What’s the purpose of having someone answer your phone?

Over at Ask a Manager a reader asks what to do about an HR person who called her first and now won’t take/return the reader’s calls. Ask a Manager gives an excellent (as usual) answer. It, however, brings me to this question: What is the purpose of having someone answer your phone if all they are going to do is send you to voice mail?

Yes, I know it’s so that if the CEO calls, your receptionist can run and get you out of whatever important meeting you are in. Except, how often does that happen? Really? And if it happens a lot, then his admin can call your admin directly.

A couple of days ago I called a woman with whom I had been corresponding via e-mail. I needed an answer to a rather basic question about the German language lessons this school offered. What I got was the receptionist. She said the person I was looking for was not available, and would I like her voice mail? I said, “Oh, perhaps you can help me. I just have a question–“

“Oh, I’m just the receptionist,” she said, cutting me off.

The funny thing is, in my experience this isn’t unusual. So, why have someone answer your phone if they can’t answer the most basic question? I’ve had bosses who insisted on the rule that “all calls be answered by a live person.” This is good if the live person could help, but in practice, it just meant a live person saying, “Can I take a message?”

Now, I am not at all discounting the value of a good administrative assistant. I’m discounting the necessity of having a human, who can’t really help you, answering the phones. Someone explain.

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23 thoughts on “What’s the purpose of having someone answer your phone?

  1. Happy Tuesday to you too, Anonymous. Jeeze.

    What you might be running into is a small organization. We have 7 phone lines into my office, but none of them go to a specific person. So the receptionist answers the phone and finds out who you want to talk to and then transfers you either to that person or to their voicemail if they aren't available.

  2. Wow. Your trolls are dull. Mine usually at least add a little profanity.

    My husband is a fundraiser, and at each organization, they've required that an assistant answer the phone. It's because a lot of the donors are elderly, and their theory is that old people like to talk to a human. They get sent to voice mail anyway, so I don't get it…but some people think that talking to a human before the voice mail is what people want.

    It drives me NUTS, because if I have a quick question like, "Where did you leave the pliers?" I have to spend 10 minutes talking to the receptionist before I can even leave the damn message. SO annoying.

    Yet another reason that email is better than phone.

  3. A live person saying, "Can I take a message?" is a big step up from voicemail. When a live person takes a message, you can be somewhat sure that all the information you gave came across audibly, and if there's some detail that is obviously missing from you message (happens to me all the time when I flusteredly try to speak into the dead silence of voicemail), the person taking down the message has a chance to do some basic sanity checks and ask for clarification.

    Now a live person who transfers the call to voicemail, THAT is useless.

  4. This is such a good point. A good receptionist will keep as many calls as possible from going through to someone else, by answering any questions that don't absolutely have to be answered by someone whose time is costing the company a lot more.

  5. Sounds like one of those situations where the receptionist is basically fancy furniture to impress people who physically walk into the lobby and/or a coffee-maker.

    In good organizations, I've found 1st responder receptionist to be more like triage nurses: generalists who can offer zeroth order help with any basic question (location, logistics, lookup, hours are among the more basic ones…).

  6. Yes, one has to wonder why someone bothers to be a troll if he is going to be a boring troll. But, because of the lack of profanity, I let the comment stand. Say some bad words and get deleted.

    I truly understand the value of someone with a clue answering your phone. When I was in the midst of laying off two thousand people at once, my admin was worth her weight in gold. She could answer 50% of the calls herself, direct another 30% to someone else, leaving me only 20% of the calls.

    But, receptionists that simply take a message or put someone into voice mail are a waste of time.

  7. I was a temp receptionist once and knew nobody in the organization and nothing about it, which made me nuts when calls came in because I was USELESS for doing anything but sending calls to voicemail. I mean, why not just program the receptionist's phone to roll over to a message telling people to enter the extension? Why bother to pay me?

    People would ask if someone was in and I could not answer, partly because I didn't know who anyone was or what they looked like, partly because even if I had known, the person could have gone in one of the five other doors.

    I was ordered to send all calls to the person or his voicemail and not to answer any questions. Not that I could have done otherwise.

  8. I think it's a culture thing. At my former company, my assistant could see (caller ID) whether or not it was an executive calling me. If it was, she'd pick up and do her best to answer the question if I was not available. Otherwise, she took a message. If it was a number she didn't recognize it would automatically go to my voice mail, which was my preference.
    I now work in an environment where our assistants MUST answer every call we don't pick up. This is annoying to me because there are times I'm in a meeting, on another call, or just busy with a project and I intend to let the call roll to voice mail. But culture here says it's ok to come interrupt me no matter what. I do not think this is effective for anyone. For me, if I don't answer- LET IT ROLL to VM!

  9. I've worked as an admin assistant for several companies, some bosses don't want the receptionist answering questions, at all. I think it's a combination of underestimating the value of the receptionist/covering their butts in case the receptionist misspeaks. Others really expect (and value) a receptionist who takes the time to answer or properly redirect questions. I think it has a lot to do with the boss and the company culture.

