my coworkers expect me to return their customers’ calls for them

A reader writes:

My office has a central phone line that makes every telephone in the office ring, and I’m often required to forward phone messages on to their respective parties via email. Recently, some coworkers have started sending me responses as to the context of the phone call, or the status of their relationship with the customer. Frankly, it’s information I can live without — and it seems like they’re trying to get me to respond to their messages for them.

I’m trying to change their behaviour, by responding with a brief message (“Thanks for the information. Have you informed the customer?”), but it doesn’t seem to be taking hold. What should my next move be?

Well, first, are you sure that it’s not actually part of your job to do this?  Sometimes there’s a miscommunication with things like this, and before you start getting more assertive with your coworkers, you should check with your boss to make sure that it’s not actually appropriate for them to be asking you to handle these messages.

But assuming that you verify that indeed it’s not your job, then you need to get more direct with your coworkers. The next time someone sends you a response about the context of the call, correct them by replying with something like, “I’m assuming that you’re getting back to them on this, and want to make sure that you’re not assuming that I am.”

You can also head it off with your initial message when you first pass it along, by phrasing the message as something like this: “Can you please return John Smith’s call? He called today asking about ___.”

And if that doesn’t solve the problem, then address the big picture: “Hey, I noticed you’ve been sending me info back rather than returning the calls yourself. I’m actually passing these messages along to you to answer them yourself.” But again, make sure that you and your boss are on the same page about this before you do it.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon*

    It also seems possible that they just think she should know so she can take a more useful message (for instance, if there’s a client that travels all the time, so you should ask what time zone he’s in when he calls). That may be impossible or impractical depending on how many calls we’re talking about, but if it’s just a few clients, it might be the kind of info the person who – apparently – does a lot of phone answering should just be aware of.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is true too. If it might be something like that, the OP could reply, “Thanks for letting me know! (I’m assuming you’re responding to her and this is context for next time.)”

      1. Jamie*

        Exactly. I’m a big fan of clarification.

        Speaking of which, I hope the OP chimes in with additional details – but on first read this sounds like a miscommunication rather than any Machiavellian plan on behalf of her co-workers. Either her co-workers are unclear of her role, or she’s misinterpreting why they are giving her the information.

        1. moe*

          Yep. My observation (as a former admin person) is that once you get enough of the bizarre/lazy requests, it becomes very easy to start “reading into” and resenting people for their reasonable requests too.

          But I was never cut out to be an admin. I think it’s one of the more difficult jobs out there, workload-, organization- and interpersonal-wise.

          1. Jamie*

            “I think it’s one of the more difficult jobs out there, workload-, organization- and interpersonal-wise.”

            ITA – and I don’t think those positions get nearly the respect or (typically) compensation they deserve.

            Done properly an admin position adds tremendous value to an organization.

            1. Laura L*

              Agreed, esp. on the compensation.

              People don’t realize how hard it is to be a good admin.

              1. twentymilehike*

                Yes! Thank you for this string of commments :)

                As an admin let me say that we have the lovely opportunity of being everyone’s punching bags! We get it from the bosses and we get it from the customers and then everyone in the middle looking for an ear to complain to. Everyone tells me how great I am at my job, but some days I just feel like all my buttons are being pushed and I wonder how on earth everyone thinks I’m still being polite!

          2. ChristineH*

            This!! Both times I tried receptionist jobs, I lasted all of two weeks. Even when I was taking messages from a conference hotline a couple of years ago (part of a 3.5-month temp position), I was ready to pull my hair out by the end!! It certainly keeps you on your toes, though.

            1. Jamie*

              Having a server go down, in the middle of the night, in a blizzard is less stressful for me than manning the phones.

              I am so bad on the phones – I swear I will forget the name I just asked for before my hand even makes it to the hold button.

              Phones at a front desk where you are routing calls and being cheerful and pleasant to the visitors at the door? Might as well ask me to build a working space shuttle with nothing but bubblegum and electrical tape.

              1. Elizabeth West*

                I don’t mind it, but it’s true that most companies treat you like a throwaway. When I am interviewing for a job and hear “The receptionist is the most important person in the office! You’re the HUB!” I don’t want to work there. Don’t tell me that; SHOW ME. By 1) paying me a decent salary, and 2) not treating me like crap.

  2. Jamie*

    I don’t know what is meant by customer status. If its updates about who has a most urgent project going, or other things which can help in routing the calls properly that seems like important information to pass along to someone answering the phones.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Also true. In that case, I’d also say it could work well to respond with something like ““Thanks for letting me know! (I’m assuming you’re responding to her and this is context for next time.)”

