Her value goes beyond first impressions

TOP RECEPTIONIST

February 24, 1992|By TOM PETERS

About 20 people, employed mostly in management-training activities, work in the Palo Alto, Calif., offices of the Tom Peters Group, or TPG (as we call it).

I like my colleagues. And since I spend a lot of time in Vermont these days, I'm always pleasantly surprised at how nice it is to be back around "the gang."

This is no advertisement. We have good days. We have bad days. We win business we deserve to win, lose business we deserve to lose. We also get a little we don't deserve and lose a little that by all rights should have been ours.

But one thing's for sure: Our staff is loaded to the gills with resumes to die for. We're "professional" to a fault. Our core customers tend to be big and conservative -- rather amazing, given that I've attacked most of them in this space.

And then there's Leslie McKee, the receptionist. I've never seen her resume. Leslie may well have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Cal Tech. Or she may not have made it through the fourth grade. But she has taken our company and turned it around.

That's right, our receptionist is a genuine turnaround artist!

You see, Leslie is amazingly upbeat, courteous, funny, patient, upstanding and professional, smart, outrageous, helpful. I don't know what our official "core values" are. We've never written them down. (Whoops.) But I know what they are unofficially: They're Leslie.

Clients love Leslie. She, of course, is our Commander-in-Chief of Client Service.

Here's her customer service magic:

* Her manner per se -- energetically cheerful is the best I can do -- gives us a foot in the door with whomever is calling.

* She's meticulous. Leslie makes sure you end up talking to the right person (no small thing), or are otherwise handled efficiently and effectively -- and feel good about it (even if the one you wanted is out of town for the next month).

* Once a week or more, it seems, she takes some totally amazing personal initiative to research something for a client. Often as not it's unrelated to anything we do; it's just plain helpfulness. (Reading "Leslie letters" from clients eats up a lot of my time these days.)

And that's just the external stuff, exceptional as it is. The internal is even better. Leslie is a one-person cheerleader for life. Honest, impossible to feel sorry for yourself, a habit we self-important professionals have in spades, after you get 30 seconds or more of "Leslie-ing."

(CBS commentator John Madden said that when he was coaching, and the pressure got to him, he liked to hang out with offensive linemen -- just being around them made him feel better. That's Leslie: When I'm having a crummy day, after my umpteenth unexplained flight delay, I sometimes call just to hear her "Hello.")

OK, I'll knock it off. Believe it or not, this column is not meant to sing Leslie's praises. I tell her in person, not via the newspaper. TC Instead it is a very practical reminder:

* Of what an enormous difference one person can make in the spirit of an organization.

* That energy and enthusiasm really are "everything" and have little to do with job title (unless they are inversely proportional to one's status, a thought that sometimes crosses my mind).

* That the receptionist is probably the most important person in your company, in terms of external -- and internal -- tone. After all, first impressions are everything, right? (Even for "insiders" -- after all, she's the first employee you see at the start of the day.)

Look, we've had a receptionist or four at our place. Everybody these days wants to grow up to be in charge and quickly "move beyond" the job. Sometimes, between "permanent" receptionists, we've gone nuts. A new "temp" every two days; everything is screwed up; everybody's out of sorts; customers are on our case. (They have this thoroughly rotten habit of expecting us to live up to what I write about.) My instinct: "Good heavens, just hire somebody!"

It's a natural reaction and a lousy one! "Just hire somebody" is in general a bad idea, and especially relative to "mundane" positions.

I'm sure lots of you give lip service to "receptionists are really important." I always did. Even talked about it in speeches. But in truth, I didn't have an inkling of how important that receptionist could be!

Thanks for the lesson, Les. That is, (1) there really are a lot of things they don't teach you at the Harvard Business School, and (2) take as much care hiring your next receptionist as you do, say, your next vice president of R&D. Who knows, if you're patient enough, maybe you can find a turnaround artist, too!

+ 1992 TPG COMMUNICATIONS

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