Managing the Crowd: Working the Front Desk of a Repair Café
Every community repair program operates with some differences based on the needs and behaviors of their respective community. The advice provided here has been successful but should always be considered in the context of your individual program.
Before the doors open, guests are loitering in the hall, on the sidewalk, in their cars. They rush to the front of the line, jostling to get their project registered first. After all, no one likes to wait.
The initial line of guests can be a surprise to some volunteers. Their first reaction might be worry or concern that there are too many people waiting too long. They are embarrassed. Does it reflect poorly on the program?
Don't worry. Repair Café is optional. It's free. It's fun. People can wait a little.
At Repair Café North Carolina, we usually begin setting up an hour before we open our doors. We arrange the room, coaches set up their workspaces, and there is time for fellowship. The coaches and other volunteers don't get a lot of time to socialize during the workshop so let them have this time . This is also the organizer's chance to make some opening remarks to the team, introduce and orient new volunteers, review safety guidelines, or other special announcements that day. Waiting guests may be lining up but stay focused on your own preparations -- the guests know what time the event starts.
If a pre-registration process was used, some guests may have been advised to arrive at different times to spread the workload through the day. But those times may not have been convenient for them so they arrive unexpectedly. A large number of walk-ins who arriving at the same time may also create a surge. It isn't fair to pressure the coaches to work faster, so take a breath and handle everyone first-come-first-served.
Front Desk / ReceptionThe first task for a guest upon arrival is to register. Most community repair workshops will have a simple waiver form which address liability concerns. From this point, there are many different approaches to handling the waiting area and coach assignment.
(Note: The registration form is a perfect time to capture email addresses to help grow your mailing list for future promotion. You may also capture city of residence to help understand the reach of your program and places to hold future events.)
At RCNC we use the same form to capture details of the item and its condition. Front desk volunteers then record the arrival time and a guest number (sequential, starting at 1) and keep the registration form which now serves as their project's ticket. Guests are asked to wait in a waiting area while their ticket is lined up with others and managed by front-end staff to track pending and in-progress projects.
In other programs, coaches are grouped together by area (furniture, electrical, clothing, knife sharpening, etc.) and guests wait in line at each respective area after registration. Some programs issue paper tickets after registration. The ticket, good for one repair, is carried by the guest and redeemed at the service area that matches their project.
There is always one guest who tries to jump the line and bring their project directly to an open coach. Sometimes an enthusiastic coach will take it on themselves to pluck a person from the waiting area without considering their order of arrival. It may be useful to describe the project assignment process to the coaches in remarks to the group before the workshop begins. After the workshop begins, it is almost impossible to get everyone's attention for any announcements that don't begin with "Fire!"
While They Wait
However you organize the process of assigning guests, there will often be some number waiting. There are several things to do with these folks while they wait.
• Setup chairs for people who are waiting. Arrange the chairs away from the coaches so that you can still manage the flow of projects onto the coaches' tables.
• If your event is hosted in a retail location or library, capture the mobile phone numbers of guests and encourage them to browse or shop while they wait. When their turn comes you can easily call them back. The added shopping activity may also please your host.
• A hospitality table featuring snacks and drinks is a nice feature to offer for volunteers and guests. A cup of sweet tea or a donut helps keep people smiling.
• A display of photos from past events, brochures from municipal agencies, or magazines and books about repair may be diverting and informative for waiting guests.
• Talk to them. Periodically welcoming these guests with a few remarks setting the tone for their visit. This can help insure everyone's expectations are set appropriately. Something like: Welcome to Repair Café. We will introduce you to one of our repair coaches as soon as we can. At Repair Café, we want you to be involved in the repair of your item, so please be prepared to work with your coach. All of us here today are volunteers. We don't have special training. Please understand that we might make the problem worse. We rely on donations to fund our program.
If wait times approach an hour, front desk staff can advise new arrivals of the potential wait -- just like the front desk of a food café. If people are willing to wait an hour for a table at Outback Steakhouse, they can wait an hour to fix their lamp for free.
RCNC takes an active approach to matching guests and coaches. Our workshops have historically featured 12 to 15 coaches, most of whom we know well from previous workshops. As a result, we try to bring projects to each coach which match their skills and offer a challenge which they are comfortable trying. A coach will be demotivated if asked to repeatedly work on unfamiliar (and unsuccessful) repairs.
The front-end volunteer who matches guests and coaches can perform an initial assessment of the item at or near the registration table. A brief conversation beginning with "Welcome to Repair Café. What did you bring us today?" can quickly identify the type of repair needed and special tools required. It also begins the conversation about the softer side of the project -- What is the significance of the item? Where did it come from? Why is it important?
As coaches become available, walk the guest over to the coach. Introduce them by name. "Bob, this is Jim. He brought in his grandmother's table lamp."
This approach is both "high touch" (requiring a couple minutes interaction for each placement) and requires broad knowledge of the coaches and the possible skills needed for any repair. It is difficult to start the day with this much interaction while a dozen or more coaches are idle, so adjust the approach as needed through the day.
Forecasting Volume and Managing Time
Determining the right number of volunteers and guests can be difficult at first. In general, we have found that an average repair takes between 40 and 60 minutes. Therefore, 10 coaches over 4 hours can reasonably handle 40-50 projects.
Having a front-end manager perform a cursory review of the project is the best way to avoid projects which may become time sucks. This also allows us to intercept inappropriate projects. Items which are prohibited for safety reasons, excessively dirty, or out-of-scope for the workshop, should be identified and gently turned away before landing on a coach's table. We want to avoid someone waiting an hour only to be quickly told we cannot repair their item.
Our goal is not to repair at all costs and sometimes a project may grow unexpectedly difficult and exceed what we can reasonably do in a pop-up workshop. (Coaches seldom turn away a project for its complexity -- in many cases they find it a welcome challenge.) Be mindful of projects that run on too long -- a coach may need assistance, a second opinion, or simply permission to say "I'm sorry, we can't complete this repair [for some reason]."
It may also be useful to reduce a project into a sub-project. If a guest brings in four dining room chairs with wobbly legs, work with them to fix one chair and send them home to complete the project themselves. A necklace with a dozen detached cabochons becomes one cabochon installation with an explanation of E-6000 or GS Hypo Cement. The jewelry repair area in particular is known for guests pulling additional items from pockets and bags like rabbits from a magician's hat.
Checkout and the Donation Jar
As a guest leaves, capture the final disposition of the repair and give them a chance to leave written remarks on their form. Share the positive remarks with the coaches afterwards.
Place a conspicuous donation jar or box at the checkout. We don't do this for the money but we also can't do this without the money. And guests want to show their appreciation. Making the donation jar conspicuous is also helpful.
Most of all, keep the registration desk and waiting area relaxed and easy going. Generally guests understand and appreciate the service being offered and the challenge of organizing it all. There will occasionally be someone who leaves in a huff or expresses their impatience out-loud. Don't take it personally. For each unsatisfied person, there are dozens who think what we do is amazing and it is their gratitude that helps keep us going.