The first line of defense in the image and reputation wars

February 9 Receptionists are more important than the Maginot Line and, hopefully, sturdier than the Siegfried Line. In my opinion, they're the first, and most important, line of defense in the image and reputation wars.

I've interacted with a few outstanding receptionists over the years who, thanks to their winning personalities and can-do attitudes, have made me feel better about the organization they represent.

For the most part, though, receptionists seem to be like interchangeable parts: they come and they go. They man the front desk well enough, but they don't register on either the visitor's positive or negative impression scales.

And, then there are the receptionists from hell. I've encountered three image-killers recently, including:

– The receptionist who must have just undergone a frontal lobotomy. The guy was totally devoid of personality, wouldn't make eye contact with me, kept talking to someone on the phone as I waited and then, after finally ending the call, looked up at me and said, 'Well?'

– The receptionist at a corporate image firm who looked like she'd just left the set of 'Friday the 13th: Part 47.' This woman's looks would stop traffic. Her skin was a ghostly white and her hair looked as if she'd just stuck her finger in an electrical socket. With the bride of Frankenstein greeting visitors, I could see why the organization needed a PR firm. And, if this is their idea of image, what sort of work must they create for clients?

– Not to be outdone by either the lobotomized lout or frightful femme fatale, a receptionist at a non-profit had an absolute field day with our name. After painstakingly writing down our names, she tapped on a microphone and announced over a loudspeaker: 'Mary, your guests from Leppercom are here!' Leppercom? I checked my peers' faces to see if any of us had suddenly contracted a severe case of adult onset acne.

Peppercom (not, Leppercom) has had its share of good, bad and ugly receptionists. Our best ever had to have been our very first: Debrah.

Ed and I bit the bullet about five months after starting our firm and invested in a receptionist/chief cook and bottle washer. And, we struck gold with Debrah. She was smart, organized, funny and possessed a wicked British accent. The latter made quite the impression. I remember one client calling me up and asking, 'Who's the woman with the British accent?' 'That's Debrah, our new receptionist,' I beamed. He sighed and said, 'My opinion of Ed and you just rose a few notches. You were always scrappy. Now, you have a touch of class as well.'

Whether it's the 56th Fighter Group Restaurant in Farmingdale, a widget warehouse in Waukegan or an image firm in SoHo, the receptionist is the first, and most important, line of defense in the relentless image wars. Knowing that, why are there still so many lobotomized beasts and so few classy Debrahs manning the front desks of corporate America? As for me, I'm still reeling from the Leppercom comment and have been regularly applying Clearasil just in case.

5 thoughts on “The first line of defense in the image and reputation wars

  1. You are too kind! I was honored to be the first, first line of defense in the image and reputation wars for Peppercom – I have some great memories of those early days…and it’s been fun to watch you evolve over the years!

  2. Art and Trish: Thanks for the comments.Art: great point about security guards. Some are neanderthals. Trish what a receptionist story. Wow!

  3. Leppercom and demon from Chicago are at once hilarious and unacceptable. With that said, I will follow the “first line of defense” adage with the “sword is only as good as the person who wields it” adage. My point – if one wants a receptionist to be high performing, then clarify expectations, treat them with respect, congratulate their good work, and address poor workplace behavior immediately. In other words, don’t ignore them and don’t treat them like crap. Because people at all levels end up ignoring their job or treating their employer like crap, if that’s the environment in which they work. Most receptionists never get the common courtesy that Jenna Fischer gets in The Office. The anecdotes above are, in part, the consequence.

  4. I have the best receptionist story. I was an intern at a big agency in Chicago and I was interviewing at another big agency. The receptionist was nice enough and invited me to have a seat in their lobby, but over the next 30 minutes while they made me wait I saw and heard some very ugly things.
    The receptionist was on the work phone with his girlfriend the whole time. He was questioning why she had went out with some other male friend. He would then say stuff like, “you make me want to hurt you. hold on. “Hi, XX from XX agency how can I help you?” in a totally different voice. Then go back to the girlfriend and go into his demon voice and once talked about strangling her. He went back and forth btw biz calls and her no less than 10 times. I have no idea why she didn’t hang up.
    And he had a jar of candy on his desk. I watched the same people come up and down the hallway and grab a snack and they were always obese. Considering this company handles PR for many nutritious products I was just stunned. I never saw one physically or mentally healthy person before I got into the office. It really turned me off and luckily my agency hired me the following week.
    To this day I can’t respect anyone who has worked there.

  5. You know who else falls into this category, Steve? Security officers. I’ve worked for two companies that had security departments. Co. #1 had large, brutish security officers who were completely unhelpful (even to employees) and spoke in grunts. Co. #2 had friendly security officers who answered client questions, showed clients around, and generally took care of them. One doesn’t want to encounter a grizzly bear when all one wants to do is do business with a company. Co. #2 did it right.