Under Pressure on the Telephone – Tips for Overworked Receptionists

by Paul Levy

We only have one pair of hands. We only have one set of eyes. Our body and our voice cannot be in two places at once. Being a receptionist who has to greet in-person callers, as well as answer the telephone whilst dealing with the back office and also respond to emails is a task we aren’t physically made for. We know that, and so the inherent nature of the job is bound to be stressful. Some people can handle the stress easily, some people push it down, lock it away inside, and others go into stress meltdown.

Receptionists are often refer to in quite heroic, martyr-like ways as the front line for all of this people-juggling. Receptions can turn into little gatekeeping operations and, at their worst, become like the doctors’ receptionist from hell where a power crazed receptionist acts as a kind of cold and superior gatekeeper whose job is to keep patients out! Even though this is a stereotype, there are quite a few patients with stories of hellish encounters at their attempts to see their local doctor!

Receptionists in some housing associations, because they are the front line pressure receivers, often become a bit untouchable in terms of criticism because “you should try doing their impossible job”.

And yet, there are also examples of many receptionists whose sense of service to their tenants is so strong, that, even under pressure, they ensure they are treated with as much respect and kindness as is humanly possible. The ideal receptionist is someone with the skills of sympathy and empathy, combined with the abilities to multi-task and not get too stressed over it. They are a bit like those wonderful professional Italian waiters, who see their work AS a profession and can handle a restaurant of a hundred people, not only with efficiency, but also with humour and social ease.

In social housing I often encounter such skilled receptionists, but even in the best of cases, with pressure on costs, they are under stress a lot of the time – true, they don’t show it to the tenants, so it remains locked inside and eventually they are forced to take days off sick. You can’t overestimate how stressful the job can become, especially if many of the tenants are stressed themselves, having tried to phone, or having not received a reply to their letter or email about this or that.

I cant solve the resourcing problems or change the resourcing decisions of your particular organisation. But I can offer a few practical tips that I have seen working in other organisations both inside and outside the social housing sector, to help deal with that pressure.

Here are my tips..

Use acknowledgement a lot more. Customers/tenants who are angry or being very demanding do often do not feel their needs have been properly heard, listened to or acknowledged. Acknowledgement is very underused and underrated. I would suggest that as much as 90% of perceived customer service is a customer’s sense they have been acknowledged, even if you cant solve their problem there and then:

“So let me make sure I have got this exactly right. You are asking for…”
“I understand you have written twice now and had no reply. I agree that isn’t acceptable. You must be very frustrated…”
“I really do hear what you are saying…”

Acknowledgement can diffuse anger very quickly. Not always, but often.

2. Be bolder with time management. I know this may not be permitted in your organisation, but, where you can, focus on one task at a time. If there are two of you, don’t both multitask – let one of you deal with the phone while the other deals with in person callers and responds to emails during any gaps

3. If you have put someone through to another department or person on the phone, always make sure they haven’t been dumped at an answerphone – give them acknowledgement and take a real message where you can. answerphone messages nearly always lead to follow up calls or visits as well. People hate them.

4. Don’t be a martyr. Take proper breaks, go for some fresh air if possible. Don’t use breaks to continue the work conversation standing in a kitchen unless you really do enjoy it. Give yourself recovery time. I know some organisations have developed no-break cultures even where breaks are officially allowed. You may need to escalate this, but breaks are essential and not taking them is a false economy.

5. Where possible, ask for some time to visit one or two other departments during the year and also invite other colleagues in the “back office” departments to spend some time seeing what you do. It is sup rising how much work duplication there is and overlap simply because we don’t properly understand how all the parts of our organisation fit together

6. Be prepared to terminate a call if someone becomes aggressive or abusive. Never respond emotionally. Simply feed back the behaviour of the person to them as objectively as possible, using clear description.

“You have sworn at me twice now and that isn’t acceptable.”
“You are raising your voice to me, and shouting isn’t acceptable.”

You might add some acknowledgement to diffuse the anger:
“I do understand you feel angry about this, but shouting at me is not acceptable.”

If the behaviour continues, give a clear, non-emotional statement of the consequences of the behaviour. “If you use swearing again, I will terminate this call and we won’t engage in any further communication until you have calmed down”

Stay calm, objective, and clear about the behaviour and the consequences. Try to use acknowledgement to diffuse anger.

7. Move all types of communication to an “action” statement as quickly as possibly, not forgetting to use the right amount of listening and acknowledgement first. Most people are not god at saying what they want. And wants are all about action. If you can suggest an action quickly and clearly, you can process inquiries very quickly. Discussion is often a way of letting people be in a state of confusion.

“So, we can arrange for someone to call you Friday and to organise the repair then once we have all the information we need.”
“If you can pay the arrears by Monday, then everything will be sorted. Simply put a cheque in the post to reach us by Friday”
“I’ll get our account manager to ring you before 10 o’clock tomorrow”
“You need a 345 form. I’ll put one in the post and it will be sent out by close of business today”

Simple action statements. Move discussion to action quickly.

If someone clearly is just wanting to be chatty, don’t be afraid to intervene with an action question:
“So what exactly is it that I can do for you today?”

Clearly, warmly given but quick action questions can really snap chatters out of their chatty frame!

8. Don’t try to hold inquiries in your head. Always make brief bullet point notes. Listen to the request – be it telephone, face to face or mailed – what am I being asked for here? Then in a few lines, summarise it with a date and other key information. I am sure many receptionists have incredible memories but none of us are perfect and information may need to be picked up by someone covering for you if you are away. Simple inquiry forms, on paper or on computer can be a key way of reducing pressure. Clear, retained information that is legible and concise is a real stress reducer!

9. Don’t throw things over the wall! They usually get chucked right back! It is a false economy to pass the buck. Always take ownership of a customer inquiry even if what the tenant is asking isn’t something you are able to deliver. Ensure that whoever you pass the issue over to has really got it, and don’t let go of ownership of it until you are sure of that.

And finally…

10. Steer clear of jargon and acronyms. They nearly always generate frustration in customers and tenants and often lead to more follow up inquiries. People have an aversion of unnecessary confusion and a distaste for cold bureaucracy. Always use plain and clear, friendly language. Explain any acronyms but ideally avoid them in the first place. Let’s all talk the same language – it reduces pressure.

These tips are just some of the wisdom I have picked up from receptionists in social housing over a number of years. I hope you find at least some of them useful.


(C) 2011 Paul Levy. All rights reserved.


About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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