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Savvy Telephone Etiquette

Savvy Telephone Etiquette

Monster Contributing Writer Therese Droste

Picture a cross between a magician and a linebacker. Calls are coming in, people are trying to get through to your boss. You use a little misdirection, a few stubborn blocking techniques and, voila, you become an effective assistant.

“Your job is to protect your boss — be a time manager,” says Val Williams, a business coach with Professional Coaching and Training in Edison, New Jersey. “And you’re an asset by being the traffic cop for persistent people if you know your boss can’t be indiscriminately interrupted for calls.”

The key to an assistant’s job is to be direct and tell the truth, stresses Williams. While it’s tough when a caller is persistent, Williams says to think of it as a hockey game. “The persistent caller’s goal is to get to your boss,” she says. “But you have a goal too, to protect your boss.” You need to respect the caller’s persistence by recognizing he’s merely trying to forward his agenda while simultaneously respecting your own agenda, which is to help prioritize your boss’s calls, says Williams.

And that’s where many admins snag a toe on the rug. While it’s crucial for a boss and her assistant to be in alignment with goals, admins often don’t have enough contact with their managers to know their priorities. “If you want to do an excellent job, you must encourage your boss to meet with you for 10 or 15 minutes every morning to touch base,” says Williams.

During the meeting, ask your boss to list his most important challenges of the day. “You want to find out the things that are stressing your boss and then find ways to help out,” says Williams. This information allows you to be proactive. “At a minimum, it means running guard on unimportant or unplanned phone calls for the boss, as well as finding out which phone calls are super important.”

That’s a nice concept, but what about the pushy caller who’s called four or five times already this week? Be direct, advises Williams. Try something like, “I’m sorry. My boss has been really busy, but I want you to know I’ve relayed your message.”

“Say no more than that,” says Williams. “If the person berates you and says he’s called four or five times, just state that you passed the message along so the person doesn’t conclude that you’re blocking access to the boss. You’ve done your part.”

Also, watch your tone of voice, cautions Williams. Use a neutral voice with no charge or tone in it. If you’re overly apologetic, you merely validate that this person has been wronged in some way, and that’s not useful. “Then the person wants to pull you into alignment with him by agreeing that this isn’t right, it shouldn’t be happening, and your boss really should call him back,” she says.

“A super assistant digs deeper and gets to the root of why someone’s even calling,” says Williams. If you find out why someone’s calling and then provide an answer to the question right away, you avoid spending time dealing with a person’s persistent calls down the road.

The other part of the equation is that your boss doesn’t look so hot by not returning phone calls. “Talk to your boss and point out that someone’s called several times,” says Williams. “Offer to call the person back to say whatever it is your boss wants you to.” For example, you could call the person back and say the boss isn’t available for the next couple of weeks and to call back after that time. Or simply say your boss asked you to return the call and that, based on the business goals, your boss is not interested in the person’s line of business. “If someone keeps calling back after that, they’re just rude.”

“The bottom line is you must be an assertive assistant,” says Williams. “Tell the boss you think you can help him out, and ask him how he wants you to handle telephone intruders. Let the boss delegate some responsibility to you and run with it.”

This article originally appeared on

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