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Handling an Office Telephone System in a Hybrid Workplace

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Image: Albert Shakirov - Alamy Stock Photo
Most organizations still have some type of a business telephone system (formerly called a PBX, more often called a communications server or cloud-based system). That system typically falls under the purview of the IT department. However, in the workplace transformations of the past two years, the finer points relating to how the telephone system is set up to handle callers may have gone by the wayside—resulting in giving a ‘less than good’ impression for those who still try to call the office.
Adding to the complications: a hybrid workforce means that people alternate between working at home and in an office—so the communications professionals who have to maintain the business phones now have a new challenge of knowing where someone’s going to be taking their calls. Below are some common scenarios anyone responsible for the phones at work needs to work through in the age of hybrid work.
Do Your Current and Prospective Customers Know the Office’s Main Telephone Number?
Every company used to have a main telephone number answered by a live person who would direct your call to the correct person. With the advent of direct dialing a separate telephone number for each employee, the main office number has become neglected. In many cases, it’s hard to find a main telephone number for a company. Try running a search query for “Main office telephone number” with a specific company name to see what comes up. Every organization should have a main number as a starting point of contact for callers who may not know how to reach the person they want to talk to—or even the person to talk to. Corporate websites that attempt to provide telephone numbers for different purposes often fall short—assuming they list phone numbers and not just a form one can fill out, hit the submit button, and cross their fingers.
Who—or What—is Answering Your Office’s Main Number?
If your office does have a main telephone number listed somewhere, and someone does call your main telephone number, what do they hear? More often than not, your caller will reach an automated answering system and to direct their call to a specific person—again—a prospective caller may not even know who to try to reach. How does this automated system work for the caller? Usually not very well.
Automated answering systems (also called automated attendants) ask callers to communicate with them either using tones emitted by the touchtone dial pad on their phone or by a spoken word. Some automated systems will accept both. But they have never done a good job of replacing a real person.
Here is a typical scenario to illustrate what goes wrong: The caller hears, “Thank you for calling our company. If you know the three-digit extension of the person you are calling, you may dial it now.” The caller rarely knows the extension. “For a company directory, press one.” The caller presses one and hears, “Using your touchtone pad enter the first three letters of the last name of the person you are trying to reach.”
Now, the system has already assumed the caller knows with whom they wish to speak. It’s also assuming the caller knows the exact spelling of their contact’s last name.
The caller guesses how to spell the person’s last name and is now listening to a list of names spoken in a robotic voice, none of which is the person they are trying to reach. No further instruction is provided. No “press now to speak to a live human,” nothing to help someone trapped on the other end of a lifeless audio recording.
If you know the secret to reaching a live person, you may try dialing zero (for an operator), but this often brings you back to the original recording, “Thank you for calling our company, etc.” The endless loop. Caller frustration! The result is a bad impression of the organization that (clearly) doesn’t want anyone calling it or giving it business.
Each manufacturer’s automated answering system works differently, and you can set it up in various ways. Try yours to find out just how bad it is for the outside caller—then see what options you have for making it better.
Do You Even Need Voicemail?
More people operate exclusively using their mobile phones. It’s common to hear someone say, “I never check my voicemail.” If this is the case with your organization’s employees, you may want to rethink whether your business even needs a communication system with the capacity for voicemail. Instead, when an employee’s office-based phone rings, and they don’t answer, forward the call to their mobile phone. This scenario may be the best and fastest solution to ensure consistent contact for hybrid-office employees who work in multiple locations each week.
Does Anyone in Your Organization Know How to Transfer a Call?
Because people are more engaged with their mobile phones than an office phone on their desk, the basic skills needed to operate the office phone system are either never learned or quickly forgotten. So if someone wants to transfer a call from one person to another within the office, they don’t know how to do it, and the callers are often cut off and need to call back.
Since every telephone system has different capabilities and might be set up differently, the best approach to ensuring everyone in the office knows how to transfer calls is to get in touch with the company which maintains your system and ask for some training on how to complete a transfer. There will be a charge for this. Make it a priority to have all of your users trained.
For a person to transfer a caller to someone else in the organization, the following are necessary:
  • Everyone must have an up-to-date extension list for the organization to connect a caller to the correct person.
  • If the caller doesn’t know the name of who they’re trying to reach but has a request to contact someone in a department or at a certain position—the person reached must know enough about the organization to identify a person (or a department) who can help the caller.
It’s highly frustrating for a caller to get transferred to the wrong place (sometimes multiple times).
There’s also a procedural aspect to call transfers to ensure a pleasant experience for callers. The best way is an “announced transfer” where the person initially reached speaks to the person to whom the call is transferred, letting them know who is being transferred and what the caller wants. The caller does not hear this conversation. The person doing the transferring completes the transfer, and the caller is speaking to the new person.
A “blind transfer” where the caller isn’t announced could be sending the caller to the wrong place, into a voice mailbox where they can leave a message (that may or may not be retrieved), or in the worst case, the caller will only hear ringing. The best practice for transfers is to announce the caller before transferring them.
These are just a few common examples of what goes wrong. With the one-two punch of a workforce that defaults to their mobile phones over desk sets and increasingly prefers videoconferencing over calling on the phone, will the office telephone system be around much longer? Probably not in its present form, but if yours is still operational, take some steps to ensure it’s creating a positive impression for your callers.

Jane is writing on behalf of the SCTC, a premier professional organization for independent consultants. SCTC consultant members are leaders in the industry, able to provide best of breed professional services in a wide array of technologies. Every consultant member commits annually to a strict Code of Ethics, ensuring they work for the client benefit only and do not receive financial compensation from vendors and service providers.