A Public Service Announcement From The Switchboard

“Hi, thanks for calling Smithco.  For English, press 1.  Para continuar en Espanol, marque el dos.  Thank you.  For information about our current sales promotions, please press 1.  For account information, please press 2.  Thank you for choosing sales promotions.  For information about office products, please press 1.  For information about home cleaning supplies, please press 2.  For information about electronics, please press 3.  For information about home applicances, please press 4.  Connecting you to electronics.  For information about televisions, please press 1.  For information about telephone products, please press 2.  For information about computers, please press 3.  For information……”

If the above monologue makes you groan, you’re in good company.  Few things annoy me as much as the seemingly endless array of recorded menus one must go through all too often these days when calling various businesses.  Though undoubtedly they serve the businesses adequately by helping manage the flood of calls received every day, automated lines are annoying for customers.  Nothing frustrates a caller more than successive sets of menu options that must be waded through in order to get to the right person.

It can occasionally be frustrating dealing with live operators as well.  You call a company, the phone rings more than ten times, someone finally answers only to put you on hold, and while you wait for the operator to come back to you, you get to listen to various annoucements on an endlessly repeating loop, accompanied by glorious Muzak.  Then when the operator comes back, you get connected to a line that goes right into voicemail.

With all that in mind, it may surprise the reader to know that switchboard operators have their own list of complaints about the callers they handle every day.  Read on to discover a few of the common sources of frustration for telephone operators.

The long (and unneccesary) introduction

“Hi, this is John Smith, I’m calling from Smithco [let me interject here that Smithco, for purposes of this post, is a fictional company and is not intended to be a reflection of any real business out there.  If there is a real Smithco somewhere, what is written here does not apply to you.  Thanks!], I’m from the research and development department and I would like to take a few minutes to discuss…..”

When an operator answers a call, in most cases, it’s just one of several calls all at once.  Be aware that as the operator is helping you, there is a flood of other callers waiting to be picked up.  Most companies rate the job performance of operators by, among other factors, keeping track of how quickly and efficiently they process calls.  Callers that take forever to get to the point and that begin with a long-winded introduction add to the stress level of the switchboard operators.

Tip:  With many companies, the operator really doesn’t need to know who you are.  They don’t need to know why you’re calling, they don’t need an indepth description of you and your company, and they aren’t going to take care of whatever it is you need handled.  Their purpose is simply to connect you to the person who will help you.  What the operator would like is just the name of the person or department to whom you wish to be connected.

“Central Supply, please”.  If only all callers could be brief and to the point like that, the operator would be able to handle the incoming flood of calls quickly and efficiently.  Keep it short, keep it simple, and your operator will be very grateful.


With the first point in mind, operators do appreciate basic courtesy and politeness.  Nothing fancy, just basic respect.  The example I gave earlier of “Central Supply, please” is fine.  Don’t just blurt out a name and nothing more.  A bunch of people who do nothing more than blurt out “Supply!” can be annoying.  It makes one think that the general public has no grasp of manners at all.

Whenever I get a call from someone who just blurts out a name, I’m often tempted to say my name in response, followed by “nice to meet ya!”

The clueless callbacker

The following dialogue illustrates one of my personal pet peeves, the person I refer to as the clueless callbacker.

Operator:  Hi, thanks for calling Pearson Inc., this is Dave, how may I help you?

CC:  Yeah, you called me.

Operator:  Sir, this is the switchboard, do you know who might be trying to reach you?

CC:  No, I just saw this number on my caller ID and called it back.

Operator:  Do you know who might be trying to reach you?

CC:  Who is this again?

Operator:  Pearson Inc.

CC:  Huh…well, guess I’ll check my voice mail and see if y’all left me a message.

At this point, the average operator would like to yell “why didn’t you check your voicemail to begin with?”  Really.  I mean, come on!  Why do so many people look at their phones, see a strange number on it, and then call it to see who called them?  Does it not occur to the general public that lots and lots of wrong number calls happen every day?  Is there really a point or rational reason to call someone and make them tell you they accidentally dialed  a wrong number?  If your phone indicates that you got a call from 867-5309 and there’s no message on your answering machine or in your voicemail, it was probably a wrong number.  And no, it’s probably not Jenny calling you either.  There’s no need to call the number back.  Really.  Let it go.  If whoever it is really does need to talk to you, he will call you back.  Trust me on this.

