“She’s just the receptionist”

Is this the biggest misconception in business?

A friend called me this week, excited to share that he’d just visited a new client’s office and the exceptional receptionist at this company … wasn’t labeled as one. Instead, her name placard read, “Director of First Impressions.”

When I was in sales, some of my colleagues chose to list only their cell phone numbers on their business cards. The reason? They felt no one was better equipped to handle incoming calls from prospects and clients – and make that all-important first impression – than them. In other words, they were fearful of putting their potential commission in the hands of (what they may have believed to be) a low-wage, low-stakes and under-appreciated receptionist.

The most successful business owners and leaders, though, know the truth:

  • Many business owners don’t pay receptionists enough – the position is often thought of as little more than a minimum-wage role
  • Leaders (and the receptionists themselves) don’t see just how important their job really is
  • Customer experience training is lackluster or – worse – nonexistent
  • Most of us (bosses, co-workers and customers alike) aren’t taking the time to simply acknowledge receptionists as smart, important and valued human beings

That said, when I receive great service from an operator, receptionist, desk clerk or cashier I like to let them know what a positive difference they’re making. After all, how else will they know for sure; continue to do the right thing for others?

An ode to the receptionist …

When you acknowledge me and maintain eye contact …
I feel like I’m more important to you than your computer screen, your smartphone, office gossip or whatever task you were in the middle of. We’ve gotten off on the right foot and your favorable first impression has set the tone for our time together, however long or short it may be.

When you smile (sincerely) …
I feel welcome and believe that you enjoy what you’re doing; you’re clearly a people person and you’re ready to help me. Your company knew exactly what they were doing when they put you in that position. (Note: I can even hear your smile over the phone; we all can.) By the way, I’m likely to smile back, making this simple act a great investment – in other words, treat me kindly and I’m more likely to reciprocate and even forgive any shortcomings.

When I hear you say more than “mepya” (fast for, “May I help you?”) when you answer the phone …
I don’t have to ask if I have reached the right place. And you don’t have to get frustrated over the fact that I couldn’t quite make out what you said (leaving you with the perception that I wasn’t really doing my job of listening). I know you answer hundreds of calls all day long, every day and that’s why it’s so impressive when I can actually hear you clearly state your company’s name … and maybe even your own …

When you give me your name …
It’s a noticeably warmer greeting, so I feel more connected to you; more welcome. I believe you are prepared to deliver such a great experience that I should have your name, just in case I get the chance to tell your boss how awesome you are and/or so that I can be sure to ask for you, personally, when I call back … or even make it a point to introduce myself if we should meet in person. When other receptionists are reluctant to give their name, I get the impression that they’re used to people complaining about them and don’t want to make the incrimination process any easier.

When you use my name …
I also feel connected to you and welcome. I feel like I’m not just a number to you. I feel important because you paid attention when I gave you my name.

When you patiently listen to me …
You make me feel smart, important, and valued. I know I’m likely asking you the same question you’ve been asked a thousand times before and I appreciate you for not rolling your eyes or interrupting me.

When you say you don’t know something, but gladly offer to find the answer … and do
You strike me as someone who really cares about what I care about. I feel a sense of partnership. I also believe you’re interested in learning and growing in your position. I appreciate you for taking the time and caring.

When you display a can-do attitude …
I believe you have customer service in your DNA. I feel that you’re “on my side” and that you’ve taken ownership. Too many people are quick to say no or point out the obstacles; the reasons why something can’t be done. You, on the other hand, are a rare find and I appreciate you.

Your sense of urgency …
Tells me you are as concerned for addressing my needs – if not more concerned – than I am. Wow! Again, you are a rare find and I appreciate you.

When I’m in your waiting area and overhear you being nice to callers …
I feel your boss hired the right person for the job. I look forward to calling in to you in the future, knowing that you’ll probably be kind to me, too. That feeling will prompt me to smile before I dial, and be kind to you when you answer.

When you work well together, seamlessly, with your fellow employees, (no matter what their disposition is) …
It seems you’re more interested in taking the high road and getting the job done, than you are in making a co-worker look bad. You’re a team player who displays professionalism and maturity.

