Telephone Etiquette for Secretaries

The manners which you as a secretary display in handling phone calls are actually an important form of public relations.

The courteous secretary whose voice has a smile in it and who sounds genuinely interested in what the caller has to say enhances both her executive’s personal image and the company’s image. However mysterious it seems, phone wires carry accurate reflections of your personality and your emotions.

The listener knows instantly—no mailer how you try to hide the fact—whether you are sincere or are masking irritation; whether you really want to help him, or find the whole problem boring.

Answering the Phone

Answer promptly when the phone rings. Give your employer’s name, followed by your own. For in stance, “Mr. Weaver’s office—Miss Martin speaking.”

If the caller is another secretary, saying Mr. Baker of the Corrugated Carton Corporation is calling your employer, say to her, “One moment, please,” and then inform your employer of the call.

By the time your employer picks up the phone, Mr. Baker should be on the line.

Screening Phone Calls

The whole point in having a secretary answer phone calls is to save her employer time, possible embarrassment or annoyance, and involvement in unnecessary detail. He doesn’t expect you to put every call through to him, but when you do announce a call he would much prefer that you tell him who is calling him and why, rather than saying “There’s a call for you on extension 21.”

The switchboard operator’s somewhat brusque “Who’s calling, please?” is not smooth or polite enough for use by the secretary. But even this brusqueness is preferable to the rude “Who is this?” that some secretaries use to find out who is calling.

You should politely ask, “May I tell Mr. Allen who is calling?” Or “May I ask who is calling?” If you don’t recognize the name of the caller, you can say, “May I ask what you wish to speak to Mr. Allen about?” Or, “May I know the reason for your call?”

When the Caller Won’t Give His Name

Most callers will volunteer their names as well as the reason for their call, because they realize the secretary is under orders to find these things out. Every so often, however, someone will insist on withholding this information. You can handle such callers in two ways. You can say, “I’m sorry, but Mr. Allen is not available at the moment. Would you mind calling back?” Or you can simply tell him that you are not permitted to put through a call without first finding out who is calling. If he still insists, suggest that he write for an appointment.

When someone telephones you to arrange an appointment with your executive, you must find out as much as you can about the man and his business before you set it up. No reasonable person expects a secretary to give him part of a busy executive’s day with out proof that he has a valid reason for requesting it.

Taking Messages

When your employer is not at his desk when a call comes in, you can take the message for later delivery, If he is at a company meeting and the call is important, type out a brief message, bring it in to him and wait for him to tell you whether he will leave the meeting to take the call or would rather call back

A pre-printed message form like the following (on colored paper so it won’t be overlooked) is handy.

Offer to Help

When your employer is not available, offer to help the caller in any way that you can. He may only want to check on something you can verify for him. However, be wary of giving out confidential information over the phone unless you are sure about who is on the other end of the wire. An unscrupulous competitor may not be above describing himself as an employee of the company and asking questions about confidential matters.

Handling Complaint Calls

A complaint call isn’t necessarily a crank or a nuisance call. An individual can have a perfectly sound reason for complaining. Poor handling of phone calls from people who have a complaint is bad public relations, because it leaves customers or clients with an impression of having been treated rudely. This can prompt them to call the president or some other company officer with a complaint of rudeness on the part of an employee added to the original complaint.

Never interrupt a complaining caller and don’t give in to the urge to be defensive because he is complaining. Don’t bluster or argue with him. Instead, listen sympathetically and reassure the caller you will help in whatever way you can. Take down notes of what he has to tell you, being sure to get such details as names or invoice numbers right. If you can’t answer the problem yourself, tell the caller what you plan to do and why. Be clear and concise.

If you have to investigate before you can give the caller a reply, tell him so. But try to give him a specific time for your return call— say tomorrow morning or in an hour. Be sure to make that call, even if someone else takes over the problem. You can explain to the client or customer that the matter is now out of your hands but that someone else (whom you should name if possible) will handle

If you must put someone else on the line after listening to the caller’s story, don’t just hand the phone over to a fellow employee. Fill him in first, as much as you are able to. This will save the complainant the additional aggravation of having to tell his story all over again.

At the conclusion of your conversation thank the caller for taking the trouble to phone and inform you of the problem.

Transferring Calls

It’s annoying—even infuriating—to phone an organization and have whoever answers the phone listen for a second or two, then interrupt in order to transfer the call to some one else. One businessman was transferred in this way three different times, ending up, much to his annoyance, with the first person be had talked to. Even the most reasonable caller Is bound to feel a little annoyed at being shunted from one person to another—none of whom seem to listen to him.

