Jan 06

My apologies to Andrea

I did something yesterday that I guarantee no holding company CEO has EVER done. I swapped  42-20042220 jobs with Ray Carroll, our superb receptionist.

So, for a full day, I answered phones, made copies, welcomed visitors, modulated the temperature in the office and signed for multiple lunch orders placed by our hard-working staff (more to come on that).

It was an enlightening experience to say the least. I learned that being a receptionist can be the best of all worlds and the worst of all worlds. At its best, the job made me feel like a front-line brand ambassador empowered to make sure every person 'touching' the Peppercom brand had a positive experience.

At its worst, being a receptionist can resemble being stuck inside a video game. Phones were ringing off the hook, visitors were entering the lobby, employees were IMing requests for me to lower the heat and delivery guys were dropping off food. All at the same time! How do you spell stressful?

I'm proud to say that, with one glaring exception, I excelled in my new job. That exception, though, was a real beaut.

Right around noontime, three or four delivery guys arrived with lunch orders. I dutifully signed each receipt and began IMing the individuals to come to the front desk and retrieve their grub. Everyone responded except Andrea. That's when I realized we didn't have an Andrea working for us.
 
So, I sent an office-wide memo letting everyone know there was a free, unclaimed lunch waiting in the kitchen.

Now, fast forward 90 minutes. The elevator doors opened and in walked one of the delivery guys I'd met earlier along with a very agitated young woman. She charged up to the reception desk and barked, 'Do you have my lunch?' I smiled and said, 'And, you must be Andrea?'

Andrea (who I quickly learned works elsewhere in our building) nodded. I told her we had her lunch (happily, no one had claimed it). I went to retrieve it and handed it over with a smile. 'Where's the receipt?' She demanded. 'I used my credit card to place this order!'

I couldn't find the receipt anywhere. I remembered signing it but, with the total chaos of the moment, had lost track of it.

Andrea wasn't buying any of it. 'Look,' she said to me. 'You seem like a nice guy, but you have my credit card information.'

I assured her I wasn't an identity thief and promised to keep looking for the errant receipt. She was incredibly upset and lashed out at the delivery guy and me in heated Spanish. Not being fluent in the language, I wasn't sure what she was saying, but it certainly wasn't complimentary of my receptionist skills.

Andrea eventually left with her lunch (and minus her receipt). And, I went back to work, shaking like a leaf.

Being Ray Carroll for a day was an amazing experience that gave me all sorts of insights into the job, its critical role as part of the Peppercom brand promise and the importance of hanging onto receipts.

Oh, and what, you may ask, was Ray doing during the day? He experienced my daily existence: so, he sent several internal memos that were chock-a-block with inane, nonsensical comments. He went to the gym for a long workout. He attended various meetings and interrupted serious conversations with other inane, nonsensical comments. And, he answered my desperate IMs asking how to do his job.

So, here's a challenge to Andy Polansky, Richard Edelman, Pat Ford and all  the other CEOs of holding company PR firms: I dare you to step back from strategy, innovation and administration tasks for just one day and swap jobs with your receptionist. You'll learn things you never knew. Your receptionist will love being 'you' for a day. And, your employees will have a newfound respect for you. Just make sure to hang onto those damn receipts.

Sep 21

The Raymond J. Carroll School of Management

Every now and then, Ed and I get it right. By it, I mean hiring superstars. IMG_0713

We did it when we hired Lee Stechmann, our original office manager (and, we did it when we hired his successor, Catherine Mok).

We did it again when we hired a wet-behind-the-ears Edward M. ‘Ted’ Birkhahn about a decade ago. Ted is now our president and was recently named to PR Week’s 40 under 40.
But, we really hit the trifecta with Raymond J. Carroll, our current receptionist.

Calling Ray a receptionist is like calling Muhammad Ali a boxer or Mozart a musician. Ray is so much more. Since joining us a year or so ago, Ray has rocked our world. He’s beloved by clients, prospective clients, employees, vendors, and just about everyone who comes into contact with Peppercom. He’s our brand ambassador, a can-do, go-to guy who never says no to any request.

Having spent years representing the likes of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business, I know the faculty and students of each could learn a lesson or two from The Raymond J. Carroll School of Management. So, why not share Ray’s POV on his job, his firm and his role as brand ambassador?

1)    You seem to have endeared yourself to everyone. What’s your advice for managing up, down and across an organization?
I reciprocate any attitudes projected toward me.  Like a mirror, I reflect what Peppercom shows me.  Life is hectic, especially professional life. Taking the time to treat people as people will establish a level of comfort.  Obviously, people have varying responsibilities, but everyone should be treated equally.  My advice for managing across an organization would be to praise good actions while analyzing and correcting counter-productive ones.     

2)    You’re our first point of contact with the outside world. What sort of experience do you want to create for each and every visitor?
I extend a cordial, accommodating presence to make people comfortable.  A receptionist should be able to provide information and/or assistance, just like a hotel concierge.  I’m attentive and I offer assistance to all guests.  In doing so, I follow the advice a friend once gave me: a lady or gentleman is a person who takes the time to be sure everyone is comfortable, and he/she always puts others before themselves.  I have this outlook outside the office as well. It’s a characteristic likely instilled by my mother and a testament to how she raised me. 

3)    Describe your job responsibilities:
To borrow a sports analogy, I’d liken myself to a utility man.  I’m willing to fill any voids necessary, for the good of the team.  From mailroom duties and moving filing cabinets to grocery shopping and changing light bulbs, I do it all. I also assist on monthly reports, and write guest blogs.

4)    How do you handle rude guests, phone callers, or fellow employees such as Ed?
Aside from Ed, I’ve yet to have an ‘encounter of the rude kind’ here at the office. That could be because my definition of “rude” is exceptional.  (please see response to question 5).  In my personal life, I believe it’s important to take the high road but also being sure a rude person’s made aware of how he or she is acting.  No one wants to be treated disrespectfully. If you gently point that out, you’ll usually see some bit of contrition (with the possible exception of Ed). 

5)    What path led you to our doors?
When I was younger, I didn’t have much patience for office life. In fact, my few attempts at it were short lived. I may have just needed more action in my day. That said, I’ve now accepted that ‘slow and steady’ wins the race.

Career wise, I’d tended a bar for nearly a decade, held some off-the-book construction jobs, a variety of temp work, and even a job at Yankee Stadium’s money room thumbing through George Steinbrenner’s dirty cash.  Tending bar exposed me to many of life’s negative elements, which became fine examples of which routes not to follow.  The variety of bar cliental exposed me to some decent, but mostly animalistic, conduct (rude was redefined here).  In all jobs it was a necessity to establish a rapport with folks I wouldn’t necessarily have much in common with. that said, each of these positions opened my eyes a quite bit. I’ve worked with persons from all walks of life.

6.) What are your professional goals?
My goal is to build a professional relationship that will afford my family and me comfortable lives.  Simply stated, I need to provide happiness for others. And, in this world isn’t, happiness doesn’t come for free.  That said, it’s in my best interest to establish myself while proving myself worthy of long-lasting employment. I believe every new day in life leads to improvements.  Learning and growing in both professional and personal realms is my life’s objective. 

7.) What’s your number one piece of advice for any brand ambassador at any organization?
Live your brand, walk the walk and talk the talk.  If you’re in a service industry, serve like no other.”

How’s that for a 30-second M.B.A.,?

Feb 09

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.