The Hill Life: Five Rules for the Phones

Jun 15, 2011

Years ago, when I was a Staff Assistant (aka First on the Phones), I used to tell people that my primary job was being yelled at by constituents.  The anger that some people feel toward their government, their President, their Congressman or just “the system” in general has to go somewhere, and often it falls on the ears of the 22-year-old person being paid less than $30k a year to answer the phones.  

I have probably answered the phone 1 million times, give or take a few, during my Hill career.  I have cried exactly three times.  I have hung up on seven people.  And I have gotten to know some of the frequent flyers (repeat, daily callers) so well, that I know them better than their extended families do.  So if there is one thing I know, it’s how to do a good job answering the phones without letting the litany of complaints get to you.

Rule No. 1: Don’t Take It Personally  I have been called names.  I have been told that I am a spoiled, overpaid leech sucking the taxpayers dry with my exorbitant government paycheck.  I have been accused of being a killer of animals, babies, Afghan refugees, poor people and U.S. soldiers.

Yes, a small but vocal minority can make you dread the ringing phone, but you cannot take it personally.  Remind yourself, “These people don’t know me.  They don’t know the work that I do, the effort that I put in, the person I am and hope to become.”  Take a deep breath, a walk or a minute to yourself and then shake it off.  

Rule No. 2: Know Your Boss’s Policy  When answering the phones, you need to know at least the cornerstones of your Boss’s policy positions.  If you don’t, ask someone.  And if you can’t get the caller an answer right away, take down their info, find the information and call them back.  You are supposed to be a resource for constituents, so you need to know your stuff.  But whatever you do, if you don’t know, don’t guess.  

Rule No. 3: Keep Mum Before Votes  Unless someone tells you otherwise, never tell a caller how a Congressman might vote on a bill.  

Circumstances change, and while your Boss might be leaning towards yes at 8:00AM, he could learn information at noon that sends him down another path.  This fluidity means that it’s best not to talk in definite terms about votes until they happen.

Instead, tell people that you haven’t spoken to the Congressman about the issue, but you know he would be interested in hearing from his constituents on the matter.  If they demand an answer, ask an LA to take the call.  Otherwise, take their opinion down and pass it along.

Rule No. 4: Know When to Escalate a Call  Knowing when to call in a substitute is very important.  If your gut tells you that someone above you would be the better person to handle this, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

That being said, don’t panic any time someone raises their voice or escalate a call just so you don’t have to talk to the person anymore.  There’s a difference between a tough caller and a call that needs to be handled by a specialist.  You need to learn the difference.  

If a call goes dramatically south before you can run it up the chain, it’s best to tell someone what happened.  Sometimes the person will call back and want to speak to a supervisor, if you let them know in advance, it won’t look like you’re trying to hide a mistake.  And if you’re on a really bad call, make sure to write down the person’s name and contact number so in case they hang up, someone higher up than you can call them back.

Rule No. 5:  Pushing the Panic Button  It’s a terrible thing, but there are some real nut jobs out there.  People who threaten you, your Boss or to commit violence against someone else or themselves need to be reported to Capitol Police.  This is why we have caller ID.  

It’s rare but it does happen.  So keep a few of the reporting forms in your desk and make sure to write down the number and any identifying information as soon as possible.  

The Golden Rule:  It never ceases to amaze me the things people will say to a stranger on the other end of the phone.  Some people feel like they are entitled to yell at you, to curse obscenities, to make vulgar statements and harass you just because you’re the one answering the phone.  It’s wrong.  So for those of you who don’t work on the Hill, here’s a bonus rule.

If you want the Congressman and his staff to take you seriously, don’t be rude, condescending or mean to them. Convey your opinion and talk to the person on the other end of the phone like you would want to be talked to.  

We understand that people feel passionately about issues, and we want to support and represent our Boss’s constituents in the best way possible, but that does not give you license to walk all over us.  And if you disagree with the Representative on an issue, argue your points with tact and disagree like a gentleman.  Who knows?  If you’re respectful and make a good argument, you might actually change someone’s mind.  Something that you surely won’t do if your throwing threats and swear words around.

Answering the phones in a Congressional office is a rite of passage.  Everyone from the Chief of Staff to the LAs has done this before you.  So while we all know that it’s a tough job, don’t complain about it like we don’t have a clue what you’re going through.  We all did it, we all survived, you will too.

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  1. er says:

    Great post! Actually, with threatening calls, it can be best to conference in Capitol Police so they can hear the call as it's happening and step in if needed. 4-1495 for phone threats.

