By Jennifer Jenkins
WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology in Bloomington, Indiana, strives to be not just a destination, but also a valuable community asset. Open since 2003 in its current downtown location, WonderLab is a small museum—7,600 square feet (700 square meters) of gallery space—with fewer than 15 full-time staff but more than 1,000 volunteers. Located in a small college town in mainly rural southern Indiana, WonderLab welcomed more than 85,000 visitors in 2012 and has 1,680 member families. We are fortunate to serve a core group of visitors who support the museum and our mission to create experiences that share the wonder and excitement of science with the public.
To ensure that WonderLab continues to be highly valued by the community, we work to keep each visitor engaged and invested in the museum. Meeting this challenge can be achieved by offering visitors individualized interactions with staff and volunteers. Consistently stellar visitor service can be the calling card for smaller museums such as WonderLab.
Achieving excellent visitor service
At WonderLab, we provide visitor service training based on tenets such as honesty, anticipation of needs, and sincere personal interactions. Our goal is to have staff and volunteers share these values with every museum visitor, and in so doing make visitors feel that their experience at our museum is exceptional.
We train staff and volunteers to:
• Anticipate needs. Observant staff and volunteers can anticipate visitors’ needs and provide proactive assistance. Simple gestures such as holding the door for a parent with a stroller, offering a funny distraction to help a parent soothe an upset child, or finding a seat for an elderly visitor are all ways we personalize attention.
• Use their own style. Everyone differs in his or her approach to resolving issues and interacting with the public, and we encourage staff and volunteers to play to their strengths to meet the challenges of daily museum life. Although staff is expected to excel in all interactions, we promote a more individual approach for volunteers. Some volunteers relate best to children, so their approach is based on meeting a child’s needs, while others prefer to interact primarily with adults. Some feel most comfortable with their knowledge of our science exhibits, so they base interactions on providing information and learning opportunities.
• Focus on the individual. We encourage staff to get to know and remember individual visitors. For example, members appreciate staff remembering their names so they don’t have to find their membership cards at check-in. We also like staff to remember the interests of members’ children so they can make suggestions for camps, programs, and activities. We support this individual focus by creating a consistent schedule for a core group of staff and volunteers, so that staff, volunteers, and regular visitors come to know each other. The familiarity between these groups makes personalizing service more efficient and genuine.
• Engage visitors. By starting conversations with visitors based on personal experiences, staff can begin to find common ground. We encourage staff and volunteers to engage visitors about the activities they are doing in the museum, as well as to ask what science concepts and exhibits they enjoy or would like to see in the museum in the future.
In both staff and volunteer training, we present concrete examples to illustrate how to interact with visitors, using role-playing, conversational icebreakers, and science knowledge. New staff members receive one-on-one training from seasoned staff who can impart both their experience and their passion for their job. Volunteers receive group training that creates a sense of teamwork and the knowledge that they can rely on other volunteers and staff to make the museum experience fun and exciting for all visitors. We keep staff and volunteers apprised of new and revised procedures through email, printed materials, and subsequent training, as needed.
The value of personalizing visitor service
Excellent visitor service benefits the museum in many ways. The value of personalizing visitor interactions is reflected immediately through higher attendance, membership sales, and retail sales. The impact broadens as we develop relationships within the community to recruit board members, attract donors and program partners, and generate fundraising opportunities. By reaping the benefits of dedicated and invested community partners, the museum can grow, create new exhibits, and offer innovative programs.
At WonderLab, personalized visitor service is also an invaluable tool in museum security. By paying attention to every visitor’s arrival at the museum and experience in the gallery, staff and volunteers stay aware of potentially unsafe situations.
Personalizing visitor experiences is an area where small museums can excel. Having a small, dedicated staff allows us to create well-developed relationships with repeat visitors. It also allows each staff person to be more broadly knowledgeable about museum operations, which enables staff at all levels to resolve issues and educate visitors. A small, loyal staff working together as a team creates an atmosphere that puts visitors first, because all staff members work with the same goals in mind.
At WonderLab, we frequently re-evaluate our organizational goals and procedures for training staff so that we can grow and change with the community. Visitors’ needs also change over time as children age and families grow. A museum that focuses its resources on the needs of the individual visitor can continue to be a highly valued community asset for years to come.
Jennifer Jenkins is visitor services manager at WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology in Bloomington, Indiana.
About the image: At WonderLab, staff training is based on tenets such as anticipation of needs and sincere personal interaction. Photo by Sarah Silcox, WonderLab Museum.