Background:

At my workplace we have a small open office of under 10 staff.

While I work as a developer which includes making & receiving phone calls for technical matters, I sometimes answer the phone for general calls when others aren't available to do so.

Often, callers ask for my manager. When this happens I need to know who is calling, what they want, and if they are a client before I can make a decision about whether to pass along the call (I have instructions about what calls should be passed on and which ones referred to email, and by default they are "not in the office" unless the call is one they are expecting).

Often the caller will avoid divulging the subject of the call and instead ask when the manager will be available, promising to try again later, then promptly hang up.

Rinse & repeat 1-2 hours later when they call again - often it will be me answering the repeat call, I really want to tell them to stop wasting both our time and just tell me what it's about so I can do something!

I also don't gain any brownie points by telling my manager "someone called, don't know what it's about or where they are from, they'll phone back". That's useless to the point that there's no reason to pass it on.

My responsibility here is to pass along anything pertinent (not sales) while handling any technical issues myself. Sometimes divining the actual purpose of the call (and sometimes even the identity of the caller) is very difficult when they are uncooperative and avoid answering your questions.

An example of one of these discussions can go like this:

Me: Good Morning / Afternoon, Company X

Caller: Manager Y please

Me: I'm sorry they're unavailable at the moment. Can I help / take a message?

Caller: When's Manager Y available?

Me: I'm not sure, sorry. What's the call regarding?

Caller: I'll try again later, thanks.

hangs up

Question

What are good strategies for finding out what a call is actually about, when the caller is uncooperative, will only speak to Manager Y and doesn't want to waste time explaining themselves?

Should I mention it if they keep phoning back that they will not be able to speak to Manager Y until I have these details?

Update

After some comments / answers I've spoken to my boss who has basically said what I'm doing is about all I'm expected to do (enquire about the nature of the call, who the caller is, offer to take a message, offer to help). He agrees that it's difficult which makes me feel better if nothing else!

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    The role you are performing is often called a gatekeeper. It may be instructive to search for articles on this keyword, often written for sales people to get past you. You will learn to "think like your enemy" as it were, and hopefully to identify those calls quickly. – Brandin May 17 '16 at 15:10
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio May 19 '16 at 15:01
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    I feel bad for you. Having to interact with people when writing code. It would make me hide under the desk. – coteyr May 19 '16 at 17:18
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    Why should a developer be taking calls? Hire someone much cheaper to take them, or install an PBX/asterisk with an IVR – Rui F Ribeiro May 21 '16 at 14:12
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    You are screening calls, by having them hang up on you, instead of hanging up on your boss. – immibis May 23 '16 at 1:30

13 Answers 13

up vote 211 down vote accepted

In your example, you tell the caller that Y is not available. Since they are only interested in talking to Y, they only inquire about when to call back.

I would suggest that you do not mention the availability of Y, but rather directly start gathering information. Ask who the caller is; if they are rude enough not to introduce themselves immediately, then if necessary ask the reason for the call.

Don't let them expect that you will transfer the call until you get all the answers. (Which is what saying that Y is currently unavailable does)

Once you get all you need, either transfer the call, or suggest an alternative way of contacting either Y or someone else. (That part may be trickier).

You: Good day, company A

Them: Manager Y please

You: Who is calling please?

Them: Mr B from company C

You: Can I ask the matter of your call, please?

Them: I would like to speak to Mr Y.

You: I understand that, but I have to ask you what the matter of your call is before attempting to reach Mr Y.

Them: It is about something, this and that.

Now the tough part I suppose is if you then judge that you should not transmit the call but redirect them toward email, without letting them think they will be able to reach Y simply by calling later.