  10. Depending on your customers, some find it just as annoying to navigate an auto attendant system, get frustrated and hang up without leaving a message.

    I've often had the experience of wanting to scream "Please just let me talk to a live person" when I'm trying to figure out how to get to a menu to find out the extension I need in order to just leave a message. If I have an alternative that I can call and get a human, I'll take it. So the guy saving some dollars with the machine loses the sale.

    Our office has the receptionist option for the main company number, but we also have direct dial numbers for most of the managers so people can bypass the front desk. Then the person being called has the option to answer or just let it go to voice mail.

  11. I once worked summers as a receptionist where the owner was only in the office a few hours a day in the summer. He was very particular about his calls. Callers about certain issues got his cell phone number, callers who seemed to be not be salesmen got his voice mail which he listened to the next morning he was in, and salesmen/stockbrokers got a handwritten message he never actually read.

  12. So, I work at a school (not as a receptionist, but I sometimes have to fill in) it is a rule that although the receptionist may know some information the caller needs, they are not supposed to disclose it. What if someone wants to enroll and the receptionist unwittingly talks him/her out of it? What if the receptionist just thinks they know the answer? The rule is to forward the call to the person trained to answer it. Now, if you're someone's secretary, I don't really see the point of that, but in this economy no one can afford to look unimportant. 🙂

  13. The company I work for is a fairly large company (nearly 10000 employees in this location). We still have one main phone number, and it is answered by a human. If you ask for someone (or their extension) and they're not available, you get their voice mail.

    This works for us in two big ways:
    (1) The caller got to talk to a human. Yes, it may seem lame to get voice mail after that, but at least they didn't have to hear that awful recording "Please listen to the entire menu as our options have changed. If you're calling for … press 1 …"
    (2) Those who answer the phone at our company are not the receptionists who know nothing. Our phone operators are trained to know lots of things about our company and can answer lots of questions. If they don't know something, they know where to find the answer.

    Having humans like that answer our phone is a big win for us, but I admit, it's out of style nowadays.

  14. Working in Germany, I have also encountered this and think it is a cultural thing. It is very common in my office for people to answer other people's phones, just to take a message. It irritates me to no end to return to my desk and find someone not even in my department saying "she's not here, but can I take a message?" I'm told this is even worse in other German companies – in my friend's office, if you do not answer after 3 rings, the phones of EVERYONE else in the department start ringing until answered.

  15. I worked at a company like Fred, where at the HQ, a switchboard with a real person answered. But that's a big company with a switchboard, not a receptionist. It's possible she just didn't know the answer to *YOUR* question. But then again you didn't get to ask it did you? *shrug* I've answered phones and would answer the questions I could. Sometimes someone would ask me stuff like do we use the hooty-whatzee on patients who have blah blah blah itis? (medical setting) And I didn't have a flipping clue what they were talking about. Then I'd have to take a message or see if the person was between patients. As for VM vs. taking a "real" message, on both the message leaver and the message taker side, I'd rather have VM. If you leave a message with a person you risk the message getting lost, that person not translating what you're talking about properly, etc. The same hooty-whatzee thing would get put down on paper as "Steve called" and really you're just wasting your time (and mine) giving me all the details I'd need a BSN to understand, so you might be better off leaving a VM yourself. That office didn't have VM though, for anyone, not even the non-medical staff who weren't in the office every day and most people were annoyed by *that*.

  16. To argue the other side … I don't have my admin forward anything to voicemail. I work with the public. My colleagues all have my mobile and email and my admin is empowered to give my "real" contacts out to new colleagues.

    But, clients leave horrible voicemails- they are long, rambling, and hard to hear. They forget to leave their phone numbers or they get cut off. They get nervous that the voicemail got lost, and call three times in one hour "just to make sure I got the message." They give only a first name "Hi, it's Mary from last week" which doesn't help me at all … I saw five Mary's last week, any of whom could be calling. My admin can ensure I get the info I need to actually return the call, can screen the calls for anxiety/seriousness, and can alert me if someone needs an immediate callback, vs waiting a few hours or until the next day, as well as answering a good chunk of the simpler questions, like when is someone's next appointment with me, what is our fax number, etc. And, as in Kerry's example, most of my clients are elderly, and they like having a human pick up the phone (as do I, when I'm calling).

    So, my admin may not always be helping the caller, as she is not me and can't answer every question, but she is *always* helping me. Looove my admin!

  17. "…the receptionist is basically fancy furniture…" What an incredibly rude comment! Having covered a busy reception desk with more than one multi-phone line, greeting people coming and going, sending packages, arranging travel, taking care of catering requests, etc., I can tell you that it's a much worse situation for a company if a client can't get a call through because the receptionist is required to take live messages because there are those who are too 'special' to be transferred to voice-mail. In the modern business world, leaving a message on a machine is the norm. Many people actually prefer it!

  18. Maybe instead of just directing you to voicemail, the receptionist could offer to play Mary Had a Little Lamb on the phone just to lighten the mood.

    Without that, I would agree it doesn't do much help. Of course that's if they say "Would you like his/her voicemail" instead of "Can I take a message?" I think there's value in leaving a message directly with a receptionist as opposed to a machine.

