July 25, 2001 11:00 pm
24 HOURS A DAY, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK: For the last 14 years, Judy Hendrickson and her eight operators have been serving clients in five counties making hers the largest answering service in Eastern Oregon. (The Observer/KELLY WARD).
24 HOURS A DAY, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK: For the last 14 years, Judy Hendrickson and her eight operators have been serving clients in five counties making hers the largest answering service in Eastern Oregon. (The Observer/KELLY WARD).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

So, youre in business and want to make sure you dont miss any important phone calls.

What to do? Buy an answering machine?

Wrong, says Judy Hendrickson.

An answering machine is impersonal, a one-way communication. You cant be sure your message got through, she said.

Maybe the tape breaks. Maybe the recording you hear when you call in hasnt been updated. If the caller hears Im out right now, when is that?

An answering machine cant make a judgment call if theres an emergency. You may have a broken water pipe or a serious dental problem needing immediate attention.

If youre looking for a plumber, youre going to turn to the Yellow Pages and call til you get a real human voice, Hendrickson said.

Thats where she and her company Commline Paging and Answering Service come in.

I like to say we stop the Yellow Pages shopper.

For the last 14 years, she and her eight operators have been serving clients in five counties, making hers the largest answering service in Eastern Oregon. Thats 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Set up in two front rooms of her blue house on First Street not too far from Pioneer Park, Hendrickson and her crew take 14,000 to 16,000 calls a month.

And thats just the ones that require a written message, not those that just want a phone number or want to know a business office hours, she said.

There were some computers when she bought the business, and upgrades have made things easier, she said.

When a client is having calls forwarded to the answering service, whenever that clients phone rings, the clients name comes up on a monitor with pertinent information.

On one side of the screen are things like the clients name, address, their cell phone number, their protocol and services they offer, permanent information. On the other side are temporary things, such as the fact theyre out to lunch, gone for the day.

There are six incoming lines and two outbound lines, Hendrickson said.

We can patch callers through to our clients, page them, phone them or fax them. We have a lot of towing companies as clients and they are out a lot. Our system works very well.

Some of the 200 steady clients have been with Commline for 10 years, she said.

Some like the paging service aspect.

If a veterinarian is out in the field and has his hands full, he can tell when the pager goes off but doesnt have to stop what hes doing right that minute, like he would have to do with a cell phone. He then can call in when hes free to do so, Hendrickson said.

Theres still a real need for pagers. All cell phones cant get into all areas of the Grande Ronde Valley, such as Union and Elgin.

She said you might think that doctors and some other professionals are the main users of her answering service.

Actually we have a greater percentage of other businesses than doctors. We have most of the towing companies in La Grande and those in Baker and Ontario, too.

There are both white-collar and blue-collar clients, she said. But most business clients are service-oriented businesses, such as some doctors, dentists, funeral homes, veterinarians, optometrists, construction workers, plumbers, electricians, heating and air conditioning companies. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and a county crisis line are clients.

Among residential customers, are a lot of elderly people, she said.

There is really no set pattern, Hendrickson said. Theres Coke and Pepsi, the Blue Mountain Conference Center, different salesmen. We have the city shops and public works.

Theres also Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative.

A combination of OTEC and the citys Public Works Department combined with the 5 p.m. time when companies are closing and phoning in their information for the evening has presented some interesting situations at least once, she said.

It got pretty exciting the time their was flooding under the Second Street viaduct. That was one of our hardest times. Besides calls about that, we were receiving our regular calls.

Its a stressful job, she said. It takes operators three to six months before they feel comfortable doing their job, she said. The average stint of an operator with her is two to four years, she said. Part of that is because she hires some college students.

Once well-trained, the operators can almost do their job blindfolded.

Thats about what happened once when the computers went on the fritz and the only thing that would come up on the screen when the phone rang was the clients account number.

We still answered. We have memorized some of the clients account numbers.

A turntable setup is in the middle of the floor between the two computer monitors, where messages are filed alphabetically.

According to the preferred protocol, the client either calls in for messages or the operator calls the client. Messages are then filed away for about two month.

Most calls come in between 7:45 a.m. and 6 p.m., Sometimes six calls come in at once. The late shift may get only five or 10 calls a night after midnight, she said.

Hendrickson bills on a flat-rate system based on the needs of each client. Some clients get 80 calls a month through the service, others 300 to 350, she said.

Commline also takes orders from all over the United States for a Baker City company, gives the ski report for Anthony Lakes, radio dispatches for the city shops, gives fire reports twice a day for the Association of Oregon Loggers, and offers notary public and secretarial services.

She and her husband, Leon, have raised seven children here and she said shes not near retiring.

Hes got 10 more years with the railroad as a car inspector before he retires. By then, I will have been in business 25 years. Maybe thats when Ill retire, too.

Meanwhile, the phones keep ringing.