A popular job for the temp just starting out, an old stand-by for the experienced temp, and mountain of despair and confusion for both. About fifty percent of my temping experiences can be chalked up to receptionist positions, and its no easy ride. The strange thing about working reception is that whether it’s your first job and you have no experience, or you’ve been temping for years and you’ve seen it all, it’s still a job that is going to whip you across the back like a belt lined with fishhooks. Metaphorically speaking.
This is the worst part of being a receptionist. Especially in smaller offices, certain employees may want you to announce their calls. That means when a call comes in, you have to get their name, put them on hold, call the person in question, tell them who it is, find out if they want to talk to the caller, and then either connect the two calls or take a message or put the call through to voice mail. Pain in the ass? You bet, particularly when you have five other lines flashing, people waiting in the lobby, and the person you are trying to reach isn’t at their desk.
The other problem with this is that connecting calls can be tricky on foreign phone systems, and when you’re a temp, everything is foreign. There’s usually a confusing process that includes specific numbers, different buttons, several consoles, and sometimes even chanting. Sometimes a guide or set of instructions is provided for you, which is very helpful but not always life-saving. A specific example is the time I was answering phones for a large engineering firm. There was only one guy in the entire firm who wanted his calls announced, but he still managed to ruin the entire job for me.
The phone system was a bit old but had been thoughtfully designed by Nazis. To connect two calls you needed to pick one line up, hit 4, press pound, hit 77, pick up the other line, hit 9090, press this greenish button, flick the lights on and off a few times, activate a elaborate pulley system... and so on. Needlessly complicated, time-consuming... but I had it all written down on paper, so I was capable of successfully performing the procedure.
A call came in that afternoon for Bob Hall, the one gentleman for whom I was to announce calls. I got the caller’s name, which was Alan Greene, and put him on hold. I picked up a free line and called Bob.
"Bob," said Bob.
"Hi. I have Alan Greene on the line, would you like to take his call?"
Fine. I was doing well. I reached for the paper with the long list of instructions.
It was Bob, apparently thinking I had already connected them.
"Alan? Alan? Hello? Alan? Alan? You there? Alan?"
"Uh, I haven’t-"
"I haven’t connected you yet," I said. "Just a moment."
I hit the first button in the sequence.
"Alan? Alan? Hello? Alan?"
"Just a second," I nearly snapped at him, fumbling with the keys.
"New receptionist," was the last thing I heard him mutter before I finally connected them.
This happened a few more times throughout the day, and every time I got a call for him I became a nervous wreck. It was the same each time. I’d tell him he had a call and he’d immediately start calling the persons name, as if I could instantaneously transfer the guy. I’d say, "I’ve got Jim on the line." And then I’d hear this: "Okay, put him throughJim?Jim?Jim?Jim?Jim?" I don’t know what he was used to, but the former receptionist must have had a few extra fingers or something.
At the end of the day I got another call for him. This time I would be ready. I put the person on hold, got the paper out, and ran through the operation a few times in my head. I poised one hand above the console, flexed it a few times, then called Bob.
"Hi. Dave Smith on the line for you. Should I put him through?"
I became a flurry of fingers, hitting buttons at a speed far greater than I thought was possible. By Golly, he’d be connected with his call so fast he wouldn’t even...
N-? What did that mean? Was he... was he saying No?
This is the worst part of being a receptionist. Parcel services and bike messengers will constantly be dropping off enormous boxes for people that may or may not actually work at your office. Often you will have to lug the parcels to people’s offices because they never pick them up themselves.
You may also begin to notice the frequent birthdays of your fellow employees, and some of them may seem to have multiple birthdays within the same week due to the ridiculous amount of flowers that are delivered almost hourly. I don’t have any personal hatred of flowers or anything, but when they are sitting on your desk, people have a tendency to stop and coo and fawn all over the bouquet. They will of course want to know who they are for, and will not hesitate to ask you even while you’re on the phone or trying to sleep. This may be worse for you if you’re male, I’m not sure why... I guess guys just don’t feel comfortable sitting up to their foreheads in roses or tulips.
When you actually have to deliver the flowers to the employee’s desk, she will thank you in such a passionate way that makes you feel as though the flowers were from you, personally. This can make you feel anywhere from extremely uncomfortable to highly aroused, depending on the employee, your sexual preferences, and whether or not you’re wearing silk boxers.
