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The reality of a receptionist’s job

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Robyn Goldschmid, 25, Receptionist, Manchester, Inc., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Years in the field: six

What kind of preparation did you have for receptionist jobs?

In high school I took typing, accounting and basic business procedures courses.

Describe your first job and what you did in it.

I worked at the front desk at a video store chain. I answered the phones, helped customers and entered basic rental information in the computers. I got bored, so I was transferred into the inventory department.

Did you like doing that?

I discovered that I missed dealing with people, so I found a job at the front desk of a large casino hotel where my duties included making arrangements for people (setting up limousine transportation), handling 15 phone lines, putting information into the computer and taking in money. I did that for almost two years, and then I moved back to Philadelphia to take a job at a popular health club.

Was that job different from your first one?

Everything was computerized-all the scheduling for courts and leagues with game schedules. At first, the computers intimidated me, but I got intensive on-the-job training.

The phone system was easy to pick up, but I found it very challenging to take in money, get all the machines going and answer a million questions in the midst of a lot of activity.

What do you currently do?

I work at a job placement firm. I share the receptionist duties with another person-one of us works from 9:30 A.M. to 6 P.M. and the other from 7:30 A.M. to 4 P.M. Having a second person also makes it possible to leave the reception area for a few minutes when necessary. The phone is always ringing; when a call comes in from either an employer or a job seeker, I have to decide which counselor is the best match for the call.

We also receive resumes by fax, and I decide where each one should go. When people come to the office for appointments, I greet them and direct them and put them at ease. I do some typing, receive and sort the mail and help with bulk mailings.

Do you find the phone systems complicated?

Every system I've worked with has been different, but we have a voice mail system that transfers over, so I don't take that many messages by hand. I always give callers the option of recording their message or having me take it.

How long did it take you to feel established in your field?

I feel established now. I'm happy with my salary, and I feel that there is potential for me to move ahead.

What's the hardest aspect of your job?

Maintaining a pleasant attitude when I can have five lines ringing at once and up to 20 calls on hold. Most people are much easier to deal with if you are gracious. If I say "Please hold," I always wait for a "yes" before putting the person on hold. It could be an important client, and it could mean money for the firm. I don't want to make anyone feel unhappy with how they have been treated when they call.

What do you like most about your work?

I like the people I work with. They appreciate my opinions and how I handle things, which is important to me. I enjoy greeting people and giving them a good impression of the company and our offices. And I like helping them out with their questions. I ask a lot of questions too, which helps me to learn more about the company and procedures. I might try to get more education in the future because I want to learn more new skills and my company has a tuition reimbursement plan.

What are you most proud of?

In the beginning I was nervous because not only were there the calls from the public but the inside calls from our 13 different offices. I knew it was important to recognize voices and names. I've been here less than a year, and I feel that I know people now and can be very efficient.

I am proud that people like me and appreciate how I do my job. I remember who someone is after only one call, and I go out of my way to track people down.

What advice would you give to someone considering this field?

This is a good job for a person who enjoys dealing with people. And if you push yourself to go further, you can.

Teri Steiner, 25, Receptionist, King Shipping Inc., New Brighton, Minnesota

Years in the field: two

How did you break into the field?

I started at King as a data entry clerk. I worked in operations, filing and doing general administrative support tasks. When the receptionist quit, I moved into her job.

Describe your job and your responsibilities.

I cover 12 phone lines. The switchboard system was not difficult to learn, and soon we will be getting a voice mail system. I open and distribute the mail, type some letters and send out any mailings.

I am also responsible for accounts payable, which involves entering bills to be paid, going through my boss's notations on which ones to pay, preparing the checks and pulling invoices to make sure they match up with the checks.

What kind of preparation did you have?

I took the typical business courses in high school-typing, shorthand, and accounting. I also took a one-year business curriculum course at a community college where I had intensive training in all of those skills as well as keyboarding, public speaking, word processing, administrative support and office procedures.

During high school I worked in a small office during the summer doing paperwork and answering the phone, so I had some feeling for the atmosphere in an office. I also worked part time while in school doing data entry, answering phones and filing.

Did you get any on-the-job training in your current job?

My employers showed me some things, but I mainly caught on to everything I needed to know by myself. That was fine because I like to learn independently.

What do you like most about your job?

I like talking on the phone and helping people. At first it was frustrating to have the phones ringing so much and to juggle the calls, but now I have gotten to know many of the regular callers. The office itself is a friendly and comfortable place to be. I also find entering the payables and handling the reports and checks interesting and challenging work.

What do you like least?

Trying to pay close attention to the bookkeeping, when the phones are ringing all the time was the least I liked. It's also hard to be confined to a desk. I can't leave-if I step away to file, all the phones ring at once, it seems!

What are you most proud of?

I was given a word processing project to do on my own for a customer in Canada that was an important account. At first, it was a scary prospect; I didn't want to make any mistakes. But I took a deep breath and worked carefully. I was successful-the customer liked my work.

What advice would you give to someone considering this field?

You have to enjoy talking to people and smoothing ruffled feathers. I've noticed that if you have a congenial personality and are pleasant, you can calm down upset callers by the time they get connected to the person they've called.

Take all the computer and word processing courses offered. Take advantage of any training opportunities available. The more you know and can do the better.

Sheila Barkdole, 39, Receptionist, The Calhoun School, New York,

Years in the field: 15

How did you break into the field?

My first job was with the Port Authority of New York, where I answered the phones and took messages. It was a small switchboard with about 20 lines. All of my jobs since then have involved taking care of the incoming phone lines, along with other administrative support duties.

What was hardest about your first few years working in this field?

At my first job, it was a one-woman operation and I was very intimidated by the lines lighting up continuously. I could never leave my seat, and there was constant pressure.

How many different jobs have you had in this field?

I left the reception area of Port Authority for a promotion to a scheduler's job at the airport. I conducted surveys, talked to people about their traveling habits and gathered information for the agency.

I then moved to a local government clerk's job, which involved a lot of clerical duties as well as answering telephones. During the eight years I was there, I learned how to use computers. After a break of several years at home to be with my child, I took a job as an office assistant in the financial aid department of Hunter College.

What do you do in your current job?

I sit at the front entrance of an independent elementary and high school of approximately 500 students. I greet everyone, field their questions and point them in the right direction.

I answer five telephone lines-seven if I am covering the admissions office. There are endless phone calls of every nature, from business matters to personal situations. This is my fourth year in the position, and I know all the kids and parents now, which means I can do my job much more effectively. I open and distribute the mail, accept packages and other deliveries. I handle all the school mailings, from folding and stuffing to addressing and postage metering.

What do you like most about your work?

This is a very endearing group of people to work with, and I love the personal contact I have with everyone. It's especially satisfying to help the students with arrangements they need to make and to know that they trust me. I like my role as a troubleshooter, and it is very gratifying now to have people routinely say, "If you want to know, ask Sheila."

What is your proudest accomplishment?

I've gained the confidence of my peers. The faculty and administration of the school respect my opinions. I am able to assist them in ways that are critical to the overall operation of the school. I feel that I am an important member of a team.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of going into this field?

To do this kind of job, you have to be extremely flexible. You should really think about your personality and whether it is suitable for so much interaction with people. You need to be a person who can remain cool and calm when it's very hectic and people may be complaining and shouting instructions.

It's a job where you have to have a thick skin sometimes. People get offended at times if I don't put them right through or send them back to an office right away. You have to be skilled at being tactful, courteous and patient. Being a receptionist requires more skill than people think to do it right!
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