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Posted: May 10, 2012

Communication 101: Answer the phone, already!

An idea so old, it's new again

David Houghton

Hello, and thank you for reading this article. We really care about our relationship with you. If you already know the obscure 3-digit code to get to the paragraph you want, press the “pound” key now, followed by the code, followed by the “star” key. For a directory by paragraph, spell out the words you want with your keypad…

If you’re like me, you spend a good part of your day navigating the voicemail gauntlet. Make sure to keep those 3-digit codes handy. Each system is different—pay attention or you’ll get chopped!

Isn’t there a better way to manage land-line calls? For our company, there is—we call it, “answering the phone.”

Our 10-person engineering firm, like most of our competitors, has a “voice jail” system. However, we use it as a backstop, rather than a concertina-topped fence between our clients and us.  We’ve developed a method that usually allows a live person to answer the phone after no more than a few rings—often by the person the caller actually wants to speak with. Here’s how it works.

Our phone protocol starts with Caller ID. When the phones ring, we glance at the screen. If the call is from a firm or person someone thinks is calling for them, that person grabs it. Done! After three rings, it’s fair game for anyone in the office (including principals or the president) to pick up and play receptionist, usually for about 15-30 seconds.  At that point, we can send the call to someone’s extension, directly to their voicemail, or to their cellphone. If nobody answers the call, it does go to the automated attendant, but that is rare during business hours. We use a relatively inexpensive VOIP-based phone system with a gateway to analog phone lines, but this method should work with other phone setups.

This might seem like a bother, more than a decade into a post-receptionist world. But we’ve found several advantages to our system.

  • A real person answers the phone, quickly. Since a live human is placing the call, there is a satisfying symmetry to answering live.
  • The call often goes straight to the right person (maybe half of the time). For clients with a time-sensitive issue, this is a huge efficiency benefit and, I suspect, emotionally gratifying.
  • Anyone in the office can opt out of receptionist duty—or phone contact at all—on a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis if they are concentrating on work that shouldn’t be interrupted. We recognize the value of “tunneling” time and protect it when necessary.
  • We’ve gotten efficient at directing calls. Our computers use an app (iChat in our case, but there are others) that shows everyone’s status on each screen, with colored dots and titles that range from “available” to “on the road” to “it better be important.” This allows us to route calls appropriately, often directly to voicemail (which also gets emailed as an audio file that can be accessed by traveling staff).
  • We can tailor quick responses and cover for each other. For example, if Kris is in a conference call, we can say, “he’s in a meeting, Amy. I can send you to his voicemail, or is there anything I can help you with right away?” Maybe a quarter of the time, it’s a relatively easy question the “receptionist” knows the answer to. Talk about instant gratification! Our client calls, the phone is answered by a human, they get a live update on the person they’re calling, and they get their answer, immediately. This is part of the reason that our technical staff shares phone-answering duty rather than having a receptionist.
  • We get personal contact with our clients. This is the big one. Principals can and do grab calls on projects they may be reviewing or hearing about shortly. It’s a chance to say hello, ask how it’s going, do a quick review and course correction, or even a bit of marketing—“how did it go with that client meeting?” or “is Steve taking care of everything you need?” or “got any new projects coming up?”

There are a few drawbacks to this phone protocol, the biggest being managing a somewhat interrupted workflow. But in today’s world that’s happening anyway, whether it’s an email chime, a text from your teenager, or a colleague that pops over to your desk. Then there are the robo-calls, live sales calls, and wrong numbers, but they can be dispatched quickly, and thanks to improvements in caller ID rules, they generally betray themselves on the little screen. We often let suspicious calls (i.e. from 800 numbers, political parties, or that guy trying to sell us keyrings with our logo on them) ring through five times, at which point they do get the usual voicemail greeting “press 10 for Zack, etc.).

We’ve found that answering the phone is an “old school” touch that clients really appreciate, and that combined with a bit of modern technology, it can be properly managed. Aside from the spurious, every call is either from an existing client (opportunity to help them) or a potential client (opportunity to hear what they need). Either way, it’s an opportunity.

David Houghton, P.E., is the founder and one of two Principal Engineers of Resource Engineering Group, a regional firm that provides structural, mechanical, electrical, and energy engineering from their offices in Western Colorado. REG is focused on engineering excellence, innovative thinking, and clear communication. Go to: www.reginc.com or email houghton@reginc.com.

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Readers Respond

Hooray and I totally agree (and have even written articles on this one, too)! It is ESPECIALLY important for those seeking a job to answer their phones each and every time they ring, unless they are in an interview or networking meeting. Employers get easily frustrated with "phone tag." I've especially noticed Millennial Generation people and executives (even when job hunting) screening their calls. This says "I'm oh so much more important than you are" and sends people the wrong message. Pick up the phone!!! By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2012 05 10
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