  3. Nameless*

    These companies are crazy, almost feels like me….

    A co-worker left my company and the manager tried to ask me to take over her 50 accounts and add on to my 100 accounts. I was upfront and told her I can’t do it, either my accounts will be up to date or all accounts will be half-done.

    Stand your ground, if you allow it to happen more stuff is coming your way.

  4. Anonymous*

    If you act like the office secretary, you will be treated like the office secretary. This is great if you are actually the office secretary. If, as is implied, these are your peers, use caller ID to separate your calls out and let theirs ring to voice mail. Don’t do their chores for them, because you will end up being the only one who ever does the chores. Co-workers are much like children in this regard.

    This goes for playing at office janitor, office printer repairman, office IT helpdesk, and many other positions. It’s one thing to chip in and help people out occasionally, it’s another thing to take on extra duties to do work better suited to someone more junior or less specialized when it holds back your primary job. The path to unemployment is paved with good intentions.

    1. Anonymous*

      I don’t let anyone know that I have a computer degree anymore. Although I have a computer degree I decided that field was not for me and prefer general office work. However, if co-workers had problems with their computers they started asking me for help rather than IT. As a non-IT employee I don’t have all the permissions and access they have to fix everything. One time I was running late, it was just one of those mornings and just as I was about a half foot from my cubicle, a co-worker cut me off to tell me that the printer wasn’t working! I was thinking “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!” Luckily my other co-worker chimed in and said “Can’t you see she just sprinted from the parking lot?! Let her get settled first!” Another time the same co-worker that cut me off interrupted a conversation between my supervisor and I about some other techincal issue and my supervisor said to her “Why are you asking HER? Go call IT!”

      1. Jamie*

        Man, this is bleeding onto the non-IT people who are being punished for knowing their mouse from a hard drive.

        The rule in my office is that all questions can wait until I get my purse off my shoulder and log in. It’s not that much to ask – but it was a hard fight to get here.

        It’s also why I tend to answer several questions via email before I even leave the house in the morning, to give myself a fighting chance.

        Although I don’t understand preferring any job to IT, I will allow that some out there opt to making a living while maintaining their sanity…so I hear it happens. :)

        You have at least one co-worker and your supervisor helping you maintain boundaries and running interference. Cherish these people.

      2. Sam*

        Haha, I know that feeling. In a previous job, the IT department was the owner’s younger brother who was in his first year of university. Bearing in mind the company had 12 offices, each with up to 20 computers installed, IT support was woefully inadequate, and it was up to the office staff to be responsible for most day-to-day IT problems. As soon as it was known that I know my way around a computer (or rather, can use google to identify problems and likely solutions), any IT problem was suddenly up to me to fix. From immediate coworkers in my office it wasn’t too bad – being young I was grateful for the opportunity to prove myself, and I was able to train my coworkers to some extent to fix common problems themselves.

        I then started to get calls from coworkers in other offices, and trying to provide tech support over the phone is not easy. I flipped my lid one afternoon when I received a call from another office asking me what the flashing lights on the printer mean without being able to tell me what brand or model of printer it was. I then spent 2hours+ on the phone to my manager, talking him through step-by-step printer driver installation. Once the problem was fixed, I told my manager that either he pays me a second wage to reflect the second role I had inadvertently taken on, or I stop being the unofficial IT support hotline for the company. Within a month we had a new, full-time IT guy and I could concentrate on my work. Result!

    2. Elizabeth West*

      Oh, this is so true. At my exjob, when you “helped” someone, it ended up being your job. No wonder everyone would duck when someone asked a question!

  5. Anonymous*

    This is a curious system. I’m wondering why the call can’t be forwarded directly to the appropriate party’s phone/voicemail. Even if for some reason that’s not possible there, it seems like there has to be a better solution than an endless game of he said she said. I have to wonder how much is being missed in a system where everyone relies on everyone else to take their messages and no one is sure whose job it is to return them. Is some kind of tech fix an option?

  6. Kimberlee*

    We have a similar dilemma at my work… I say “we” because I’m the main person the phone rings to unless people call the direct lines of others, or find who they’re looking for in the phone tree, and it’s generally my job to forward the calls on to whoever they are relevant to, or, if they are for my boss, take the message or otherwise screen the call. But I don’t generally have a responsibility to respond to anyone myself, and I’ve got enough going on that I don’t particularly want to do much of that.

