I'm in a bad mood right now, which makes it a good time to address a pet peeve. The reason is a phone call I made-two phone calls, actually-trying to reschedule an annual appointment with my ophthalmologist. My eye doctor is highly regarded but I can't say the same for his receptionist, who put me on hold three times during our conversation, the first time even before I had a chance to identify myself.

"Dr. Eyeball's office, please hold."

Doesn't it drive you up a wall when you get rejected even before you get a chance to say your name?

The second time was a few seconds into our conversation after she picked up the line again. I had enough time to tell her my name but not the purpose of my call, when she put me on hold again without asking my permission. There I stewed for perhaps 20 seconds, though it always feels like 20 minutes.

Third time it happened, I hung up and then redialed. Soon as she answered, I told her I'm tired of being put on hold, gave her my preferred date for a new appointment and left my number for her to call me back when she could confirm a booking for that date. She started to get sassy but I cut her short saying that the time it took to argue with me could be better spent rebooking my appointment. I then suggested she ask the doctor to send her to a class on customer service and telephone etiquette-"Or would you prefer that I tell him?" I asked.

She called back shortly afterward with a new date and an apologetic tone. I take no pleasure in haranguing telephone receptionists, yet I'm sorry to say it sometimes gets results.

But it shouldn't be necessary. I understand that sometimes things do get hectic. Nonetheless, whether you are in the doctoring business or any other kind, there are techniques for handling multiple incoming calls that doesn't try the patience of a caller.

Actually, the office had a solution already in hand, though they made poor use of it. I actually made three phone calls into the ophthalmologist's office. The first call reached a voice message system, which stated the office hours and said that if I reached this message during those hours, it was because both phone lines were tied up and to call back later, which I did.

Almost a good solution. What would have made it totally acceptable was a message inviting me to leave my number, with a promise to call me back as soon as the office staff had a free moment. The dentist I patronize has a system like that and I appreciate the fact that it shows consideration for the patient/customer.

What's At Stake

Annoyed though I may be at my eye doctor's phone reception, it's not enough to put me through the hassle of finding another ophthalmologist, especially since the one I visit has a top-notch reputation and what remains of my oh-so myopic eyesight is very important to me. But over the years I have blown off various home repair contractors whose telephone manners gave the impression of an amateurish organization.

People in need of construction services generally have many alternative companies to choose from and it doesn't take much for their fingers to start tapping another number on the keypad. Telephone receptionists tend to be the lowest-paid employees in most organizations. Often in small companies, this not a job unto itself but a secondary duty of office staffers who get annoyed at phone calls that interrupt their other chores. They may not even realize they're being impolite, yet unconscious discourtesy can drive away enormous amounts of business.

The person who answers your phone is like the leadoff batter in baseball. A team is much more likely to score when the leadoff man gets a hit than when he strikes out. Likewise, the person who answers your phone creates a first impression that can make or break business opportunities.

Telephone reception isn't brain surgery. It doesn't require extraordinary credentials or top pay. Still, whoever does the job ought to receive more than cursory training on what to say and how to handle predictable tricky situations, such as multiple incoming calls, dealing with irate callers, information requests, etc.

During my career, I've made thousands of phone calls to various organizations in the construction industry. Because the vast majority of construction firms are small and more trade than business-oriented, I've encountered many examples of bad telephone manners. I estimate that about half the phone calls I've made during my career have resulted in an unfavorable impression of the organization.

Unlike most business problems, solutions to this one are simple and cheap. It merely takes a little instruction in proper telephone and customer service techniques. Here are some of the deficiencies I routinely notice and how to correct them.

Consider an automated phone answering system.

Automated voice messaging has eliminated the need for phone receptionists in many companies. Everyone complains about automated answering but by now most people are familiar with them and shrug off the impersonality. Better to stick a customer with automated messaging than punish him with a lousy live receptionist. Nobody likes to deal with endless menu instructions but it's mostly large companies that have the complex systems. Smaller companies can get by with simpler menu options. One should always be, "Press zero to speak with a live operator."

Minimize on-hold.

If you must put callers on-hold, make it a point to keep them on no longer than 30 seconds at a time. After 30 seconds, get back on the line and say: "I'm sorry but it's taking a little longer than expected. Would you prefer to keep holding or can someone call you back?"

It's not only what you say but how you say it.

Face it: Answering the phone all day is not the world's most exciting job. Too often this boredom comes through in the receptionist's tone of voice. Even worse, some receptionists convey the feeling they're annoyed by the call, as if it's interrupting more pressing business-such as a boyfriend on the other line.

All of us have bad days but it's important for a phone receptionist to sound chipper at all times. A smile on one's face forces people to sound upbeat. Thus, a favorite trick of telemarketers and customer service reps is to keep a mirror by the phone at all times. They watch for and practice that smile as they speak. Not a bad idea for phone receptionists.

Clipped responses.

Often I hear, "He's not in right now." Then silence. Abrupt responses like this verge on being impolite. Instead of offering to take a message or patch into voice mail, the receptionist frequently will say instead, "You can reach him after five o'clock."

Inquiries often get answered with clipped responses, such as: "I don't know ... I'm afraid I can't help you ... We don't do that."

Short, negative responses come across as grouchy. They need to be replaced by, "I don't know but I'll try to put you in touch with someone who does."

Part of the problem is inadequately defining the telephone reception job. Everyone who answers the phone needs to undergo at least a few hours of training that emphasizes their customer service role. They must understand that their job is not only to answer telephones but to assist callers in getting to the right person or obtaining the right information. It's like military basic training, which teaches every soldier rudimentary combat skills. Similarly, every employee needs basic customer service skills.

Screening vs. welcoming.

On one hand, a phone receptionist is expected to deflect pesky salesmen but at the same time extend a warm welcome to potential customers or VIPs. A natural tug-of-war exists between these conflicting functions. Experienced phone receptionists develop a kind of radar that helps them distinguish important calls from nuisances but some are too inexperienced to pick up the signals.

Is there any foolproof way to screen out the pests without alienating potential customers? Probably not. So, instruct your receptionists to treat everyone politely and if there's any doubt, put the call through. The worst you can lose is a few minutes of time. Miscalculating, however, can cost you a lifetime worth of customers.

Dealing with angry callers.

Listen carefully. Be sure to understand the nature of the complaint.

Pause before responding. Never interrupt.

If anger turns to abuse, say, "Taking it out on me will not solve your problem. Please give me a chance to help you."

Avoid the word "you," as in, "You need to ..." Instead, say things like "I would recommend, or "May I suggest."

Top phone receptionists make every effort to ...
  • Answer every call on the first ring.
  • Tell the caller the name of the person and extension number when transferring, just in case of a disconnect.
  • Ask callers if it's OK to put them on hold before doing so.
  • Let the caller hang up first to guard against an abrupt, premature cutoff.

If you read this article, please circle number 347.