Is Your Receptionist a Spam Filter on Steroids?

Business owners and executives are busy people. We get it. Often they are inundated with phone calls from pests and idiots of every persuasion. As a result, receptionists are often charged with screening out the dolts. The problem? The receptionists actually are screening out EVERYONE. Here’s an open letter to owners and executives everywhere.

Dear Business Owner/Executive:

The life of a busy business executive is filled with many worries, stresses, frustrations, uncertainties, and employees who don’t do what you want them to do. Add to this list the nuisance that is the cold call, and we understand why you ask then cajole and eventually implore your assistants to screen out those pesky database, insurance, financial services, and consulting creatures.

However, from time to time, an actual business professional that you haven’t yet met is trying to reach you. This person is not schlepping IT services or databases or insurance or any one of myriad services you’re not seeking. This caller actually has a bit of pertinent business to discuss with you, an acquisition opportunity or a chance to join an exclusive professional organization, or perhaps the caller is a supplier of a product your company has discussed carrying.

Regrettably, this caller is having trouble getting through the inadvertent spam filter that is your receptionist. This is not to single out the receptionist for blame. The spam settings are up to you. The receptionist is merely doing the job you’ve designed. But similar to the spam filter settings on your server or computer, getting the right settings with your receptionist is key. Too low a threshold and you’re inundated with offers to buy Cialis from exiled Nigerian generals. Too high and nothing gets through.

Unfortunately for too many businesses, the people answering the phones have had their spam settings set so high that they are screening out legitimate business calls. They seem to be taking their cues from a lyric from Limelight by those timeless Canadian philosophers, Rush: “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.”

Whether you know it or not, some of your people may have developed an affliction called someone-is-asking-for-the-boss-itis.  Symptoms include immediately treating everyone who asks for you with severe suspicion, and often, derision. Acute cases of this affliction lead to de facto operational decision making, to wit, this composite example of countless conversations I’ve had over the years:

Me: May I speak with [CEO’s name]?

Receptionist: What’s this about?

Me: I have an acquisition opportunity to discuss. One of our clients is selling their business, my firm is handling the transaction, we thought your company might have an interest in reviewing this opportunity.

Receptionist: We don’t do that kind of thing.

Think about that line, “we don’t do that kind of thing.” You’ve been hired to do a job. Not the person who just uttered that line. Your job involves making decisions. Do you really want other people making pertinent decisions for you?

Fortunately, I have a little quip that I use to get past this roadblock (“so, you’re the final decision maker for acquisitions?”) but how many other times has someone called with legitimate business only to get thwarted by your inadvertent spam filter receptionist?

Another response I’ve heard far too often, including just a couple of weeks ago, is “our executives don’t take calls from people they don’t know.” Fortunately, I was able to connect with the CFO via LinkedIn, and when I told her what the receptionist told me, she was floored.

Here are a few tips to (slightly) lower your receptionist’s spam filter:

Treat every caller as if they have something important to say

Err on the side of assuming the caller has an actual, legitimate business reason to call the boss. In other words, a caller should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Receptionists with spam filters set too high often consider all callers guilty of being pests.


As simple as it sounds, taking an extra couple seconds to listen (and comprehend) what a caller is saying will help route calls more efficiently. Too often, receptionists seem to play “hot potato” when someone calls…they seem more concerned with quickly trying to pass the call to anyone instead of the right one.

What are the goals of your business? Have you communicated that with everyone?

One of my favorite management techniques has involved asking people, “what do we do here, what’s the most important thing?” Often I have been amazed at the range of answers. As you might be able to deduce, those answers often had nothing to do with the mission statement management labored to write over a four day yoga and horseback riding team-building retreat. All that planning and brainstorming won’t mean a thing unless everyone on your team understands the pertinent goals of your organization.

Effectively communicating the goals of the business to your receptionists (and everyone in your organization) will help them do a better job of screening and routing calls to the right people. They won’t know what you’re seeking unless you tell them. And they might need occasional reminders to slow down just a tad, and listen for an extra second or two before they decide how to handle a call. You never know, that cold caller just might turn out to be a long-awaited friend.



One thought on “Is Your Receptionist a Spam Filter on Steroids?

  1. Bill, while I love this advice, I feel like literally every call I get is from a recruiter, insurance sales person, or off-shore development firm. You are right that everyone who calls should be treated with respect, but doing this is hard if the boss constantly “shoots the messenger.” Perhaps that’s really the advice to give. Once those answering the phones feel like they are getting some respect, perhaps the spam filter settings will get lowered accordingly.

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