    However, there are situations where I know people want me to do more… like, if there are 4 people on an email that needs to be responded to, everyone will discuss it back and forth but often there’s no mention of who will take action, and people tend to assume in those cases I’ll do it, even though I’m only still on the email because it originated with me. And a lot of those people’s time are more valuable than mine, I’m happy to admit, so I like to help out when I reasonably can.

    So sometimes it’s a matter of finding a mix. At least in non-profits, having regular contact with your constituents — donors, supporters, and the people you help — can really help you remember why you work where you do in the first place. I can see if that’s not as good of motivation if you’re working at XY Call Center or something like that. :)

  7. Liz*

    I love that this blog always tells people to be direct. It makes life so much easier when we can all use our words :)

  8. Steve G*

    I like this question because I’ve been dealing for so many years that I just took in on myself to always be the one getting back to customers, even if it makes my coworkers look like they arent doing their jobs.

    The post isnt clear though – is she 1) having to return calls? 2) Take more detailed messages, or 3) handle conversations because the correct recipient is not available?

    If you are returning “other people’s” calls, I think the cause is the times we live in. At my past 3 jobs it was like everyone wanted to do things via email. Everyone was afraid of the phone and talking to live people. But not everything was doable via email….thats where I, like you, come in:-)

    1. OP*

      Hi- I’m the OP.

      I’m not able to clarify your questions as those responsibilities are exactly what I’m trying to ascertain. I work in a retail environment, which means 9 phones ring throughout the office whenever anyone calls the store, and we’re all responsible for answering questions/sending each other phone messages, when appropriate.

      The messages I’m being sent information on require technical training I just don’t have, in a department I only have tangental connections to. I haven’t been asked to take more detail in my messages- only the answers to each customer’s specific and unique situation.

      My job isn’t administrative, and in this culture, forwarding messages is the expected SOP if we’re unable to answer client questions ourselves. I’m the only one receiving responses to my phone messages, so there might be some confusion within the company as to what my job responsibilities are.

      1. Anonymous*

        I wonder, then, if this isn’t a roundabout way of training you on the department, so that next time a customer calls with a common inquiry, you’d be able to answer them.

      2. fposte*

        I’m still not quite clear on some things–are you answering phones more than anyone else, or even exclusively? How do other people handle messages when they take calls?

        I’m also wondering if there’s a higher-up that you can check with on this, because it sounds like a business wreck waiting to happen (the notion that your co-workers may not realize that your job is the same as theirs also suggests a certain lack of order). Alternatively, if you all are pretty much on your own there, what policy would you like to enact? It sounds like it might be useful to have somebody be the communications czar, and if that’s falling to you, it might be worth embracing it. You could be the point person on communication save for the issues that are technically out of your expertise, and you’ll flagged those as calls that the person you’re forwarding to should answer.

  9. Lee*

    I’ve had a similar situation only it was an email box I monitored. I agree you need to clarify with your boss what process you should follow then stick with it. It can be a fine balance sometimes – the customers just want their problems or questions answered and want service but you also don’t want to be your co-workers’ secretary. The suggestions above are great. Good luck!

  10. Anonymous*

    This seems as though it might be a case of keeping the OP in the loop, in case they get a follow up call from the customer. I’ve often run into situations where I’ve informed a caller of circumstances, and they call back hoping to get a different person to give them more favorable information. This way the customer gets consistent answers.

    1. Anonymous*

      This is along the lines of what I was thinking.

      Sometimes answers are consistent and straight forward for every customer, so they may just be keeping OP informed so that they can pass along the basic information rather than making the person wait (an example of basic information being something like the timeline a delivery normally takes). To me, this is just good customer service.

  11. OfficeWorker*

    What is the appropriate action? A secretary takes her lunch and her breaks at her desk. That’s ok with me. But, if her phone rings (or worse yet – the director’s phone rings and he’s not here) and she’s on one of these breaks, she refuses to answer the phone. Is the correct? I was always trained … and she’s my age (baby boomer) .. if the phone rings .. not matter what, pick it up! What is the professional way to handle this issue? Thank you for your time

    1. Jamie*

      If she is non-exempt she shouldn’t pick up the phone or do any other work when she is off the clock – which applies to an unpaid lunch.

      1. Anonymous*

        I think she needs to get away from her desk if she’s on break or at lunch. People call (she doesn’t have an answering machine), people come in to the office and she ignores/is rude to them. I think the real problem is our director as he will not address HER issues!

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