The historical functions of switchboard operators vary greatly from the role of the modern professionals, with automation taking over many of the traditional responsibilities of an operator. Roughly 181,600 Americans work as switchboard operators, taking incoming calls and transferring callers to an appropriate party as of 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In small businesses, operators may also take on secretarial and clerical responsibilities.
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Starting in 1926, telephone companies used switchboard operators to connect calls using the Combined Line and Recording method. A customer would call a switchboard operator and let her know with whom he wanted his call connected. The switchboard operator would then manually connect the customer with the person by plugging a wire into the correct circuit.
Starting in the 1940s, telephone companies used automated switching, where operators would enter a routing code to connect a customer to the party she wanted to call, according to AT&T. By the 1970s, digital electronic switching automated the process and eliminated many of the traditional responsibilities of the switchboard operator.
Medium and large size businesses sometimes use dedicated switchboard operators to transfer parties to their desired extension. The caller will notify the operator of their questions or concerns, and the operator will then transfer the caller to the correct party. Switchboard operators must address the concerns of callers as quickly as possible while remaining friendly to callers during a large volume of calls.
Switchboard operators will usually answer general questions about the business that a caller may have, such as questions about the hours of a business or directions. Alternatively, they will transfer the caller to a prerecorded message. Operators will also give a caller the phone numbers to other businesses if they cannot complete a call internally, and they may call 911 on behalf of callers in the case of an emergency if they work in a health care setting.
Switchboard operators in small businesses or health care environments will perform a dual role of transferring calls and performing clerical duties, which can include typing, scheduling appointments and sorting mail. They may also take messages on behalf of a business or direct parties to the appropriate voicemail extension if members of a business are not available to take calls. Switchboard operators may also keep records of all calls placed and the costs of these calls, according to Career Planner.
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