Returning to Office? Remember Your Reception Area is Marketing, Too

“Client service” is touted as a differentiator by many law firms, but seldom do we think about its front line: the reception area. Because it’s a face-to-face action, a visit to your reception area will tell your clients more about your firm than a clever tagline or a snazzy logo ever could.

Are you selling your firm as creative and innovative, but greeting your visitors with stodgy furniture and magazines from the Carter Administration? Worse, are you touting “exceptional client service” on your website and in your marketing materials, then leaving clients cold and ignored in a sterile waiting room?

This consideration is more important than ever as we continue to trudge through the COVID-19 era, and in-person interactions carry more emotional weight. As the nation experiments with an en masse return to the office, it’s a fine time to ensure your reception area reflects your brand – and presents your firm as a smart, supportive partner throughout These Unprecedented Times.

Some tips to make your best first impression, pandemic or no:

  • Create a relaxing environment. Remember that visiting a law firm is often a stressful experience; show some empathy by taking that into account. Keep it mellow. If you have a television, do not turn it to political commentary, the “doomscroll” of cable news or unpredictable reality programming. When it comes to music, think instrumental and mellow.
  • Coordinate a welcome. Empower your reception staff to be brand ambassadors. Let them know your meeting schedule and help them greet visitors appropriately. Hearing “Oh yes, you’re here to meet with Jane Doe, she is expecting you” is so much nicer than the old “And you are?” If you do not have anyone stationed at the desk, make a sign with a greeting and instructions for your visitors; they should not wonder what they are supposed to do.
  • Manage expectations. In “The Psychology of Waiting,” Psychology Today reports that uncertainty makes wait times seem longer. If the lawyer or paralegal will be late to the appointment, the greeter should apologize and give a reasonable estimate for arrival.
  • Consider the kiddos. Sometimes life happens, and your clients will have their children with them. Be prepared to occupy your littlest visitors by keeping some emergency crayons or toys on hand. Parents will thank you. (As we are in a pandemic, give these out, do not lend them – you do not need to be circulating kid germs.)
  • Remember who you are. What’s your firm identity, and how can the reception area support that? Just like your brochures or website, your reception area should back up the brand. If you cater to startups, maybe it’s “Shark Tank” in the lobby; if you serve corporations, go more refined. We know one firm that, in non-COVID times, provides homemade chocolate chip cookies in the lobby; that’s one firm that can truly make a “hands-on service” claim.

And four critical steps to take in the COVID-19 era:

  • Tend to technology. No one wants to share magazines or newspapers right now, so we are more reliant than ever on our phones (and our phones being charged). Have outlets visible and available. Provide a sign with the Wi-Fi network information. Keeping some extra chargers for common devices would be helpful, too.
  • Mind wait times. Again, visiting a law firm is nerve-wracking for many people; the threat of infection compounds that stress. Be vigilant about promptness, and don’t keep people waiting in a reception area any longer than necessary.
  • Embrace the current guidelines. Keep politics out of it – err on the side of cautiousness. Your goal is to make all guests feel as safe and comfortable as possible. While recommendations change, defer to the CDC and local authorities. Wear masks, and provide sterile masks for anyone who forgot theirs. Keep hand sanitizer available. Spread out the furniture. For now, kibosh the chocolate chip cookies, but consider bottled water.
  • Offer alternatives. After more than a year of remote work, many of us have mastered Zoom, DocuSign and other tools. Make sure any face-to-face meeting is amenable to both the client and the attorney, and offer “telehealth” visits where appropriate.

Above all, be human; think about your own office pet peeves; try to avoid them. Make an effort to evaluate your reception area from the perspective of a client who may be more stressed than ever before.

For fun, I asked friends on social media what they wanted to see in reception areas in 2021. Some verbatims:

  • “Good air circulation. Hand sanitizer. Just seeing a bottle/dispenser discreetly there makes me feel cleaner. Bathrooms so clean you could perform surgery in them.”
  • “Since many people won’t be wearing masks, I’d like to see a nice, high-end germ/bacterial air purifier in the waiting room.”
  • “I’m sitting in a waiting room right now. Ideally, I would have liked something I could wipe down this chair with…I would likely have preferred to wait in my car until they were ready for me.”
  • “Spaced sitting. Everyone will be on their phone, so Wi-Fi and phone chargers would be awesome.”
  • “Distance and short waits.”
  • “Excessive wait times drive me insane more than normal.”

Perhaps the best take: “What hasn’t changed is an expectation of courtesy, timeliness, respect and lack of bias.” A great standard for law firms in the pandemic and long after it.