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    This. A thousand times, this. Get the information while they still think they will get to talk to Manager Y. Only block them when you need to. This makes it crystal clear that even if they call back, they're not getting through if they don't give you this information, reducing the repeat calls. – skrrgwasme May 17 '16 at 22:21
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    Yes. The only correct answer ever to this is "Who is calling, please?" – Wildcard May 17 '16 at 23:31
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    +1. Key part missing from answer: if they give you their details but you're not supposed to put them through (e.g. they are sales), then you can say "I'll just try his line for you.... Sorry there's no response, can I take a message?". You'd really annoy them if you found out who they were then just said "Sorry he's not available" as though you knew all along he wasn't available. – AndyT May 18 '16 at 8:35
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    Perfect formulated! This short and friendly response "Who is calling please?" leaves the calling party with no option but to provide the details, or being very awkward by hanging up or saying "it's a secret" :-) – Falco May 18 '16 at 8:40
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    yes. one answer could be something like "I am sorry but I cannot transfer you to Y. For matters regarding <whatever>, I recommend that you send an e-mail to <this address>". Staying detached and in your role is key. – njzk2 May 18 '16 at 19:35

Part of the equation here is for you to understand the people on the other end of the phone and your purpose.

Your boss, and many people like her, use people like you to screen the calls. The boss doesn't like fielding dozens of sales calls a day. It gets old real quick.

At the same time, the sales people calling know that they are being screened. They know that the likelihood of receiving a call back is very very low. They also know that if they can get your boss on the phone then they have a much higher likelihood of making a sale. Quite frankly you even pointed out that you aren't supposed to pass sales calls along, which means the sales people are right in not bothering to leave a message. At some point those particular sales people will stop calling. Of course, by then, you'll have a different batch to wade through.

The result here is that the sales people are unlikely to ever give you their information to take down. Instead their bosses are telling them to keep calling until they get a decision maker on the phone. Which means they are kind of limited in their options as well.

You and the caller are both in the middle of this. You can't let them through without taking a message and they aren't allowed to leave a message. The best way to handle it is simply to be professional. Meaning that you continue to be polite, tell them the boss is in a meeting and then promptly forget about the call once the line disconnects.

You don't need to be rude, you don't need to inform your boss about this and you don't need to even worry about it. It's just part of the game of answering the phone.

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    Telling them that the boss is in a meeting is a bad strategy, because it encourages them to call back... when the boss is available. Actually telling them that the boss doesn't take sales calls is the better approach. Not everyone or every sales organization is smart, unfortunately, but the smart ones will stop wasting their time trying to cold-call someone when they're told that they won't be put through because the person won't accept their call. – HopelessN00b May 17 '16 at 16:37
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    @HopelessN00b: Sales people don't care what you say or what the reason is. All that matters is whether they were successful in speaking with the target person. If not, they'll call back - even if you tell them the boss doesn't take sales calls. It's called "Not taking no for an answer." – NotMe May 17 '16 at 17:00
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    @NotMe Yeah, and as I said, smart salespeople don't do this, because it's a waste of their time too. Their time is better spent talking to people who aren't deliberately, actively, avoiding talking to them (because even if they do get through, they'll get hung up on anyway). So yes, the inexperienced and stupid will still try to call back, but any salesperson who knows anything will move on to someone else. – HopelessN00b May 17 '16 at 17:05
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    @Paparazzi It's not always that simple. Telemarketers (well, ones that aren't working for a fly-by-night or a scam) generally work off of a CRM and/or a ticketing system. And there's a big difference between noting that sales calls are screened out and the decision maker was in a meeting. One gets put back in queue for a call back or two, one doesn't. (Again, for organizations with any sense, which is not all of them.) – HopelessN00b May 17 '16 at 17:10
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    @HopelessN00b: in a perfect world where people respected a "no solicitation" policy then I'd agree with you. However, it's been my experience that very few sales people will stop shy of the decision maker being incredibly clear that they want nothing to do with the product. It's also been my experience that people managing the sales callers don't care unless the decision maker makes that statement. – NotMe May 17 '16 at 17:27

If they won't tell you who they are, or leave a message, it means they're making a sales call. That's why they won't tell you; they know you won't put them through if they do. You're acting as a call-screener for your boss, so this is expected behavior to a large degree. (Wasting your time, rather than your boss's time.)

