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Using Front Line Staff to Build the Best Visitor Experience

by Ryan Cairney, Unit Manager, Front Line Experience, Ohio History Connection on

Do a quick Google search for the definition of Visitor Experience. Go ahead. You won’t find one. Primarily because we, as institutions, define what the visitor experience is for ourselves. Therein lies one of the most fundamental struggles we all face. What does our visitor experience look like? What do we want our visitors to see, think, feel, do, etc. when they come to see us? The visitor experience will also be vastly different based on the mission of the organization. For example, the 9/11 Memorial’s mission includes the words somber, remembrance, murder, terrorists, horrific, resolve, respect. By contrast, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’s mission features the words create, arts, humanities, power, learning, sciences. Visitors will have different expectations based on, in part, where they are going. But, there is much more to consider. We focus a great deal on the experience once visitors have gained admission, but what about that first and last encounter and the people providing it?

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I am the Front Line Experience Unit Manager at the Ohio History Center (OHC) in Columbus, Ohio. My background includes nearly a decade of retail management and a few years in OHC’s Education and Outreach Department where I worked with schools throughout Ohio. I view my responsibility to the visitor experience like customer service on steroids. Customer service is all well and good, but what I’m encouraging our front line staff to do is something bigger…something grand. We have the privilege of greeting and serving every single visitor that walks through our doors. The vast majority of visitors we encounter are happy to be here and have justifiably high expectations that they will walk out feeling that their visit was money well spent. We have the ability to make sure every visitor starts off on the right foot in our museum, and it’s a responsibility we take seriously. But how can I, as a staff supervisor, make sure that this is happening and that the experience is genuine?

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We see articles, books, and blog posts (ahem) all the time that tell us customer service is the key and great customer service is an investment in our institution’s future. While that is certainly true, how do we make that a reality? I learned a long time ago that a successful approach for one person does not guarantee success for another. I’m extremely lucky to supervise a team with very different personalities, interests, and styles. We talk…a lot. I have gotten to know the team, we call them CSRs, and have found out what they like and don’t like, what they hope to do, and as a result I’ve discovered ways to connect them to the organization.

In that discovery is the silver bullet to an excellent experience for every visitor. Engaged staff. You must be thinking that surely I’m not just now realizing that an engaged staff equals positive visitor results. Of course not. But, by finding a solid connection to the organization through professional development and projects that pique their interest, I am creating a space where they can become true blue museum experts. We are undertaking an experiment, which involves utilizing our museum space in a new and exciting way. One of the challenges of this endeavor is explaining it to the public. Who better to do this than the front line staff? We have established specific times for the front line staff to go behind the scenes of these experimental museum spaces and hang out with curators. They ask questions and touch objects, all while learning about the goals and expectations for these spaces directly from the curators. This experience (there’s that word again) has given the front line staff the knowledge they need to talk about the spaces with our visitors in a truly engaging way. There is also the side benefit that the information they are passing along is accurate.

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In addition to exploring the museum they work in, we have also made an effort to find substantive projects that align with the front line staff member’s knowledge, skills, abilities and interests. We are fortunate to have a paid part-time staff, so I am able to work with department managers around the building to find projects and assign them to the appropriate CSR. We have had front line staff work on visitor studies, newspaper digitization, marketing and more! These experiences help solidify the connection to the organization and foster a desire to work here long term. It also creates buzz around working at the front desk and they are genuinely excited to talk about their workspace with visitors. If that translates into a few extra membership sales, who am I to complain? I’ll save my plan for launching membership initiatives with zero budgets for another post.

The parallel between visitor expectations and staff performance is this; meet people where they are. There are 15 million ways to create an engaged staff that will do their part to create an amazing visitor experience. This is what works for us right now. Finding yours is the hard part. Talking to the front line staff and getting to know them is a critical first step. These are people who are passionate about their work, have a desire to do well, and can generally operate with very little oversight. Like all museum staff, they need professional development and ways to work with other museum colleagues. I am currently collaborating with another museum on shared professional development opportunities that will hopefully kick start a visitor experience movement in central Ohio and beyond. The ultimate goal is to create a language for the visitor experience, something we can put into shared terms. We might even come up with a definition, though defining the visitor experience is less important than understanding what it is for your organization. More to come on that soon. In the meantime, keep the conversation going about creating an engaged frontline staff and ensuring amazing visitor experiences for all who visit us and our zany, wonderful museums.

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