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.