- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2001

The telephone manners of District of Columbia government workers didn't earn the gold star city leaders had hoped for, but the latest report card grading phone etiquette shows improvement in courtesy.
For years, residents calling for city services whether it was to get a light-post fixed, directions to the Department of Motor Vehicles or the number to another city office have been greeted by gruff and rude operators.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams has spent more than a year trying to get city phone operators to practice good phone etiquette and has been testing their politeness, courtesy and knowledge of city services.
Last spring, when the city first began grading city agencies on telephone manners using a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent), most were ranked in the "poor" and "needs improvement" categories.
The January results of the two-month surveys showed some agencies, like the public library, had made a huge turnaround in phone manners. But the Office of Tax and Revenue and the Division of Motor Vehicles remain at the bottom of the heap.
"Nobody likes to be told the baby's ugly," Lisa Morgan, the District's director of customer service operations, said of the embarrassing results agencies received, which also have been released to the public.
To rectify the situation, Mr. Williams has issued a D.C. version of Amy Vanderbilt's "Book of Etiquette" titled "Minimum Standards for Telephone-based Customer Service" to employees who answer the main telephone lines at city agencies.
Included on the cheat sheet of manners are instructions:
* When answering and ending a call, give name, say "Thank you for calling."
* Operators should answer a call before the third ring.
* Don't eat food or chew gum while talking on the phone.
* Do not be rude.
* Do not be confrontational.
Deputy Chief Financial Officer Herbert Huff said he understands the need for improvement in the tax and revenue department but notes that people phoning a tax agency probably think they would not receive quality care when they call in the first place.
Roxanna Deane, the library's point person for cleaning up its telephone manners, said the abysmal "poor" and "needs improvement" ratings it scored last spring surprised officials because "giving information is [the library's] business."
Almost overnight, Mrs. Deane said, the library changed its style, and as of last month was rated in the "good" column and bordered on "excellent" in every category assessed.
"That professional voice sounded cold and uncaring," Mrs. Deane said of the reason for last spring's low marks. "It was just that they had been pretty much unaware of how they had been sounding."
The city hired three testers from a temporary employment agency, who work from the 11th floor at One Judiciary Square, to call five city telephone operators a week, eight hours a day, to evaluate how well they answer the phones.
Mr. Huff sighed during a telephone interview after being told the result of a tester's call to the tax agency.
First, there was more than a minute of voice prompts to navigate before the tester finally got a live operator the tax lady who transferred the call without telling the tester a big no-no.
Then the tester, who had to listen to saxophonist Kenny G's music piped in, gave up after three minutes and 40 seconds and hung up the phone.
The tester said that operator will get a "poor" to "needs improvement" score for the overall episode.
"Clearly, that's of concern to me if one of our customers tried to go in and they are on hold six minutes," Mr. Huff said.
"We obviously have a few employees out there in our organization who haven't gotten the message," he added.
Although Mr. Williams' push to improve customer relations isn't the first the District has seen, Ms. Morgan said it is the first time city employees' telephone manners have been monitored.
During Mayor Marion Barry's reign, several attempts were made to get employees to be more customer friendly, even having them take phone etiquette classes in 1995. The classes stressed the importance of being friendly, providing accurate information and giving phone service with a smile.
"Our system has to be customer-driven," Mr. Barry was quoted as saying in a newspaper article at the time.
During his third administration, from 1986 to 1990, Mr. Barry tried a similar in-house training program, but it had little effect on improving city employees' phone manners.
Ms. Morgan said Mr. Williams did not inherit a "perfect government," but there has been some improvement.
She points to the July survey results that show 42.9 percent of the city's agencies were rated "poor" by testers; by November, the percentage of agencies that scored "poor" had plummeted to zero.
Operators at the 2-year-old Citywide Call Center in the Reeves Center on 14th Street NW say they are the nice ones answering the 3,000 yearly calls.
But often when they transfer calls to an agency, the phone is answered in a not-so-polite way, making moot all of their efforts to be nice, said Doretha Peters, a 20-year D.C. employee, and others in the call center.
"It has improved a lot, but we have a long way to go," Mrs. Peters said.

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