I graduated college in 1986.

I worked for KPMG. I was a controller at a biopharmaceutical company. And then I started my own company in 1994.

Am I an expert in accounting? No way. In fact, even though I'm a CPA, I'm really not a very good one (for me, if it was close enough, it was good enough ... not exactly stellar credentials of a good accountant). Am I a tech genius? Nope. A master at sales? No.

If anything, I'm an expert at reception areas.

I've been to hundreds of companies in the Philadelphia area (and quite a few outside the Philadelphia area). I know a good reception area when I see one.

And I've seen some pretty scary ones.

The worst ever was when I was still with KPMG. You would think that, working for a big international accounting firm, I'd be sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar appetizers while waiting for my prestigious client to meet me in his lavishly appointed lobby. But I always had the misfortune of focusing on small businesses. One of those companies was the now-defunct Futurama (not its real name).

Futurama assembled furniture in one of the worst parts of North Philadelphia. Just walking from the chicken-wired-in parking lot to their front door was as risky as a stroll down any street in Baghdad during the Bush administration. The worst part of this company's reception is that there was none. You had to be buzzed in, hoping the front door (which was covered in graffiti) would be opened before someone stuck a knife in your back. Once inside, there was usually no one to greet you. The first time I was there, I wandered inside the building's dimly lit hallways, following the smell of cigarette smoke, until I found the company's 82-year-old bookkeeper half asleep behind a metal desk and a filing cabinet that looked like a prop from The Dick Van Dyke Show.

 

SIGNS OF RECEPTION NEGLECT

Reception areas are so important. Why do so many companies ignore them? Because they don't get it. If you've neglected your reception area, I've got a few pieces of advice.

Ever been to a customer's front desk and have to wave to get the attention of the receptionist because she's busy on the phone arguing with her boyfriend or absorbed in updating her latest Facebook status?

Which brings me to my first piece of advice.

No. 1: If your receptionist is too thick to realize that her No. 1 job is to greet people as they enter the company and make them feel like this is the greatest company in the world, then fire her. Or him.

And while I'm on the topic of gender, there's also the matter of appearance. I don't care what gender you are, most of us who visit companies want to see the same thing: a young pretty girl with a smile on her face. Or an older nice-looking woman with a smile on her face. Or a 94-year-old with skin like an alligator and a smile on her face.

Penny pinchers, do you notice a pattern? This is the first person we're seeing, the first impression we have of your company. We don't want to feel like we're a visitor. And we certainly don't want to feel like we're an intrusion. We want to be part of your family. We want to be doing business with you. It all starts with the very first words said to us as we enter your lobby.

 

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

No. 2: Make your reception area easy to find. Why is this such a mystery? Over the past 20 years I've probably wasted two full days of my life wandering around office buildings, industrial parks and incubators searching for the entrance of the company I'm visiting. I've interrupted warehouse men smoking pot outside the receiving dock. I've stepped through puddles of toxic waste supposedly "out of sight" in the back of a machine area. I've tripped over four- (and sometimes three-) legged animals tied up behind buildings. One time I got so lost I had to take a bus back to where I started.

Have signs. Make it easy for your visitors. Remember, we're not going to pay attention to your instructions when you tell us on the phone - we're just too excited that you're actually going to let us visit. We're a little on edge. We're anxious about our meeting. Don't make us more anxious. Paint big red arrows. Cough up a few bucks and have a sign shop make signs like, "Welcome - Office This Way."

 

CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO ...

No. 3: Clean up the area. Futurama didn't even have a reception area (at least I couldn't tell if there was one whenever I tried to look past all the sandbags and anti-mortar artillery set up to defend against the surrounding neighborhood). A good reception area also tells a lot about a company.

For starters, upgrade your decor to, say, post-1960s. Whenever I visit this one equipment manufacturer I know outside of the city, I feel like I'm walking into an episode of Mad Men. "Mr. Draper will be down to see you in a minute," I expect to hear. C'mon guys - this shouldn't be an afterthought. A few nice sofas. A coffee table with a couple of Sports Illustrated and People magazines on it. A flat screen TV on the wall showing CNN is helpful to remind us how lucky we are not to be living in most other parts of the world.

A reception area should be friendly. Comfortable. Welcoming. Up to date. Bright. Sunny. Cheerful.

My favorite reception area ever? That would have to be at Bloomberg on Lexington Avenue in New York. I was there once for a visit. From the minute you sign in, you're directed by smart young future executives dressed in bright suits and laundered shirts to a waiting area with high ceilings that's situated right in the nerve center of their building. Big TV screens flash Bloomberg programs wherever you turn. And, astonishingly, you're invited to help yourself to refreshments from this central kitchen area complete with Cokes, coffee, bottled water and freshly baked cookies.

OK. Few of us are going to match that kind of reception area. And really, it's a little overboard. I'm happy if someone politely offers me a drink and offers me a few of those mini-Snickers from a bowl left out for guests.

That's always a nice touch.

 

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses.

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