Wednesday, April 23, 2014

She was just the receptionist

"Just" the receptionist:
[Time] magazine had assigned a reporter named Virginia Bennett to find out about “automation in America.” She went to see Remington Rand, whose UNIVAC product was then the epitome of computing coolness…but, “fortunately for us, they weren’t very forthcoming that day.”  Walking back to her office, she passed the IBM building, saw the “Defense Calculator”  (IBM 701) in the window, and decided to see if IBM would be interested in doing the interview. When she asked the receptionist who she could speak with, the receptionist was smart enough to say, “Well, the head of this company is Mr Watson. He isn’t in the building today, but his son Tom is the president and you can certainly see him.”

The resulting article was very powerful publicity for IBM, and surely no help at all for Remington Rand’s relative industry standing.  If the receptionist had greeted the reporter with the all-too-typical bureaucratic approach (“The Watsons are very busy men, you’ll have to call Public Relations and make an appointment.”) the outcome would likely have been quite different.  Tom Jr notes that his father considered the receptionist position very important, and always chose those women himself.
You can't buy that kind of marketing exposure, and most marketing departments can't deliver it reliably - even IBM's.  But someone who was "just" a receptionist - but smart and savvy and given decision making authority - made a big difference.

Devolve authority.  Push it down all the way to the front line troops.  Then watch as you run rings around your Pleistocene competitors.


Rev. Paul said...

Very good point. When you give exceptional responsibility to ordinary folks, you frequently get exceptional results.

Dave H said...

Agreed, but you need to make the company's mission very clear to them as well.

The kind of gibberish that passes for a "mission statement" in this age of management buzzwords and ISO certification mills makes it almost impossible to know what's really important to the company.

I'd say IBM's success was due in large part to Watson's vision for the company, and that he communicated it clearly to everyone who worked for him.

Ken said...

And from the other side, as I tell my students, always be nice to the gatekeeper. You should be nice to everyone -- treat everyone as ends rather than means -- but the gatekeepers in particular control access to them as know where the bodies are buried (and generally know themselves where many are buried).

Cap'n Jan said...

I took what was an interesting job at a small start up in Austin. My first day when I walked in, the 'receptionist' had her bare, and not too clean foot up on her desk painting her toenails some color called plague (no doubt). She didn't look up until all 5 nails were done, then she looked at me as though I were somehow harshing her cool.

That's the first thing that I saw, and that is the first thing that our potential customers (and vendors and potential employees) saw.

Lovely. That company, which had great potential crashed and burned during the hottest time for idiot start-ups. The 'bare foot on the desk' was just a symptom of a deep underlying rot.

Fair Winds,

Cap'n Jan

Goober said...

This is so true in all aspects of any organization.

Even governments.

Which is why local, decentralized government works better than centralized, command and control, one-size-fits-all.

Which, as it were, is why our corporation, er, government, is failing instead of thriving.

Well said.

Mark Philip Alger said...

Businesses live or die by the front line personnel -- those who are in direct contact with the customer. Receptionists are the gunnery sergeants of that corps. Always have a live voice on the telephone.