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How to maximize your receptionist’s time

Does your receptionist seem bored? Have her co-workers complained that she seems to have little to do and spends most of her time surfing the Internet? Before assigning new duties to your receptionist, there are a few things you should consider first.

How much extra work the receptionist can take on depends on how busy the desk is, says Ellen Freedman, CLM, of Freedman Consulting, a law firm management consulting firm in Lansdale, PA. Freedman is also law practice management coordinator for the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

Freedman recommends that before assigning extra work, you have the receptionist count the calls that come in and identify the peak call times. In most firms, peak times are 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and the nonpeak time is 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. You’d be looking to add duties only during these nonpeak hours.

Also, she says, the administrator should spend some time in the reception area to see first-hand what is work and what is not. “Just because the receptionist is laughing and engaging in friendly conversations doesn’t mean she’s taking personal calls,” says Freedman. “Those callers could be clients who like her, and the friendly conversations are surely not hurting the business.”

The only real sign of job slacking is complaints from clients that they are put on hold too long or that they can’t get through to the attorneys.

Assign interruptible tasks only

As to what tasks to assign, the answer is any task that isn’t affected by interruptions.

On the simple end are jobs such as opening, sorting, and date-stamping the incoming mail and stuffing envelopes. The receptionist can also be the person who sends out the faxes, if your firm still does that manually. Or put the postage machine at the front desk and have her run through outgoing mail.

More difficult are jobs such as creating and updating mailing lists, entering data, running reports, and opening new client files. Just be mindful of the physical space and the likelihood that confidentiality of data could be compromised by exposure.

And a well-qualified receptionist can do jobs such as conflicts checking and entering time into the billing system. “All of those,” Freedman says, “are jobs somebody can stop and start again easily and not impact accuracy.”

In addition, most computer work is suited to the job, though the obvious caveat is that the screen needs to be placed where people walking by can’t see it.

“What’s not suitable are duties such as billing or following up on receivables,” says Freedman, “because they require concentration and uninterrupted periods of work.”

Also unsuitable are duties that require interaction with the attorneys or staff, because the receptionist can’t leave the desk. “To give a receptionist secretarial duties, for example, is a formula for disaster,” says Freedman.

Another caution: don’t give the receptionist duties that anybody else in the office also does. Make them one-person, front-desk-only jobs.

This will eliminate a lot of excuses. If three other people are also responsible for some task and mistakes happen, the receptionist has a ready-made out—that her job is to answer the phones, not to check everybody else’s work. “People are more careful when they carry single responsibility for something,” Freedman says.

Put the new duties in writing

Once the firm identifies what duties it wants to assign, make them part of the job description, Freedman says. Otherwise, the receptionist is going to look at them as extra and unnecessary work being done as a favor to the firm.

Without the job description to make the assignments formal, there’s no way to make the receptionist accountable for them. Only if they are in writing can they be considered a valid part of the job review.

What’s more, having them in writing is the only way to ensure the duties don’t get dropped off when one receptionist quits and a new one takes over.

Freedman cites a serious situation one firm encountered when the receptionist was responsible for the conflicts checks. Somebody new took over the job, and because the conflict checking wasn’t in the job description, the new person didn’t know to do it.

Unbeknownst to the firm, no conflicts checking was done for several years.

Introduce the new duties as an opportunity

But how do you increase somebody’s workload and get a positive response.

Freedman’s advice is to present the change as an opportunity.

“Don’t open the conversation with an offensive statement such as ‘all you do is surf the Internet all day, so we’re giving you some work to do.’ It’s not the receptionist’s fault the phones aren’t ringing,” says Freedman. “Neither is it the receptionist’s fault there’s nothing else to do; it’s the firm’s fault for not having thought out the position to begin with.”

Be positive, she recommends. Give it a bit of flattery: “We are under-utilizing you. You have a lot of talents, and we want you to be able to use them.”

Also Freedman suggests that you point out the career value of taking on the work. For example, you could say something along the lines of ‘This could open the door to other job possibilities here for you.’ In a small office, for example, the job of receptionist can be a good training ground for becoming a legal assistant.

Freedman adds, however, to be cautious about overdoing the assignments. The purpose of the job is to get the phone answered well. If the other duties interfere with that, the office has lost its front-desk coverage.

Be ready to talk money

“In most offices,” Freedman says, “the receptionist is the most undertrained, underpaid, and under-appreciated person on the entire staff. Yet that one person is the gatekeeper of the firm.”

To a great extent, it’s the receptionist who determines whether the firm gets business from callers and whether it’s easy or difficult for clients to reach the attorneys.

The position warrants a salary that reflects the importance of the job.

Freedman recommends that you check surveys to determine what other firms pay their receptionists. Also look at your turnover. If your office has one receptionist after another, it’s likely the pay is too low.

Provide proper training

Along with the salary, look at the training the firm is providing. Often it’s no more than ‘here’s how to answer the phone.’

“Yet the receptionist is the manager of first impressions and needs to attend seminars and read professional literature to bring the job to its highest level,” says Freedman.

A top receptionist, she says, can be one of the most valuable persons on staff. Unfortunately, firms seldom recognize that until a top receptionist leaves.

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