First impressions on the company's front line

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The Independent Online
ABOUT 20 people, employed mostly in management training, work in the Palo Alto, California, offices of the Tom Peters Group - or TPG, as we call it.

I like my colleagues. And, since I spend lots of time these days at my home in Vermont, I am always pleasantly surprised at how nice it is to be back around "the gang".

This is no advertisement. We have good days. We have bad days. We win business that we deserve to win, and lose business we deserve to lose. We also get a little that we don't deserve, and lose a little that by all rights should have been ours.

But one thing is for sure: our staff is loaded with CVs to die for. We are "professional" to a fault. Our core customers tend to be big and conservative companies - rather amazing, given that I have attacked most of them in this space.

And there is Leslie McKee, the receptionist. I have never seen her CV. She may well have a PhD. in nuclear physics. Or she may not have made it through primary school. But she has taken our company and turned it around.

That's right, our receptionist is a genuine turnaround artist. You see, Leslie is upbeat, courteous, funny, patient, upstanding, professional, smart, helpful and sometimes outrageous.

I don't know what our official "core values" are. We've never written them down. (Whoops.) But I know what they are unofficially. They are Leslie.

Clients love her, and she, of course, is our Commander-in-Chief of Client Service. Among other things, she takes most incoming calls, so to be TPG'd is really to be Leslie'd. Here is her customer service magic:

o Her manner - energetically cheerful is the best I can do - gives us a foot in the door with whoever is calling.

o She's meticulous. Leslie makes sure you end up talking to the right person (no small thing), or are otherwise handled efficiently and effectively - and feel good about it (even if the one you wanted is "out of town for the next month" but can be heard screaming "No, no, no" in the background).

o Once a week or more, it seems, she takes some amazing personal initiative to research something for a client. Often as not, it is unrelated to anything we do; it's just plain helpfulness. (Reading "Leslie letters" from clients eats up a lot of my time these days.)

And that's just the external stuff, exceptional as it is. The internal is even better. Leslie is a one-person cheerleader for life. Honestly, it's impossible to feel sorry for yourself (a habit we self-important professionals have in spades) after you get 30 seconds or more of "Leslie- ing".

American football commentator John Madden said that when he was a manager, and the pressure got to him, he liked to hang out with the players from the front line - just being around them made him feel better.

That's Leslie: when I'm having a crummy day, after my umpteenth unexplained flight delay, I sometimes call just to hear her hello.)

OK, I'll knock it off. Believe it or not, this column is not meant to sing Leslie's praises. I tell her in person, not via the newspaper. Instead it is a very practical reminder of three important points: 1) What an enormous difference one person can make in the spirit of an organisation; 2) That energy and enthusiasm really are "everything" and have little to do with job titles (unless they are in inverse proportion to one's stature, a thought that sometimes crosses my mind); and 3) That a receptionist is probably the most important person in your company, in terms of tone. After all, first impressions are everything, right? (Even for "insiders" - after all, she's the first employee you see at the start of the day.)

Look, we've had a receptionist or four at our place. Everybody these days wants to grow up to be in charge and quickly move beyond the job. Sometimes, between "permanent" receptionists, we've gone nuts. A different temp every two days; everything is screwed up; everybody's out of sorts; customers are on our case. (They have this rotten habit of expecting us to live up to what I write about.) My instinct: "Good heavens, just hire somebody."

It's a natural reaction, and a lousy one. "Just hire somebody" is in general a bad idea, and especially when relative to "mundane" positions. I'm sure lots of you give lip service to "receptionists are really important". I always did. Even in speeches. But in truth, I didn't have an inkling of how important that receptionist could be.

Thanks for the lesson, Leslie. Which is, (a) there really are a lot of things they don't teach you at Harvard Business School, and (b) take as much care in hiring your next receptionist as you do, say, a vice-president.

Who knows? If you're patient enough, maybe you, too, can find a turnaround artist.

TPG Communications