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Service with a smile?

Don't underestimate the importance of your school receptionist's people skills. Gerald Haigh reports

When I was a head, I and my colleague heads would visit each other from time to time. It was a genial business, often involving sherry (we live in sterner times now).

On one of these visits, my guest had cause to phone his school. He sat for what seemed like a full five minutes as the phone rang unheeded back in his school office. Eventually he slammed the phone down and stormed off in a cloud of dust, vowing retribution.

The point is that the people who decide how a school presents itself to outsiders are not outsiders. If they pretended to be, in a spirit of genuine empathy with a diffident inquirer, then maybe they would think of ways of improving things.

The benchmark, surely, is the anxious parent who's taken time from work, rarely visits school except for a concert or a parents' evening, and has bad memories of her own schooldays. It seems a shame when that person comes up, either in the flesh or on the phone, against a system that's been specifically designed to filter out a persistent cold-caller intent on selling cheap carpet offcuts.

There are two related barriers - the personal reception arrangements and the phone system. The problem comes because one or both of these has been tacked on to the school as an afterthought, rather than considered as an important link to the community.

For example, many schools have now gone for automated phone systems - "If you know the extension you require, please dial it now. If you do not know the extension, please listen to the following options."

It's not difficult to see why. It means that the phone is answered quickly, even if there's no one immediately available to pick it up, and it also speeds things up if you really do know the extension you want. At the same time, though, the feeling of relief that comes when someone lifts the phone after three rings is worth a great deal of goodwill - and the feeling grows stronger when it's someone who sounds welcoming and knows what he or she is talking about.

Schools don't always think hard enough about the way their phones are answered. Look at job adverts in any other sector of business that deals with the public, for example, and time and again you'll see the requirement for "a good telephone manner". Wondering exactly what this meant, I spoke to Sally Hollings of Maine-Tucker Recruitment in London, which places many such advertisements, and asked what she thought made a good phone manner.

"Someone who listens to the person who's calling," she said, "and finds out what they want, then speaks slowly and makes sure everything's understood - polite, helpful."

Service organisations, such as schools, have calls from people seeking help and advice, she says.

"They don't want to hear an abrupt, distracted voice. They need someone who instils confidence, and leaves the caller feeling that if they've left a message it really will get through."

That doesn't sound too difficult, but, as Sally Hollings says: "It can be quite a problem trying to quantify it when you're recruiting somebody."

It helps to head off problems, she says, if there's a company policy.

"Strict rules on how the phone is answered and how messages are handled."

One head I spoke to agrees that phone skills are difficult to assess in advance. She recruited an excellent school secretary, on the basis of her computing and financial skills, only to find that she wasn't very good on the phone. The parents who complained (and few ever do) said that she always seemed impatient to get back to her work.

The head eventually dealt with this by splitting off the reception and phone duties and handing them to the support worker best equipped to handle them, someone known to the parents, and who happened to have children and grandchildren of her own.

Quality at the "front of house" - both personal and on the telephone - is becoming a high priority for a good business organisation, says Sally Hollings.

"It's treated increasingly as a linchpin role for the company," she says.

"Receptionists are being given a higher profile and being well rewarded financially."

For a business, making important clients feel comfortable is a straight financial investment. A school may have other motives, but it is also true that a prospective parent encouraged and charmed brings direct benefit to the budget.

A head who is fully aware of the value of good reception staff is Sir Kevin Satchwell at Thomas Telford College in Shropshire. "It's vitally important in today's schools that you create a welcoming climate where families want to communicate with you," he says.

"We have two full-time receptionists, in an open area, with nobody behind a glass screen."

Receptionists, he points out, can do other work at quiet times - answering the phone and administrative tasks. The human face at the desk and the voice on the phone, though, tell of the school's priorities and values.

"I like the tradition of having people at the front of house, giving the message that you're a caring organisation," he says. "Although we're a high-tech school, this is an area where people are more important than the technology."

How to make a good first impression

* Put thought and resources into "frontof house". It's money well spent.

* Have an agreed procedure for answering the phone and handling messages.

* If you must have an automated phone system, keep it simple. Make the recorded voice clear and friendly, leading callers easily to a live person who is keen and able to help.

* Clearly signpost the route from street to reception so that shy visitors are not deterred by a complicated building with many doors.

* Try to run an open reception desk rather than a glass window.

* Keep the reception area clean and attractive, with up-to-date displays that show the school's values.

* Provide seating for waiting visitors, with something to look at - school magazines, photo albums. Offer coffee. Make sure reception staff keep in touch - "I've phoned her and she'll be down in five minutes."

* Ask all staff to stop and acknowledge waiting visitors. "Good morning, are you being looked after?"

* Deploy support staff so that people "facing outwards" have the right skills and qualities.

* Research the phone and reception experience of visitors by observation, conversation, through governors or by questionnaire.

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