Let’s bring back the receptionist
Hello, you've reached All Market Plastics Inc. To place an order dial extension 2256. To find out what our cafeteria is serving for lunch dial extension 1001. To leave a complaint dial extension 62437...
Hello, you’ve reached All Market Plastics Inc. To place an order dial extension 2256. To find out what our cafeteria is serving for lunch dial extension 1001. To leave a complaint dial extension 624378392 and one-half. To leave a compliment dial 1. For all other inquiries, or if you wish to talk to a real person, please stay on the line and leave a message after the beep. Thank you for being an idiot.”
No you’re not in the twilight zone, you’re in the cyber zone, which unfortunately is not a figment of your imagination. The origins of the cyber zone, now in the year 2000 a fully mature electronic ecosystem of recorded voice messages, e-mail addresses, and other high-tech ways of communicating, can be traced to the revolutionary mid-’80s concept of downsizing. Firing and laying-off had long been in practice as unpleasant, but necessary ways of bringing expenses in line with revenues. Downsizing, however, was something completely different.
It was (and is) at face value a reversal of the age-old assumption that doing work requires a minimum number of people. In practice however downsizing was never really about replacing work with types of automation — this has been going on for centuries. Nor was it entirely about placing more work on the backs of fewer people, although this has certainly been one side-effect. Downsizing, it seems, has always been about the belief that some types of work are less necessary than others. Since production is an absolute, and sales helps, the axe could only fall on those areas of so-called support work — service, administrative, R&D, training, etc. The electronic age has simply provided the means and justification to farm out or get rid of all this “unnecessary” work, as well as to keep noisy, demanding human beings at a safe virtual distance.
Yet, along this yellow-brick road to the super-efficient, super-company, something has gone wrong. Service has declined.
Suppliers’ customers, bottom-line people, were willing to keep an open mind about the downsizing experiment, as long as it provided them with the same or better quality of product or service. When it instead gives them rude or unknowledgeable “support” staff, when they can’t get immediate answers to their questions, when they spend long, unproductive time being chilled in the cyber zone, they rightfully become irritable, or worse.
Luckily, rational but sometimes slow-moving beast that it is, the market is responding. Service is back on the table. A large retail chain has announced recently it is responding to customer requests and putting more people out on the store floor. (Did customers ever ask to get rid of them?) No less a venerable publication than the Harvard Business Review has been talking up the importance of service, particularly the crucial role managers play in soliciting and responding to dialogue with their customers.
In manufacturing the very symbol of downsizing and its impact on service, in my opinion, has always been the receptionless office or plant foyer. Anyone who has been confined to wait in a sterile, four by six cell with three-year old issues of People magazine may know what I mean. The message is: ‘you are not important, we are ignoring you’.
Not all companies can afford to have a full-time receptionist of course. In many cases, however, it is simply a matter of reconfiguring existing staff and office walls to present a welcoming, professional front to the public walking in your door. Look at it from the point of view of a customer just off a flight from Japan. The last thing he needs is to be locked in the cyber zone. It’s a small thing but it says you care about your customers and service.