The (Really) Immaculate Reception

How are guests greeted at your office? How business owners can make a good first impression.

The Super Bowl is only a few days away. What’s your favorite all-time moment? Roger Staubach’s Hail Mary pass to Drew Pearson? James Harrison’s 100-yard touchdown run? How about Bart Starr’s famous quarterback sneak in the 1967 “Ice Bowl”? All of these were classic moments. Mine? By far it was “The Immaculate Reception.”

No, not the one you’re thinking about. Not the play where Steeler Franco Harris took a crazy bounce off a defender and ran it in for a winning touchdown as time expired. That play was pretty cool. But I’m thinking of a different kind of Immaculate Reception—and it had nothing to do with the Super Bowl. My favorite moment occurred just the other day at a prospective customer’s office. I walked in through the front door, and I was greeted by a professional, cheerful person behind the front desk. My coat was taken. I was made to feel welcome. I was directed to a clean waiting area with a TV and free coffee. I even helped myself to a mini Snickers bar. It was, for me, an Immaculate Reception. And way better than some lucky catch made by a football player.

I’ve been to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of companies in the Philadelphia area (and quite a few outside the Philadelphia area). I know a good, organized reception area when I see one. And I’ve seen some pretty scary ones. If you don’t get it right there … well … it doesn’t bode well for what’s behind the next door.

The worst ever was when I was still in public accounting. You would think that, working for a big international firm, I’d be sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar while waiting for my prestigious client to meet me in his lavishly appointed lobby. But I always had the misfortune of focusing on small businesses. One of those companies was the (now defunct) “Futurama.” (I’m changing the name in case the company’s owner decides to hunt me down and strangle me with one of the six gold chains he wore around his neck at the time.)

Futurama assembled furniture in one of the worst parts of North Philadelphia. Just walking from the chicken-wire-enclosed parking lot to the front door was as risky as a stroll down any street in Baghdad during the Bush Administration. The worst part of this company’s reception area was that there was none. You had to be buzzed in, hoping the front door (which was covered in graffiti) would open before someone stuck a knife in your back. Once inside there was usually no one to greet you. The first time I was there I wandered inside the building’s dimly lit hallways, following the smell of cigarette smoke, until I found the company’s 82-year-old bookkeeper half asleep behind a metal desk and a filing cabinet that looked like a prop from the Dick Van Dyke show.

If reception areas are so important, why do so many companies ignore them? Because they don’t get it. The good news? I’ve got a few recommendations.

Ever been to a customer’s front desk and have to wave to get the attention of the receptionist because she’s busy on the phone arguing with her boyfriend or absorbed in updating her latest Facebook status? Don’t you love when she slides back the window like you’re pulling up at a Burger King drive-through and, instead of brightly smiling and saying “Hello. Welcome to Barfco Industries. How can I help you, sir?,” you get a bored, wordless gaze until you’re forced to say something first. Like:  “Um … hello. I have an appointment with Mr. Jones?”

Which brings me to my first piece of advice.

1) If your receptionist is too thick to realize that her number one job is to greet people as they enter the company and make them feel like this is the greatest company in the world, fire her. Or him. Am I being sexist? Not really. I rarely see guys behind the front desk and, remember, I visit hundreds of companies.

Also, most of us want to see the same thing: a young pretty girl with a smile on her face. Or a relaxed guy, eager to help, with a smile on his face. Or an older, nice-looking woman with a smile on her face. Or a 94-year-old with skin like an alligator … and a smile on her face. Notice a pattern? This is the first person we’re seeing, the first impression we have of your company. We don’t want to feel like we’re a visitor, and we certainly don’t want to feel like we’re an intrusion. We want to be part of your family. We want to be doing business with you. It all starts with the very first words said to us as we enter your lobby. Smile, for God’s sake. I don’t care what kind of day your receptionist is having. It’s her job. 

2) Make your reception area easy to find. Over the past 20 years I’ve probably wasted two full days of my life wandering around office buildings, industrial parks and incubators searching for the entrance of the company I’m visiting. I’ve interrupted warehouse guys smoking pot on the receiving dock. I’ve stepped through puddles of toxic waste supposedly “out of sight” in the back of a machine area. I’ve tripped over four-legged (sometimes three) animals tied up behind a building. One time I got so lost I had to take a bus back to where I started. I’m not kidding about this. It was at a huge pharmaceutical company in North Jersey, and I parked at Building 3 instead of Building 7. Who knew?

Have signs. Make it easy for your visitors. Remember, we’re not going to pay attention to your instructions when you tell us on the phone; we’re just too excited that you’re actually going to let us visit. We’re anxious about our meeting. Don’t make us more anxious. Paint big red arrows. Cough up a few bucks and have a sign shop make signs like “Welcome—Office This Way.” And don’t forget the “Welcome.” It’s nice to feel welcome. It may sound corny. But it’s nice.

3) Clean up the area. For starters, upgrade your decor to say … post-1960s. Whenever I visit this one equipment manufacturer I know outside the city, I feel like I’m walking into an episode of Mad Men. “Mr. Draper will be down to see you in a minute,” I expect to hear. C’mon guys … this shouldn’t be an afterthought. A few nice sofas. A coffee table with a couple of Sports Illustrated and People magazines on it.  A flat-screen TV on the wall showing CNN is helpful to remind us how lucky we are not to be living in most other parts of the world. I like it when there’s an interesting book or two left out too; sometimes it’s a conversation piece (“Hey Barney, I didn’t know  you were into origami. So am I!”).

My favorite reception area ever? That would have to be at Bloomberg on Lexington Avenue in New York City. I was there once for a visit. From the minute you sign in you’re directed by smart, young future executives dressed in bright suits and laundered shirts to a waiting area with high ceilings that’s situated right in the nerve center of their building. People are walking to and fro. Big TVs flash Bloomberg programs wherever you turn. And, astonishingly, you’re invited to help yourself to “refreshments” from this central kitchen area complete with Cokes, coffee, bottled water and (be still my rapidly beating heart) freshly baked cookies. I’m not sure I ever made it to the meeting I was supposed to attend. No matter; I walked out with a pocket full of loot.

OK, few are going to match that kind of reception area. And really, it’s a little overboard. I’m happy if someone politely offers me a drink and a few of those mini Snickers from a bowl left out for guests. That’s always a nice touch. Want to be a winner? You don’t have to play in the Super Bowl. Just start with the reception area. The rest will fall into place.