How to Answer Phones the Right Way


During this presidential transition, there have been a lot of topics that have sparked controversy in our nation. One of the foremost topics that has caused argument has been health care. People, understandably, want to know whose hands their health may be in.

Among many administrative tasks that I fulfill, one is answering phones for our government’s primary health care agency. While I work specifically within public relations, and more specifically with reporters, my office’s main goal is communicating with reporters. However, seeing as our office’s phone number is the most readily available number for the agency, callers cover a much wider range than journalists. And as you can imagine, considering the questions surrounding this topic, these calls are not all pleasant.

What do you do when you answer the phone, happily recite your programmed greeting, and shouts come through the receiver claiming that you are responsible for the myriad of health problems that they or a loved one is suffering? The easiest answer would be hang up, but it is also the least sympathetic and, in my opinion, rude, no matter how vulgar or offensive the caller may be. I have yet to do it, and likely will never do it, for one simple reason:

These people are looking for help.

I have been called a liar, heartless, shameless, unhelpful, and far worse things. I have been called a devil on more than one occasion. But I won’t hang up, because these people need help, and I intend on doing anything I can to give them that assistance, or at least some soothing words, to calm them down. I want to share a bit of these ideas with you as well, in case you find yourself being yelled at for “abominations” with which you have no hand in.

First and foremost, it’s a phone call. It cannot hurt you. It cannot affect your health (unless you allow it) and it cannot affect your job status (unless you prompt it). However the call goes, have comfort in knowing you have the power to limit that call and its connection to you to the time you pick up the receiver, put it back down, and do whatever follow up is necessary. You do not have to absorb the emotions, which can often be fierce, that are brought into the call by the other end. And while I tend to be as sympathetic as possible, in extreme cases I have had to operate as such. Remove yourself from any attachment to the call and follow protocol. Give information where needed, direct them to someone else if appropriate, but finish the call and then walk away. It’s just a phone call.

The next tidbit to keep in mind is that for times when you are not pushed to become a robot, which is the majority of cases, is that the person on the other end is a human. They have real concerns, evidenced by the fact that they call an anonymous number, which I think we can all agree on is typically unenjoyable. They are driven to make that blind leap into automated messages and sometimes cold, absent operators in order to solve a problem. When picking up the phone, think about you calling to dispute a false charge on a credit card, or trying to reach a human when asking about a student loan. This chore often feels hopeless, sometimes useless, and inevitably inconvenient. The person calling you may approach differently than you might, perhaps more aggressively or more accusatorily, but I always like to think there is a reason for that. Let them shout if they need to shout, let them pass blame if they need to pass blame, let them speak their peace and dig for the bit that calls you to action: “To clarify, sir, you would like the number for…?”

Another aspect to remember is what you might get out of the situation. One thing is for certain, good customer service is in high demand these days. For whatever reason, it seems that many have lost the ability to politely interact with strangers. Employers recognize this. Look at nearly any job description and “strong customer service skills” almost always appears near the top. Don’t take this for granted. How you handle these calls now is being watched by an employer who may very well be a reference on your next step up. No matter what names they call you, only respond with a title, such as Sir or Ma’am, or a Mr/Mrs Smith. I promise you, this goes a long way.

As for what else you may get out a tough call, perhaps a decent anecdote. Between my current position and my first job as a telemarketer, I have lots of good stories to share.

Being shouted at is not fun unless you’re being hyped up for your next MMA bout, so I know this cheerful advice seems fragile and false. But I will leave you with one example of why I take this approach.

Linda, an older woman with many health issues and holes in her coverage, first called me and for 1 hour and 13 minutes harped at me using words such as “cretin” and “apocalypse.” I put the phone down several times in between (she didn’t notice), but I did not hang up. Since then she has called several times and she now knows my voice, she calms down, and asks for a reminder of the number she is supposed to call. Not only do I look good in this case, but Linda gets the help she is looking for.

Jeremy Booth is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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richard regan

Your post reminded me of my days as a congressional staffer to a Democratic representative whose district lines were redrawn by a Republican state legislature which led to our office to be inundated by hostile constituent requests. I reminded myself of the following slogan: “The answer is yes so what is the question. The customer is always right,”

Rachel White

I wish everyone on the other end of the phone was as wise and professional as you. Thank you for this post and for giving government workers a good name. Believe me, you are appreciated for how you handle these often fraught situations! One-on-one communication with the public like what you are doing every day is what forms the foundation of public trust in government. Cheers.

Violet Ungemach

Hi, great points here! Having a job in a call center that deals with health care is not an easy day to day job. Based on your post, patience must be a key to making it through each call. I hope more representatives in the call center can follow your example and remember that on the other end of the call is another person with many emotions and many different situations. Great post, and keep up with the patience!


phone etiquette like most skills is learnt – practice makes perfect – I appreciate your personal experience as I have the same with phone survey calling which enabled me to practice phone and speaking skills in a safe manner – now I’m the go-to person when our reception has issues with people – transferrable skills is important especially with examples