What Is a Receptionist? Primary Responsibilities, Skills, and Capabilities

Sean Lund-Brown

Most people assume that they have a good idea of what a receptionist is and does. The very word conjures up an image of someone sitting behind the front desk, greeting visitors as they arrive and answering phone calls. Perhaps they get up periodically to tidy the waiting area, interact with other employees from time to time, or answer questions from guests.

That image is completely inaccurate.

The truth is that receptionists are lynchpins that hold entire organizations together. Without their critical skills and capabilities, the business would be unable to function. If they were to fail in their responsibilities, operations would be severely interrupted.

If that description of receptionists doesn’t dovetail with your own understanding, it’s time to take a deeper dive into what these professionals truly do.

A quick look at the situation

When a visitor arrives at a business office, they walk into the front office. There is usually a waiting room with comfortable chairs, a few tables strewn with magazines and other reading material, and dominated by a large front desk. Behind the desk sits the receptionist — they’re responsible for greeting visitors as they enter, taking their information to help begin their visit, answering phone calls, and so much more.

In most situations, the receptionist is the first person a visitor sees. They’re also the first person to communicate with customers, clients, vendors, and suppliers, as they’re the first line of defense when it comes to phone calls. In short — your receptionist is a huge part of the business’s public face.

As you can see already, the idea that receptionists do little more than handle visitor intake and answer phones is not just outdated — it never really existed. Receptionists have always been critical parts of building a thriving brand. It’s only now that we’re beginning to recognize that.

In light of that situation, what does a receptionist actually do within a business?

Common receptionist duties and responsibilities

While receptionist duties can vary greatly from organization to organization, there are a few common threads that run through them all.

Answering phone calls

Receptionists are responsible for answering all calls to the business’s primary number, but may also be responsible for answering calls to forwarded numbers. For instance, if an executive is on leave or vacation, their office number might be forwarded to reception to be answered. Of course, this responsibility requires more than simply picking up a phone.

Receptionists are often required to:

Take messages — In situations where voicemail is either unwanted or not useful, callers can leave messages with reception for later delivery, escalation to higher-ups, and more.

Direct calls — Often, callers are unsure to whom they should speak. Receptionists can direct those callers to the appropriate people within the organization. This requires a deep understanding of the roles and responsibilities of other employees and where to direct questions or queries that might straddle the line between departments.

Answering questions — Receptionists are often the ones responsible for answering general questions. These can range from queries about office hours to more in–depth questions about products or services and will require that the receptionist have a high level of knowledge about the business, its products/services, and more. Questions can come from clients and customers, but also others, including existing vendors/suppliers, potential vendor/suppliers, job applicants, and others.

Scheduling

Another critical responsibility of receptionists is scheduling appointments for customers and clients to meet with or talk with other personnel within the business. In addition to customer/client meetings, receptionists are also often responsible for scheduling off-site duties and activities for other personnel, such as meetings, conferences, court dates, and more.

Of course, scheduling requires more than just jotting down a note that so-and-so will be at such-and-such an event on a particular date. In today’s world, it requires a deep understanding of scheduling/calendaring software, a good grasp on the day-to-day activities within an organization, and an understanding of how specific events, absences, or activities might conflict with others already on the schedule.

Appointment reminders — In addition to scheduling, receptionists are often tasked with providing appointment reminders. These can take many forms today, from quick phone calls to text messages and emails. What’s more, those appointment reminders can be customer/client-facing, or they can be directed to personnel within the business.

Follow-ups — After an appointment, it’s important to follow-up with a customer/client. In some cases, allowing receptionists to handle this is the best option, as it frees other personnel to focus on other important tasks. Successfully handling follow-ups requires knowledge of the appointment, as well as the customer/client need or problem, the solution presented, and more.

Visitor reception

The most visible responsibility of receptionists is to receive visitors. This often includes a wide range of sub-tasks and related duties, including:

Intake — Visitor intake can take many different appearances, from filling out new patient forms to simply taking the visitor’s name and the name of the person they’re scheduled to meet.

Problem-solving — Receptionists are sometimes tasked with problem-solving for visitors, particularly when those problems are general in nature and don’t require the expertise or input of another employee.

Directions — Receptionists are often called on to provide directions for visitors to help them locate a particular location, department, or employee within the facility.

Collect information

Receptionists collect information almost as a matter of course. For instance, they’ll take a visitor’s name and contact information when they arrive. In a medical office, receptionists must gather a great deal of personal information, particularly if the patient is new. However, information gathering in the modern world plays into a broad range of other mission-critical focuses, including the following:

Lead qualification — Marketing and sales rely on accurate information about leads. Receptionists play a central role in that process by obtaining information from potential leads and providing some preliminary qualification/vetting to streamline and accelerate the overall process. This can be done with information collected from a visitor in the office but is more common with phone calls. Note that this requires more than simply jotting down information longhand and then passing a physical note along to sales, marketing, or customer support. It requires full integration with an organization’s CRM so that notes, information, and other important data are added appropriately.