Don’t record me!

Okay, this one here is more of a personal pet peeve than a complaint from operators in general, though I’m sure there are other switchboard people who share my thoughts.  I’ll get a call that begins something like this:  “Hi, this is Joe from Smithco, I’m calling to discuss your toner needs.  Before we begin, I need to inform you that this call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance purposes.  Now, what I would like to discuss with you is source for your toner supplies and……”

To begin with, this fits under the first point above.  Too much of a long and unnecessary introduction.  Secondly, am I wrong in thinking that it’s kinda rude to tell me you’re recording me without first getting my consent to being recorded?  My intitial temptation on these calls is to tell the caller that I do not consent to being recorded and that he can either shut off the recorder or I’m hanging up.  And no, I’m not paranoid about being recorded.  I just think it’s rude.  It would be like someone coming up to me as I go into a store and telling me they’re going to take my picture for quality assurance purposes.  I wouldn’t be worried about what someone might do with the picture.  I don’t care who knows what I look like.  It would simply be a breach of courtesy.

To all you quality assurance hacks out there, STOP IT!  If you want to monitor your employees, fine.  But do it without recording me.  And let me tell you, I’ll put up with those kinds of calls at work.  I’ll be polite and do my best to help you.  I won’t tell you what I think about your call, because, well, I do need my job and acting rude over the phone to a caller is a surefire way of gaining the opportunity to find a new job.  When I’m at home, though, that’s a different matter.  I do occasionally get one like that in the evenings, and my common response is to interrupt the caller, let them know that I do not consent to being recorded, and that they can call me back when the yahoo upstairs agrees to shut off his recorder.

This is one of my biggest complaints about the state of affairs in general today.  Too much in society has become depersonalized.  All too often people, whether employees or customers, are treated as ‘resources’ rather than individuals with dignity.  People get trampled on all the time and treated in a manner that would have been deemed rude fifty years ago, but nowaday seems to be accepted as the norm.  A good chunk of the reason for this, in my opinion, is the fast pace of business and technological change in today’s society, and I understand that.  Still, there’s no acceptable reason to be rude, and it’s time we stopped going along with the way businesses treat their customers.  More in this in another post in the future.

Whoa, hey, TMI, dude, TMI!

This next one refers mostly to operators at hospitals, but also includes those at pharmacies and even groceries and department stores.  Someone will call, and along with a long-winded introduction, starts telling the operator in detail about his physical ailment or illness or condition.


Operator:  Hi, thanks for calling Smithville General Hospital, how can I help you?

Caller:  Hi, this is Jonathon Long, I’m a sales rep from Smithco, and I need to talk to someone about my condition.  WARNING: THOSE WHO ARE OVERLY SQUEAMISH WOULD DO WELL TO SKIP THE REST OF THIS LITTLE MONOLOGUE The other day, after I took a shower and I had gotten out and was trying to dry off, I noticed this weird growth in my armpit, and when I scratched at it, it started leaking this green pus and I’m a little concerned about it.  Today the area seems to be turning yellow and black, and there’s a horrible smell and…….”

Okay, that’s enough.  First off, I’m not a doctor or a nurse, and I don’t need to know your medical condition.  I’m not going to be able to help you with your problem.  And you really don’t want my advice.  Trust me.  Save it for the medical professionals, that’s what they’re getting paid for.  All I need to know is the name of the doctor or clinic with whom you wish to speak, and I’ll transfer your call.  That’s it.  Period.  Nada mas, por favor.  I don’t need to know what’s wrong with your stomach, your feet, or any other parts of your body.  And I don’t want to know.  There’s a reason I’m not a doctor.

