The history of virtual receptionists

The history of virtual receptionists

The word “receptionist” often gets thrown around, but what does it actually mean? Does your business need one? If so, what does the role look like?

Receptionists have a long history and have worked under many names (see: clerk, secretary, administrative professional). But regardless of the name, the receptionist’s job has been to connect with customers and be the face of a business. With the convenience of the internet and the advent of a global workforce, receptionists have the ability to work outside the office and still meet the needs of a business. But how did we get there?

Origins of receptionists

Receptionists have been around since the invention of writing. Really.

The idea of a receptionist was born thousands of years ago. When people started keeping written records, they needed someone to write and order them. These people were often skilled slaves who possessed excellent handwriting, spelling, and organization.

After the Industrial Revolution and the US Civil War, which coincided with the growth in demand for male laborers in construction and mining, the front office continued to take shape, becoming more highly gendered.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant (or, dare we say, his receptionist) Thomas Watson placed the first phone call. The telephone changed the types of services businesses offered and the number of customers one company could reach. Answering calls quickly and professionally soon became a cornerstone of good customer service.

Modern changes

The introduction of call forwarding changed things for businesses yet again. Though he lived in relative obscurity with criminal ties, Walter T. Shaw was the person behind this technology, as well as touch-tone dialing, and creating the red phone that connected the White House directly with Moscow in the 1950s—just to name a few of his patents. Thanks to Shaw, call forwarding made it possible for the office to go virtual and for people to do business from just about anywhere, long before the internet.

These technologies allowed businesses to be more flexible, but also created more demand as accessibility increased. While many business owners kept their own records and dealt with customers themselves, they needed help as growth outpaced infrastructure. The receptionist role became a catch-all for organizing and running the behind-the-scenes of many businesses. The receptionist of the twentieth century was often the most overworked and underpaid employee in a business, and almost exclusively female.

The history of virtual receptionists: black and white photo of a switchboard operator from the mid-20th century

Receptionists juggled meeting clients or customers in the office, acted as secretaries for meetings; they shopped, handled all ingoing and outgoing mail as well as correspondence, took all calls and messages, and acted as travel agents.

If that sounds like three to five separate positions today, you’re right—all duties that didn’t have a specific person in charge went to the receptionist.

The ever-changing business landscape of the 20th century quickly required receptionists to take on additional responsibilities beyond customer service. As a result, the title of “receptionist” expanded to reflect these new job functions. Here are just a few titles used today to refer to these critical roles:

  • Administrative assistant
  • Office manager
  • Front desk specialist
  • Operations coordinator
  • Customer service agent
  • Business service specialist

These days, the growing popularity of remote work has created demand for highly specialized “virtual” receptionists. Their responsibility: delivering the same level of personalized attention to customers across the business spectrum.

That’s where Ruby comes in. From our early days (some might call 2003 ancient history), we saw that receptionists were doing vital work managing offices, assisting employees, and taking on other administrative tasks; and we witnessed caller experiences being impacted as a result. Receptionists were simply too busy handling all their other tasks.

That’s why we started building a solution that could bridge the gap between receptionists and the callers they couldn’t get to. Over the years, we’ve shaped what being a virtual receptionist means because we understand how important first impressions and customer connections are for your business.

So, let’s talk about what a virtual receptionist might do for your business.

Ruby’s virtual receptionists are highly trained customer service professionals who represent your business remotely, both online and over the phone. We free up your office administrator, bookkeeper, or other in-house professional to focus on other tasks and avoid burnout (especially when labor is in short supply) while ensuring your business doesn’t miss a single opportunity to connect with customers.

For as much as the role has changed, the receptionist remains the first touchpoint for most customers. At Ruby, we’ve helped tens of thousands of businesses deliver better customer service, stand out against the competition, and boost their bottom line. We create meaningful connections that translate to long-lasting loyalty and growth for your business.

For more on how to grow a business with Ruby’s virtual services, check out this free guide.