He was puzzled because his telemarketers were not having the success that he believed they should have. After much discussion, we narrowed it down to one simple fact—they were not making enough telephone calls to sustain the success rate they needed. After testing, we discovered high incidences of telephobia in all of the under-performing salespeople.

"How do you explain that?" he asked me. "Why would anyone who is afraid of the telephone apply for a job as a telemarketer?"

"What do you think?" I asked him.

"I guess they fool themselves," was his response.

"Funny," I told him, "They fooled you too because you hired them."

Perhaps he was right. Perhaps they did fool themselves. Denial plays a major role in telephobia. After all, it's not logical to be afraid of an inanimate object, especially one that does not intrude into your life until you pick it up. Still, there are habitual responses that are hard to miss.

I have performed exercises with a telephone in workshops. You can spot the telephobics. They are the ones who respond as soon as they see the telephone even before they know what you're going to do with it. Eyes widen, some appear to sink in their chairs, some suck in their breaths, while others go pale. They don't realize they are responding in this way. These are habit-level responses that hamper their ability to attain their goals and prevent them from comfortably making the calls they need to earn the money they want.

I have watched salespeople in telemarketing pools. The telephobics tend to expend an enormous amount of time and energy before they allow themselves to settle down and make calls. They examine prospect lists, alphabetize them, and even spell check them. They drink a lot of coffee. They practice their scripts, then change them because they are not happy with how they sound. More coffee. They go out for a smoke even though they don't smoke. They go to the bathroom often because of all the coffee they drink. They stand in line at the bathroom because that's where they find the other telephobics. At the end of the day, they look at the time and decide, with relief, that it's time to go home. Then they do it all over again in the morning.

What they fail to realize is that eventually none of us can escape the telephone. When they finally make the call, a peculiar thing happens. Their fears are magically transferred through the wires. The person on the other end does not hear call reluctance; he or she hears something else that raises questions in their minds, like "Does he know what he's talking about? Is he trying to steal my money? Can I trust him? Does he want to marry my daughter?" Whenever we allow other people to interpret our fears, we should not be surprised when they make the wrong interpretations.

Telephobia Is Easy To Cure!

In their book, Earning What You're Worth; the Psychology of Sales Call Reluctance (available from Sales Academy, Inc.), George W. Dudley and Shannon L. Goodson explain how to fix telephobia using several different methods. They suggest cures such as Thought Zapping (explained in a previous article) as well as Thought Realignment and Threat Desensitization.

My favorite cure for telephobia is Threat Desensitization because it works fast, is easy to do, and allows telephobics to get rid of it piecemeal. Even though telephobia is easy to fix, telephobics have a hard time believing this. Threat Desensitization allows them to wallow in this hopelessness while still getting them to dismantle it piece by piece.

How does it work? Threat Desensitization works on the principle that the fear of the telephone is not one thing but several pieces of one thing. It asks you to break down the whole into the component parts and to rank these parts in order of the amount of stress each one causes. Having ranked the different parts, it now asks you to attack the least stressful part first and work your way up through the others.

Elegantly simple, it wipes out telephobia within 2 weeks. After going through this exercise, salespersons develop new habits, and calling becomes a matter of doing one's job rather than an event to be dreaded.

Do they learn to enjoy making telephone calls to prospects? Mostly, no. Especially cold calls. But neither do they fear them. However, they get the job done without hesitation or avoidance, and this eventually translates into more sales and more money. It also allows them to sleep better at night!

Other Sales Call Reluctance articles include the following:

Article Topic
Can You Swim? Referral Aversion
Who's Afraid of the CFO? Social Self-Conscious
Did Your Mom Intend You To Be a Wimp? Yielder
The Most Difficult Salesperson in the World Oppositional Reflex
All Dressed Up, Nowhere To Go Low Goal
Am I Adequately Prepared To Sell? Overpreparer
The Secret Shame of Selling Role Rejection
Look at All My Friends! Separationist
Appearance Is EverythingHyperpro
A Fate Worse Than Death Stage Fright
You Can't Pick Your Family Unemancipated
The Doomsayer The Doomsayer

Call Reluctance, the Fear-Free Prospecting and Self-Promotion Workshop, and all related terms are copyrights and/or registered trademarks of Behavioral Sciences Research Press, Dallas, Texas. Sales Academy, Inc., is an Advanced Authorized Dealer for the Call Reluctance® Program. Frank Lee is an international expert on Call Reluctance®. He can be reached at (800) 898-3743 or at

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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