I thought I’d learnt how to answer the phone when I was five. In fact, I can still remember the ring of the rotary telephone that we had in our first house in Zambia. Given how indispensable phones in general — especially mobiles and 3G smart phones — have become in everyday life, it’s worth remembering that every single person started off learning how to answer the phone (apart from the few of you who knew how to work this “contraption” instantly).

Fast forward almost twenty years and an entry-level job. Handling phone calls naturally is a key component of an office environment, but having to learn how to do it came as a surprise and I’ve picked out four key lessons so far.

First of all, everything from your tone of voice, tempo and (to my amusement) accent has be adjusted so as not to catch the other person off-guard.  The last thing you want is for the person at the other end of the line to be flustered or to realize that you’re new to this.

Second, there are the key sentences that your employer wants you say “X enterprises, good afternoon.” These have to be on the tip of your tongue and the only way to do that is through practice. Human beings are creatures of habit, so clients are probably expecting to hear that when they call you.

Next, and perhaps most important of all, is being able to decide on the spot and decide what to do. This is particularly important when you’re asked a question that you don’t know the answer to. Saying “Jeez, I don’t know” will not suffice in the working world, and only serve to agitate the client on the other end. Transferring the call or putting the client on hold while you assess the problem is a far better approach.

Last but not least comes passing on a message for a colleague who’s unavailable. This is particularly tricky when you’re not sure of the name of the person who’s calling. Before I got this first job, I would have probably said something along the lines of, “what did you say your name was?” Admitting to your uncertainty and simply asking the client if they can spell out their name has worked for me so far.

It may sound basic, but there it’s clear to me now that there’s a learning curve here that anybody wanting to work in an office will have to cross. I, for one, was far too used to informality before taking the first step into the working world. Like it or not, formality is still a big part of the working world and this is just one way to get used to it. How many people feel like part of them is missing the day they leave their phone at home? Despite our attachment to them and their ever-growing necessity, it’s worth remembering in the end of the day we are still dealing with individuals over the phone.