So, the short answer to your question is that when they won't tell who they are or why they're calling, that tells you what the call is about - a sales call that you're supposed to be preventing your boss from getting. (Wasting a technical resource for this purpose strikes me as gross mismanagement of resources, and not good for your personal career development either, but that's a separate issue.)

You can't really prevent this kind of caller from calling, or calling back, unfortunately. (If you could, everyone would do it, and telemarketing calls wouldn't be a thing.) The best you'll be able to do is dissuade some of them from calling back by making it clear that your manager is screening sales calls and will never be available to take their call. When they dodge your question about who they are by ask when the manager will be available, respond by telling them that the manager does not accept sales calls or unscheduled calls from unidentified parties.

I'm sorry, but manager Y does not accept sales calls or calls from unidentified parties. If you want to speak to him/her, you'll need to identify yourself and give the reason for your call before I can even ask if he/she will take your call.

If the person or organization on the other end of line has any sense at all, they'll realize they won't be able to get through, and stop trying. Unfortunately, not all do, so this will only dissuade some from calling back, and doesn't address the root issues here, but it's probably the best you, personally, can do about it. (Seems to me like hiring a receptionist and having a computerized call routing system would solve both problems, as would managers just letting unidentified calls go to voicemail, but if they haven't done so already, there's probably a deeper reason than not having thought of it already.)

  • I like the simplicity and effectiveness of this. Spelling out clearly that sales calls don't get through removes a great deal of hope on the part of sales callers. They don't just infer they are being screened; they are being told explicitly. – donjuedo May 17 '16 at 18:45
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    @donjuedo Thanks. I've been on both sides of this, and it's as much about getting marked in the telemarketer's system as permanently unreachable/unsalable as anything else. Generally, someone who's temporarily unavailable ("in a meeting", or whatever other dodge) will be put into a list of numbers to call back, whereas someone who's permanently unreachable will be removed from the call list. Smart organizations and salespeople realize that this is just wasted time they could be using on better prospects or through different channels. – HopelessN00b May 17 '16 at 19:11
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    The reason they would call back is probably in hopes of someone else who wouldn't be as strict answering and letting them get through. – jpmc26 May 17 '16 at 21:10
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    @jpmc26 right, but organizations or salespeople who think that are not smart. A) Most people who have a call-screener have the same one, as an FTE (receptionist, personal assistant, executive assistant, etc.), so calling back at a different time does not generally get a different person. B) Someone who has someone screening their calls does not respond to cold-calls. The're deliberately preventing sales calls from getting to them and/or are too busy, so a cold call just won't generate a sale. Waste of time. The smart ones know this and move on. The dumb ones are gonna call back no matter what. – HopelessN00b May 17 '16 at 21:32
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    Actually, upon further reflection, this script is a great follow up if njzk2's script is unsuccessful in eliciting the information from the caller. – Dan Henderson May 18 '16 at 12:53

Simply put, you don't need a "strategy", you need a consistent "rule of engagement"... and you have to make that rule known to all callers immediately, briefly and politely.

Discuss with your boss what to say when someone calls.

When the caller requests to speak to the manager, you won't say "I'm sorry", or "they're not available". This make things awkward when the caller reveals you who he is and why he's calling - because then you have to contradict yourself and say "I'll put you through."

Be straight-forward; this isn't a game and you needn't apologize. You ARE screening calls and anyone worthy of getting through knows this.

Your best initial response is, "Who's calling please? And what is the call regarding?" This states the rule, politely and succinctly and any intelligent person knows what they have to do to make progress.

If they don't at least identify themselves, you know they belong in the SPAM file. Give them one more chance by stating, "If you can provide me with your name and the nature of your call, I'll try to get a message to him as quickly as possible." (This keeps the ball firmly in your court and politely offers one last shot at coming clean.)