Another note: florists, despite their names, do not only deal in flowers these days, as you will surmise when, along with the flowers, several enormous balloons arrive at your desk. One side of the balloons is a cheerful birthday message, while on the other is a highly-reflective surface reminiscent of taut, shiny tinfoil. You know the ones. How many hours have I had to sit at a desk, forced to stare at my huge, distorted head reflected in the back of one of those balloons? I cannot say.
Dealing with Visitors
This is the worst part of being a receptionist. When you work at the front desk of many offices, you not only have to handle phone calls but vendors, contractors, messengers, and family members of the employees. This is where you run into one of the two major drawbacks of wearing a telephone headset. If you don’t actually have a phone in your hand, visitors and people in general won’t realize you’re on the phone and just start talking to you.
The other major drawback is having a hunk of plastic jammed irretrievably into your ear canal.
Vendors, by far, will cause the most amount of problems. For some inexplicable reason, they are taught something called cold-calling, where they just drop by without an appointment and ask to meet with someone. I’m not sure why they call it cold-calling... maybe because when they do it you want to call someone to kill them and make their bodies cold, ‘cause, you know, when you die, your body gets... cold... and... okay, that was lame.
This one time I was working a desk for a long distance company and a vendor came into the office. He looked (and I hope I’m not making any major stereotypical observations here) like a Mafia goon. He had lots of rings, an expensive looking suit, slicked back hair, and since I was on the first floor I could see the silver Lexus he had stepped out of.
He asked to see Cathy, who I knew to be one of the office managers. I called her up.
"Oh God," she said when I told her who was here to see her. "I don’t have the time. Tell him to come and see me in a few months. After Thanksgiving."
I was a bit surprised, I mean, he looked somewhat important. I relayed the information and he seemed shocked.
"I don’t understand," he told me. "You have my product. I just need to clean my product and give you some updates. How can I do that if Cathy won’t see me?"
I had no idea, and I wasn’t sure why he needed to clean his product. I figured that maybe he sold printers or some sort of electronic equipment. He made it sound very important.
By this time the phones were ringing and I started to answer them, but he wouldn’t leave. Every time I had a few free seconds he would start in on me again. How was he supposed to do his job? He was being shut out of the loop. He was being ignored. He needed to keep his product in working order.
He wouldn’t go away and there were other people beginning to fill up the lobby. By now I was trying to give him subtle messages that I wanted him to leave (such as drawing little pictures of him being decapitated on my blotter) and he finally got the hint. He tossed a business card on the desk and left the office in a huff. As his car screeched out of the parking lot, I glanced at his card. Turns out the guy was a rubber stamp vendor. Rubber stamps. No wonder Cathy wouldn’t see him. Who the hell cares about rubber stamps? And he needs to clean them? What sort of expert labor would that require? A few swipes with a Kleenex? And that’s called product maintenance?
I’m not one to judge an entire profession on the behavior of one representative, but vendors are total losers. I hate them all. You should too.
Callers With No Sense of Humor
I try to be sympathetic. If you’re working for a large company with lots of branch offices, or, God forbid, a city office, chances are that by the time a call reaches you, it has been through several switchboards and a handful of receptionists. So the caller may be understandably frazzled, and not at all in good spirits. Say the wrong thing to them and, even if it’s well intended, they may simply explode.
An example. I was working for the City of Portland, and I got a call from a woman who wanted to know the location of our offices.
"It’s the Portlandia building, downtown. Fifth Avenue," I told her.
"What streets is that between?" she asked.
"That’s between Fourth and Sixth," I said.
It was only a joke, and I quickly assured her I was kidding and gave her the correct cross-streets for our address. There were a few moments of chilly silence on her end, then:
Man, this lady tore me a new poop-chute, and what’s worse, since she was asking what our location was, it meant she was heading downtown to visit the office and I’d have to deal with her again.
So never assume anyone you talk to has a sense of humor. Just give them the facts and get off the line, because there are people out there who can mortally wound via telephone lines.
Another problem with callers is their apparent inability to quickly write down anything you tell them. I don’t know what the deal is, but it can take up to three hours to give someone a phone number. The conversation goes like this:
"Hi. What’s Todd’s number?"
"Wait. Wait. Okay… Eiiiiigght….
"Wait. Wait. Eiiiiiggghhht…. Twwwwwoooooooo…."
"Wait. Eeeeeeee….. Seeeeeevvvvvveeeeennnnnnnn…"
What could be taking this person so long to take down a phone number? Is he writing the numbers, or carving them out of alabaster? I really makes you wonder how long it took them to dial the phone in the first place.
This is the worst part of being a receptionist.
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