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Business Etiquette - Telephones And Front Doors

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



"If the outside of a place is not all right," says a man who spends the greater part of his time visiting business houses and talking with business men, "the chances are that it is not worth while to go inside."

There are three ways of getting inside : by letter (which has a chapter to itself), by the front door, and by telephone. And there are more complaints against the telephone way than either or both the others, which is perfectly natural, since it is the most difficult to manage. In the first place, it requires good behavior from three people at the same time, and that is a good deal to expect. Secondly, they cannot see one another—they are like blind people talking together—and no one of them can do his part unless the other two do theirs. In the third place, the instrument is a lifeless thing, and when something goes wrong with it it rouses the helpless fury inspired by all inanimate objects which interfere with our comfort like intermittent alarm clocks, collar buttons that roll under the furniture, and flivvers that go dead without reason in the middle of country roads. In each case whatever one does has no effect. The alarm clock continues to ring (unless one gets out of bed to shut it off, which is worse than letting it ring), the collar button remains hid in the darkest part of the room, the flivver remains stuck in the muddiest part of the road, and the telephone is worst of all, for the source of the trouble is usually several miles away and there is no means of getting at it.

The telephone is a nuisance—no one denies it—but it is a necessity also—no one denies that, either—and one of the greatest conveniences in an age of great conveniences. Some of the disagreeable features connected with it cannot be done away with but must be accepted with as much tranquility as we can master, like the terrific noise which an aeroplane makes or the trail of smoke and cinders which a railway train leaves behind. The one who is calling, for instance, cannot know that he is the tenth or eleventh person who has called the man at the other end of the wire in rapid succession, that his desk is piled high with correspondence which must be looked over, signed, and sent out before noon, that the advertising department is waiting for him to O. K. their plans for a campaign which should have been launched the week before, that an important visitor is sitting in the library growing more impatient every minute, and that his temper has been filed down to the quick by an assortment of petty worries. (Of course, no office should be run like this, but it sometimes happens in the best of them.)

Some one has said that we are all like islands shouting at each other across a sea of misunderstanding, and this was long before telephones were thought of. It is hard enough to make other people understand what we mean, even with the help of facial expression and gestures, and over the wire the difficulty is increased a hundred fold. For telephoning rests upon a delicate adjustment between human beings by means of a mechanical apparatus, and it takes clear thinking, patience, and courtesy to bring it about.

The telephone company began its career some few years ago unhampered by the traditions to which the earlier corporations were slave, the old "public be damned" idea. Their arbitrary methods had brought them to grief, and the new concern, with a commendable regard for the lessons taught by the experience of others, inaugurated a policy of usefulness, service, and courtesy. The inside history of the telephone is one of constant watchfulness, careful management, and continuous improvement ; and every improvement has meant better service to the public. (We are not trying to advertise the telephone company. We realize that it has been guilty, like every other business, of manifold sins.)

Even the fact that there is a telephone girl instead of a telephone boy is due to the alertness and good business sense of the company. To put a boy before a switchboard and expect him not to pull it apart to see how it was made; or to place him in a position to entertain himself by connecting the wrong parties and listening to the impolite names they called each other and expect him not to do it, would be expecting the laws of nature to reverse themselves. The telephone company tried it—for a while. They discovered, besides, that a boy will not "take" what a girl will. It makes no difference what goes wrong with a connection, the subscriber blames the operator when many times the operator, especially the one he is talking to, has had nothing to do with it. The girls have learned to hold their tempers (not always, but most of the time), but when boys had charge of the switchboards and the man at the end of the wire yelled, "You cut me off!" and the youngster had not, he denied it hotly: "You're a liar! I didn't!" The subscriber would not stand for this, angry words flew back and forth, and more than once the indignant young operator located the subscriber (not a very difficult thing for him to do) and went around to settle things in per-son. Words were not always the only weapons used.

If this had continued the telephone would never have become a public utility. People would have looked upon it as an ingenious device but not of universal practical value. As it is, good salesmanship and efficient service first elevated a plaything to a luxury and then reduced the luxury to a necessity. And it was possible not only because the mechanism itself is a miraculous thing but because it has had back of it an intelligent human organization working together as a unit.

