Want to become a better extemporaneous speaker? Forget Toastmasters. Become an administrative assistant instead! Answering the phone will force you to think on your feet. Or your ass, as it were. You’ll probably be sitting at a desk. Regardless, each interaction with a customer will help you develop the poise and polish of the best public speakers.
Amid many routine phone calls, you will inevitably field questions and requests outside your area of expertise or above your pay grade. That’s when you’ll dazzle callers with your ability to say “not my job” in the most pleasant way possible. They’ll be convinced you are doing them a favor by efficiently transferring them to another department.
You aren’t going to be able to pass off all problematic phone calls, though. Take, for example, the one I received a few weeks ago. I picked up the phone after a single ring and greeted the caller with “Development Office, this is Cynthia.”
I could not decipher the woman’s accented response.
“I’m sorry. Who are you looking for?”
She asked for Ann. The way she enunciated her full name and the fact she had dialed the main line rather than Ann’s extension made me think this was a vendor. Plus, asking for someone who is deceased clued me in that this wasn’t a close friend. While I am an experienced gatekeeper against unwanted sales calls, this was my first time in this situation. I had to exercise my ability to think on my feet. Ass.
“Can someone else help you?” I offered.
“No. Is Ann available?” she insisted.
I swallowed as I composed myself. I debated what to say and how much to share. Hearing Ann’s name pricked at my tear ducts. I’m still not used to walking past her vacant office. I still can’t believe I’ll never see her again. I’m still angry and sad and shocked every time I think, Ann is dead. But I needed to remain professional. I decided to be forthcoming.
“I’m sorry, but Ann passed away.”
That would have sufficed but I was flustered. My tongue kept going before my brain could stop it, adding, “So she no longer works here.”
The women on the other end of the line said, “I’m so sorry” and concluded the call.
I hung up without crying. How could I? Any pride I felt about my self-control was negated by that inane response. I swear I could hear Ann cackling.
“‘So she no longer works here.’ Dumb ass!” she would say.
You, too, can improve your communication skills by taking a difficult phone call that you’ve bungled and turning it into an anecdote that makes your still grieving co-workers laugh.
On second thought, maybe I better find my local Toastmasters club ASAP before my replacement is saying, “She no longer works here.”