10 Things Receptionists Won't Tell You
When looking for the seat of power, try the front desk.
By KELLY EGGERS
1. "I'm often underestimated."
Whether it involves visiting a doctor's office, hitting the local fitness center or just heading off to work, there's nary a day many folks won't find themselves interacting with an office receptionist. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there are more than 1 million receptionists in the U.S., and though the recession knocked more than 45,000 of them out of work between 2008 and 2009, it seems they've begun to get their groove back: The sector is expected to grow by about 15 percent through 2018. While visitors often regard receptionists as mere support staff, it's a mistake to disregard them, considering their position as an office point person. They're "the keepers of information in an office and, because of that, are in positions of power," says Hali Chambers, a former medical receptionist in West Virginia who now works in sales. And since many recession-affected offices also have staff wearing multiple hats, the receptionist you meet could be something closer to a hiring manager. All good reasons to "be polite and professional at all times to whomever is at the desk," says Crystal Brown-Tatum, a former corporate receptionist in Texas.
2. "It's my job not to put you through."
In today's world, office receptionists often serve more as a buffer to busy professionals than as a conduit. In keeping, many uphold company policies that prevent them from putting callers through directly or sharing additional contact information, like in-house e-mail and cell phone numbers. "If the boss doesn't want to be bothered with minute, unimportant information, then I'll get chewed out if I try to transfer the call," says Linda Avalos, a veteran receptionist who has worked in a variety of settings in California. Instead, callers may be encouraged to leave a voice-mail message with little assurance they'll hear back. Looking for a way out of phone tag limbo? Ask the receptionist to send an e-mail to the boss on your behalf, for example. However begrudgingly he or she agrees to do it, it might well be your ticket to a response.
3. "I don't actually work here."
In the wake of the recession, many companies, particularly smaller ones, have begun outsourcing front-office staff to save money. How does it work? Ruby Receptionists, a firm that provides receptionists who work out of its Portland, Ore., office to more than 1,100 companies around the country, trains staff to meet the specific needs of clients: how they'd like calls about job openings and sales pitches handled, for example. But the system doesn't always work seamlessly. There always seems to be "certain information we don't have," says Ruby CEO Jill Nelson. Nevertheless, off-site reception has become a booming business; Bill Grodnik, president and CEO of Davinci Virtual Office Solutions, estimates that of his firm's more than 8,000 clients, 75 percent use its virtual reception services. And while there are only two or three big players in the "virtual reception" industry, Nelson says the field is teeming with smaller, regional outfits. That means the chances of calling an office down the block and speaking with a receptionist miles away are probably greater than you think. Want to know whom you're dealing with -- and where they're located? "People don't necessarily know we're off-site," says Nelson. "But if they ask, we tell them."
4. "I'm not your personal assistant."
If you think the receptionist in the office where you work has it easy, think again. He or she probably has a laundry list that needs tackling on any given day, and it doesn't necessarily include helping you close a sale or pick up your kids from school. That goes for outside visitors as well; people often come into an office expecting the receptionist to leap to their assistance, finding them a satellite location's phone number, for instance, or providing a rundown of the company's business and personnel. "People come in asking for answers to questions that could be answered with a Google search," says Chambers. For the best results, be courteous -- and brief. "There is a lot of demand on [receptionists'] attention, so the more concise you can be, the better."
5. "I may tell a fib or two..."
It happens all the time: You arrive for an appointment at, say, the doctor's office, and are told it'll be "just a few minutes." But half an hour later, you're still waiting. What gives? "We had one very annoying doctor who was chronically late," says Chambers, the medical receptionist. His lateness drove her -- not to mention his patients -- up the wall. "We were constantly apologizing," she says. The fact is, receptionists are restricted from sharing much information about how things run behind the scenes. "I can't tell you that our decision-making process takes time," says Maria Santos, a receptionist for a banking-software-development firm in Dubai, so when "I tell you that I'll let you know in one or two weeks, chances are, you'll be waiting for one or two months." Asking some gently probing questions, like whether this is a busy time or where you are in the queue, can help you get a clearer picture of reality.
6. "...but don't even try to lie to me."
Depending on the office, receptionists might interact with anywhere from 20 to 200 people a day -- meaning a seasoned pro has heard every trick in the book and has a well-tuned ear for those trying to outsmart the system in some way, whether it's an aggressive approach to getting
put through to the boss or finagling a meeting with inflated credentials. Generally speaking, receptionists want to help, but only if the caller
or visitor comes across as honest and their behavior seems aboveboard. In other words, don't call and say you represent a bank interested in the company's product when the name of the firm you work for is obviously an event organizer's, says Santos. "If you lie," she says, "you won't get anywhere near the boss."
7. "I'm reading you like a book."
Receptionists are often the eyes and ears of an office. It's part of their job to know who's coming and going and to form impressions of visitors by careful observation. That's important to keep in mind, especially for those on a job interview, a sales call or any other matter in which one's conduct and social skills count for something. A word to the wise while waiting: Show a little respect and common sense. Striking up a conversation with a busy receptionist won't score you any points, for example, and neither will chatting loudly on your cell. "Receptionists will be asked, and they'll report back the time someone got there and what they did while they were waiting," says Emily Allen, manager of communications and publications for the International Association of Administrative Professionals. It's best to behave as though every move you make is being monitored, because it probably is, she says.
8. "You really don't want to work here."
Any receptionist worth his salt knows that sharing war stories about the office is inappropriate, especially with a job candidate digging for a little insider information. Not only is it unprofessional to disclose disdain for the job, for coworkers or for the work environment, but it might also be a violation of company policy. Furthermore, it's not the responsibility of a receptionist to do due diligence for those going through the interview process. Out of respect for the company, says Santos, when job candidates pump her for details about office politics, she keeps her opinions to herself, preferring to let people "discover and decide for themselves."
9. "The doctor will never be available
when you want."
Especially in big, busy medical practices, making an appointment to see the doctor can feel nearly impossible. It might seem like the receptionists are being difficult when they tell you to call months in advance, but there are a lot of variables in play. For starters, doctors often like to set aside specific times for certain kinds of appointments. For example, says Ellen Huxtable, a seasoned former receptionist from Illinois, certain types of appointments, like those that require fasting in advance, are often scheduled for highly coveted morning hours. And certain portions of the weekly schedule may be reserved strictly for physicals or even for sales calls from pharmaceutical reps and other vendors. The idea is "to consolidate these visits," says Huxtable. Which may explain why you can never seem to get a Thursday afternoon appointment with your general practitioner. Receptionists suggest having a few options in mind on different days of the week, especially when scheduling an initial appointment.
10. "Be careful what you wish for."
While many receptionists say they tend to play by the rules and let visitors navigate office personnel and politics on their own, a few admit to softening a bit toward the occasional courteous guest who is clearly nervous about a meeting. They probably won't provide much backstory on any impending conflict or the clashing ambitions involved, but they might be persuaded to share a word of caution now and again. "A receptionist is not going to be a fountain of information," says Daryl Pigat, a metro market manager at staffing firm Robert Half International, "but they may give a couple of pointers." Then again, visitors may not even want to hear what the receptionist has to say. "It's not in anyone's best interest to tell someone that the person they're meeting with is going to be combative or tough," says Pigat.