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The simple secret to hiring a great receptionist

Hire a receptionist and hire the manager of first and lasting impressions. The receptionist position is a marketing position. Before callers ever talk to an attorney, they form an opinion of the firm through their contact with the front desk.

Yet most firms view the position as one that doesn’t need a lot of intellectual skills and hire a receptionist without looking for the people skills, clerical skills and the professional attitude necessary for the job.

Here are the areas the administrator needs to evaluate in interviewing receptionist candidates.

A permanent profession

The first element to look for is permanence. Look for an applicant who wants to be a receptionist and specialize in that position.

Don’t ask for turnover by advertising the job as an introductory position or as a rung on the ladder to real law firm work.

Many firms do that to hire a legal-secretary-in-the-making. Yet the qualities and skills needed in a secretary aren’t what the firm needs in its receptionist. A secretary needs technical skills and the ability to deal with details. A receptionist needs to be a communicator.

The mirror of the firm’s image

Next look at the candidate’s representation of self. The appearance and dress should be consistent with the firm’s image. An applicant who is dressed appropriately shows he or she has taken time to research the firm and its culture.

Making the effort to dress appropriately is also a sign of someone who is concerned about making a good impression, which the office needs in a receptionist. And for that reason, it is preferable for an applicant to be overdressed for the interview rather than underdressed.

Part of the overall impression is speech. Does the person use good grammar? Is the diction consistent with the firm’s culture? Is the voice tone what people want to hear on the phone?

Another speech point to watch is whether the candidate calls the interviewer by first name without permission to do so. Unless the firm’s image is super casual, no caller wants to be called by the first name without first inviting that informality.

Watch people skills

Next look for the people skills because the job is two-fold – to make a good impression and to handle the traffic. Both are people-oriented tasks.

First, find out if the applicant has a good memory for names and voices. And the way to do that is to ask this question:

“Tell me about a situation where you were in a group and you met someone you had met before but whose name you could not remember. What did you do?”

If the response is “that doesn’t happen often, because once I’m introduced to someone, I remember the name,” the applicant gets a big approval rating. Equally appropriate is a response that describes a tactful approach to getting the name or some tactic such as keeping a notebook to track names.

But someone who doesn’t illustrate either the memory or the tactful method is not suited for the job.

Second, look for clues that the applicant has confidence in dealing with people.

Don’t hire someone who is nervous or who can’t stay still or fidgets during the interview. A confident person is someone who stays calm and makes the atmosphere relaxing.

Third is enjoyment in working with people, and to find out if a candidate has that trait, ask:

What did you like best about your last job?

A suitable answer is “I really enjoyed the people” or “I liked being a member of the team.” Beware the applicant who says the best part was being left alone to do research or that “there was a lot of independence in the position.” Finally, the receptionist must have the ability to make people more comfortable. So it is important to introduce the applicant to the other staff and watch the interaction.

What the firm needs is someone who is warm without being effusive or who can turn the reception room into a welcoming living room.

Willing to learn the job

Look too for the applicant’s ability to do the actual work of the job. Here are three points to evaluate:

One is an interest in the firm, the lawyers and the clients. Ask, “What do you know about our firm?”

An applicant who has taken the time to research the firm’s website, search engine hits, and specialty area, or who has called in advance, is someone who will learn the firm’s operations and how to handle calls. Compare that response to answer of “I know you’re hiring.”

The second point is to watch for the ability to do many different tasks at one time. Ask this:

Suppose you had three calls coming in, three calls on hold, a courier waiting to drop something off, and an angry client standing over the desk. How would you handle that situation?

The applicant should be able to prioritize the demands and recognize that the irate client has to be dealt with first. A good response would be, “I would ask the courier to wait and then I would bring in someone else to deal with the client while I talked with the people on the telephone.”

Look for negative mannerisms when the applicant discusses the scenario. Someone who starts talking faster and louder is someone who can’t handle stressful situations.

The third element of work ability is willingness to learn new technology because the telephone is one of the biggest computer systems in the office.

That doesn’t mean the applicant has to be high tech, but it does mean the job requires a can-do attitude toward technology.

Ask technology-related questions specific to the job such as what types of equipment the individual is familiar with. Or, if there is no experience, there should at least be interest.

Attitude plus integrity

Finally look for evidence of a positive attitude and a strong integrity.

A receptionist has to react positively in emotional situations such as when a lawyer is stressed out and yelling or when a client is complaining. Ask this question:

“Have you ever had an employer yell at you? If so what did you do?”

Look for an answer that the applicant didn’t put up with the behavior yet managed to be positive, perhaps “I told him that was an inappropriate way to talk and that I would be glad to talk with him when he calmed down and wanted to talk appropriately.”

As to integrity, that element is essential, because to a great extent, clients gauge the firm’s integrity by the receptionist’s integrity.

Ask this: “If the lawyer is in the office and asks you to tell a caller that he or she is out, what would you tell that caller?”

Look for someone who will not lie. A good response, for example, is “I wouldn’t say the attorney is out; I would say the attorney is unavailable.”

Clients sitting in the reception area don’t need to hear the receptionist lie. That tells them to expect the same when they call.

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