We say this deliberately, knowing that the reader will think of the times when the trouble he has had in. getting the number he wanted has made him think there was not a thimbleful of intelligence among all of the people associated with the entire telephone company. But considering the body of employees as a whole the standard of courteous and competent service is extraordinarily high. The public is impatient and prone to remember bad connections instead of good ones. It is ignorant also and has very small conception of what a girl at central is doing. And it is quick to blame her for faults of its own.

One of the worst features of telephone service is the fact that when one is angry or exasperated he seldom quarrels with the right person. Some time ago a man was waked in the middle of the night by the ringing of the telephone bell. He got out of bed to answer it and discovered that the man was trying to get another number. He went back to bed and to sleep. The telephone bell rang again, and again he got out of bed to answer it. It was the same man trying to get the same number. He went to bed and back to sleep. The telephone bell rang the third time, he got out of bed again and answered it again and found that it was still the same man trying to get the same number! "I wasn't very polite the third time," he confessed when he told about it. But the poor fellow at the other end of the wire probably had just as touching a story to tell, for unless it had been very important for him to get the number he would hardly have been so persistent. The girl at the switchboard may have had a story of her own, but what it was is one of those things which, as Lord Dun. dreary used to say, nobody can find out.

The girls who enter the service of the New York Telephone Company (and the same thing is true in the other branches of the telephone service, especially in big cities where there are large groups to work with) are carefully selected by an employment bureau and sent to a school where they are thoroughly grounded in the mechanical part of their work and the ideals for which the company stands. They are not placed on a regular switchboard until they have proved themselves efficient on the dummy switchboard, and then it is with instructions to be courteous though the heavens fall (though they do not express it exactly that way) . "It is the best place in the world to learn self-control," one of the operators declares, and any one who has ever watched them at work will add, "Concentration, also." One of the most remarkable sights in New York is a central exchange where a hundred or more girls are working at lightning speed, undisturbed by the low murmur around them, intent only on the switchboard in front of them, making something like five hundred connections a minute.

They are a wonderfully level-headed group, these telephone girls, wonderfully unlike their clinging-vine Victorian grandmothers. They do not know how to cling. If a man telephones that he has been shot, the girl who receives the call does not faint. She sends him a doctor in-stead and takes the next call almost without the loss of a second. If a woman wants a police-man to get some burglars out of the house, she sends her one; if some one telephones that a house is burning, she calls out the fire department—and goes straight on with her work. Now and then something spectacular happens to bring the splendid courage of the girls at the switchboards to the attention of the public, such as the magnificent service they gave from the exchange located a few feet from Wall Street on the day of the explosion, but ordinarily it passes, like most of the other good things in life, without comment.

The New York Telephone Company tries to keep its girls healthy and happy. At regular intervals they are given rest periods. At-tractive rooms are prepared for them, tastefully furnished, well-lighted, and filled with comfort-able chairs, good books, and magazines. Substantial meals are supplied in the middle of the day at a nominal charge. Special entertainments are planned from time to time, and best of all, the play time is kept absolutely distinct from the work time, a condition which makes for happiness as well as usefulness.

The girls are not perfect, they are not infallible. And they are only a third part of a telephone call. They work under difficulties at a task which is not an easy one, and their efficiency does not rest with them alone but with the people whom they serve as well.

A telephone call begins with the subscriber, Very few people understand the intricate system of cable and dynamos, vacuum tubes, coil racks, storage batteries, transmitters and generators which enable them to talk from a distance, and a good many could not understand them even if they were explained. Fortunately it is not necessary that they should. The subscriber's part is very simple.