When I hear you speaking highly of your boss …
You appear professional, mature, and as someone who respects what they do and for whom they do it. I’m glad to be doing business with such a respectful person and place.

When you stay on the line with me instead of quickly passing me on or putting me on hold …
It makes me feel important. I know you care about giving me your time and attention.

When you don’t slam the phone at the end of our call …
And especially if you wait for me to hang up first, I feel like you’re taking your time with me instead of rushing to get rid of me.

When you follow up and follow through …
I feel like you genuinely care. Most of your counterparts are quick to place me on indefinite hold; pass the buck; transfer me to someone’s voicemail. Not you, though. You took ownership, pointed me in the right direction, and then cared enough to check back in with me. Thank you.

When you demonstrate care by simply subscribing to all of the above …
I feel completely taken care of and that makes me want to return … and tell my friends and colleagues they should be doing business with you and your firm. You have now made your company more money and this is how your business grows organically. Well done.

Final thoughts:
To the receptionists: If your boss is paying you fairly and believes in a culture of impeccable customer service, then you’re probably in the right place. Conversely, if you’re feeling underpaid or that a pay raise is long overdue, I’d like to know if you a) feel as though you may be working for a boss who doesn’t value the customer experience enough OR; b) you now realize that – based on the above – there’s a chance you haven’t been taking your role seriously enough and you’re willing to change…

To the bosses: Take these lines to heart and make sure good customer service begins the moment a client’s call is answered, or the second they walk in the door by realizing that the receptionist sets the tone for every client, potential client and vendor interaction your company has. All day long, every day.

Bottom line, no one is “just” a receptionist. They have arguably the most important and most powerful position inside your company. They’re your Director of First Impressions. They have the power to make (or break) the customer experience.


  1. Steve:

    You are so right. It’s lovely to be greeted by someone who is warm, welcoming, and knowledgeable.

    I’d like to add one more thing for bosses to think of. What kind of attitude do they think their front desk person will have when she has to listen to blaring bad news on CNN all day.


  2. Whenever I get great customer service from anyone, I always get their boss’ info so I can let him/her know what a great job they’ve done training their employee and how exceptional the service was that I received. That acknowledgement has so many benefits: The employee feels great from my acknowledgment and even better when they know I’m telling their boss. The boss always appreciates that I took the time to let them know some “good” news since what they mostly get are complaints. Everyone feels good, empowered and acknowledged. And I feel great for having done it.

    I totally agree with Sally about CNN. I think the news is bad for everyone’s health and well-being.

  3. Great post Steve.

    It’s funny that you mention “Director of First Impressions.” One organization I know that truly values and understand’s the customer experience is STIHL. When I was visiting their headquarters in Virginia Beach last year the receptionist had the following cartoon openly displayed on her desk:


    Along with the cartoon she had a name placard that also said “Director of First Impressions.” I think a lot of companies will start recognizing the importance of this position and will have more “Director’s of First Impressions” out in the market.

  4. GREAT post and spot on, Steve! I am very particular about a lot of things, but choosing a doctor takes the cake.

    If the person answering the phone gives me poor service, I stop there and go elsewhere. I look for things like how well does he/she know the doctor’s and practice’s background/areas of speciality, hold time, tone of voice, side conversations, attention given, follow-up on questions they don’t know & time to follow up, background noise, if they’re breathing into the phone with every word or chewing gum on the phone, how quickly they want to get me off the phone, how quickly they hang up the phone….

    If the person answering the phone passes the “phone stage” and I go in for my appointment and the staff are miserable or gossiping or (insert the million things that make you ask WTF?…we all know them), I just cancel my appointment and leave. I refuse to let myself be subject to poor service when there is very clearly something I can do about it. If it’s a very important appointment, I will stay but not wait for 30+ minutes without being seen (or at lease heard!). I set an appointment for a specific time. Imagine you had a recurring business appointment with someone (forget that I’m actually paying the doctor for service) and that person was continually late by 30+ minutes; sometimes 1 hr. What would you do? Doctor’s are not above courtesy.

