Luscious Fruit: The Competitive Intelligence That Hangs in a Company’s Telephone Tree

Apr 24, 2009
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

“You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful.” ~ Alan Alda

What kinds of things can you learn in a company’s telephone directory?

If you have a company you admire (Hey! I’d hire just about anyone from there!) it might profit you immensely to spend some time (especially now — what else have you to do?) doing some voice mail mining by tediously calling through each number of a company’s internal dial system.

Recently I wrote an article here on ERE called “Direct-Dial Directories: How to Research Staff via Phone Numbers” that has become one of the most e-mailed articles on the site.

In it I describe the technique of “farming” a company’s telephone directory — an activity that can be performed on just about every major company in America from the comfort of your own desk and telephone. Toward the end of the article I mention a few things that a directory reveals, these being only a smidgen of the type of information that can be extrapolated from a company’s telephone directory. Following are some other “tidbits” of valuable information that a directory might yield.

Employees who seem anxious to be “reached”: Every once in a while you’ll come across a directory where, it seems, nearly every employee offers up a cell phone to the listener. You have to ask yourself why this is. Is this company policy that the company is encouraging their employees to “stay available” for calls from the outside? What’s it saying? Recently I did a thousand names for a sales drive out of a provider of energy services, and there was a plethora of people offering their cell phones to the caller.

I checked the company’s “Estimated Fiscal Earnings per Share” for 2009 and it was listed as “very high” and “high” for 2010. I wonder if there’s a connection between what appears to be a pretty high level of employee engagement, at least from the outside, and the financial forecast. Hmmm … I wonder if that company is paying the cell phones bills of those they seem to have on 24/7 “call”?

Employees who sound “engaged”: I have a running disagreement with the Recruiting Animal about being able to “hear” engagement. He says I’m nuts; I insist it’s so. I am at present doing the phone tree of a global medication delivery and specialty pharmaceutical company, and there is very little information offered (beyond the owner’s name) on the individual voice mails at the company, and the messages seem curt and rather official; as in “I’ll call you back when I have the time (if ever…).”

Checking the financials, I see the company has dropped from an astounding P/E ratio of near 60 in late 2007 to a P/E ratio of 12 today. Hmmm … I wonder what happened. That’s a big drop in today’s strong pharma/biotech space, crash or no crash.

Building upon this I am of the opinion that you can many times “hear” the overall health/wellness/attitude of a company by the expression (or non-expression) on the employees’ voice mails, which are the company’s outward facing (vocal) image. One or two calls aren’t going to reveal this but a few hundred certainly will!

What % of the workforce is female/male: If you’re looking to promote equal opportunity in your organization, a good way to do that is to look to the leaders in your industry who successfully challenge the glass ceiling. One thing I found interesting in a recent “survey” of mine in a major consumer goods company was the prevalence of females over males 3:2. I think that’s saying something, and I also suspect (wage differentials being what they are in reality; let’s not kid each other) the savings just might be traveling to the company’s bottom line. Yup, maybe so. I just checked and the Estimated Fiscal Earnings per Share for ’09 is “very high” and the outlook for 2010 is “high.” Hmmm …

It’s a diversity smorgasbord: A company that is light years ahead of your own in understanding and adapting successful methodologies that create for them a workforce that encourages diversity to better serve a heterogeneous customer base is one in which it just might pay you extra dividends to investigate ts member base.

It can be a watershed: Let’s take one voice mail nugget I retrieved recently out of a major U.S. based consumer products company. Upon dialing the extension “4725” I heard, to my delight, a British-accented male describing his current work situation:

“Hello, you’ve reached Nigel Mickelson. As of Monday, February 2, I will be relocating to the Paris office, working on the home health care business. I will not be working on toothbrushes anymore. If it’s a toothbrush-related matter now, call Sean Lytle at x3651 or if it’s a brand-related matter please call Shirley Arora at x2111 who will be taking over from me in oral-based. Thank you and have a good day!”

Are you kidding me? You just made my day if I was looking for a brand manager out of one of the major consumer products brands (Arora) or a (probable) marketing manager (Lytle). You also told me the date you were transferring to Paris, along with the day, and checking my handy-dandy calendar that I have taped to the wall in the back of my computer I see that it is from this year. I now know you’ve been in Paris approximately three months total and the information you just relayed to me about the others is probably very near real-time.

