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The (Really) Immaculate Reception

02/01/2012 11:13 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

The Super Bowl is only a few days away. What's your favorite all time moment?

Was it Roger Staubach's "Hail Mary" pass to Drew Pearson? Or James Harrison's 100 yard touchdown run in Super Bowl 43? How about Bart Starr's famous quarterback sneak in the 1967 "Ice Bowl"? All of these were classic moments. Mine? By far it was "The Immaculate Reception."

But no, not the one you're thinking about. Not the play where the Steelers' Franco Harris took a crazy bounce off a defender and ran it in for a winning touchdown as time expired. That play was pretty cool. But I'm thinking of a different kind of Immaculate Reception moment. And it had nothing to do with the Super Bowl. Or football for that matter.

That moment occurred just the other day at a prospective customer's office. And it was quite thrilling. I walked in through the front door. I was greeted by a professional, cheerful person behind the front desk. My coat was taken. I was made to feel welcome. I was directed to a clean waiting area with a TV and free coffee. I even helped myself to a mini Snickers bar. It was, for me, an Immaculate Reception And way better than some lucky catch made by a football player.

Look, I'm no expert in football. I graduated college in 1986. I worked for a big, international accounting firm for almost nine years. Eventually I started my own company. Am I an expert in accounting? No way. In fact, even although I'm a Certified Public Accountant 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. If you don't get it right there...well...it doesn't bode well for what's behind the next door.

I've been to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of companies in the Philadelphia area (and quite a few outside the Philadelphia area). I know a good, organized reception area when I see one. And I've seen some pretty scary ones.

The worst ever was when I was still in public accounting. You would think that, working for a big international 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 (I'm changing the name in case the company's owner decides to hunt me down and strangle me with one of the six gold chains he wore around his neck at the time.)

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 area was 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 find 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.

Reception areas are so important. Why do so many companies ignore them? Because they don't get it. Unlike true football fans, they don't appreciate the beauty of the Immaculate Reception. The good news? I've got a few recommendations.

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? Don't you love when she slides back the window like you're pulling up at a Burger King drive thru and instead of brightly smiling and saying "Hello, welcome to Barfco Industries, how can I help you sir?" you get a bored, wordless gaze until you're forced to say something first. Like: "Um...hello. I have an appointment with Mr. Jones?"

Which brings me to my first piece of advice.

Number one: if your receptionist is too thick to realize that her number one 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. Am I being sexist? Not really - I rarely see guys behind the front desk. Remember - I visit many companies too.

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 a relaxed guy, eager to help, with a smile on his 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. 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. And whether or not someone's even glad to see us. Smile, for God's sake. I don't care what kind of day you're having. It's your job. And besides, research shows that it'll probably make you feel better too.

Number two: make your reception area easy to find. Why is this such a mystery? Over the past twenty 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 warehousemen 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 a building. One time I got so lost I had to take a bus back to where I started. Actually, I'm not kidding about this - it was at a huge pharmaceutical company in north Jersey and I parked at Building 3 instead of Building 7. Who knew?

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." And don't forget the "Welcome." It's nice to feel welcome. It may sound corny. But it's nice.

Number three: 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 setup 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 1960's. 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. I like it when there's an interesting book or two left out too - sometimes it's a conversation piece ("Hey Barney, I didn't know you were into origami. So am I!").

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

My favorite reception area ever? That would have to be at Bloomberg on Lexington Avenue in New York City. 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. People are walking to and fro. Big TV screens flashed Bloomberg programs wherever you turned. And, astonishingly, you're invited to help yourself to "refreshments" from this central kitchen area complete with Cokes, coffee, bottled water and (be still my rapidly beating heart) freshly-baked cookies. I'm not sure I ever made it to the meeting I was supposed to attend. No matter - I walked out with a pocket full of loot.

OK, few of 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 a few of those mini Snickers from a bowl left out for guests. That's always a nice touch. Want to be a winner? You don't have to play in the Super Bowl. Just start with the reception area. The rest will fall into place.


Another version of this post appears on The Philly Post.