The Job and What's Involved

A telephonist is responsible for answering a switchboard or telephone and dealing with the calls appropriately. They are usually the first point of contact people have with an organisation, and need to provide a fast and efficient service. They may also be referred to as a telephone or switchboard operator.

Telephonists develop an excellent understanding of how an organisation operates and the people who work there. Depending on the size and structure of the environment they are working in, their role may involve:

  • Listening to the answer machine each morning.
  • Answering the switchboard or telephone.
  • Quickly identifying the nature of the telephone call in a courteous manner.
  • Putting the call through to the appropriate person or extension.
  • Screening telephone calls.
  • Dealing with more than one call at a time.
  • Dealing with telephone enquiries on basic information, such as directions or company contact details.
  • Taking telephone messages for staff.
  • Activating an out-of-hours answering service.
  • Ad hoc administrative support.

In some organisations, for example central and local government agencies, there may be more than one telephonist dealing with several calls at any one time. Some office buildings may house more than one company, so the telephonist may be responsible for supporting and answering calls for a number of different organisations.

A telephonist employed by a telecoms company may have to:

  • Answer directory enquiry calls.
  • Receive and direct 999 calls to the relevant emergency service.
  • Deal with people who are having difficulties making calls or who want to report a fault on their line.
  • Test faulty lines.
  • Deal with reverse charge calls.

Telephonists spend their day on the telephone. The job can be stressful, having to meet targets and answer calls within a specified time period. Calls can be repetitive and callers may be difficult to deal with. The calls may be recorded for training or screened to ensure that company service standards are met.

Some of the telephonist's responsibilities have changed in recent years due to advances in call routing technology. In many organisations there are direct dial phone facilities both in and out. Many switchboards and telephone systems are automated, with callers choosing options from recorded messages.

A telephonist works between 37 and 40 hours a week, normally over five days. Some organisations may require telephonists to work a shift pattern to provide an extended service covering evenings and weekends. There may be part-time and job share opportunities.

The role is office-based. It involves long periods of sitting wearing a headset and using a switchboard or telephone. Some switchboards are screen-based and provide information about incoming calls.

Smart casual or business dress is usually expected.

Starting salaries may be around £13,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Prospects are good in all industry sectors, with large organisations and small enterprises often employing telephonists. There are jobs throughout the UK.

Telephonists also work for:

- Local authorities
- NHS Direct and NHS trusts
- The emergency services
- Local transport firms, including taxi companies

Since British Telecom (BT) was deregulated in 2005, many opportunities have been created with communication companies providing cable and mobile telecommunications.

Vacancies are advertised in local newspapers, through Jobcentre Plus offices and Connexions centres, and on recruitment agency websites.

Education and Training

Employers are likely to ask for five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including English and maths. An excellent telephone manner is essential. Customer service experience is also useful. Foreign languages may be useful, although these are not required.

Some employers, including the emergency services and financial sector, requireCriminal Records Bureau (CRB)checks.

Some colleges offer courses in call handling techniques, which may provide a useful grounding. These include the City & Guilds Level 1 qualifications:

- Certificate of Introduction to the Contact Centre Industry
- Contact Centre Operations
- Certificate in Contact Centre Skills

There are also BTEC awards, such as the:

- Level 1 Award in Introduction to Contact Centres
- Level 2 Award in Contact Centre Skills
- Level 3 Award in Contact Centre Supervisory Skills.

Local colleges can provide further details and advice.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Training is on the job. New telephonists usually work alongside a senior member of staff until they are more experienced.

Employees are encouraged to attend internal and external training programmes, where emphasis is placed on continued development and career progression. High standards are required as operators may be the only contact a person has with an organisation.

Training and development areas may cover:

- First impressions
- Best telephone practice
- Developing listening skills
- Customer care

Telephonists can work towards NVQs/SVQs in:

- Customer Service at Level 2, 3 and 4
- Contact Centre Operations at Level 2 and 3
- Contact Centre Professionals at Level 3 and 4

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A telephonist should:

  • Have an excellent telephone manner.
  • Have strong interpersonal and communication skills.
  • Be friendly and confident.
  • Be professional and polite.
  • Have good organisational skills.
  • Be flexible and adaptable.
  • Be able to use their initiative when screening calls.
  • Be discreet and tactful, as they may be dealing with callers who are upset, angry or anxious.
  • Be courteous but firm.
  • Work well on their own or in a team.
  • Be computer literate.

Your Long Term Prospects

A telephonist's skills are transferable. Although there is no structured career path, telephonists have various opportunities for progression, including:

  • Promotion to senior telephonist.
  • Taking on responsibility for managing a team of junior telephonists.
  • Moving to a larger organisation or different business sector.
  • Moving into another part of the business, such as administration, finance or human resources.

Get Further Information

Council for Administration (CfA),
6 Graphite Square, Vauxhall Walk,
London SE11 5EE
Tel: 020 7091 9620

e-skills UK,
1 Castle Lane, London SW1E 6DR
Tel: 020 7963 8920

Institute of Customer Service (ICS),
2 Castle Court, St Peter's Street,
Colchester, Essex CO1 1EW
Tel: 01206 571716

NHS Careers
Tel: 0845 606 0655

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