After a phone call to a large corporate that is known for its slick and polished exterior, I have been thinking about the many, many interesting encounters I’ve had with receptionists over the years.  Many have been downright laughable, others have been infuriating.

What so many companies – especially smaller companies – don’t take into account is that this is often your very first interface with a customer. A call lost could be a sale lost. First impressions do count, manners count, time spent dangling on the end of a line counts when your customer is busy…

But back to my call to this Johannesburg head office for some input into a story being written for an American financial website that would have showcased that this company is what it says it is, an expert in its field.

Operator: Jumble of words that, I thought, sounded like the company name.

Me: Can I speak to Mr X, please?

Operator: Silence.

Me: (After a bit of confusion) Er, hello?

Operator: I’m looking! Silence

Me: Please could I speak to Mr X?

Operator: I know.

Me: (After a slightly longer while). Er, hello?

Operator: Silence.

I phoned the opposition. Opportunity lost.

I was bamboozled that a large operator in the financial services industry would drop such a basic ball. This was much like being presented with a crumpled scrap of paper for a business card by a top executive decked out in a designer suit.

When chatting to a fellow journalist about this encounter a short while later, she mentioned that hotel mogul Sol Kerzner had a habit of phoning up and booking into his own hotels every so often. Heaven help the receptionist or booking officer that dropped this golden ball.

Decades ago, I suspect that Kerzner’s calls were more about efficiency than about image. While efficiency remains all important, in today’s world image is probably even more so. The first voice that your customer hears on the end of the line is your brand’s and not your receptionist’s. The way that your receptionist handles a customer’s telephone request (no matter how simple) is how that customer can expect your company deal with a query or deliver a service.

What leaves me bamboozled is that many companies – and especially smaller businesses that cannot afford sophisticated electronic switchboards and those who claim to be able to operate them – often view a receptionist or switch board operator as a basic entry level job. It is also seen as quite okay to pick any arbitrary staff member who just happens to be going past at the wrong moment to relieve your switch board person for tea or lunch breaks.

That all takes me back to my suggestion that you make that incognito call. You’ll be speaking to all those long hours, all that hard work, all that passion that you put into to launching and growing your business. I only hope that you don’t find yourself with the classic wacky switch board operator that is synonymous with cheap American television comedy shows or, worse still, a bored, dispirited employee that gives the impression that he or she would definitely rather be somewhere else. 

Finally, a final suggestion when evaluating that first voice impression made at the end of your line – what does your receptionist or telephone operator look like? By that I don’t necessarily mean whether or not your receptionist is dapper and debonair or decked out in a way that would make Armani proud, but subtler things such as neatness and friendliness.  People speak from where they are and your brand becomes who they are.