The polite thing to do is to listen to what the caller has to say and then decide who is the right person to handle the call if you are not. Ask permission of the caller to make the transfer. For instance, after listening to a caller, you might say, “I think Mr. Jones in our advertising department will be able to answer your questions. May I transfer you to him?” Or, “May I transfer you to our Billing Department? I believe Miss Carter, our head bookkeeper, can help you.”

Or you can ask the caller to hold the line while you make sure the person to whom you plan to transfer the call is actually the right one. If this will take time, offer to call back as soon as you find out who should handle the call. Nothing so annoys a caller as to be transferred from one department to another, each time having to repeat his story.

When you do have occasion to transfer a call, don’t jiggle the plunger rapidly to attract the operator’s attention. Too rapid a movement of the plunger can fail to light up the light on the switchboard. Depress the plunger slowly and rhythmically and when the operator answers say, politely, “Please give this call to Miss Helen Smith in Accounting.”

Wrong Numbers

When you receive a call that isn’t meant for you, be polite to the person calling. Showing your annoyance is rude and uncalled for; the person making the call has as much right to be annoyed as you have.

Instead of a harsh, “What number do you want?” or “Who do you want?” say, “This is Eldorado 9-9999” or “I believe you want Miss Helen Smith in Accounting. I am Miss Betty Smith in Advertising. I will have the call transferred.”

When you get the operator, don’t scold her for giving the call to you; the caller can hear this. Just tell her who the call is for.

When you make a call and find you have a wrong number, don’t vent your annoyance on the answering party, who has been inconvenienced as much as you have. When you suspect you have a wrong number, ask “Is this Eldorado 9-9999?” Or “Is this the Latham Company?” When the answer is no, say, “I’m sorry, I have the wrong number,” and hang up.

Calls for Visitors in Your Executive’s Office

When a phone call for a visitor comes in, ask the caller if you may take a message. If so, type it on a sheet of paper and hand it to the visitor as he leaves. However, if the person making the call says he or she must speak to the visitor at once, go into the office, catch your executive’s eye, apologize for the interruption, and tell the guest the name of the person who wants to speak to him. He can either take the call there or ask you to tell the caller that he will call back.

If there are several people in your executive’s office, hand the individual being called a typed message that there is a phone call for him and the question: “Would you like to take the call on my phone?” The visitor can then leave the conference room and take his call without disturbing everyone else.

Holding the Line

When your phone has no “hold” button and you have asked a caller to hold the line until your executive can get back to his desk, be discreet in your remarks while the caller is holding on. Everything you say will be picked up by the phone.

When You Have More than One Phone Line

If your employer is talking to someone on one line and a call for him comes in on another, explain that your employer already has a call and ask the second caller if he will wait. If you consider the second call more important than the first, type on a slip of paper the name of the caller and the fact that he is holding the other line and place it before your employer.

Don’t put the second call on hold and just leave it there. Keep the waiting caller informed. You can say “Mr. Allen is still on the other wire, but he’s just about finished with the call.” Or you may want to suggest that Mr. Allen return his call, if the conversation is still going on.

When you have more than two telephone lines, don’t let more than one individual wait. Tell any other callers that you will have to ask your employer to call them back.

It is discourteous to keep a caller waiting unnecessarily. As soon as your employer’s line is free, put the waiting call through; don’t make the caller wait while you file a few papers or ask your employer a question in between calls.

Placing Calls

When your executive asks you to place a call for him, you should do it immediately. Dawdling is discourteous, and, in a business office, can have serious consequences. When you are given an unfamiliar number, repeat it to be sure you have it right.

When you reach the secretary of the man you are calling say, “Is Mr. Cartwright there? Mr. Weaver of the Everight Agency is calling.” Then put your employer on the line, for the person making the call should never keep the answering party waiting for him.

Personal Phone Calls

If your company permits employees to make and receive personal phone calls, try not to take advantage of this freedom. Tell your friends frankly that they should phone you at work only when it is urgent that they do so. When you do make or get a personal call keep it brief; the office isn’t the place for long conversations about little things, interspersed with giggling.

Other people don’t find it entertaining, and may even be embarrassed to listen to your personal conversations with friends, Also, no one who wants to ask you a business question should have to wait while you carry on a personal conversation over the phone.

Try to avoid accepting a personal call while you are in your executive’s office. If possible, leave word with whoever answers your phone when you’re not there that you will return any calls that come in for you. If there is no one else who answers your phone and a call does come for you, tell the caller that you are busy and will call back.

When Personal Calls Are Forbidden

Many companies, particularly large ones, frown on personal telephone calls and request their employees not to make them. The feeling is that personal telephone calls disrupt office routine and add unnecessary expense to the overhead.

When personal calls are not allowed, a pay phone is usually provided for emergency and other important calls. Anyone who uses a business phone to make personal calls where they are forbidden is guilty of the worst kind of rudeness—the kind that implies rules are only for those stupid enough to abide by them.