Why “No Problem” Is A Problem

Dan Hull at  What About Clients? says that law firms have become employee-centric, but still forget about taking care of the client.  He’s got a point.  I don’t know that people do it intentionally.  It’s hard to see how you or your employees fail to provide adequate client service because we tend to get wrapped up in our own self-serving rationale about why we do what we do.  In other words, we excuse ourselves because we understand our own needs and problems.  We are self-blind.

But it’s easy to see such failings in others.  Funny how that works.  So the easiest way to see the little (or big) things that we should or shouldn’t be doing is to note it in others and correct it in ourselves.  This is a prelude to the real purpose of this post, which is to write about something that perpetually annoys me.

We all call other people’s offices.  How often are you put off by the manner of the receptionist, the disdain and air of self-importance that makes you want to reach through the phone and grab him or her by the throat and squeeze.  The job is to answer a phone, and you happen to be a caller.  Why is this such a problem?

Receptionists have long been one of my pet peeves.  Obviously, this is the gateway to your practice, the portal though which every new client comes.  If the receptionist does the job well, the client is happy to enter.  If not, you’ve got a strike against you before you even begin.  I certainly don’t need my receptionist making my life unduly miserable.  I do enough of that myself.

How often is a call taken by someone who gives you the clear impression that he is doing you a monumental favor by answering the phone, or worse yet, taking a message.  No “may I help you,” but “what do you want.”  Instead of saying please, the receptionist seems all to happy to get you off the phone and makes it clear, through intonation and language, that you need to ask “please” if you want to reach someone.

One favorite of mine is when the person you’re calling isn’t there or available.  I ask for “Joe”, and I’m told, “Joe’s not here.”  That’s it.  Dead silence.  Then I have to ask, “And can you take a message for Joe?”  She says, “okay”.  Okay?  Am I interrupting something more important?  Or is my telephone call so inconsequential to your business that nobody there cares if I call or not?

But the worst, most troubling thing that comes across my telephone line is the receptionist who, after “agreeing” to take your message, responds to your thanking him for doing his job, the one he gets paid to do, by saying two particular words:  No problem

No problem?  Why should it be a problem at all.  If I’m a client and I don’t call you, you have no business.  Then you can’t pay someone to answer your telephones and they have to go back to Dairy Queen and ask “chocolate or rainbow sprinkles” with attitude. 

The meaning of “no problem” is that, but for their grace, it would be a problem.  I’ve asked for something beyond the pale.  I’m a burden, and they have generously put up with me.  Is my paying the money that pays your salary a problem?

As an attorney, my relationship to my clients is personal.  They have come to retain me, not just any lawyer, but me because of the work I do.  But I have had many a talk with support staff about how the treat clients.  They are not me.  The client didn’t come for them.  The defendant may be my long time client, with whom I’ve shared many experiences, but the support staff is not their dear old friend. 

Their job is not limited to doing what I need of them, but to treat clients with the appreciation due someone whose payments are what makes their salary possible.  Show them sincere appreciation.  Show them courtesy and respect.  As far as you’re concerned, the client earns it.  And never tell a client “no problem.”

When you work for me, you work for them because I work for them.  My job is to help them, so your job is to help them.  Do they annoy you?  Are they irritating?  Do you think you’re better or more important than they are?  Sorry, but without them, you’re out of here.  And so am I.  If I have to serve my clients, you surely do as well.

Be nice to my clients.  That’s our job.  And it starts with the receptionist.

7 thoughts on “Why “No Problem” Is A Problem

  1. Windypundit

    “No problem” must be one of those cultural things, I think, because it doesn’t bother me a bit.

    It’s precisely because the receptionist gets paid to do that work that he answers a thank-you with “no problem.” It’s a shorthand way of saying “No thanks are necessary because you have not imposed on me, and I would be happy to do this again for you.”

    At least that’s how I hear it, and that’s what I mean when I say it.

    I realize not everyone hears it that way, so I’m trying to cut down, but it’s not an easy habit to break.

  2. SHG

    If you think about it, the caller should not be thanking the receptionist at all.  The receptionist should thank the caller. 

    The receptionist would be happy to do this again?  What does the receptionist’s happiness have to do with it?  Do they get to choose not to do it if it doesn’t make them happy? 

    What’s wrong with (a) you’re welcome, (b) my pleasure, (c) no, thank you, Sir. .

    No problem does not mean “no thanks are necessary,” though I don’t begrudge you enjoying a personal definition, unless “thanks are necessary” equates with “problem”.

  3. Windypundit

    Neither does “no problem” mean “but for their grace, it would be a problem. I’ve asked for something beyond the pale. I’m a burden, and they have generously put up with me.” That’s just how you’re taking it.

    As you point out “If you think about it, the caller should not be thanking the receptionist at all.” That’s why the receptionist wants to reassure the caller that they are not imposing.

    When I was doing tech support, people were often embarassed about needing help, and sometimes thanked me profusely for getting them out of a jam. It seemed like a good idea to reassure them that they weren’t imposing by saying something like “Oh, it’s no problem.”

    Admittedly, probably not everyone who says “no problem” means it that way, and even for those who do, there are probably better ways to get that idea across, especially since so many people take it as a backhanded put-down.

  4. SHG

    That’s why the receptionist wants to reassure the caller that they are not imposing.

    That’s it exactly:  “No problem” is the response when there is a question of imposition!   Thanks, Windy.

    (Were you that guy at tech support who told me I was the dopiest a. . . well, never mind)

  5. Windypundit

    I think we’ve found the root of the conflict. If “thank you” means “thank you for allowing me to impose on you” then “no problem” means “it wasn’t an imposition.” But if “thank you” means “I appreciate that you are doing your job” then “no problem” means “I give you permission to ask me to do my job” which sounds snooty.

    I didn’t mind the uninformed callers so much—them not knowing as much as I did was part of the concept of tech support—but the demanding callers would drive me crazy. The worst were the executives who would have their secretaries call me, as if I could solve their problem by talking to someone who can’t answer specific questions about it.

    Hmm, you do white collar crime, does that ever happen to you?

  6. SHG

    Hmm, you do white collar crime, does that ever happen to you?

    Never.  But you raise another issue in the question.  What about when someone tells their secretary to call you, get’s you on the line and then the secretary tells you (the callee) to hold for Mr. Jones.  After all, they can’t waste their time calling, but are happy to waste my time holding for them?  I just hang up the phone, and have a nice chat with Mr. Jones when he calls back because “we got cut off.”

  7. Windypundit

    Oh yeah, I hated that. There’s nothing like someone “putting you in your place” to start the conversation off right.

    I never got a chance to pull this off myself, but what you could do is have a pre-arranged plan so that when you get one of these calls, an accomplice in your office picks up the line and tells Mr. Jones to “Hold for Mr. Greenfield.”

    Of course, hanging up is a lot less work and almost as satisfying.

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