    I have found using small or family practices with less than three practitioners works really well. They fall a little short on the technical stuff (on-line documents to fill out b/f arrival, e-mail response, etc…), but usually make up for it by stellar care.

  5. @Sally: I always wonder why so many businesses choose to play “Constantly Negative News” all day long when it’s clearly not a positive influence on employees and visitors alike.

    @Bev: Yes, it feels great … for all involved.

    @Zack: Let’s hope so.

    @Masoud: “Voting with your feet” is certainly one way to send a message. Too many consumers suffer through too much. You’re right, thankfully we have choices.

    This post is longer than most and I appreciate all of you for making the time AND for adding value to the conversation. Keep the great feedback coming!

  6. Antidote to always-on TV blather — universal one-function “Off” remote control, transmits turn-off signal for every known TV set. http://www.amazon.com/TV-B-Gone-Universal-Remote-Control-Keychain/dp/B0006GD9CE

  7. Regarding “just the receptionist” — At my doc’s today — first time at her new practice, which she runs, as opposed to her previous practice which she DID NOT run — I complimented her front-line staff and medical technicians. She thanked me for that, and told me:

    When her son was in first grade, they had a “compliment chain” — links made of construction paper, a link added every time anyone in the class gave or received a compliment. So it was a class-collective measure of goodness. Hanging from ceiling, when it reached the floor, the whole class got some treat. She told me how she works to shape the staff towards being happy/professional/courteous — and said based on my compliment she’d start a compliment chain for them. At the end of the visit (at least an hour, amazing for doc these days!) I said how I appreciated the time she takes for thorough discussion and that she should add a link for herself. So the tip is — recognize and collect compliments and demonstrate that they’re a team effort.

  8. BOTH of your shared ideas are awesome, Gabe.

  9. Marisa Romero says

    This is so true Steve, I wish I could have the article in Spanish so I could pass on to the recepcionist at the lab.

  10. @Marisa: While they don’t translate content perfectly, you might try a translation site like this one: http://www.freetranslation.com/ (they offer “human” translation services as well)

  11. Receptionista says

    So refreshing to see a positive article online about us receptionists. I’ve been doing this work for most of my time in the workforce. I’ve had other “higher level” jobs but I come back to this field again and again because I truly enjoy the work and I’m good at it. Problem? Getting others to see that being a receptionist can be a viable career in itself, not just a stop gap or a career ‘graveyard.’ I’m so tired of seeing the blog entries that show all these “bright young things” complaining about reception work as though it’s somehow beneath them. I say if they hate the work that much, then go find that ‘perfect’ job that’s out of your league and leave this job for those who do enjoy the work.

  12. Brittany. F. says

    I agree with most of this. Unfortunately it’s runs as more of a list of expectations and demands as opposed to a thank you to receptionists out there who actually do all of these things. I find it a little condescending.

    I am a receptionist and it’s awful 60% of the time. Yeah yeah, go find another job if you don’t like etc. etc. Well that’s easier said than done when I’m putting myself through school and I have a mortgage to pay. I love the people I work for and with, and a lot of our clients are great but unfortunately it’s the pretentious assholes that really bug me.

    Either it’s my fault the doctor decided to charge the patient for the appointment or it’s my fault he’s booking 6 weeks in advance. I am usually quite shocked to find a person who is not rude or “annoyed” when I tell them the next appointment isn’t available until two months down the road, whether I say it super politely or not. When sometimes i’m sounding discouraged because that person will be the 10th person in two hours to tell me I’m screwing them out of getting an appointment. Most frequently I get yelled at because they think for some reason I take pleasure in disappointing people and are purposely pushing them to a later time. Trust me, if I could get everyone in tomorrow who demanded it, I would, but I would also like to go home when I’m supposed to and get a lunch break, something most people don’t care if we get or not. But once this person threatens to talk to the doctor or demands it I’m usually left no choice but to squeeze a 30-40 minute appointment into a 10 minute time slot.

    Then you have the people who are coming back for their second appointment who complain that they’ve been waiting for 30 minutes. Some days I’d love to say, “Hey princess, remember last time when you bitched and whined and complained to the doctor and forced me to squeeze you into a 10 minute time slot then proceeded to spend the next hour with the doctor? WELL it will shock you to know that you’re not the only asshole in town and that’s why you have to wait 30 minutes. Kind of like the sweet old lady who had to wait an extra 45 minutes while you were chatting with the doctor.”

