The receptionist: How important is this work?

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istock receptionist

receptionistSeveral social media sites have been reposting this Forbes.com article: Leadership is Swell, But Your Receptionist Makes or Breaks Your Business.

A clueless receptionist today, a bankrupt business tomorrow: In most businesses, there’s a human who welcomes and bids farewell to visitors in person, on the telephone, or via email. Whatever you call this person (Receptionist, Hostess, Admitting, Registrar, Front Desk Supervisor), it’s crucial that she or he convey a warm welcome when customers arrive and a gracious, heartfelt farewell when they leave; the handling of these two moments is key to your brand’s image.

This is why inbound and outbound reception is best handled by a skilled, trained, and motivated veteran with great customer-focused traits.

Writer Mitch Solomon is certainly correct in asserting that the receptionist can be the vital first, or last, impression, of an organization and I’m impressed how he explains Ritz Carleton’s thorough training for this under-respected responsibility. Solomon suggests that good receptionist skills are important for B2B as well as B2C businesses.

Here, I think the story is a bit more murky. I certainly remember the changes beginning in the 1990s, when receptionist desks in various commercial and industrial organizations were replaced by key-card entry systems, and a phone at the receptionist desk, leading somewhere invisible in the business. The concept: This isn’t really a public place and if you need to deal with someone here, you probably should already have an appointment or some other arrangement.

The correlated voice mail systems resulted in often arcane/frustrating “phone trees” leading, if you were “lucky”, to some hapless person who had absolutely no understanding or connection with the topic you wished to resolve, or (worse) a voice message option.

Of course, many businesses, especially sales and service organizations, have realized this approach isn’t quite the right way to do things. They often have a live receptionist (properly trained), perhaps combined with a simple voice mail system that connects you with that receptionist right on the spot.

Certainly, our business follows these rules. We have an extremely decentralized organization. Employees as a rule are invited/encouraged to work from their own homes, and many can set their own work schedules. Work gets done when it needs to be done. But one job I decided needs to remain in “the office” is the office administrator, who, of course, also serves as the company’s personal and phone receptionist. She is generally there through the business day.

Katherine Jeffrey is very good at her work and she does much more than reception — she helps handle the bookkeeping, processes the advertising insertion orders, takes minutes for staff meetings, and generally keeps the place running relatively well. She has rightfully observed that she could do her work from home, and we could perhaps cut the need for an office rental. But I told her that her work is like the glue that binds the business together; to not have someone “there” during the day invites anarchy, chaos and poor customer service. (We of course always accommodate special needs and circumstances such as health or personal time requirements.)

However, while I agree with Solomon that a great receptionist is important, I’m not sure if I would go so far as to say it can make or break a business, in its own right. The reason: We get very few receptionist calls, and most of them are junk. Many current and potential clients either call the appropriate representatives directly, or send emails. Most of the calls are from low-level mass sales representatives, working through lists of businesses, and generally offering services for which we have absolutely no need to purchase. Katherine needs to field several of these calls each week. She treats the callers with more courtesy than I would. The “smart ones” find a way to get through to me, and I am usually both abrupt and unfriendly with them. (I can tell quite quickly if the salesperson is calling blind or has some valid relationship with someone I know, and I will treat the latter caller with much more respect.)

This might suggest that we could do without the receptionist, but there is another type of call that occurs thankfully far less frequently, but of undeniable importance — the complaint.

Sometimes we muck it up. Sometimes communication isn’t quite right. There is a problem with the billing, or there is a problem with an ad. The caller wants a response — and here, the availability of a fast-acting receptionist makes a big difference. If Katherine can’t resolve the problem on the spot, she can certainly lend a listening ear, and communicate the message to the relevant person to have things corrected.

I can’t validate whether/how this policy has saved our business, because we turn no stone in making sure that complaints are always resolved to clients’ satisfaction, so we don’t have a number of clients lost because of poor service. But the fact that we screw up is one reason I won’t screw up and ignore the receptionist’s role in providing a first line of defence and responsiveness when things go wrong. In this context, a receptionist is essential and could be a life-saver.

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