Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mall Walking

At the Upstate History Alliance/Museum Association of New York conference, James Chung and Susie Wilkenning of Reach Advisors led a great session through Colonie Center in Albany, where we met with various retailers and learned about how they brand and present their businesses, who their clients are, and even what music they choose to play. Read great observations from Susie, James, and Winterthur student Amanda Rosner at Reach Advisor's blog, Museum Audience Insight.

In addition to the branding discussions, I was also struck by the ways in which these businesses approach training and rewarding front line people. At American Eagle, the manager noted that they always interview job applicants in a group--and if you can't talk in a group, they are fairly sure that you won't be the kind of outgoing sales person they're looking for. They have quite definite ideas about that person--they must be able to attract, engage and outfit (AEO) their customers. How do they do it? An initial training, and then direct, ongoing coaching and modeling.

Other places make real commitments to their front line staff as well. You would hope that bookstore staff knew something about books--sure enough, all three employees who spoke with us each named a different, very current book they were reading. By using staff recommendations (why couldn't we use those in exhibits?) and hotlines to report best selling items, these businesses gave their front line staff a sense of power--however, it was still very clear that it was critical that front line staff embrace and understand the values of the organization. Different rewards were given to staff for their efforts--at Sephora, a bonus goes to every employee (the same amount, no matter your position) if sales goals are reached.

What does this have to do with museums? How many museums have you been to where the front line staff looked pained as you approach? or ones that told you, "we're closing at 4:00" when it's only just after three? or docents who told you about their family connection to the site, rather than about the larger meanings conveyed in a carefully crafted tour? I think it's about two areas where we, particularly small museums, could greatly improve on our practices.

First, values and mission. It was amazing to me that all of these businesses had a very clear idea of their values and their mission, and that employees directly understood it. It seems to me that all of us, as organizations whose values do not necessarily include profit, need to do a better job at making sure our values and mission are embued in everything we do. At a recent meeting, when I asked a director about the organizational mission, he said, "oh, it's on the brochure." That doesn't quite compare to the LL Bean staff member relating the story of LL Bean's original boots and the company's values that spring from that original story.

Second, recruiting and training. If American Eagle can take 18 year olds and turn them into enthusiastic salespeople for plaid shorts and flip flops, then why can't we take all our volunteers and turn them into enthusiastic salespeople for our museums? I wonder if it's not because we're scared of them, we wonder how we will get other volunteers if we don't let the ones we have do just what they want. What would happen if we made it cool to be a volunteer? Maybe we provide free stuff (okay, like Amanda, I was seduced by the water bottle and light up hat.) and give them a way, within an organizational structure, to share their input to help shape the experience but to make sure that the visitor experience remains one consistent with our values. Maybe then visitors will flock to our museums the same way they do the malls.

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