    Unfortunately I have to sit there and smile and make eye contact with the person who is belittling me, APOLOGIZE to them and hope they can’t tell I’m screaming and crying on the inside.

    ALSO, no one should ever bitch about being on hold for less than 20 minutes when you know you’re calling an office with only one receptionist. I’m sorry you have to wait but I have spent that time taking payments, finishing up the call I was on first and handling everything else. Get over yourself because I will get to you as soon as I can, seriously, the last thing I want is to be bitched at for that, which is completely out of my control. Hanging up and calling back repeatedly will not only piss me off but it means you will lose your position in the queue. I will gladly put you to the back of the line because I know you were the one calling multiple times, like I was purposely ignoring you when in reality I was helping an older gentleman walk out of the office and sit down while he waits for his cab.

    In short, people suck. The customer is not always right but they always think they are.

  13. As a Receptionist/Admin, I agree with a lot of what is stated above stated. A lot of times, people take receptionists for granted and don’t realize all of the other things they may be doing and/or in charge of, outside of greeting guests and answering phones. For example, I schedule meetings and conference rooms, sometimes having to coordinate the schedules of 15+ people, I do event planning and work on the logistics of catering, data entry, Foreign National Screening, keeping up on office stock of various items food and beverages, liaising with vendors and catering providers, data entry, and a myriad of other tasks, various to mention. All while giving excellent customer service to everyone who calls and comes into the building, and assuring building security (no one wondering around where they shouldn’t be). This can be a stressful and demanding job, but I also find it quite rewarding. One of the points above that I take slight issue to is “When you give me your name …”. As the first contact with all public, including solicitors, scammers and data phishers. It can be a real no-no to give out my name at times, depending on the situation. If it’s more in person, personal, even for a solicitor, I’m fine with it. However, particularly for phone calls, where you could be from anywhere, pretending to call about anything, I am very leery. With so many scams and unscrupulous sales people, it’s easy for them to mark your name or a bill or drop your name with another person to try to get ahead. I typically won’t even give out names of people who work in our departments, i.e. “I’m calling to speak to your Marketing Manager, can I have his or her name?”. Instead, I will offer them a generic departmental email address (if available) or take a message and let them know that if our marketing department (or whatever department they are interested in) would like to seek further information about the opportunity, they will reach out to them. I know it can seem quite impersonal, but really we’re not trying to make your life harder, if we don’t know you, your company, or your reputation, it is a lot better to handle things this way. I don’t want to put my co-workers in any awkward situations if I can at all reasonable prevent it. I hope that helps to explain why “just some receptionist” might be a less forthcoming with information towards you.



  14. Excellent points, Tenea. Thank you for adding value here with your personal experience and wisdom.

  15. Great post. I’ve become sort of an analyst of doctor’s offices, based on too many visits to various specialists, and have found that there’s a strong–perhaps 100%–correlation between receptionist attitude and overall office quality. The good and cheerful receptionist all but guarantees a good visit, and vice versa.

    One tiny nit:
    “When I hear you say more than “mepya” (fast for, “May I help you?”) when you answer the phone …” — well, if they’re saying something meaningful. When it’s clearly a scripted prompt, not so much, though of course I don’t blame the phone staffer who is forced to read something stupid every time they answer the phone!


  1. […] If you truly want to delight your customers, then every part of your organization — from the receptionist to the CEO — must focus on serving the […]

  2. […] Only agree to answer company phones if you’re “Feeling it.” If you dread the phone, dislike talking via phone, and certainly if you wouldn’t refer to yourself as a people-person, it’s probably best to allow someone else the opportunity to take on the role of, “Director of First Impressions.” […]

  3. […] being answering the phones. It’s just as important that — to the ears of the caller — this person sounds like they genuinely enjoy their job and want to be of […]

  4. […] Your receptionist is your “Director of First Impressions,” via phone, via e-mail, and in-person. S/he is not JUST the receptionist. […]

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