A Folding Table, A Jug of Water and Thou Sweating In The Parking Lot

I am reading a book about customer service right now. My intention is to report some observations on the text as a whole at some point. However, I saw an illustration of one of the points made in an early chapter today. The book had noted the veracity of “time flies when you are having fun” pointing out that a well designed wait that is 30 minutes long can actually seem shorter than a poorly designed wait that is only a third as long. Because human perception is involved, you can ruin a relationship with a customer in the latter situation even though you significantly reduced their wait time.

Our campus is in a situation with many strikes against it. Budgets have been cut so staffing is down but enrollment is up adding an additional 1500 student to our commuter campus. Alas, the heretofore un(der) used overflow parking is now inaccessible due to long delayed construction projects.

There wasn’t much to be done about the parking unfortunately, but someone got organized this year and had information tables distributed about the campus with all sorts of hand outs and big coolers of water. There were also large color campus maps that someone slapped up on the sides of buildings so people didn’t have to seek out kiosks to figure out where they were.

I looked around wondering why no one had thought to do this before. People had always volunteered to serve an hour or so on the welcome committee but it was never this organized or welcoming. People stood around smiling, answering questions and engaging people who looked lost. Now there is a table identifiable as a source of information from a distance that is stocked with information—and most importantly after trekking in from that parking space in the hinterlands you stalked for 30 minutes–water to drink.

While I walked around comparing what I was seeing to previous years, I realized that tweaking your customer service up a level or two doesn’t just help your relationship with those you serve. It also sends a message to other employees about the commitment of the organization. Memos about improving service are useful and identify areas for improvement. In this case, there were no memos that went out about how things were going to be done better—it was just done.

I am obviously someone whose business it is to think about improving customer interactions so I notice such things. But I have to believe that others noticed the improvement, how it fit in the context of other recent changes and what it all says about the direction of the organization.

I also had some insight into the issue of providing volunteers with opportunities to feel they are doing important work. I have never really had much desire to volunteer for welcoming slots before. Today when I witnessed the increased effort at hospitality, I had a desire to participate next time around. (Just have to remember not to schedule sending the brochure to the printer, interviewing a ticket office clerk and starting internet sales on this day next time.) In previous years, my impression of the job was that it provided a pleasant first impression of the institution and directions to buildings. With the addition of tables, maps and water jugs, suddenly it seems like an important contribution to relieving anxious new arrivals.

We are planning a volunteer luncheon/training in a few weeks so perhaps I am in a receptive mindset on the subject. We have been thinking about how to design the volunteering experience so people have a greater feeling of doing something of value. We have been discussing increasing volunteers’ scope of responsibility and authority. I believe we also have to consider if these duties will allow them to feel they are providing a service patrons find valuable. Though certainly, people volunteer for different reasons and more authority may be a bigger motivator than being useful.

Human Touch Is Always Important

Back in March I had mentioned that we were in the process of re-evaluating our emergency procedures and noted we had recently had automated external defibrillators (AED) installed.

If you aren’t familiar with them, AEDs are designed to save lives by essentially talking untrained people through the process of shocking a person’s heart back into a normal rhythm. The machine can detect a normal heartbeat so that you can’t actually use it on someone who doesn’t need it. (Such as part of a fraternity prank.) In fact, it is apparently mandated that the machine rather than a human make the decision as to whether a shock should be administered. The devices were first deployed around O’Hare airport and were such a success at saving lives, you can see them placed all over these days.

I was refreshing my CPR/First Aid training today in a session that also dealt with AED use. Due to my impression that the machines empowered an untrained person to save a life, I was surprised to learn that CPR training was an essential component of AED use and training. The AED isn’t of any use on those whose hearts have stopped but can help if your efforts at CPR have managed to establish a rhythm. (Our model at least coaches you on whether your compressions are deep enough and provides metronome cues to keep you on pace.) Of course, CPR should be started while you are waiting for the AED to be retrieved.

There are apparently companies that eschew the CPR training and insist only on the AED training depending pretty much entirely on its abilities and those of anyone who may be passing at the time. I don’t care if the machine gets to decide whether to administer a shock. Given how much arts organizations depend on the goodwill of that community, I can’t imagine eliminating human contact in favor of a machine is wise when it comes to life saving. It was a good idea to have some CPR trained staff before the AED came on the scene and it still seems prudent even with the presence of equipment that greatly increases survival rates.

Another interesting tidbit I learned, though I can’t attest to its veracity, is that most of the first AEDs manufactured were red. Given the association of red with emergency services, this seems logical. According to our trainer, lay people were less likely to use the AEDs because they perceived them to be emergency personnel only equipment. Seems reasonable, but maybe he was just trying convince us to accept ugly neon green AEDs.

