Te Papa : Treating Staff Like Children

Te Papa management revels in management-speak
by Gordon Campbell

Down the years, Te Papa has often been criticised for its sins against architecture. At the very outset, the national museum threw away a golden chance to get superstar architect Frank Gehry involved in its design. Ian Athfield recounted that sorry tale in an interview with Werewolf a couple of years ago.

Since then, Te Papa has been criticised repeatedly for dumbing down its content, and for presenting the national treasures in a fashion suitable only for the most undemanding of children. Now, Te Papa has gone a step further : it seems to want to infantilise its staff. A recent staff communique is worthy of its own exhibit at the museum, as a classic of management-speak. From a distance, the document is amusing – not that any management regime capable of creating such a document would be likely to think so.

For starters, you may be astonished to learn that since everyone who visits Te Papa is a unique individual, our experiences of it may vary. Who would have thought ? As the communique puts it :

The typical Te Papa visit incorporates such a diverse range of components that it is sometimes more useful to see the whole experience as a psychological bundle of value satisfactions. Visitor experiences currently vary because these touchpoints function independently and [are] measured independently of one another rather than as a cohesive culture.

And what is the ‘experience’ that the managers of Te Papa aim to promote ? It is no simple thing. That’s because:

With products becoming differentiated, price differentiation no longer sustainable and customers demanding more, companies are focussing on delivering superior customer experiences….The Total Visitor Experience [bolding in original] concept is a strategy that focusses the operations and processes of a business around the needs of the individual customer.. Jeannine Ray says that companies are realizing that “ building great visitor experiences is a complex enterprise involving strategy, integration of technology, orchestrating business models, brand management and top-down commitment.”

But isn’t this what in a bygone age, used to be called Customer Service? No, not at all. There is a vital difference, the staff communique insists. Customer Service is merely the “ transaction” part of a Total Visitor Experience which is much, much more ! As in :

When we talk about the total experience, that experience could start back when a customer came onto contact with a marketing initiative, a newspaper or magazine ad….a visit to a website, or a recommendation from a friend and goes all the way through to after sales service, and in many cases, the life of the museum.

In other words, your Te Papa Total Visitor Experience began back in the mists of the time and will last “in many cases” for the entire life of the museum. At which end point, our Te Papa Total Visitor Experience will still be resonating. It is so important to grasp this point that the staff document puts the next sentence entirely in bold : Customer Service is the transaction, Customer Experience is the main event.” Wow.

At this point, the Te Papa work force comes into the picture – as the genesis, conduit and apres-match function of the Total Visitor Experience. It is also where the infantilising of the staff kicks in, big time. But be patient, children. First, there is a short 600 words or so on something called “ End to End Service” and no, that’s not what you may be thinking. It is about this :

Organisations are not commonly structured around end to end process thinking being burdened with historically diffused accountability and “ stove -piped” approach based on long- functional structures. End to end service processes like Total Visitor Experience travel across these functional boundaries. [Your guess is as good as mine as to where the punctuation should have gone in that paragraph.]

Right. Now, we get to the truly weird stuff, introduced via a suggested “Enterprise Employee of the Month Award” reward system. The eccentric capitalisation is in the original :

Informal Recognition Practice, Developing a Culture of Praise: all People Managers will endeavour to catch people in the act of doing something right in their daily working routines. Anything extraordinary should be recognised as such….Each month, the recipient will receive a gift…for example – a gift voucher, movie tickets, lunchtime-in-lieu, a certificate and inclusion on the Enterprise Wall of Fame.

Lunchtime-in-lieu being presumably….instead of no lunch at all ? That sounds fair. Surely, losers can’t get lunch when winners are getting lunchtime-in-lieu – because where would be the incentive in that? Prospective winners can bone up on an entire page on Crucial Customer-Facing Behaviours and the optimal degree of conformity for “Customer-Facing People.” Thus :

Customers don’t know what they don’t know, and they make incorrect assumptions about what they need or how something works. They also don’t want to be feel stupid and will be likely to be offended if your customer-facing people make a big deal about their incorrect assumptions.”

People don’t like being made to feel stupid. We get that. When in doubt, SMILE – as staff are directed to do, under the heading : 5 Reasons You Should Smile, starting with :

1. You will get a boost of happiness. Try forcing yourself to smile for thirty seconds right now. The great feelings that make you smile work in reverse, too. By making yourself smile, no matter how how you feel, your body will start to release all those wonderful chemicals that makes [sic) you feel happy. Try it right now and feel the difference…

2. .A positive state is not just more fun, [it] also opens up to other possibilities in your mind. You will see the world differently through a happier lens….

