Saturday, July 22, 2006

Gripes and proposals

Seth Godin blogged recently about how companies "save" money by hiring unskilled, unmotivated, and untrained receptionists and then incur hidden costs in terms of customers and prospective customers who simply go elsewhere after a bad experience with reception. And, I might add, who let the rest of the world know about it.

This afternoon I'm about to try out a well-known salon/spa for a haircut. I looked up customer reviews on CitySearch and while I was impressed by across-the-board positive remarks about their stylists' talents, I noticed three seething rants -- all of them about the salon's rude receptionists. I also looked up reviews of the downtown salon I used to patronize and found the same thing. One irate patron wrote about overhearing the reception desk staff making fun of customers -- in loud stage whispers.

While Godin didn't make any substantive proposal for how to fix things, I'd like to. Thinking of shops where I've been favorably impressed with the receptionists, I realized that the receptionists were usually one of the following:
  • long-time employees
  • older than college age
  • partners in the business, or
  • employees whose jobs descriptions spanned other skilled positions in the company
If I go to our vet and the person on the desk is a vet technician, I get great service. If it's the designated receptionist, I can just about be guaranteed 10 minutes of "I don't know," and "I have to ask someone but they're busy" during which time five people stand in line tapping their feet and the receptionist just sits there, looking bored and unconcerned.

The issues here are judgment and motivation. Most, though certainly not all, people have judgment skills that improve with age/experience. Eventually the connection between dissing a customer and getting fired gets made. Eventually they get tired of droning "I don't know," and put together a helpful or at least polite answer. They figure out when to cut some slack for a long-time customer instead of enforcing a company rule intended to protect against deadbeats.

Paying the receptionist a decent salary, and cross-training him or her for managerial responsibilities, makes the receptionist much more of a engaged partner in the business. I'd suggest that businesses do away with the "receptionist" title altogether and create "assistant manager" jobs that include 50 percent time at the reception desk.

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