Coping with unwanted calls

The Guardian


Callers besiege secretaries and PAs every day in the quest for a piece of their boss: the salesman wanting to sell “the best accountancy software package you have ever seen”, the supplier who has not been paid for six months, the public relations company who wants to pitch, and Joe Public who wants to make a personal complaint to the top honcho. As honed as secretaries are in their diversionary tactics, the callers are getting increasingly cunning. UK-based Koach trains people in “getting past the gatekeeper to talk to decision makers”. Lee Ford, head of corporate development business, estimates only two out of three sales calls manage to get through to their target. But, if a rapport is struck, the rewards are high with eight out of 10 going on to achieve a sale.

Some of the most common fob-offs are: “He’s in a meeting at the moment” (Great, when does the meeting finish? I’ll call him back then); “He’s on the other line” (I’ll hold, if you don’t mind); “He’s out of the country” (When’s he back? Is he contactable?); “He’s not interested” (Really? How do you know that, then? A secretary with telepathy skills, brilliant); “He’s not available” (Right. Is he in a meeting, on the phone, in the bathroom, dead, what?) “He’s away from his desk” (Why? Are you too lazy to make the coffee?).

Being cheeky can work wonders if the person a caller is trying to communicate with has a sense of humour. One delegate at seminar described how he got past the secretary by saying the call was personal. The boss was not initially impressed. “My secretary told me this was personal so I don’t appreciate being duped into answering a sales call,” he said. “That’s nothing; your secretary told me you were in a meeting,” he replied. When the boss finished laughing he allowed the caller to continue and a sale was clinched. However, deflective tactics can prove embarrassing when they go wrong.

Gloria Mundy, PA to the chairman of UKinternet names registry Nominet UK, describes an unusual ruses she hears: “So-and-so gave me his business card last week but unfortunately I’ve mislaid it and cannot remember his direct number.” She tries to be polite, yet forthright, in getting rid of pests by keeping the same tone in her voice and staying calm. One of the tactics commonly used is to keep the most annoying callers waiting longer than normal so they get fed up, says Mundy. Secretaries need to probe before deciding whether or not to put a call through. Angela Baron, adviser at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), suggests they should also establish from their employer if there is anyone specifically they do not want to talk to. If so, politely offer to take a message. She says permanent secretaries are better at screening than temps because they are better acquainted with the firm and its staff. Even expert callers can fall victim to the most elaborate put-offs. When the CIPD’s Angela Baron phoned a funeral director and asked if she could speak to an undertaker, she was fobbed off in no uncertain terms.