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How to stop playing tag and put the telephone back in its place

If you're reading this at work, chances are that sometime today you'll get an opportunity to play telephone tag. That's the game where you call up someone - a customer, a sales representative, a person in the next department, your child's school - for information. You get passed from extension to extension, told that people you want to speak with are in meetings, and finally wind up giving your name and number to someone who's chewing gum.

You lose.

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American Telephone & Telegraph Company did a survey on telephone tag. It found that a whopping 72 percent of all business calls result in no contact, says George Walther, a Venice, Calif., telecommunications consultant.

It's enough to make you go back to writing memos, as they do in many other industrialized nations. ''Some highly developed countries,'' wrote John Brooks on the 100th anniversary of the telephone's invention, ''have very low counts of telephone per population, calling into question the notion - generally unquestioned in this country - that a highly developed communications network is essential to economic growth.''

In fact, in an article entitled ''19 Ways to Avoid Telephone Tyranny'' in a recent issue of Contemporary Times, the magazine of the National Association of Temporary Services, No. 1 on the list is: ''Get out of the habit of reaching for the phone every time it occurs to you. Ask yourself whether calling is the most time-effective step, especially right at this moment.''

But Mr. Walther, citing the cost of business correspondence (roughly $15 to $ 20 a letter, he says) and the tendency for letters to be ''put on a stack with other letters,'' says, ''If you're out to get something accomplished in this fast-paced world, the telephone is your greatest ally.'' The only reason he can think of for writing instead is if it's a ''legal matter and you need hard copy. But I've found that notes taken during the conversation and dated work perfectly well.''

First, of course, you have to get through to someone to have this conversation. If that person is screened by a secretary, Mr. Walther thinks you should go directly to the switchboard operator, ''whose job function is to make connections, not screen them out.''

One management consultant says she regularly makes all her calls early in the morning, ''since that's the time people are likely to be in and not tied up.''

If it isn't possible to sidestep the screen, try setting up a ''presumptive appointment,'' Mr. Walther says. ''If the person you're trying to reach is out of town until next Tuesday, say, tell the secretary that you'll call Wednesday, and ask if early morning or late afternoon is best. Then set a time and ask her to put it on his calendar.

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''You still may not get through,'' he points out, ''but if you call back at that time, that person will know that you're a person who follows through on your commitments.''

Of course, the shoe may be on the other foot in your case - you may be the one doing the screening. If so, one of the easiest ways to screen, says the Contemporary Times article, is to get ''three separate lists of people'' from your boss - those he doesn't want to talk to, those he will talk to if the work allows, and those he'll talk to whenever they call.

Mr. Walther, who gives seminars through Clemson University on ''telephone techniques for secretaries, receptionists, customer service reps, and other support staff,'' thinks secretaries should get their bosses' support in ''taking action wherever possible. Tell the person on the phone that you're sorry, so-and-so isn't available right now, but you're the assistant and perhaps you could be of help.''

Even if you can't solve the problem, he points out, you'll get enough information so your boss will be able to solve it quicker. Either way, this approach goes a long way toward satisfying the caller and making you and your boss look good.

In fact, Mr. Walther points out, it is the receptionists and secretaries who often make or break a company's image. When a customer calls for the first time, Mr. Walther asks, who does he or she talk to first? And if that initial contact isn't all it should be (and it often isn't, he points out, since companies typically make the job of answering the phone both low-paying and dead-end), ''the customer carries that image for years.

''People size you up in 30 to 60 seconds on the phone.'' he points out, ''Because they have so little stimuli to work with - they can't see you - they have to create a larger-than-life instant image.'' So little detractions, like poor diction, ''can make you, and your company, look sloppy.'' Common mistakes on the phone include ''eating something, or smoking, or finishing another conversation as you answer the phone.

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