thoughts from sam deuchar


It is widely acknowledged – and rightly so – that mobile communications have improved the way in which we are able to manage our lives.

Being rescued from car trouble on a solemn dark night is a button-press away. Being stuck in traffic on your way to a meeting is a text away from tardiness. Locating an errant teenager is a piece of cake.

Even better.

Leaving a message for yourself on your own phone as a reminder to send the proposal to Sandile, a meeting request to Arnold, complete the budget for Rob, call Anthea about Robyn as soon as you get back to your desk, phone Telkom to fix the line, make a dentist appointment for Max, buy the vanilla pods for tonight’s dessert and send the recommendations to Andile by tomorrow morning – phew – is fantastically efficient.

Especially when you are in the car. You can’t swerve off the road to make notes.

Cellular phones. Glorious cellular phones!

We’ve got so used to the instant gratification of being able to reach someone with immediate effect from mobile to mobile, that the old-fashioned landline sits neglected and forlorn, gathering desk dust. We leave messages, hide behind texts and rely on social media to communicate.

I’d go so far as to say that social media has interrupted the general professionalism of telephone etiquette. And personal engagement has taken a back seat to a spray of emails.

In the search for executive talent, the landline is a critical first step in the process of soliciting business. A mobile just doesn’t cut it. You have to use a landline when you make your first move to introduce yourself and the reason you’re calling.

And so the process begins – revealing in all its frustratingly naked goriness the degeneration of telephone etiquette and ineptitude of far too many people to hold an effective conversation by phone:

The Receptionist answers the call – eventually – and I ask to speak to Peter Neverthere.

The Receptionist grumbles something and puts me through to the Personal Assistant. The Personal Assistant answers and puts me through to the Receptionist because I was transferred to the wrong Personal Assistant. The correct Personal Assistant answers the call and asks me who I am, who I want to speak to, is he expecting my call, does he know what it is about, and finally, what I’d like to speak to him about?

It crosses my mind that she’ll ask me next how much I earn, what my physical address is and what colour underwear I’m wearing.

But she does not.

She’s clearly masticating. And it sounds like crisps crackling next to my ear.

I reply that the matter is private.

She replies that Peter Neverthere is not there.

I expect her to offer assistance in the form of taking a message.

But she does not.

So I ask her to please take a message.

She says she doesn’t have a pen, but that she’ll put me through to the Executive Assistant.

The Executive Assistant – I do not quite catch her name – asks me who I am, who I want to speak to, is he expecting my call, does he know what it is about, and finally, what I’d like to speak to him about. Her tone and attitude make me wonder if I am addressing a member of the royal family.

I reply that the matter is personal.

So she takes a message, and three days later, when my call is yet to be returned, I make another attempt to reach Peter Neverthere. It turns out that he is as illusive as ever.

Two to three weeks of dogged determination and persistent politeness amounts to nothing. I begin to wonder if Peter Neverthere has transferred to Germany without the company knowing, or if the Receptionist, Personal Assistant and Executive Assistant are such tremendous gatekeepers that he is blissfully unaware that I am wanting to offer him the opportunity of a lifetime.

At this point, I have to stop and ask the question: Does a CEO ever phone in to the switchboard of his or her company to experience the interrogations and frustrations firsthand?

I think not.

Do CEO’s ever try to put themselves through the paces of the supplier, customer, business partner, solicitor or whatever to experience the agony?

I think not.

And it’s the head of an organisation who MOST needs to take cognisance – not only of the client, customer or candidate experience – but of the way in which people respond to this gruelling process devoid of common courtesy.

To make matters that much more untenable, it seems that the trend is for Executive Assistants to answer a CEO’s personal cell phone as well.

I came across this phenomenon when Peter Neverthere remained stubbornly inaccessible. So I left a message on his business mobile. A few days later, I hauled out my last resort – his personal mobile number.

And this is what I got.

Hello, who is this?

This is Sam Deuchar, I’d like to speak to Peter Neverthere, please.

Why are you calling?

I’m terribly sorry – but have I got through to Peter’s personal cell?


Oh. Well, if you don’t mind, I’d rather not tell you why I’m phoning, because I’d like to discuss something personal. That’s why I am calling on his personal cell phone.

I could not very well explain to her that it would be a serious breech of confidentiality to discuss the matter with her, or that I was trying to headhunt her boss for another opportunity.

I’d love to be able to bill somebody for the collective amount of time we spend on the phone – to no avail. Recently, I was due to have lunch with the head of a parastatal, but was reluctant to set off on the fairly lengthy drive without double-checking the appointment. It took 25 minutes of redialling the number – being cut off, having the phone put down and transferred to people who did not know what they were doing – before I finally got through to the Personal Assistant.

I asked her if lunch was confirmed. She had no idea. I explained that I had spent 25 minutes getting hold of her and wanted to know what she could suggest I do next. She did not know.

So I took the chance and got into my car. Fortunately, the person was there.

But what about the potential for people who fall by the way side because they don’t have the tenacity of a bulldog? For potential loss of business, for loss of brand equity and company credibility?

CEO’s have no idea what’s going on at the switchboard – the coalface of a business.

Even more recently, I resorted to “Do you know who I am?” Not because I consider myself omnipotent or worthy of a red carpet, but simply because I’ve always considered it important to establish who the person you are talking to happens to be – whether they sell photocopiers, deliver pizzas or sign million-dollar deals.

On Friday, I wanted to send flowers to Dr X for her birthday. The intention was to surprise her – so I called the switchboard for her secretary’s direct line. I asked to speak to Priscilla. Unbeknown to me, there are two Priscilla’s – one of whom works in the parent company. I was transferred to Priscilla – the other one. In her defence, Priscilla had no idea who Dr X was, and to her credit, she put me through to someone who may have known Dr X.

Annette answered.

Disinterested, disdainful and downright rude. When her pitch reached unacceptable levels and I felt the prickles beneath my collar, I thanked her and put the phone down. She still had no idea who I was – the dry cleaner, the client, the candidate?

My point is simple. People who most need to understand the importance of having a receptive telephone manner, seem to hold positions where this is critical to the job spec.

Understand who you are dealing with, appreciate the massive consequences that your telephone manner can have, the opening and closing doors, establishing new contacts, finding the passport to a great job or simply meeting a great person. We completely misunderstand the impact of speaking to people on the telephone.

And CEO’s – most of all – need to be aware that although an Executive Assistant may be pivotal to day-to-day organisation, she may also be a very deadly form of client culling and detrimental to your brand.

So that’s the point of this month’s blog. Personal engagement is first prize – in most industries. Telephone communication comes a close second. It is part of an organisation’s DNA and acts as a caller’s first interaction with a brand. It has to sparkle with efficiency, energy and a genuine interest in helping the person at the other end of the line.

It’s not rocket science.


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This entry was posted on September 11, 2012 by in Human Resources.
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