If you want to know what a company thinks of its customers, its partners and the outside world, take a look at its reception. That’s if they actually have one. Just as first impressions count for people, so they do for businesses, whatever their size or sector. But judging by some of the lobbies I’ve found myself in over the past few months, there are a lot of enterprises that may have glossy smiling faces on their billboard campaigns but which back at HQ are revealed as scruffy, unthinking and pretty useless.
Scene one: a lobby at the HQ of a major company involved in hospitality. You arrive on the 20th floor but while there is a reception, there is no receptionist and all doors in every direction are sealed and frosted. Then on the reception you spot a phone and a sheet of instructions. Your task is to key in the name of the person you are meeting and then dial their extension. Fine, except the person you are meeting is not on the list. At that point the receptionist returns from her lunchtime run dripping in sweat but before you can say hello has darted through the frosted door and will not be seen again. Finally, by dialling random numbers you find a live person who agrees, reluctantly, to search out the person you are meeting. You do not wish these people well.
Scene two: the reception for a leading global brand where you are due to meet the CEO. This time there is a receptionist but she is not there to work – you are, honey. On the counter is a dirty old Dell on which she tells you to type in a vast list of details, from your home address to a contact phone number (in case she wants to phone you for a chat about her miserable job one day, perhaps). You are with two colleagues and have to do the same for them too. Meanwhile she stands there with nothing to do and not a smile on the horizon. No wonder they are a struggling business these days.
Scene three: a sunny day in California. Now here the reception bit works a treat and the receptionist is a camp, older woman who would be as at home in a diner as this sparkling office. You go to the meeting room and you wait, and you wait. You have flown several thousand miles but the journey from nearby desks to this soulless bunker seems trickier for the locals. But then the best bit: they all arrive carrying giant teat-topped water bottles that they proceed to suck on throughout the next 40 minutes. It’s a good meeting but as they purse lips to nipple, do they never wonder if visitors to this tower should at least be offered a glass of water?
Luckily there are companies that do get it right and it’s funny how it’s those businesses you usually end up wanting to do work with. You can be half sold on a deal if you find yourself happy and content to sit and wait in the lobby.
Here are a few tips for CEOs from the successful welcomers. Have a nice space to wait, with magazines and a guest wi-fi set up (and make sure the receptionist actually knows the password). Offer people water, good coffee. Make sure you’ve booked a meeting room and not one that was used for drinks the night before and still smells of beer. Have business cards at the ready. Oh, and have a receptionist who likes their job and realises they are the first experience that any visitor will have of your brand. And get rid of that old Dell.
Andrew Tuck is editor of Monocle.