He should first make sure that he is calling the right number. In New York City alone, forty-eight thousand wrong numbers are asked for every day by subscribers who have not consuited the telephone directory first, or who have unconsciously transposed the digits in a number. For example, a number such as 6454 can easily be changed to 6544. The telephone directory is a safe guide, much more so than an old letter or bill head or an uncertain memory. Information may be called if the number is not in the directory, but one should be definite even with her. She can-not supply the number of Mr. What-you-maycall-it or of Mr. Thing-urn-a-bob or of Mr. Smith who lives down near the railroad station, and she cannot give the telephone number of a house which has no telephone in it. She has no right to answer irrelevant questions; is, in fact, prohibited from doing so. Her business is to furnish numbers and she cannot do it efficiently if she is expected also to explain why a cat has whiskers, how to preserve string beans by drying them, what time it is, what time the train leaves for Wakefield, or what kind of connection can be made at Jones's Junction.

In calling a number the name of the exchange should be given first. The number itself should be called with a slight pause between the hundreds and the tens, thus, "Watkins—pausefive, nine—pause—hundred" for "Watkins 5900" or "Murray Hill—pause—four, two pause—six, three" for "Murray Hill 4263." The reason for this is that the switchboard be-fore which the operator sits is honeycombed with tiny holes arranged in sections of one hundred each. Each section is numbered and each of the holes within it is the termination of a subscriber's line. In locating "Watkins 5900" the girl first finds the section labelled "59" and then the "00" hole in that section, and if the "59" is given first she has found it by the time the subscriber has finished calling the number.

The number should be pronounced slowly and distinctly.

When the operator repeats it the subscriber should acknowledge it, and if she repeats it incorrectly, should stop her and give her the number again. And he should always remember, however difficult it may be to make her understand, that he is talking to a girl, a human being, and that the chances are ten to one that the poor connection is not her fault.

To recall the operator in case the wrong person is connected it is only necessary to move the receiver hook slowly up and down. She may not be able to attend to the recall at once but jiggling the hook angrily up and down will not get her any sooner. In fact, the more furious the subscriber becomes the less the girl knows about it, for the tiny signal light fails to register except when the hook is moved slowly; or if the switchboard is one where the operator is signalled by a little disk which falls over a blank space the disk fails to move down but remains quivering almost imperceptibly in its usual position.

After he has placed a call a man should wait at the telephone or near it until the connection is made. Too many men have a way of giving their secretaries a number to send through and then wandering off somewhere out of sight so that when the person is finally connected he has to wait several minutes while the secretary locates the man who started the call. It is the acme of discourtesy to keep any one waiting in this manner. It implies that your time is much more valuable than his, which may be true, but it is hardly gracious to shout it in so brazen a fashion.

It has been estimated that in New York City, alone, more than a full business year is lost over the telephone every day between sunrise and sunset. There are 3,800,000 completed connections made every day. Out of each hundred, six show a delay of a minute or more before the per-son called answers. In each day this amounts to a delay of 228,000 connections. Two hundred and twenty-eight thousand minutes (and some-times the delay amounts to much more than a minute) is the equivalent of 475 days of eight hours each, or as the gentleman who compiled these interesting statistics has it, a business year, and a third with all the Sundays and holidays intact. In the course of a year it amounts to more than all the business days that have elapsed since Columbus discovered America!

It may be argued that we would be better off if we lost more than a year every day and did all our work at more leisurely pace. This may be, but the time to rest is not when the telephone bell is ringing.

The telephone on a business man's desk should always be facing him and it should not be tricked out with any of the patent devices except those sanctioned by the company. Most of them lessen instead of increase efficiency. A woman in her home where calls are infrequent may hide her telephone behind a lacquered screen or cover it with pink taffeta ruffles, but in a business office it is best to make no attempts to beautify it. It is when it is unadorned that the ugly little instrument gives its best service.

There should always be a pad and pencil at hand so that the message (if there is one) can be taken down without delay. The person at the other end probably has not time (and certainly has not inclination) to wait until you have fumbled through the papers on your desk and the rubbish in the drawers to locate something to write on and something to write with.