If it doesn’t sound creepy enough to be treating grown adults in your employ as if they were kindergarten children, hold onto your hats. Because the Te Papa management goes on to instruct its staff in this fashion :

What do you say when people visit your house ? How do invite them inside? Do you tell them where the bathroom is ? Or where they can find a drink or bite to eat ? Do you help them hang their coat – or simply point to a hook and say its over there? When they leave what do you say ? Why should this be any different inside Te Papa? Lets say your customer walks into the museum, for the first time. Do you remind them of a shark pursuing its prey ? …

Customers will respond better if you learn a few things about them – their name, though not always possible, is a great start…[If you can] create a human connection before moving on to business.. Compliment their clothes, compliment anything. Ask about the sports team whose logo they boast – particularly popular with our friends from across the ditch. Even a comment about the weather will help move you out of the ranks of the greedy salesperson, and make you more of a person.

Given that Te Papa’s way of presenting its contents has often been criticised as Disneyfied, it is ironic to find that the staff communique devotes a two page inspirational spread to “The Magic of Disney’s Service” and “8 Disney Customer Service Rules” and “Contagious Business Philosophy.” ( Question : Are there any V.I.P‘s at Disneyland? Answer: Yes, Everyone is a V.I.P. ) Te Papa is aware that this is dangerous territory, but what the heck : “While at times Te Papa has been negatively compared to the world’s best fun park, is this really such a bad thing?” Finally, and consistent with how the document has been treating staff as children, there are a couple of astonishing final segments. Hard to pick which is the more objectionable : the section where staff are advised to “Act Stupid” to Te Papa visitors in order to “ subvert a lot of problems that come from absolute mastery.” Or this, perhaps, which advises the staff at Te Papa to consciously regress to kindergarten level :

We are all familiar with the familiar saying : All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten. Now that we are all grown up, do these rules still apply…? Share everything. Play fair. Be nice. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry if you hurt somebody. If you ask for something say Please…Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then laid down with our blankies for a day ! Wouldn’t it be great if all organisations had a basic policy to always put things back where they found them, and to clean up their own mess? And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

Wow. To think that some Te Papa managers are probably being paid north of $80,000 a year each – basically, in order to advise the Te Papa workers about how great it would be if they could lie down with their blankies and drink their milk at 3pm each day! Lets hold hands and hope that the cost of this bizarre exercise has NOT been at the expense of the national museum’s research role and scientific efforts. Unfortunately, Te Papa’s contents are an incoherent shambles. And clearly, the Te Papa management apply the same patronising, infantilising attitudes to its staff as they do to the displays. Our national museum really is a national disgrace.


1 Comment on Te Papa : Treating Staff Like Children

  1. I know this was written like two years ago but come on – Te Papa’s document was clearly an instructional aid written with the aim of introducing the basics of visitor interaction to a person who knows nothing about it. It was written in a basic, clear way that emphasizes the need to be relaxed, informal and friendly, and relates this to somewhat universal childhood experiences. Many of Te Papa’s front-of-house staff either aren’t native English speakers, or they haven’t done any formal visitor interaction before, so this type of document addresses the needs of the most basic reader/user. The question of Te Papa’s ‘Disney-fication’ isn’t really a question at all. Yes, the public face of Te Papa isn’t necessarily the scientific or research-driven focus that typified museums in the 20th century, but it’s ethos of ‘edu-tainment’ has created a generation of interested and engaged young museum-goers – and not at the expense of academic standing. Similarly, Te Papa’s offering is incredibly appealing to international and national tourists, which not only generates a wealth of income for the local/national economy, but also helps to spread knowledge of New Zealand culture globally. Again yes, sporadic funding (and resulting sporadic redevelopment) has meant that Te Papa’s exhibitions lack cohesiveness, but they are still individually effective, evidenced by the strong positive responses emerging from Te Papa’s intensive visitor research programs. Lastly, I don’t think it’s really fair to criticize the ‘Total Visitor Experience’ as a silly example of management-speak, as the value of pre- and post-visit experience has been shown throughout museological academia, and current theory clearly explains that the museum visit isn’t a discrete experience, but rather has the potential to inform and affect an individual’s perspective, life-view, and knowledge long into the future. I’d suggest reading up a bit on current best practice in visitor research, which Te Papa follows quite effectively.

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