Dial ‘1’ for a Guide to Working the Phones

By Dan Schaefer

Riiiiiiing.

I stopped in my tracks and glared at the blinking device sitting to my left, its red, ominous light daring me to pick it up. It was silent for a moment. I wished the person on the other line realized they had dialed the wrong number and hung up.

Riiiiiiing.

Nope. The noise was no different to me than the classic sound of a haunting church bell from a horror movie.

I had received a very thorough, simple, and helpful training session on how to work the office phone system just hours earlier. Still, there’s a big difference between training and being thrown into a situation for the first time. A police officer’s first call. An actor’s first performance. An athlete’s first professional game. A public relations intern’s first time answering the office phone.

“Zimmerman/Edelson, this is Dan,” I whispered. “Yeah, is Robert available?” said the voice on the other end.

“Robert…Robert as in Robert Zimmerman, Robert?” I said, desperately hoping I hadn’t said the wrong name. I mean, in fairness to me, it was my first day at Zimmerman/Edelson, and the two founders first names were Robert and Ron. Pretty easy to mix-up.

“Yes…this is his father,” said the voice. “Please hold,” I answered.

I glanced over at Robert’s desk. Empty. Thinking back to my training, I had 30 seconds to get Robert on the phone. The clock was ticking, and knowing that someone was probably listening to some mundane hold music only added to the pressure. I mean nobody likes listening to that stuff.

After asking several people in the room where he was, I saw him through the window of the back office on what looked like was an important call. The door was shut and he had his back to the window. The idea of barging in on one of Robert Zimmerman’s important phone calls was not something I was hoping to do my first day. I somewhat expected someone to shout “Dead man walking!” as I nervously moved towards the door.

“Robert? Your father is on line one,” I said as I poked my head through the door. “I’m already on with him,” he answered as he moved the phone away from his face.

It took me a second to realize that in the half of a minute I was dealing with the call, it had already been taken care of. This gave me confidence.

For the rest of the day, I didn’t think of the phone like a time bomb. Rather, I looked at it as an opportunity to gain more experience. I found that in many cases the person on the other line needed something very simple.

I took messages for other employees and began to decipher their hand gestures when they were already on other calls. I transferred people to voicemail. I even went on the overhead intercom to announce someone was on the phone for an employee upstairs.

One of the first things I was taught at Zimmerman/Edelson was the fact that handling business through the phone in a professional and efficient way is key. Yet, I guarantee you will never see “How to Answer a Phone at your PR Internship” marked on any of your class syllabi as a topic of discussion. That’s because it’s just a small part of adjusting from being a student to an intern or even a professional, something I’ve just begun.