November – Answer the &%!$# Phone

Have you ever been frustrated when calling a service company for your personal business or even another city or county department? You need to talk to someone in order to complete a task or get needed information, but instead, the phone rings and rings and eventually goes to an answering machine. You leave a message and either hear back in a day or two or never hear back.

Think how your customers feel!

I have recently made (tried to make would be a better phrase) quite a few phone calls to former clients, potential sub-consultants for a major contract I am bidding, and a variety of cities and counties for an article I am writing. What I found was:

  1. Ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, and more rings, and eventually an answering machine.
  2. Answering machine messages that are never answered or answered in two or three days.

Many of these calls were to planning departments with a dozen or more employees. Couldn’t at least one person be assigned to answer the phone?

I have noted that a high percentage of my business is now handled by email and we get less and less phone calls. But, when we do get a call, we answer the #*! phone. I now have most of my calls go directly to my cell phone which I carry with me (and answer) at all times.

You will be amazed how the stature of your department will improve if you just answer the telephone. Try these ideas:

  • Direct lines to all employees with phone numbers and specialties listed on the website.
  • Pick up the phone in no more than three rings.
  • If a call goes to voice mail, have it go on the third or fourth ring.
  • Require all employees to answer their phones.
  • If there are lots of phone calls, designate one or more staff to be trained and assigned to answer the phone.
  • For large departments with lots of call and many people in a queue, purchase the software or equipment that allows the caller to leave a name and number and be called back without losing their place in the queue.
  • Have a policy that all telephone voice mails are to be returned before the end of the day. No one goes home at night until they have returned all of their voice mails.
  • Emails should also be returned the same day received.

We are in the information age, so let’s act like it!

I feel better already.

the Management Doctor


Reader Responses

You’ve stated my frustrations perfectly. Why is it that planning and development agencies, in particular, are so inept–and borderline negligent–when it comes to handling telephone calls?

Earlier this evening, I spent about 50 minutes on the Customer Support line with Tivo, to straighten out a tech service connection issue. I was immediately connected to a European or Middle Eastern call center and was speaking to a polite, qualified person within three minutes. He quickly put me on the path to straightening things out and stayed with me until everything was fixed. Problem solved.

Last week, I tried calling into the City of ****** permitting center and waited on hold with irritating background music and occasional recorded messages for 25 minutes. Then, exactly at the center’s closing time, the recording switched over to the standard message explaining the agency’s business hours–and to try calling at another time. Then a sudden hang up. WTF. I just wasted 30 minutes, but since I put it on speaker phone, not all that time is billable.

These two contrasting experiences left me with the following thoughts:

  • Companies like Tivo, Comcast, United Airlines, Lands’ End, etc. deal with thousands of repetitive daily calls for general information, order taking, and problem solving. Many calls deal with identical or similar issues. These companies maintain call centers with well-trained representatives that can handle the repeated requests.
  • These businesses rely on telephone service to sustain their operations. Long telephone holds, dropped connections, and impolite or uninformed representatives will result in lost orders or customer dissatisfaction and hurt their profits. Government agencies are not driven by profits or governmental satisfaction, and customer service is not their highest priority.
  • In my many years as a planning consultant, I had mixed feelings about answering my office phone. When taking an unexpected call from an unknown person, I always felt, instantly, a loss of control in my routine. Would it be it a wrong number or misdirection? Would it be a colleague? Would it be a complainer? Or maybe it would be new business opportunity. Or was it just an old friend? I would never really know unless I actually answered. And, usually driven by curiosity, I would answer. One thing for sure though was that taking the call would interrupt whatever I was doing.
  • The introduction of voicemail and email has changed the dynamics of telecommunications, usually to the detriment of the caller. I worked for a customer service-oriented firm 35 years ago when the earliest voicemail system was first introduced, and I had a few colleagues that would set their phones permanently to “DND” (do not disturb).  Others would simply allow their voicemail boxes to reach capacity. This kind of behavior was not tolerated in this particular organization, and they were usually branded as “jerks” and eventually weeded out. Today, this professional firm continues to thrive and has frequently been cited as one of the “Top 50” places to work.
  • Today our standards have changed with new technology. Email is king, followed by text messaging. Also, some agencies, especially those dealing with inspections, actually encourage the use of direct cell/wireless phones to staff, sometimes even to personal phone numbers. Land line calls to agencies are almost becoming quaint reminders of how business was once transacted. Nevertheless, it is still frustrating to “outsiders.”
  • As a sales manager for the previously mentioned consulting firm, we once received a $2 million no-bid contract because the client, after repeatedly calling our main competitor and leaving voicemail messages, never got a response from them on a request for urgent services. This client assumed that this company was no longer in business, and we got the work. That incident had a major impact both on my career and my personal life.

Paul, I agree with your “best practices” recommendations for phone call and email responses. Yet, my cynical side argues back and says that, from the agency staff’s point-of-view, “Who the hell cares? These stupid phone calls are just a waste of my precious time.”

My overall opinion is that it is better to over-communicate than to under-communicate. I’d like to hear what other planning and building administration professionals think, in general or specific, about responding to telephone calls.

And, yes. I feel better, too

Mac Birch


In my experience, listening to citizens is never an interruption but rather one of the essential primary responsibilities for staff at every level. Also, thanks for sharing the lengthy response from Mac Birch. I have a bias because Mac co-wrote a book with me several years ago, but I think he is the most knowledgable IT planner in our profession.

Bruce McClendon