Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Answering Service Operators Have Seen Lots Of Change Over The Years

It's a good thing Brenda Jones is a people person, because she has talked to thousands of them during her 40-year career.

The Elm Creek woman began working as an operator in 1963 and spent 15 years helping callers before moving on to other aspects of operator support with several notable answering services.

One of her more memorable shifts came when the Beatles visited Milwaukee in the 1960s.

"Everytime the light for the Hotel lit up, everyone tried to answer," she said. "Some people were able to handle some of those calls. I think Paul McCartney made a few calls."

Today, the old-fashioned cordboards are a relic of history in a computerized world. Automation has led to the point that the SBC operator services building in Waukesha now takes every call from every person in the state who dials "0" on their phone.

Jones and her colleagues took a few minutes Wednesday to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the telephone operator and reflect on how the times have changed.

A brief lunchtime ceremony saw the answering service President  read proclamations from the governor and a County Executive to mark this week as Operator Appreciation Week. The governor praised the assembled operators for being on the "front lines, cables and poles" of customer service.

"I know it is much more than answering telephones," he said. "In many cases it is saving someone's life or providing people with vital information they have no other way of getting by themselves."

Although the stereotypical operator is female, the first operators were young men, said Jenny Henderson, manager of operator services. They were quickly replaced by women who were seen as more courteous and less prone to pranks. But by the 1970s, men began returning to their ranks.

Henderson said automation has changed the way operators deal with every call.

"Now everything is on tapes and a computer handles it all," she said.

Her colleague, Penni Smith, agreed, saying operators hear a lot from people who are frustrated at automated telephone systems and are happy they "finally got a real person."

Sienna Smithson, who — like Smith and Henderson — has logged decades of service for the phone company, recalled the early days of directory assistance, when operators would scour foot-thick books of numbers to help people. Now, that too is computerized, and Beffel predicted automation would continue to transform the industry.

Smith recalled a call she got years ago, from an elderly woman who complained that the cord on her wall-mounted phone was too long.

"She wanted us to yank it back a little bit to make it shorter," she recalled.

Now the wall-mounted, corded phone is also becoming a thing of the past in an age of portable communications. But Henderson, Smithson, and Smith also know there will always be a need for a friendly voice on the other end of the line.

"Your customer contact is minimal but that is still important," Smithson said. "You can't get that done with a machine."