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‘We’ll call you back...’

When communication had a bit of glamour. Telephone designed by Isak Gustaf Clason (1894)

Early in my career I was given a severe talking-to by a colleague who'd left me a message to call back.

I confess that in those days I was rather arrogant and didn't feel the need to return a call unless I felt like it. As far as I was concerned, it was up to me as to when that might be. I was working on the theory that to be hard to get hold of (like metal in a bull market) would increase my value.

At the time (I was quite a young LME metal broker then) someone from one of the merchant banks (I think it was Warburg’s) used to call for my opinion on the market. The fact that a large merchant bank appeared to require my view had swelled my head, and I imagined I was Henry Kauffmann of Phibro (a well-known pundit of the day who Crucible readers may recall). So, when this analysts’ calls became irritating, I decided to send an invoice. You have never seen a quicker return call. He must have dialled the moment the bill hit his desk, pleading he'd not been authorised to spend actual real money on information. I relented and at least he never called again.

On the other hand, when I failed to return my friend’s call it was a different matter. His telling-off was serious - and deservedly so. He taught me to realise I had marginalised myself. The 'call-back’ was not about politeness – but the fluidity of trade.

He was explaining that not to return calls is a wrecking-ball to information flow. I had become a one-man circuit-breaker damming the river. I was a beaver holding back the the stream of necessary contract information, delivery dates, chemistry, price, payment terms - the essence of what we do. Not to comply was diverting other people's useful energy away from the job and into a mire of non-comms.

Decades later, I feel guilty.

What I learnt and would recommend to any young person entering the metals trade, is not to view phone calls, emails, WhatsApp messages, texts, with suspicion. Even if you are – for example - trying to avoid being put on the spot as a buyer or seller (sometimes easily deduced from the voice) there are better solutions. The younger trader needs to become confident there is nothing to be afraid of. To call back is polite. It might even win some business. Many calls are just quasi-social fishing exercises. Does it really matter? It's better to handle than fight shy.

Trouble is, when I was young I didn't have the experience - and was afraid of being trapped by the older hacks. And I was partly right. There was a member of our trade who was so manipulative that he made a habit of trying to create unhealthy close relationships with traders round the market. I saw it when I moved company. At each place this same trader appeared to have someone in his pocket.

He once asked for my home telephone number (before mobiles) under the guise of friendliness. Today, we would say I was being groomed and I did not give it out, although others clearly did. He was coercive and sought to divide the loyalty of his victim between the company who employed him and the client.

I feel rather lucky to this day I avoided that bullet.

What you learn the hard way, is that instead of evasive action there are ways to show disinterest without discourtesy; there are simple formulae like ‘not for us’, or ‘not in the market’.

Meantime, when you have rung back, you might choose to employ some diversionary tactics of your own!

The reason for my thoughts on the subject of ‘We’ll call you back!’ is the persistence with which the phrase is used disingenuously when you are ringing anyone for a service. This morning it was a local tree surgeon in Somerset, with whom I'd left messages and from whose secretary I was assured each time of a call back. More recently it was my local council's cemetery department.  

At least if it’s the cemetery people, they’re used to their customers not calling back.

By Anthony Lipmann

Published in the December 2023 issue of The Crucible








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