Customer service/support — According to Microsoft, 90% of Americans use customer service as a factor in deciding whether or not to do business with a company. The same report notes that 58% of Americans will switch companies with a single negative customer service experience. Salesforce points out that 89% of consumers with a positive customer service experience will make another purchase. The same report found that 63% of B2C and 76% of B2B customers/buyers expected businesses to know their unique needs and expectations. Receptionists play a critical role within customer service and support, helping to ensure a positive, cohesive experience, provide critical information to customer service/support reps, and more.

Handling mail

Receptionists must also handle things like physical and electronic mail. Often, this requires routing the mail to the right person within the organization (whether that mail is physical or digital). However, in some instances, receptionists are required to answer mail, which requires an understanding of the business, good knowledge of customer service best practices, and outstanding communication skills.

As you can see, receptionists play crucial roles within businesses and other organizations. To fulfill those responsibilities, though, they must have the right skills and capabilities. We’ve touched on some of those already, but there is more to know here.

Key skills and capabilities of receptionists

Because receptionists play such a central role in business success, they must have the right skills and capabilities. Some of those are obvious — communication, for instance. Others are less so — a deep understanding of modern technology, as an example. Below, we’ll highlight some of the most important skills and capabilities receptionists should have in today’s world.

Communication — The underlying purpose of a receptionist is to communicate — whether that’s with customers/clients, employees/staff members, vendors, and suppliers, or someone else. They must be able to communicate effectively and accurately in person, on the phone, and in writing.

Professionalism — Receptionists are the public face of a company. They set the tone for a visitor’s entire experience and often “make or break” the relationship. Therefore, it’s absolutely critical that receptionists can comport themselves professionally in a wide range of environments and situations, in behavior and appearance. Receptionists should embody a company’s ethics or ideals at all times.

Soft skills — Receptionists will interact with others during good times and bad, when stress is high and when it’s not, after successful meetings and after less successful interactions. They must have high emotional intelligence, empathy, active listening, and other soft skills. It’s the difference between responding appropriately and responding inappropriately to a delicate situation.

Technology skills — We’ve touched on this previously, but it bears repeating. Today’s organizations are tech-centric. Even startups and SMBs rely on technology for their day-to-day operations. Receptionists need to be conversant with your entire technology stack, from Google Analytics to your CRM, your calendaring/scheduling software to Facebook Messenger, Slack to Salesforce.

Multitasking — Finally, we come to multitasking. Yes, humans are incapable of true multitasking, but that doesn’t mean responsibilities won’t occur simultaneously. For instance, the receptionist might be on the phone with one customer, when another line rings. The new caller must be greeted promptly, which means putting the original call on hold. In the meantime, visitors might be lining up in the physical waiting room. Dealing with this inevitable backlog is critical.

Can you afford only in-house receptionists?

In-house receptionists are important — they’re a critical cornerstone in the customer experience. However, can your business afford to only employ in-house talent? For a growing number of organizations, the answer is a resounding “no”. Why is that? You need to look no further than the multitasking example in the previous section.

What happens when calls pile up? When your receptionists have to balance in-lobby visitors with multiple phone calls? When customers inevitably hang up because they no longer want to sit on hold?

Consider some of the following:

● According to Zendesk, over 50% of customers prefer to reach out by phone, which could lead to very high call volumes, the need to juggle phone calls, and more.

HubSpot points out that 33% of customers are most frustrated by being put on hold, even for a brief moment.

● The same report finds that 33% of customers are frustrated by having to repeat themselves to multiple customer service reps, a common occurrence when juggling phone calls.

Zendesk backs up those findings, reporting that long hold/wait times are the most frustrating part of their experience as customers.

● Compare that with the fact that, according to a Qualtrics XM Institute study, almost 90% of consumers report higher trust in a company they feel has treated them well.

● Also consider the fact that, according to Comm100’s study, 71% of consumers aged 16 to 24 believe that a quick customer service response is the key to driving an improved experience.

Where does that leave you? Simply put, it means that you cannot afford to hire only in-house receptionists. Even the most professional reception team cannot do everything at once, and for SMBs, hiring more than one or two reception professionals is often exorbitantly expensive. What’s the solution to that challenge?

At Smith.ai, we offer a robust team of North America-based reception professionals that can augment your in-house team and ensure an optimum customer experience. In addition to answering calls and ensuring that your customers are never put on hold, we also provide a broad range of other services designed to help you compete, build a robust brand, and thrive.

Take a moment to explore how our live virtual receptionist service works, check out our features page, or take a look at our pricing and plans information. When you’re ready to take the next step, go ahead and book a free initial consultation.

Sean Lund-Brown

Sean Lund-Brown is a current Marketing Assistant for Smith.ai. A graduate from Metropolitan State University of Denver, Sean graduated with a BA in Music and an individualized degree in Teaching Vocal Pedagogy.

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