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Be Our Guest

Museum visitors come in all shapes and sizes. One of the best defined groups of visitors in the museum field is school groups. This audience provides museums with a large number of visitors on an annual basis for a wide variety of tours and programs.

Making sure school groups continue as an active audience is vital to museums. Not only do school children provide many museums with a major funding base, but if nurtured, these visitors will also provide museums with future audiences.

In pursuit of this idea, I attended Disney University, in 1995. My course looked specifically at customer service and how the Disney theme parks succeed in keeping their visitors happy and returning. Here is what I learned:

The main reason for repeat business is Disney’s quality of service. Disney believes if you control the quality of service, you can also control your degree of success.

To control the quality of service you deliver to your audience, you must have a strong concept of what you are doing, use the best people to do the job, and exceed your guests’ expectations.

Most museums have a strong concept of what they are doing. They call it a mission statement. The mission statement guides all facets of museum operations and activities. A commitment to quality of service takes the museum mission statement one step further, to the creation of service standards. While the mission statement gives a museum purpose, standards of service provide an expectation of how the mission statement will be translated to the museum’s various audiences.

Writing successful service standards requires involvement from all segments of the museum — board members, staff, volunteers, and visitors. Often brief and to the point, service standards put such principles as safety, courtesy, and efficiency into writing.

School groups are guests who usually have well defined expectations. At Lakewood’s Heritage Center, we work closely to communicate with schools, teachers, and our volunteers to ensure that their expectations are met. In fact, we have found a direct correlation between the time spent communicating with these guests and the quality of their experience at our site.

Lakewood’s Heritage Center began working on its quality of service by sending out surveys to area schools in order to pinpoint their specific needs and topic interests. With this information, we consciously rewrote our tours and developed programs to include subjects of interest to schools. Evaluation forms, sent following each tour, were used to further fine-tune our programming.

Next, a brochure specifically for school groups was developed. Now, it is sent along with every tour confirmation slip so that teachers can be aware of the range of programs offered at our museum. If a teacher has a special interest or project not covered by these established programs, his or her request is forwarded to the education curator, who either develops a program that will address these needs or refers the teacher to another museum or agency that can provide assistance.

Docent and staff needs are also considered when working with school groups. Since she is often the first person teachers come in contact with, the reservationist is an especially important part of creating a successful climate for school groups at our museum. This staff person meets biweekly with the education curator so that she has a comprehensive view of the museum’s programs and activities. The museum’s docents also meet regularly with staff to get updates on exhibit changes and programming. Docents provide staff with their thoughts and experiences when implementing the museum’s programs, and evaluate each tour they give, helping the education curator make any necessary adjustments.

One result of the increased communication among the museum staff and volunteers has been the inclusion of a letter defining the museum’s expectations of school groups with each confirmation packet. This very simple step has gone a long way in addressing a number of frustrating experiences. The letter discusses the need for chaperones, establishes expectations of appropriate behavior, and requests respect for the artifacts.

Through our experiences, we have found that the secret of good customer service is really simple. We can exceed both our visitors’ and our own expectations by developing a strong vision or mission statement, setting service standards, giving attention to detail and to visitor needs, and by maintaining a commitment to communication.

Elizabeth J. Nosek is the curator Of education at Lakewood’s Heritage Center …a Twentieth-Century Museum, in Lakewood, Colorado.

Nosek, Elizabeth J. “Be Our Guest,” The Docent Educator8.3 (Spring 1999): 18-19.

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