Workplace Doctor: Secretary making bad first impressions for her company

First impressions count which is why a shoddy receptionistist who prefers chatting to pals on the phone than receiving clients to the office needs to be addressed, Alex Davda advises.

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I work for an SME with a staff of 50 and the nature of our work means we regularly have clients or suppliers arriving at reception for meetings. The only problem with this is that the receptionist spends a lot of time on the phone chatting to friends and I've often noticed people standing there waiting to be received while she finishes a conversation. Her bored, almost rude, demeanour is also off-putting and a bad reflection of the company. However the company owner seems oblivious to this and when it is pointed out, just waves his hand indicating it is unimportant. How can I challenge this further? MP, Dubai

A company is represented in a number of ways and its values are not only conveyed through its products and services but also the manner and demeanour of its people. You are entirely justified to raise the behaviour of the receptionist as a challenge to be overcome. First impressions stick and are created as soon as the customer walks through the door. If you are noticing this, then certainly your customers will be and as a small business, that is one bad impression too many.

If I was a long-term customer standing waiting at your reception while the receptionist finishes her conversation, chit-chats on the phone or sits there grumpy and bored, I would wonder whether this is normal behaviour in your company. Are people allowed to be rude to each other? Does the company value revenue over relationships? What happened to create this uninterested attitude in the first place?

I was recently told a story of a chief executive in Europe visiting a new supplier and being spoken to rudely and abruptly by the gate staff because his name was not put on the correct parking list. Instead of arguing, he simply turned his car around and left without telling the staff who he was. One bad word and a roll of the eyes may have cost that supplier a great deal, both in revenue and in reputation.

Nowadays, companies and their customers are tightly interconnected through social media, meaning that one bad customer experience can easily go viral. We know as customers ourselves, it is very difficult to overcome a bad first impression. There is so much competition around that customers can simply go elsewhere.

The leisure and hospitality sector in the UAE is an example of the value of good customer service. We remember the attentiveness of a friendly waiter or observant shop assistant and then recommend the place to all our friends and family. On the other hand, we try to forget the terrible dining experiences with substandard service that tarnish even the best of meals. Then, instantly at our fingertips we can provide a detailed online review of that restaurant or hotel, yet other industries still get away with below-par customer service.

In your case, I am surprised the company owner simply waves his hand and dismisses the importance of the behaviour of an employee who is at the forefront of his business. I doubt he is aware of the significance of this, and for it to actually hit home with him the concern may need to come from a trusted customer rather than you. For a business owner, a bad customer experience and the potential loss of a valuable and profitable relationship would be more likely to open his eyes. Can you gain some hard evidence by trying to observe this in action or gather some feedback from trusted customers you interact with. I suggest searching for the plenty of examples and anecdotes from other organisations on how first impressions lie at the heart of good customer service. Equally, you could incorporate this concern into a broader customer satisfaction review that provides factual data to argue your case, moving the issue away from your own personal perspective.

Doctor’s prescription

First impressions always count; so any concerns that affect the reputation of the company are completely justified. The marketplace for any industry today is extremely competitive and products and services bring customers in, but good service is what makes them stay. When your internal concerns are overlooked, nothing speaks as loud as the voice of the customer.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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