If they don't elaborate, ask if they would like the company's "general inbox email address" so they can send an inquiry that you will distribute.

If they decline, but say they'll phone back, say "Please don't call without identifying yourself. None of our managers accept anonymous calls."

Any persistence or harassment on the part of the caller should be met with a polite, "Thank you.......goodbye!"

All of your scripting should of course be in writing - and a copy of it on your and your boss' desk, (and in an operations manual or employee handbook, if your company is that sophisticated) just so everyone knows the "rules of engagement" and how to answer that phone themselves. "Knowledge is power and consistency is best!"

"When this happens I need to know who is calling, what they want, and if they are a client before I can make a decision about whether to pass along the call (I have instructions about what calls should be passed on and which ones referred to email, and by default they are "not in the office" unless the call is one they are expecting)."

It sounds like you have been given pretty clear direction from your boss. Ask her how she would like you to handle this situation, and she is sure to have a detailed answer.

If it were me I would ask you to send the calls to my voicemail. That way I could screen out the cold calls from sales people and respond to legitimate concerns from customers in a timely fashion.

Just tell them you hate wasting their time because your boss will make time in his schedule to follow-up with a customer. Otherwise, he'll be in and out of meetings most of the time.

You'll limit your frustration if you see these calls as concerns from people who pay your salary instead of people wasting your time. We're all human and these little biases can creep into the tone of our voices and attitudes. Taking a different perspective may make the difference. You also have the chance of sounding sincere when you say you'll forward their contact information to the boss.

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    @JeffO I'll try to keep that in mind, thanks. I probably come across very frustrated just now as I was fresh off the phone from a few of these calls today... normally I keep a good attitude on the phone & do enjoy it when I'm able to help, but as you've noted this type of call does frustrate me. I'll try to imagine them paying me money, it might help ;) – nurgle May 17 '16 at 14:18
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    @PeterM Unless they are sales people cold calling the CEO to try to pitch him on the latest and greatest product he should be spending money on. – David K May 17 '16 at 14:18
  • @DavidK well the OP did insinuate that he needs to answer the phone as a part of his work. – Peter M May 17 '16 at 14:25
  • You may want to enforce some type of support ticket systesm so people can verify they are a customer or someone who has registered to try your products and services. This should help weed-out people wanting to sell you. They are wasting your time. – user8365 May 17 '16 at 17:03

I am a decision maker, and I generally take the call after about 4 or 5 persistent calls. I do work to not be on these sales directories of decision makers, and have gone from a situation of having 10 calls a day to about 1 a week. I generally find out how the person got my name and number in the first place, under European law they have to tell you, and this often means having to talk to their marketing director, or data protection officer. Sometimes this requires finding out what company they are calling from, googling the company, and calling their corporate head office. Once you get off of these marketing lists, your calls and spam will drop off dramatically.

I also make it clear that whoever is calling me or my team in no uncertain terms is not welcome, and if they continue to persist, we will then simply black list their company.

Another strategy has been to just waste their time back by being an affable fool. This has been an incredibly successful tactic with nuisance calls on my mobile, because I have gone from about 4 a day to about 1 a month. If you can soak up someone's time for 20 or more minutes while doing some other rather mundane tasks this will ultimately get you put on to some do-not-call list, which sounds like where you want to be.

I encourage my team to take the call, and to say something along the lines that they work on the team that decides 'X'. You have to be assertive, and make it clear to the caller that you the 'decision maker' to get any further, you have to be satisfied. You can be polite but assertive, and in the end, you are the decision maker of what gets through to your boss.

Me: Good Morning / Afternoon, Company X

Caller: Manager Y please

Me: I'm sorry they're unavailable at the moment. Can I help / take a message?

Caller: When's Manager Y available?

Me: I'm not sure, sorry. What's the call regarding?

Why bother lying here? You are sure when he will be available, that is: when you have the information that you are asking for. I'd say exactly that instead.

