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Simon Parke: problems in reception

20 February 2008

POLICE? Doctors? Schools? Is there no one who can organise a decent reception area?

One of the less noted features of Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s recent report on the police was his comments about the reception areas in police stations. They look bleak and uninviting; they are full of old posters; and the personal service offered is frequently poor. Someone went so far as to compare their often surly or obstructive attitude to that displayed by librarians — a low point indeed in police-public relations.

They are not alone. The school office had refused to answer the phone for the third time that morning: I was forced to leave a message. I said it was urgent, and the automated voice promised that they would get back to me — but they never did. The next day, I visited the office itself. The receptionist took my delivery without eye contact. I noticed the phone was ringing, but none of the three sitting there was available to answer. They stayed with their coffee, chat, and computer screens. In the end, it went on to answerphone, and another message was left hanging in the air.

And while doctors’ hours are renegotiated, to facilitate care for those who work, let us remember that, for many, the worst aspects of doctors’ surgeries are not the hours offered, but the receptionists employed. My doctor’s receptionist is bitter and graceless, while a friend of mine feels physical discomfort at just the thought of having to engage with his doctor’s.

The link in these three tales is the abuse of power by those who know they do not have to try. When people come to the police, school, or doctor, the balance of power is no balance at all. The supplicant is in need, is therefore powerless, and can be treated with disdain because, to put it bluntly, what is he or she going to do about it?

It is different in business. On a visit to an advertising agency, I found the directors’ minds most focused: they were appointing a new receptionist that day. “The most important person in the company,” one of them said to me. “If people don’t have a good experience at reception, they won’t be back.”

I remembered how, over the years, he had always asked me about my experience of their receptionist. It was out of concern for the business, not for me.

I also remember a man who spoke to me after a talk I had given. He said he felt uncomfortable, but did not know why. We acknowledged his discomfort, and moved on. Later in the week, he emailed me to apologise. There was no need, of course, but I was struck by his words: “I wanted the hurt to be heard, just as a baby awakes, feels discomfort, then makes a noise about it, and notices that the noise helps to get the discomfort removed.”

That is why, like a hurting child, I’m breaking up: the reception’s terrible.


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