Are You Ignoring Your Receptionist?


Sometimes, on the most hectic of days, we find the time to do that something extra that needs to get done, right? I had one of those days a few weeks ago and as I was rushing about to make sure I had everything I needed for meetings and workshops, I realized that, since I was going to be downtown, I could fit in the quick task of picking up the last bit of paperwork at a lawyers’ office. At 8:30 am I called the office to let them know I’d be there sometime between 4 and 5 pm. I spoke to the main receptionist who put me through to the correct staff member and then … there was a communication breakdown.

What caused the communication breakdown? Is it also happening in your business?

Voicemail systems were developed in the late 1970s, began gaining popularity in the early 1980s, and they disrupted a business hierarchy. It was once the pinnacle of corporate success to have your own receptionist. Today we all have one. Unfortunately, with all our many gadgets and ways of communicating, and continually finding our lives filled to the brim with things to do, we often forget the true value of voicemail.

Back to my story … at 8:30 am I left the detailed voicemail message at the law firm, which opens at 8 am. I stated my name, that I was following up on a request for certain documents be picked up, when I’d arrive to pick them up, and also provided both my cell and my email details.

It was deceptively sunny that day and as I rushed along downtown streets to the lawyers’ office I was quickly chilled to the bone. I had that “I can’t wait to get home” mentality when I reached main reception, gave my name and that of the staff member leaving a package for me to pick up … and discovered there was nothing waiting for me.

This wasn’t an uncomfortable situation. The main receptionist was lovely and she very quickly found someone else to help, the documents were located while I waited patiently, alternately enjoying an amazing view of the harbour and answering email. The delay created was approximately 15 minutes.

It did make me think about voicemail though. The reason the documents weren’t waiting for me, and why another staff member had to do some incredibly thorough searching to find them, was that the person responsible was away ill. No one had told her “receptionist”.

In normal circumstances, my detailed message that morning would have allowed for an incredibly efficient transaction. But without voicemail being updated, there were delays and inconveniences. (Likely when we are ill, updating our voicemail is not a priority but perhaps a colleague can do it for us.)

I know it’s tempting to abandon voicemail. Many of us are receiving – and making – fewer phone calls. But voicemail is our receptionist. Its design provides a powerful way to create efficiency and professional communication with clients and customers. It also plays an important role in supporting a brand of service and excellence.

So … are you ignoring your receptionist?


6 thoughts on “Are You Ignoring Your Receptionist?”

  1. Hi Mary Jane,
    I totally agree that the VM should’ve notified you on that person’s absence but there is also a certain degree of risk you are taking by sending an email or leaving a voice mail without getting a confirmation back.
    Happy the wait wasn’t too long!

  2. I agree with you on that ‘no one told the receptionist’ the first point of contact for a firm. My two cents on this as I have been sick and not changed my voicemail, but I informed my admin and boss by email that I was out. I also think that the basic voicemail message should also include the alternative choices for assistance if you are not available, in case you don’t update your voicemail if you are out then the caller knows who to contact as plan B. As the VM systems in the 1980’s provided the option to have the numbers ‘coded’ to ring to the admin if the message says press a number and you will be forwarded to admin. This functionality may still exist but is not implemented anymore as far as I can tell.

    I believe the root cause is related to basic office etiquette training for use of messaging on VM, email to provide the basic information for a client. Keep up the great work Mary Jane, we need to bring some of the original office etiquette standards. 🙂

    • Thanks for this information, Lorraine. I love the idea of alternate contacts. I do know that it is often difficult to keep changing a voicemail message, so this would certainly help. And it is interesting to think that there may be capabilities of voicemail systems that are no longer being used, but would allow companies to improve their communication with clients and customers. Hmmmm.

  3. Hello Mary Jane –
    Always look forward to your weekly articles! And I share your frustration at leaving a clear, detailed message that should have produced results, or a call back letting you know if your request couldn’t be fulfilled.
    I was a communications manager in health care and post- secondary education — and on the internal side, it was a constant battle to try and make sure the onus was never on a patient or a client to “chase down” what they were contacting us about. I believe it’s the job of the organization to provide a clear path to follow – but it’s hard work. Lots of education needed to get employees to picture themselves on the other side of the telephone line! That’s why your work is so important – especially when attention is on other communications tools for many people.

    • Thanks, Cheryl, for your lovely comment. It is very difficult work today to keep everyone communicating when there are so many ways to communicate. Each of them has a different pattern and cadence and combined, they can create confusion. I believe it is harder for organizations to provide the “clear path”, but it is certainly worth the effort.


Leave a comment

What's The Phone Lady doing?


  • Remote learning experiences + one-on-one coaching for women entrepreneurs (More info about this three-year program here.)
  • Team and individual coaching with a national moving company to refine their sales process
  • Remote half-day training for provincial tourism representatives
  • Remote seven-part sales training program for US-based SaaS
  • Remote webinar on accounts receivable communication for industrial-services company
  • Remote webinar on validation to college students in entrepreneur program
  • In-person workshop on job search skills for women in the trades
  • Remote half-day webinar on written correspondence to customers

Do you or your team want to improve your communication skills? Do you have a communication question or challenge you'd like to discuss? This quick-to-fill-out form is easy to use and you'll hear from Mary Jane very soon.