How about Caller ID? Do you have it, can you get it? Google it, or use any one of a zillion online lookup services. Get the sales people name and phone # book to search against. If you have VOIP phones you could have a LDAP directory and the phone system could be programmed with a list of contacts. You would still need to google some of them.

Yellowpages.com/whitepages.com

I like to be very, very frank with sales calls:

"He's not available. Is this a sales call? If so, he's never going to be available. You can tell me what you are selling, and I'll tell you if there's any chance of success or if you're wasting your time."

It works pretty well. I also have no problem saying, "No thank you, it's not a good fit. Please remove me from your calling list. Goodbye."

And then I hang up.

Callers that won't explain the real purpose of a call are invariably a waste of time. Those that have legitimate business with a particular person aren't going to be offended if you ask them to explain a bit. Think about it the other way around. If you needed to talk to a specific person at a small company about a particular issue, and whoever answered the phone asked what the issue was, you wouldn't be offended, surprised, or think less of the person or company in any way, right?

I usually handle this very bluntly: "Part of my job is to screen calls for Mr Xxx, so I need to know what this is about.". Those with legitimate business are going to recognize it for what it is, a first line of defense against annoyance calls. They get them too, so will understand why you need to do this. Also, by saying it's "part of my job", you remove the opportunity for them to negotiate. It's your job, you were told to do this, they aren't going to be successful in telling you not to.

For many years I was a consulting engineer with my own company. Occasionally there were others to answer the phone, but often I answered it. The spam calls were usually obvious in the first few seconds. The best method was to pretend I was a low level employee when someone asked to talk to the manager, CEO, or whatever. The line about it being my job to screen calls usually worked very well.

I also took some additional steps to make this process easier. When some organization asked for a contact person, I'd make up a name with the initials reminding me of the organization. Not only does this immediately identify someone just looking thru listings of CEOs and the like, but you can tell which directory they are looking in.

For example, David Baker gets the most calls. He is listed as the CEO by Dunn and Bradstreet. Mike S Conner gets some calls to, and is listed by the Massachusetts Software Council. For a while we did some work related to computer companies, so you can probably guess who Henry Pollard and Ingrid B Miller are.

A typical phone call goes like this:
Caller: This is xxx from yyy company. I'd like to talk to Mike Conner.
Me: I'm sorry, he's not in right now. Can I help you?"
If it's a legitimate call, then the caller will explain what it's about. After all they have no relation with Mike Conner and have obviously never talked to him before. On the other hand if it's a spam call, as 98% of those asking for Mike Conner are, it becomes obvious right here. There will be some excuse as to why they need to talk to him urgently, why they don't want to explain a lengthy issue to me, etc. Usually they just repeat something vague, like "It's an important business issue.". No legitimate caller is ever going to say that. Depending on my mood at the time, I either just hang up or engage them for a while for my personal amusement and occasionally the amusement of others watching this.

Anecdote: A bunch of years ago I got one of these calls for David Baker. After the usual intro, the caller said "I was just talking to him and we got cut off. I need to talk to him right away. I'm at the airport about to get on a plane." I told him I didn't believe him, and that he was a liar probably just flipping thru the Dunn and Bradstreet listings contacting CEOs. There was a long silence at the other end, then "Um, ... Um, ... I'll call back later.".

For more amusement: In recent years there have been a lot of calls wanting to "verify information". These are obvious attempts to get lists of officers with contact info at companies. When I don't feel like playing, I'll just say "We are privately held and don't give out such information.", then simply hang up if they try to argue.

On other occasions I go further. I keep a sticky note on my monitor of fictitious names of corporate officers complete with email addresses. My email server is set up to blacklist any IP that sends to one of these addresses. What makes this particularly amusing (to me at least), is that these are all real villains from history. The president is Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the operations manager Benito Mussolini (he makes things run on time), the head of security is Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, and the marketing manager Joseph Goebbells. I have given out various of these names dozens of times, but incredibly, nobody has ever been skeptical, told me I was pulling their leg, or appeared to do anything other than take these names at face value. Perhaps it helps that I initially refer to them with nicknames, like Vlad, Benni, Lav, and Joe, but I always end up spelling the full names. One time I even had a lady remark "Benito Mussolini, what a nice name.". No, that really happened!