While that little fact has nothing to do with the importance of training our staffs, it does illustrate just how important even the most subtle design choices can influence people. (And lends credence to the consultants who get paid to obsess over what tie a political candidate is going to wear.)

What Value The Arts In Prison?

I was surprised to see my home town newspaper mentioned on the Americans for the Arts blog recently. Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Manager, John Abodeely, was responding to a story about how inmates from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility were being blocked from performing at Eastern Correctional Facility by the corrections guard union. (Eastern Correctional Facility apparently inspires a lot of art. I once wrote a short story based *cough* on my time spent there.)

Abodeely responds to the union’s central argument that there is no value in the experience. “How many of these medium-security convicts do you think will go to Broadway and get a job?” One answer is Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes–six Tony nominations, New York Drama Critics Circle Award and an Obie Award. Another is Charles Dutton. These are just off the top of my head. I am sure there are other examples.

Abodeely discusses the economic value of the arts in terms of jobs, revenue and taxes generated. I think Abodeely misses the mark on two counts. First, regardless of the economic impact statistics, it is difficult for people with arts backgrounds to gain employment in their field, whether it be on Broadway or not. An ex-con probably has just as good a chance of being employed as anyone. (So on second thought, I guess Abodeely’s numbers are valid when applied to the convicts.)

But the second point is the real issue. The subtext of the question the corrections officer posed was all about low regard for the convicts’ personal value and had little to do with economics at all. Perhaps it is clearer to me because I have been in NY prisons, but the guards’ power to deny positive experiences for inmates is a big factor here. Given the union spokesman’s assertion that “prison farms, annexes and print shops have been useful because they teach skills that can be applied toward a job on the outside,” a more compelling argument would be based on evidence of how engaging in any sort of disciplined program is beneficial to future employment and behavior in the present. There is also public speaking skills, writing skills (since the inmates wrote the play) and development of empathy that can be gained. (Construction and other organizational skills if they are building sets and costumes.)

Abodeely wouldn’t likely have the research or numbers on hand to cite, but there may be some evidence that it reduces recidivism, especially given that is the sponsoring organization, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, goal. The San Quentin Drama Workshop has been active since 1958 so even if there is no clear evidence arts in prison does not reduce recidivism, there must be some value to sustaining the program for 51 years. There is also group, Theatre in Prisons which runs similar programs internationally.

What really makes me believe that the union’s objections on the grounds theatre involvement doesn’t cultivate valuable skills is the fact that Rehabilitation Through the Arts not only does shows at the maximum security NY State run prison, Sing-Sing, but has been based out of there since 1996 and apparently has proven valuable enough to satisfy the corrections officers who I am pretty sure belong to the same union. Pinero wrote Short Eyes while incarcerated in Sing-Sing in 1972 and there was apparently a drama program of some sort there at the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not really a big advocate for convict rights. I didn’t particularly enjoy being dragged on visits as part of my mother’s effort to redeem these guys. (Though I does allow me to truthfully say I was in and out of prison for 9 years.) Like most of us, I am not about to allow someone to dismiss the value of participation in the arts out of hand without some rebuttal.

I suppose no discussion of performing arts in prison can be complete without citing the 1500 Filipino prisoners in Cebu doing Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Time To Review

I am feeling a bit under the weather so I am not of a mind to blog very long today. However, while I was having trouble sleeping last night, it occurred to me it has been awhile since I revisited and revised our front of house procedures manuals for house managers and ushers and more importantly, our emergency procedures. The latter is especially important since we just had an Automated External Defibrillator installed on the lobby wall.

While I ask the house managers to refresh their memories every year and we review procedures with our ushers at the beginning of every season, we are actually operating on instructions I wrote when I first assume my current position. Those instructions in turn were adapted from a manual I used at another place of employment. There is nothing unsafe about the procedures I initially generated, they just may not be the most appropriate for interacting with our community in our specific physical plant.

My suspicion is that practice has diverted from the letter of my instructions. The next step is likely to be bringing the instructions more inline with reality while injecting bits of structure where it might be lacking so our service to audiences is a little sharper.

I have given the task of revising the instructions to our assistant theatre manager. He deals with front of house staff and their activities much more frequently than do I. He also hasn’t had a hand in writing any of the procedures where the rest of the staff has so he has no investment in any of the work. I have suggested he might want to call meetings to discuss revisions.

So I figured I would encourage everyone to consider reviewing and rewriting your procedures both for safety sake but also to ensure you are meeting your audience’s current expectations for their experience with your organization.