A reader sent me this link to a blog post by someone who thinks that every employee on a state university campus should be well trained in sales and hospitality services. With such training, when unexpectedly encountering a person who may or may not be the parent of a potential applicant to the university, state university employees can go into recruitment mode, using tried-and-true methods that any competent salesperson would know.
In fact, according to the blog post, everyone the blogger in question met on the campus of Iowa State University was polite and tried to help him in some way. They just didn't help him in exactly the way he wanted to be helped, using the specific language a real salesperson would use.
According to the blog post, here are some of the things that campus workers are supposed to do when encountering someone who might be the parent of a potential applicant to the university, including those people who are lying about being such a parent, like the blogger in question:
1. Say hi! Smile! You are an employee of a state university, and therefore part of your job is to recruit students. Oh sure, you can spend your time on teaching, research, or whatever else you think your job entails blah blah blah, but that's no substitute for a big smile and a hello. It's even better if your smile and greeting appear reasonably sincere, something best accomplished if you can somehow banish from your mind the phrase "helicopter parent".
2. After the friendly hello/smile, ask an open-ended question. Do not ask: Can I help you? or Can I help you find something? when you see an unknown adult who might be the parent of a potential applicant wandering around your campus building. Those are unfriendly questions that demonstrate your ignorance of sales techniques.
OMG, I am so glad to know this now. Sometimes when I am working in my office or walking the halls of my campus building, doing some task that fills the gaps in time between when I can go into sales/recruitment mode for my university, a person unknown to me will walk into my office or appear lost and confused in the hall, and I will say something like "Can I help you?" or "Are you looking for something (or someone)?" Out of total ignorance, I have definitely asked questions like that before. Of course, most of the time the person is looking for something specific, but apparently there is a huge huge difference between "Can I help you?" (an unfriendly yes/no question) and "What can I help you with today?" (a sales-friendly question that is more open-ended).
3. Engage these strangers in conversation. Ask them questions about themselves, their children, where they live, why they are here on campus. Never mind that you probably have 57 things that need doing right now. This is not about you. Knock down walls between you and them.
4. Thank the person you just met. I am so glad that I learned about this one because this, also, would not have occurred to me. Now I am revealed to myself and others as a selfish, self-absorbed lout. I would have expected that the person asking me for information and interrupting my day would thank me, but no, this is not about me me me.
5. Get the hypothetical parent's contact information. Once again, ask them for information about themselves. Do I really need to say this again? This is not about you or even, apparently, about your university.
At this point, I feel the need to make an abject confession about an example of a personal sales FAIL. A few years ago, a man and his son looked into my office, I asked if I could help them (FAIL!), and the man said that his son was interested in Science, so they were just looking around. I asked them if they had any questions (FAIL!), and they both had some. They were pretty good questions, and I spent a few minutes answering them. The father asked me about my research, so I told them a bit about that. I gave the kid a geeky little science gizmo thing that I had lying around my office in great abundance, and this seemed to thrill him. They thanked me for my time, the information, and the gift (FAIL for them!), and went away without my asking them for their names (FAIL!) or contact information (FAIL!).
Now, despite the great effort and perhaps physical pain this will cause me, I am going to attempt to make some sarcasm-free comments about the general issue of the role of university employees in interacting with non-academic citizens who wander onto campus for real or mendacious purposes. I shall address these comments to people who might share the views of the blogger who visited Iowa State, if there are any:
It is bizarre to expect that all campus employees should follow the same rules for sales that might be used by, say, a car salesman. We are not selling cars. Try not to be so judgmental and oversensitive. Give people a break if they don't conform to your strange ideas about exactly how they should be asking you if they can help you.
Employees at a state university work for you in the same indirect way that public school teachers or police officers or garbage collectors work for you and everyone in the community; all of us collectively benefit the community by doing our jobs, but you do not get to take up our time whenever and however you want, especially if you don't really understand the purpose of our jobs.
Example: Administrative assistants who sit at the front lines of department offices are extremely busy people. Part of their job is to help visitors who wander by the office, and there are an extraordinary number who do wander by. Not all of these visitors are polite or able to explain what they want.
If you do happen to drop by a department office with a question, you can expect a polite response, but you cannot expect that a lot of time and energy will suddenly be diverted to helping you. Administrative assistants can direct you to a source of information that will answer your question; it is bizarre to be offended if this source of information is a website, and no, you don't get to use a computer in a department office even if you are pretending to be the parent of a potential applicant.
Here's a thought exercise: Imagine that you wander into a department office, posing as the parent of a potential applicant to the university, and you walk up to the administrative assistant's desk. In the last half hour, this person has had their work interrupted by 3 or 8 other people stopping by with requests for information or to ask for help with tasks that need to be done right away. There have also been a few phone calls in between these visits, as well as e-mails that need immediate responses. In addition, an undergraduate student just stopped by to drop off his late homework at his professor's office or mailbox, but he doesn't know the name of the professor. The phone rings again. Then you walk in and mention that your son might be interested in applying to the university. When the administrative assistant doesn't respond in exactly the way that you want (with questions about your name and your life and your interests, and an offer to use a computer or talk to a professor), you decide to send your fictitious son to another university. Who is the unreasonable person in this scenario?
If you want to come to campus and walk around, you are most welcome. The campuses of state universities are public places, and there are many interesting things to see and do. You can even wander around department buildings, looking at hall displays or admiring the architecture. If you want to talk to someone, you can call or e-mail and make an appointment.
Learn about universities and how they work. They are amazing places. And think, what do you really want in a university: a campus filled with employees who greet you insincerely and ask you to talk about yourself, or a university that is busy with professors, staff, and students who are working hard at the jobs they are supposed to be doing?
5 months ago