  2. Belle says:

    Good tip.

  3. Rachel says:

    When I was a Congressional intern, both on the Hill and in the District, I was always the phone intern. While it bugged me at first, I later realized I should be proud that they recognized my phone skills and wanted to showcase them. And it provided invaluable inexperience.

  4. Zoe says:

    If you can handle the phones, you can handle just about anything!

  5. Arielle says:

    Belle, this is great! I answered the phone in district as an intern. We had a great staff that all took shifts answering the phones so no one intern or person would have to do it all day – it was great. Thanks for sharing your tips!

  6. DCGirl says:

    I started out as an intern right for a Congressman in his district office right around 9/11. Even the calls that came in the next day were shocking given the mood everyone was in. Later I was a staff assistant for a Senator in one of their district offices right before the run-up to the Iraq war. Phones rang nonstop for 3 months straight. There are always the crazies, the frequent flyers, the call-in campaigns, and the people who will feel the need to yell at you and call you and/or your boss names because they don't like the way your boss voted on a particular issue. The best thing you can do is laugh it off at the end of the day. They eventually make for great stories! Sometimes, after a really tough day or few days when I was working in DC helping with phones or sorting mail, and wanted to scream, I went to the staff gallery after work (providing they were still in session) or during lunchtime just to watch the proceedings. The beauty of the chamber and seeing the entire thing, not just the limited shot shown on cspan (like the presiding senator fiddling with his or her blackberry under the dais), had a relaxing effect and would bring me back down to earth.

  7. Ashley says:

    Sometimes I look forward to the frequent flyers just to break up the rest of the calls. Also, I like the callers that say they can speak however they want because “I pay your salary”.

    I agree with Zoe – if you can handle the phones, you can handle just about anything.

  8. gingerr says:

    My Dad was an elected official in our town.

    This was back in the day, and every night our phone (we only had one line) was busy with people calling to give him their opinions.

    After he left office he always said that the best candidates to vote for were those who had served, at some point, on a town council or a school board because those folks were certain to have had plenty of firsthand experience listening to voters.

  9. dcintern says:

    Thanks for this post! I'm interning on the Hill this summer for my Senator and I've been terrified of having to answer the phone. This advice makes me feel way more confident about taking constituent calls.

  10. LJH says:

    I smiled when I saw the title of this post. I interned for a senator in the spring and now I'm at one of his district offices on the phones. It was the one thing I was dreading (for some reason they kept the interns off phones in DC) and for the first few days I was terrified of picking up the receiver. 11 days in and while it's certainly not my favorite part of the job, I'm almost starting to look forward to the phone ringing just for the challenge. And for the lingering hope that one day I won't have to do this regularly anymore!

  11. CA408 says:

    I couldn't agree with you more. I interned in my Congressman's district office and I was definitely terrified of answering the phones at first. However, I got better with practice and was able to discern quickly when I could handle a constituent concern myself and when I should ask a staffer for help. I got my fair share of angry constituents as well who definitely called me some very disrespectful and even vulgar names, but phone answering definitely made my skin tougher than it would have been otherwise.

  12. me says:

    It's “rite” of passage, not “right.”

  13. CynthiaW says:

    Boy, this brought back a lot of memories – I interned in district during college and was shocked at some of the calls we received. The crazies and frequent fliers weren't as bad as some of the “regular” constituents. I had a few people tell me that they had the right to talk to me any way that they wanted because they “paid my salary” – which, of course, interns don't have.

    Fortunately, in our office, it was policy not to listen to swearing or other verbal abuse – we were told to politely ask the caller not to talk to us that way and then, if they persisted, tell them that we were hanging up and then we did. I actually only had to hang up on someone once – I was usually pretty good at defusing hostile callers. Plus, it seems like most of the screamers and swearers weren't actually constituents, but people who were being told to call by one organization or another.

  14. Tia says:

    Me,
    Belle spelled something wrong, big deal. Why do you take such joy nitpicking the posts?

  15. JJ says:

    Belle, Your post was quoted in today's Express paper! I, too, was once an intern in both the DC and district offices, and later served as a staffer for a few years…this post brought back memories of many painful constituent calls…Well said, Belle!

  16. georgiacat says:

    ah, the phones. My favorite was the guy I had (he was a regular) who, one day during his rant, says something like “You hoity-toity DC people think you're better than us and don't know how we think down here.” “Sir, I'm actually from X.” (X being this guy's town. I was a rarity that was actually from the district I worked for). He didn't have a response to that. It was priceless.

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