Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Train Everyone! Even the Janitor!?!

In many small institutions, the staff and volunteers who are installing exhibits, working with collections, etc. also function as the front-line staff. Individuals trained for specific jobs within an institution are catapulted into visitor service and should feel prepared to help visitors. Small museum staff and volunteers learn to multitask; their focus can rarely be on just one thing happening at their sites. Projects are in progress and a visitor needs help in the museum shop. The doorbell or the telephone rings in the middle of a tour and there is not always a second person on site to handle the interruption. The seemingly constant interruptions can lead to frustration and annoyance especially when the staff and volunteers already feel as if they are spread too thin.

In spite of any frustration at being interrupted, the staff and volunteers should make the visitor feel welcome and important. Staff and volunteer perceptions of visitors will shape the way visitors are treated. Encourage staff and volunteers to think of the visitors not as interruptions but as opportunities to share information with others. Also, encourage them to openly communicate with each other about their experiences with visitors and to talk about what is going well and what may need to be improved. Improving visitor service is an ongoing process and involves dialogue and discussion among staff and volunteers.

Visitor service training should take place with all museum staff and volunteers regardless of time in the institution, staff or volunteer tasks, or physical location within the museum. It is essential for even back-of-house personnel to be able to interact meaningfully with any visitor they might encounter, not just on site but via e-mail or telephone. Visitors want to be treated with respect and care; they want to feel acknowledged even if they are just asking for the location of the museum shop or directions to the next site they are visiting. Providing all staff and volunteers with good visitor service training will help to ensure a good experience for everyone including the staff and volunteers.

Tamara Hemmerlein was the director of the Montgomery County Cultural Foundation for thirteen years and the Montgomery County Historical Society for eight years. She is now the Hoosier Heritage Alliance coordinator at the Indiana Historical Society. She serves on the American Association of Muse- ums Small Museum Administrators Committee and the American Association for State and Local History Professional Development Committee. She is a Museum Assessment Program peer reviewer and a graduate of the Seminar for Historical Administration. 

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