This doesn’t just apply to phone calls.  I had a friend who worked at a pharmacy.  He wasn’t a pharmacist, he was the the one running the register.  One day a guy came up to the counter, took his shoe off, plopped his foot on the counter, and then pointed to some weird skin abnormality on the sole of his foot and wanted to know what my friend recommended he do for it.  My friend, who has somewhat of a weak stomach, almost lost his lunch.  I could probably have handled it, but I still wouldn’t have wanted to examine some strange guy’s nasty foot fungus problem.  There are plenty of people out there who endured eight years of college or longer to become foot specialists.  That’s their livelihood, not mine.  So go find a foot doctor and show him the nasty area on your foot.  Keep it off my counter, and don’t give me a description of it over the phone.  I don’t want to know.

Hey, I’m not illiterate!

I don’t claim to speak for every operator out there, but the following is something I’ve discussed with other operators, both at my place of business and at other locations, and enough of them agreed with me on this that I decided to include it.  First, here’s an example of a call:

Operator:  Hi, thanks for calling Johnston Inc., how can I help you?

Caller:  Yeah, I need to talk to Dave Smith, that’s S-M-I-T-H.

Okay, stop right there.  I can’t think of anything else that irritates me as much as that type of call, and unfortunately, they occur far too often.  Now, I understand people are just trying to be helpful, but it’s very annoying.  I’m tempted to respond along the lines of “Hey, am I wearing a sign that says I’m illiterate?  Or do you just assume that you’re the only person who can spell?”

First off, most of us are able to spell well enough that we don’t need to be coached.  Secondly, even if the name has an unusual or difficult spelling, most operators still don’t need to have the caller spell it out for them.  Why?  Because, in most cases, the name you’re asking for is attached to a person who probably gets lots of calls.  As the operator, that means I’m transfering all those calls to him.  Or her.  Any operator who’s been on the job for any real length of time is going to be able to spell the names of pretty much everyone at their facility.  So don’t spell it out for them.

That’s not to say we’ll automatically know the spelling of every name you ask for.  If the operator’s new, or if you ask for a name of a new employee, or perhaps a new visitor, especially one for whom the name is hard to guess the spelling, then yeah, the operator might not be able to look up the name without help.  But let the operator ask you for the spelling.  Give us the benefit of the doubt.  If you’re going to make an assumption, then assume that we know how to spell the name without help.

Think of it like this:  Would you walk into a pharmacy, go the the prescription drop-off window, and say “I need a prescription for Zithromax, that’s an antiobiotic that doctors prescribe for infections…”  Or would you go to your accountant to have him enter in a some numbers and tell him “I have a couple of deposits, one for five hundred and one for three hundred.  That’s eight hundred all together.”  He would be justified in saying to you “Really?? No kidding??  Five hundred plus three hundred equals eight hundred.  Wow!  I would never have guessed.”

Of course you wouldn’t say those things.  It would be ludicrous.  So don’t spell out names for the operator.  Maybe you didn’t think of it like this, but names are our business.  We deal in names.  We handle names every day.  You can take it for granted, if we’ve been at a company longer than a month, we know how to spell each and every name of every employee and manager in the entire building.  No need to spell it out for us.  Even if it’s a new name, you can take it for granted that with as many names as we come across in our jobs, we can probably wing it.

So, next time you call a company, whether it’s a hospital or a store or a corporation or government agency, keep the above tips in mind.  Follow them, and you’ll make the operator’s job less stressful.  Following them will also more or less eliminate the odds that you get put on infinite hold.

Operator 1:  Hey, did you notice there’s still a call waiting on line 7?

Operator 2:  Yeah, but I think he wants to stay there.  He really enjoys the Muzak and announcements.

Operator 1:  Gotcha!  ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink’.  I’ll answer it in a minute and put him over to Bob’s voicemail.


6 thoughts on “A Public Service Announcement From The Switchboard

  1. LOL! As frustrating as it is to be put on hold, listen to muzak or deal with a rude operator, the job of telephone operators and customer service people can’t be easy , having to deal with equally rude, insensitive or just plain awful callers.

    • True. Thankfully, the majority of callers actually are at least fairly polite. Still, it seems to be the case that one rude caller will be remembered easier than 500 polite ones.

  2. Thanks for the ping back on our blog. We spent 2 weeks in Kansas in 2010 at Tall Grass Prairie and along the Post Rock Highway and really enjoyed it. Ever been to Lucas? Looking forward to following you.

  3. Pingback: Customer Disservice | Serendipity

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