"Hello" is a useless and obsolescent form of ;response in business offices. The name of the firm, of the department, or of the man himself, or of all three, according to circumstances, should be given. When there is a private operator to take care of the calls she answers with the name of the firm, Blank and Blank. If the person at the other end of the wire says, "I want the Advertising department," she connects them and the man there answers with "Advertising department." The other then may ask for the manager, in which case the manager answers with his name. It is easy to grow impatient under all these relays, but a complicated connection involving half a dozen people before the right one is reached can be accomplished in less than a minute if each person sends it straight through without stopping to exchange a number of "Helloes" like a group of Swiss yodelers, or to ask a lot of unnecessary questions.

It is not necessary to scream over the telephone. The mouth should be held close to the transmitter and the words should be spoken carefully. In an open office where there are no partitions between the desks one should take especial pains to keep his voice modulated. One person angrily spluttering over the telephone can paralyze the work of all the people within a radius of fifty feet. If it were a necessary evil we could make ourselves grow accustomed to it. But it is not. And there is already enough unavoidable wear and tear during the course of a business day without adding this.

"Hello, what do you want?" is no way to answer a call. No decent person would speak even to a beggar at his door in this way and the visitor over the telephone, whoever he is, is entitled to a cordial greeting. The voice with the smile wins.

An amusing story is told of a man in Washington who was waked one evening about eleven o'clock by the telephone bell. At first he swore that he would not answer it but his wife insisted that it might be something very important, and finally, outraged and angry, he blundered through the dark across the room and into the hall, jerked down the receiver and yelled, "Hello!" His wife, who was listening tensely for whatever ill news might be forthcoming, was perfectly amazed to hear him saying in the next breath, in the most dulcet tones he had ever used, "Oh, how do you do, I'm so glad you called. Oh, delightful. Charmed. I'm sure she will be, too. Thank you. Yes, indeed. So good of you. Good-bye." It was the wife of the President of the United States asking him and his wife to dinner at the White House.

If the person calling is given the wrong department he should be courteously transferred to the right one. Courteously, and not with a brusque, "You've got the wrong party" or "I'm not the man you want" but with "Just a minute, please, and I'll give you Mr. Miller."

The time when people are rudest over the telephone is when some one breaks in on the wire. It might be just as well to remember that people do not interrupt intentionally, and the intruder is probably as disconcerted as the man he has interrupted. If he had inadvertently opened the wrong door in a business office the man inside would not have yelled, "Get out of here," but over the telephone he will shriek, "Get off the wire" in a tone he would hardly use to drive the cow out of a cabbage patch.

In an effort to secure better manners among their subscribers the telephone company has asked them to try to visualize the person at the other end of the wire and to imagine that they are talking face to face. Many times a man will say things over the telephone—rude, profane, angry, insulting things, which he would not dream of saying if he were actually before the man he is talking to. And to make it worse he is often so angry that he does not give the other a chance to explain his side of it, at least not until be has said all that he has to say, and even then he not infrequently slams the receiver down on the hook as soon as he has finished !

Listening on a wire passes over from the field of courtesy into that of ethics. On party lines in the country it is not considered a heinous offense to eavesdrop over the telephone, but the conversation there is for the most part harmless neighborhood gossip and it does not matter greatly who hears it. In business it is different. But it is practically impossible for any one except the operator to overhear a conversation except by accident, and it is a misdemeanor punishable by law for her to give a message to any one other than the person for whom it was intended.

In every office there should be a large enough mechanical equipment manned by an efficient staff to take care of the telephone traffic without delay. "The line is busy" given in answer to a call three or four times will send the person who is calling to some other place to have his wants looked after.

Few places appreciate the tremendous volume of business that comes in by way of telephone or the possibilities which it offers to increase business opportunities. They are as short-sighted as the department store which, a good many years ago, when telephones were new, had them installed but took them out after a few weeks be-cause the clerks were kept so busy taking orders over them that they did not have time to attend to the customers who came into the store !

Another important vantage point which, like the telephone, suffers from neglect is the reception desk. Millions of dollars' worth of business is lost every year and perfect sandstorms and cyclones of animosity are generated because business men have not yet learned the great value of having the right kind of person to receive visitors. To the strangers who come—and among the idlers and swindlers and beggars who assail every successful business house are potential good friends and customers—this person represents the firm,—is, for the time being, the firm itself.