  19. I have on ongoing battle with the receptionist in my office: if our (i share a phoneline with the other technicians in the office) phone is ringing, do not answer it!!!
    whatever message she takes makes very little sense as she doesn't have much knowledge about what we do and i wind up having to call the patient back anyway and ask them what the original message meant. this has been going on for a year and she still does it. makes us all look incompetent.

  20. Could be a lot of things going on.

    As several people have already addressed, sometimes receptionists are not supposed to answer certain types of questions or give out certain information. In our public company, there are specific "spokespersons" for the company who are the only ones allowed to address anyone outside the company on financial topics. They wouldn't want any of us non-sales folks to answer anybody's questions related to sales, either, because we aren't receiving the sales training and something might have changed that we weren't aware of, and we might give the customer the wrong information. There are a lot of reasons to try to get the person to the employee who is trained in that particular area before trying to answer the caller's questions.

    Why have a receptionist, then? Have you never tried to call a company, having only the person's first name and that they work in a particular department, and try to get through to them on one of those automated menu systems? Most of them, you can't do it. And what if you didn't understand their name correctly? A live person is a lot more likely to get you where you want to go. "Tracy in HR? Well, there's no Tracy, did you mean Gracie? Let me put you through…" Whereas with an automated system, you get frustrated and you can't get anyone to help you get where you need to go and you give up.

    Also, what if you're a TTY user, and using the relay system to call the business? I can tell you from my years working as a relay operator, those recorded menus are a nightmare. You type it, by the time you're through typing the first bit and get a response from the TTY user, the system has hung up and you call back. TTY user has to wait for you to navigate that level of the menu with their instructions, then you type the next level of the menu, wait for their response, repeat. If you get a live person right off the bat, your call is processed much more easily, much less frustration for the deaf or hard of hearing person trying to make a simple phone call.

    So please, folks, don't disparage those of us who answer phones and transfer you to someone's voice mail. It CAN be helpful to have a thoughtful person helping you get through to the person you're trying to reach, even if they're not allowed to answer your basic questions about a class they don't teach and may not have the most current information about — wouldn't you rather have the correct information the first time?

  21. I understand your frustration, and that of others who have to go through a middleman to get basic information. But I too have been a receptionist, and all too often people expect me to answer the same questions the president of the company would normally answer. I don't JUST answer the phone, either. I handle all of the mail, billing, meeting prep and notes, tech troubleshooting for just about anything plugged into the wall, and compliance. For a financial firm. In this environment. A little credit here, please.

    I'm sad to say that usually I CAN answer all of those questions (but I don't have a degree in the area and therefore cannot advance in my personal situation), but if I tried to answer, my boss would cut my head off. My boss is obsessed with the company message coming from his mouth, and his alone.

    Personally, our office is a pretty toxic environment. My obsessive boss is on the road a lot, and though he has designated others to take his calls and questions, they fear his anger if they don't answer it just right, so they REFUSE to take the calls. It puts me in a horrible and unfair situation. The customer hates me, and so does my boss. Somehow, nothing ever changes. I'll never go to HR because the last person in my position did so, and my boss cornered our HR person and made her give up the name of the complainer. I guess that is a whole different problem.

    Please consider the people the receptionist is answering the phone for. I'm not saying that a receptionist can't be rude and bad at their job. There are clowns in every profession. But many of us have to deal with people who simply don't want phone calls. I'm constantly put in a situation where I have to lie for someone, cover up, or comfort scared investors without losing my job.

    One last thing, receptionists are usually at the bottom of the chain. Often they are told little and kept in the dark. They're usually trying to please 50 people and the people they talk to on the phone at once.

  22. "Yes, I know it's so that if the CEO calls, your receptionist can run and get you out of whatever important meeting you are in."
    I'm a receptionist at a fairly small company and the assumption that we can "run" and get someone really irks me to the core. I sit at a fancy but uselessly large desk in a closed off room at the front of the office. I cannot see or hear any of the 13 higher ups in our company. Many times people have the idea that the receptionist is sitting right in front of the entire company and can send a note, tap someone on the shoulder or use some quick sign language all in order to get your call through. This isn’t true I can send your call through to their desk if they don’t answer you go to V-mail. But many times people call back saying “I got Joe’s voicemail can you reconnect me to his office?” after I explain that joe must be away from his desk the caller then asks the most annoying question I as a receptionist could hear:
    “Well can you tell him it’s Sally?”
    followed by
    “I really need to speak to him”
    Please know that most receptionists work alone and are “chained to their desk’ because we are “manning the phones” I suppose. I can’t jump up and run to get someone because you really need to speak to them. I can answer the questions only to which I know the answer. If I don’t know the answer and the person who does, is not available please leave detailed voicemail for them.
    And the commenter who said leaving a message with a live person make you feel more confident- please know that handwritten messages get lost in the shuffle or have to be hand delivered or written in an email to be sure they reach the correct person, causing double work for the receptionist when all you needed to do was leave a VOICEMAIL! (sorry I’ll calm down now)

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