As a bona-fide customer who sometimes makes these calls, here are my thoughts / reasons:

  • I have already dealt with tier 1 (that's you) and there is nothing more you can do in this situation. Either you won't know, or it's above your pay grade. Therefore discussing the issue (again) wastes your time and (more importantly) mine. It's quite possible the first call was outside normal manager's hours and I agreed to call back now.

  • However, If you are in fact tier 2 you should say so. If I am calling about a technical issue rather than administrative you might be the person I need anyway.

  • Why would my name be important? If it's a small company with few clients I probably have the manager's direct line, if it's a big company ( e.g. my bank) the manager will not know me. Banks usually require lengthy identification processes, I don't want to do it twice.

  • If I am already frustrated with tier 1 staff your company is already on thin ice and risking losing me as a customer. Being snotty / procedural / defensive / rude etc. will NOT help in the situation and will move your company that much closer to losing me as a customer. If your business is so good that you can treat your customers like this, good for you. And FYI if you get dumped as a vendor you will also get on my "do not use" list, which is widely distributed. So that's me gone, and as many future potential customers as I can talk to.

Do remember who you really work for. Your manager may be the one writing your cheque each month but part of that money comes from me. I am most emphatically NOT interested in your process, office policy or any other bureaucracy that gets in the way of my process. My job is to run my business, and you are in the way today.

My typical Manager call (should) run like this:

"Thank you for calling Acme Corp, this is Wiley."

"Hi, I spoke to Elmer on the night shift and they said I should talk to the day manager. So here I am."

"That would be Sam. He's in, I will transfer you."

Calls to my bank usually go like this. I have no problems reaching managers there. Calls to my (former) hosting company did not go like this. That's why they are no longer my hosting company.

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    If more people call asking for the manager than can be accommodated then only some fraction of calls can be put through. You expect to be in the fraction of calls put through without giving any information that would elevate your call above those rejected. You are approaching this as a battle between you and the call-taker. Instead, it is a competition between you and the other callers. If you have a valid reason for needing to speak to a manager then both you and the business you are calling want the same thing - for your call to be prioritised over the others. Don't waste your advantage! – DeveloperInDevelopment May 18 '16 at 3:07
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    You're making a lot of assumptions that aren't immediately evident from the OP. You're assuming the callers have provided the basic information that the OP is asking for, namely the purpose of their call. The OP's callers seem to be skipping the "I spoke to A about B and was told to contact C" and instead asking for C directly. – Cronax May 18 '16 at 6:38
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    Just wait until you have 20 agents a day calling to talk to the boss before you have put a job advert on line..... – Ian May 18 '16 at 10:10
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    I think you may be under a few misconceptions here - there is no 1st - 3rd line of support techs, it's just me, we are a small company. I pick up after 3 rings and you're through to the guy who can fix things. Also, calls from clients are very obvious - they have no problems giving their business name straight up. I may have neglected to mention it but as we are a small company, my manager is the owner - sending through calls to them, no questions asked, is a sure way for me to come off as negligent and unprofessional. – nurgle May 19 '16 at 16:40
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    (continued) it's sales calls / cold calls I'm talking about here, calls from clients are obvious and always handled politely and professionally. – nurgle May 19 '16 at 16:41

Have management send out an email/regular mail.

Dear valued customer,

Effective 6-1-2016:

For security and to reduce the time we spend with spam and/or other waste of time calls we now require you to provide us with your name and account number when you call. We will hang up on callers that refuse to identify themselves so we can spend more time handling our valued customers.

Thank you, in advanced, for your cooperation and understanding.

Signed:

Big Boss Man/Woman

protected by Community May 18 '16 at 1:58

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