It is very childish for a man to turn away from a reception desk because he does not like the manner of the person behind it, but business men, sensible ones at that, do it every day. Pleasant connections of years' standing are sometimes broken off and valuable business propositions are carried to rival concerns because of indifferent or insolent treatment at the front door. Only a short time ago an advertising agency lost a contract for which it had been working two years on account of the way the girl at the door received the man who came to place it. He dropped in without previous appointment and was met by a blonde young lady with highly tinted cheeks who tilted herself forward on the heels of her French pumps and pertly inquired what he wanted. He told her. "Mr. Hunt isn't in." "When will he be back?" "I don't know," and she swung around on the impossible heels. The man deliberated a moment and then swung around on his heels (which were very flat and sensible) and carried the contract to another agency. Instances of this kind might be multiplied. Some business men would have persisted until they got what they wanted from the young lady. Others would have angrily reported her to the head of her office, but the majority would have acted as this man did.

Most men (and women), whether they are in business or not, do not underestimate their own importance and they like to feel that the rest of the world does not either. They do not like to be kept waiting; they like to be received with a nice deference, not haughtily; they do not like to be sent to the wrong department ; and they love (and so do we all) talking to important people. Realizing this, banks and trust companies and other big organizations have had to appoint nearly as many vice-presidents as there were second-lieutenants during the war to take care of their self-important visitors. Even those whose time is not worth ten cents (a number of them are women) like to be treated as if it were worth a great deal. It is, for the most part, an innocent desire which does no one any special harm, and any business that sets out to serve the public (and there is no other kind) has to take into account all the caprices of human vanity. We cannot get away from it. Benjamin Franklin placed humility among the virtues he wished to cultivate, but after a time declared it impossible. "For," he said, "if I overcame pride I would be proud of my humility."

Courtesy is the first requirement of the business host or hostess and after that, intelligence. Some business houses make the mistake of putting back of the reception desk a girl who has proved herself too dull-witted to serve anywhere else. The smiling idiot with which this country (and others) so abounds may be harmless and even useful if she is kept busy behind the lines, but, placed out where she is a buffer between the house and the outside world, she is a positive affliction. She may be pleasant enough, but the caller who comes for information and can get nothing but a smile will go away feeling about as cheerful as if he had stuck his hand into a jar of honey when he was a mile or so away from soap, water, and towel.

A litter of office boys sprawling untidily over the desks and chairs in the reception room is as bad, and a snappy young lady of the "Now see here, kid" variety is worse.

The position is not an easy one, especially in places where there is a constant influx of miscellaneous callers, and it is hardly fair to ask a young girl to fill it. In England they use elderly men and in a number of offices over here, too. Their age and manner automatically protect them (and incidentally their firms) from many undesirables that a boy or girl in the same position would have considerable difficulty in hand-ling. And they lend the place an air of dignity and reserve quite impossible with a youngster.

In some offices, especially in those where large amounts of money are stored or handled, there are door men in uniform and often plain clothes huskies near the entrances to protect the people (and the money) on the inside from cranks and crooks and criminals. In others, a physician's office, for instance, or any small office where the people who are likely to come are of the gentler sort, a young girl with a pleasing manner will do just as well as and perhaps better than any one else. In big companies where there are many departments, it is customary to maintain a regular bureau of information to which the caller who is not sure whom or what he wants is first directed, but the majority of businesses have only one per-son who is delegated to receive the people who come and either direct them to the person they want to see or turn them aside.

Most of them must be turned aside. If the stage managers in New York interviewed all the girls who want to see them, they would have no time left for anything else, and the same thing is true of nearly every man who is prominent in business or in some other way. (Charlie Chaplin received 73,000 letters during the first three days he was in England. Suppose he had personally read each of them!) Hundreds of people must be turned away, but every person who approaches a firm either to get something from it or to give something to it has a right to attention. Men are in business to work, not to entertain, and they must protect themselves. But the people who are turned away must be turned away courteously, and the business house which has found some one who can do it has cause to rise and give thanks.



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