In addition, you gave me names and extensions for two other people inside your company, saving me the time it takes to dial each one. (By the way, I’ll dial them anyway just to make sure the info is true and/or I audibly picked the names up correctly, and also that they’re still there, since three months can be a good amount of time for something to have changed!) Not only did you give me all of that, but you created a mini-version of your own resume for me if I was so inclined to pursue you on the merits you mentioned.

The fact that the names you mentioned in oral care all have extensions far removed from one another bolsters my growing suspicion that your company does not place people in the same groups one next to the other in the phone tree. Darn. When people in marketing lie next to each other in the same set of extensions, it becomes a matter of shooting fish in a barrel to find the others. It could be that the way your directory is assembled was done on purpose, though I doubt it. It’s more likely a result of an old phone directory that has morphed itself to spread all over the place over time with departing and new, incoming employees.

Something that sounds dumb but maybe isn’t? Going to that dark place in my character that wants to “judge” people there’s another “telling” event residing on employee voice mail messages and it’s an indicator of how the employee “thinks” on the inside. One such clue is when the employee has occasion to tell the caller that s/he is “away” for a specified time. The manner in the way s/he “reports” the event is telling, I think.

Employees love to enumerate, on their VoiceMail machines, the days they’ll be away from the office by (usually) stating the “start date” and the “end date” of their away times. These dates usually do not include the weekends on either side of the start and end dates, so their away time “sounds” much shorter than they actually are. (By the way, when they leave these messages many times they also leave a name — sometimes several names — of others in their department who can “help you” while they are away. This is why calling around holidays is an especially lucrative “hoe” technique in this particular farming exercise.)

Moving on, and warning you beforehand, you may not agree with what I have to say below. You may, in fact, find it repugnant to your own viewpoints.

“This is Rebecca LovestoSunandDoesItEveryChanceSheGets.”

Wow. Not only do I know that Rebecca is probably of Southeast Asian descent (they’re about the only ones with sixteen syllable names) but she also tells me she’ll be “away” May 11 (a Monday) through April 15 (a Friday) masking (she thinks) the fact that she well may have taken the preceding Thursday and Friday as “sick/personal days” and/or the following Monday/Tuesday as well to pull herself together.

I say this because I’ve heard enough voice mail messages that do not coincide exactly with the dates on the calendar when I am calling. For instance, I might get that message on the preceding Wednesday and/or as late as the following Wednesday, timeframes that don’t really make much sense.

So, in reality, we may have an employee who has a propensity to string “sick/personal” days onto the front and back of vacation times, with five days of paid turning into nearly two weeks.

“You’re pickin’ the doo-doo with the chickens,” you’re thinking.

Think so?

Is it a result of prudent planning on her part? Probably. On that note, it’s likely that she has all her vacations mapped years in advance using calendrical calculations to get her hiatus requests in early.

Is it an untoward absence expense to the company? More and more today I see discussion in the industry about what sick and personal days are costing companies in real time dollars. Back in the days of wine and roses maybe we could afford it. These days, while the world continues to flatten with much of our global competition accustomed to greater working hours and harsher conditions than what we have here in the U.S., these tendencies employees have to cherry-pick on their benefits are going to draw more and more attention from the finance office. Did you know some HR departments report up to the CFO’s office?

Make no mistake about it — employers are watching — and listening, ever on the lookout for advantage. Your attitude is conveyed in your voice and in the things you say (and don’t say). Words are powerful and creative. Be on guard you don’t create the wrong image with yours.

On the down side: Who’s young, who’s not: They wonder how ageism has such a stranglehold on our psyches. I know this is a controversial area, and many don’t want to talk about it, but ageism exists and is thriving in our modern society. If you don’t believe it, just watch Simon’s obnoxious and smarmy reaction to the news that Susan Boyle was 47.

He wasn’t the only one smirking — watch the early audience reaction to her.

You know how the requirement gets masked in the job order: “We want someone “entry level” who can “grow” into a role.” It has occurred to me that culling through a sterling company’s phone tree permits the listener to “hear” and unlawfully select/discriminate for age in the area of employment. It doesn’t make it right (and very well could suffer legal challenge soon) but it’s a fact of life that ageism is prevalent throughout our society and maybe this is one small way, like social networking carrying the danger of biased selection, that ever-so-subtly (or not!) contributes to its accomplishment.

I hope you’ve enjoyed some of my viewpoints as presented above (controversial and picayunish as some may seem) and you may have other observations as well. I am very interested in hearing them. Sure, some of the information gleaning I describe is, admittedly, interpreted by intuition. But if it wasn’t for our intuition, in many instances, where would we be?

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!