Front of House – the soul of your Cultural Venue10
‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’.
It may be an overused cliché, but it is still so vital in any customer or consumer led business. When we consider Museums or cultural venues we now collaterally see them as customer led, gone are the days when we could rely on prestigious or academic clout to ensure our security, we now need foot flow and we need to make sure that those visitors are stimulated during their visit and most importantly made to feel welcome and valued. Our visitors are our customers and the better they feel; the longer they will stay, the more money they will spend and the more recommendations of us they will give once they leave. Yet no matter how interactive our exhibitions, how informative our displays or innovative our approach we have to realise that very often we are judged on something far more human – our front of house staff.
It was considering this the other day that led me to ask the question:
‘How often do we train our front of house?’
(not only initial training but continual professional development). The answers in some way were surprising for such a visitor led sector. In truth many museums or cultural venues only trained their staff on induction once employed. Once established, the ‘first face’ of the museum was very much down to that member of staff on that day and their judgement of what good customer service is and should be. Other venues scheduled CPD every six months or annually.
We may all have stories to tell of times we feel we didn’t receive good customer service, but there is no doubt that no matter how established, prestigious or well-funded a museum/cultural venue is, if you get a ‘grunt’ from a front of house staff member when asking a question about an exhibit or simply where the toilets are, it leaves you with a bad impressionof your whole visit. Take for example:
The steward who asked you to stop taking photos after you already asked another steward.
- Being asked to remove your backpack when you see handbags that are larger.
- Being asked if you ‘should be in school’ when you’re a home learner.
- The Front of House that forgot the simple act of smiling.
So how can we leave something so essential to the reputation of our establishment to chance? The truth is we can’t and customer service needs to be essential and established part of our front of House culture. It needs to be part of annual CPD and it needs to be assessed regularly to ensure it is effective.
To begin with have a clear customer service mission statement;
‘Maintain the positive experience of visitors by being approachable, engaging, knowledgeable and willing to help’
This then followed up by clear standards to strive too, for example;
- Present a positive image and energy
- Be courteous and respectful to visitors
- Be knowledgeable about the establishment you work in
- Go above and beyond.
Now whilst we could dismiss this as Americanised ‘have a nice day’ nonsense it’s worth considering who are the most successful brands in the world, with multiple satisfied customers/visitors and who have the highest returning visitor/customer bases of any other comparable companies. One major player in this field which has several theme parks around the world and calls it’s staff ‘cast members’ is a very good example. They recognise that it’s the whole experience and the sense of being valued that makes people want to return to them. Much of that, if not all, is provided by staff on the front line, the staff that are meeting visitors constantly. It is from those people that these standards become effective and it is those people that time and training is invested in the most.
So, can you just tell your front of house staff to be like this and they will?
No, of course not. Several aspects need to be in place within the whole establishment for this to be effective.
Do front of House Staff feel valued? Never forget people support what they help create. If they are not involved in the process how do they know the importance of their own role? If they are not acknowledged when they do something right, how do they know to do it again? Involve them in the changes and emphasise their importance. This includes volunteers!
Does Museum Management create an environment that creates positivity? Treat front of house staff how we want them to treat our guests. ‘Customer relations mirrors employee relations’
Do the front of house staff have the ‘tools’ to be effective? Never underestimate the importance of continual professional development and good customer service training through recognised qualifications and progression. Keeping good staff who exemplify the standards above is essential.
And once this is in place how do you assess its success?
Go and watch! 30 mins during a busy Saturday will show you how effective your front of house staff are. Are you seeing visitors being treated how you would want them to be? Are they leaving feeling they are valued and therefore wanting to return? If they aren’t, no matter how much work you put in behind the scenes, it will all be in vein – that first impression only happens once. Mystery shoppers are a brilliant resource to provide honest and accurate assessment on front of house.
Ensure all front of House are aware of your rules. Are backpacks allowed? Pictures taken? Teens allowed alone? These sensitive subjects are often the cause of stress for visitors, especially when mixed messages are sent from different stewards.
Front of House staff are the soul that represents your venue.
Very nice article. I was thinking about front of house when I went to a restaurant in Montgomery last month. They notch up the importance of “front of house” to an essential, rather than a nice to have.
So first step for any organisation is to recognise its value.
Secondly, “hire for attitude, train for skill” is particularly true in this area. Very difficult to be trained to care.
Great article Mar!
Great discussion starter Mar!
One thing I would add, is that there often appears to be a ‘false class war’ between FoH and ‘management’. I have seen it in numerous places, on numerous occasions, where the professional museum staff are at odds with the Front of House teams.
Often, Front of House staff are as, if not more!, knowledgable than the museum management team, in terms of knowing what people want – both knowledge and information – and yet quite often this customer-led information and insight is ignored, or even worse, disregarded.
Museum professionals could do a lot worse than to spend some time with FoH staff grilling them about what customers really think, and really want, from their museums.
I work in a very busy arts centre front of house. I’ve been employed for 6 months, and never received any kind of formal training. I worked in retail for 6 years so I can hazard a guess at how I should be treating visitors – but many of my colleagues have worked at the centre for years, are retired professionals, have no customer service experience and have also never been trained. We work very long shifts (sometimes up to 12 hours) with barely a half hour break, which leaves me miserable and makes it difficult to keep energised and enthusiastic for visitors. We often have to work shifts for a large in-house corporate department, dealing with delegates coming to conferences etc. This often creates a very stressful and money-driven atmosphere front of house, often taking our focus off the visitors and the customer service we provide to them. Simply put, I do the job purely for the money whilst I’m finishing my curatorial training, I get no satisfaction and I wouldn’t treat my dog the way some of us are treated. It doesn’t take much to treat your employees how you expect them to treat your customers.
I also think it’s imporotant to have back-of-house staff in these training. A lot of curators could do with this sort of training and it helps to break down the “them and us” barriers which can exist all-to-often in museums. It also means FoH staff are less likely to feel singled out for implied criticism.