School secretaries get some tips on phone etiquette

February 27, 1994|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

The first step in making Harford schools more user-friendly is a pleasant, caring voice on the telephone.

"The public is our customer and we have to make them feel they are important to us," Donald R. Morrison, school spokesman, told school secretaries at a seminar Tuesday.

"You're the first voice callers hear and they get their impression of the school and the school system from what you say and do," he said.

And that means being pleasant, helpful and professional no matter what the provocation, he said. Mr. Morrison said at least 50 percent of callers are hostile, usually parents angry about discipline or grades.

Mr. Morrison said a "refresher course" in telephone etiquette was necessary because a survey showed that many residents do not feel "welcome" when they call the school. More than 90 percent of the 10,000 people who completed the surveys said their opinion of the schools is shaped by how they are treated on the telephone.

And Christina Reynolds, supervisor of staff development and human relations for the school system, acknowledged that mistakes in communication do occur.

"The busiest times at a school are in the morning, at lunch time and after school," she said. "Sometimes, when people [secretaries] are rushed, messages are not taken down correctly."

Most of the secretaries at the seminar said they were already doing a good job of answering school phones.

"We are all professionals. I think we do a good job on the phones," said Nancy Cornelius, a guidance secretary at Bel Air Middle school.

Many of the school system's 216 secretaries attended either the morning or afternoon session at Harford Community College.

Franklin Carty, an engineer for Bell Atlantic of Maryland, gave the secretaries some pointers for answering the phones.

He told the secretaries that when in doubt they should stick with safe responses, such as "he is out of office right now; may I take a message."

"Don't ever say, 'I don't know where he is,' 'I don't know when he will be back' or 'He's in the bathroom,' " he said.

And, Mr. Carty, said don't ever put a caller on hold without first asking the caller's permission.

Debbie Hall, a guidance secretary at Edgewood Middle School, said the most important telephone skill a school secretary has is a sympathetic ear.

"Sometimes parents will call and they will be screaming and yelling. I try to remember that it's their child they are calling about and that is why they are upset," she said.

But secretaries also have their pet peeves, ranging from callers who refuse to say why they are calling to administrators who "disappear," leaving no clue to their schedule or whereabouts.

Mr. Morrison said secretaries have a difficult job because they are expected to do everything from comforting a sick child to disciplining unruly students, and fielding calls and taking messages for teachers, administrators, guidance counselors and other staff.

"We can't control what the caller says or does but we must always be professional because the callers are our consumers," he said.

Mr. Morrison said another way to help callers keep their cool is to ban high school students from answering office phones. Some students do this as part of business education courses; he said students could do other office tasks.

"I have vowed that no student will ever, ever answer the phone again," he said. "The phone should be answered by a professional and not a kid."

While some students are responsible, many do not know how to answer a phone professionally or take a message, he said.

Mr. Morrison said he did not know when students would actually stop answering phones. And he said no additional secretaries would be hired to replace the student helpers.

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