The art and role of the receptionist

Dear Joan:

I have been a receptionist for my whole office career (15 years).  What is the proper way to let a caller know that 1) No, we don’t know how long Mr./Ms. Doe is going to be, and, 2) No, you may not hold forever, and 3) We are not the Sales, Marketing, Purchasing, or Warehouse Departments.


The first part is rhetorical but the second eats away at our time. Receptionists no longer just answer the phone; we are assigned other duties that have to be performed as well. People who hold “forever” are ringing back every minute and being told that Mr. /Ms. Doe is still tied up. It seems that callers don’t realize that they are also tying up incoming lines at the switchboard by “holding.” I have a feeling that if I met these holders in person, they’d be the same ones who peer over the top of my desk when they come in as if they have a right to see what I am doing. The real sad part is when the caller is someone from our company.


When I call somewhere and am told that the person I’m trying to reach is busy, I leave a voice mail or call back later. There is also email. Many people that I work withy, even though they are on the phone, are monitoring their emails as they come in. I’ve been able to more quickly get their attention with a brief email, which didn’t waste anyone’s time.


I would like to thank the many callers I’ve talked to for thinking that as the receptionist I know everything from the price of goods we sell to what goods we buy. And no, we don’t know if your fax reached Mr./Ms. Doe.  Receptionists are often positioned far away from the rest of the employees.


Receptionists have been labeled the “gatekeepers” for a variety of reasons but we are people too. If you want to get through to Mr. /Ms. Doe and you want to hold, be sure that some of us Gatekeepers are taking names and keeping score.


Thank you for letting me rant a little.



Maybe fifteen years is too long to be a receptionist. When the caller is viewed as someone who is wasting time or interrupting other tasks, it may be time to move on. It may also be symptomatic of too many other tasks being added to your main responsibility of answering and helping callers.


If the caller is uninformed or ignorant about your system, it’s your job to educate him or her. For instance, callers have no way to know they are tying up company lines. In fact, most of us have been encouraged to hang on a line endlessly to “wait for the next available person…please stay on the line…calls will be answered in the order in which they were received.”


A better approach may be to say, “Your best bet of getting through is to email him. He tends to answer emails faster than voice mails and holding for a long period of time won’t guarantee he will pick up the call.”


If someone is a habitual “holder,” explain that holding won’t help her get through. “Our system doesn’t automatically ring your call through if he hangs up. You could hold forever and he won’t know you’re there.”


If people expect you to know how long someone is going to be tied up, explain, “I’m sorry, I wish I could tell you but I’m not his assistant. His desk is far away from my desk.”


It doesn’t sound like your company would get high marks for customer service. The situation you describe suggests that the structure of your organization may be partially at fault. For example, is the organization so lean that there are no administrative support people in other areas such as Marketing, to which callers can be referred? If there aren’t enough support staff, the customer will have no recourse but to badger the front desk receptionists until their needs are met.


Are you doing enough to educate the people whose calls you receive? Are there more efficient messages they can leave on their voice mails (“Today is Monday, July 14. I’ll be in meetings all day but back in the office tomorrow morning. Please leave a good time to return your call…”)?


If callers want to know about products you buy and sell, can you refer them to your company’s website for information? Callers today are programmed to expect the people on the company end of the phone to have a database at their fingertips. If your company is behind the times in this area, perhaps you can make suggestions that would streamline information distribution. For instance, many companies now use auto responders that automatically send out information when an online inquiry is made.


I hope the tone of your letter is indeed a private rant and doesn’t reflect your attitude in day-to-day interactions with callers. Realize that they are ignorant and well-meaning, for the most part.  Your role is to take a patient, educational approach. You may find that most people will really appreciate you for your efforts.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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