Telephone 101: Personal Contact with Your Constituents: The Telephone Can Be a Legislator's Most Important Communication Tool. Here Are Six Hints for Taking Advantage of the Opportunities a Constituent's Call Provides

Article excerpt

Everyone knows how to use a phone, right? Most legislators say it's the most important and most frequently used method of communicating with constituents.

In many cases, a phone call is a chance for you or your staff to send a powerful message to a constituent. Remember, those constituents have family, friends and neighbors. Their experience calling your office or home will be shared with other people in the community.

Used effectively, a phone call becomes the perfect opportunity to begin building relationships with your constituents. It's also the perfect opportunity to let the people in your district know that representative democracy works. Many people believe politicians are more concerned about being re-elected than representing their views. By developing good telephone and communication skills, you can show them that simply isn't true--at least not in your case. Legislators who answer their own phones say the callers are invariably surprised and pleased. Realize that most constituents assume you are far too busy and important to speak to them. You can do a lot to change that impression by simply answering the phone.

THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND

[1] Constituents are busy, too. Most people don't have time to educate themselves on important issues, which limits their activity in the political process. They say that until an issue affects them personally, they are not likely to pick up the phone to express their opinion. As a legislator, you have the opportunity to be proactive, reach out to educate your constituents, communicate your point of view clearly and encourage opinions and ideas just by answering the phone.

It's important to make it easy for your constituents to give you feedback and let them know how much you appreciate their calls. They should never feel that their phone calls are unwelcome or a burden on your time.

If your district is large or distant from the capital, think of ways to let constituents know you want to hear from them. Legislators with little or no staff may want to make sure there is an answering machine connected to their local number. If you have staff or office account funds, you may consider establishing an 800 number for your office so that constituents don't have to pay for long-distance calls.

[2] Constituents don't forget. A mishandled phone call can tarnish your reputation and undermine the caller's faith in all public officials and the government in general. One bad experience is enough to prevent constituents from contacting your office again. They then tell their circle of friends about their experience.

Keep in mind, though, that as an elected official, you are going to attract crank calls and calls from people you will never be able to help. Establish a system for handling those calls. If you get calls at home, make sure your family members are well-trained in how to handle them. The same goes for any staff you may have. Keep a record of phone calls in case you need them for future reference.

[3] Every phone call is important. People remember the small courtesies. Be sure you or your staff accurately record your callers' requests or points of view.

Read it back to them to make sure it is correct. You probably believe you are a good listener, but you can be even better by sharpening the skills that can make a caller feel his or her voice has been heard. …