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Customer Training for Volunteers

At some time in our lives We’ve all been customers, and have had a positive or negative customer service experience. In our culture, the customer is always right . . . right? In the museum culture, especially in a science center, the customer may not be right, especially in areas of science content, but the customer is always the customer. So, where does the customer fit into museum training? At the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, volunteers begin their training not with an introduction to life, earth, or space science, but with the science of positive and effective communication. Feeling confident and comfortable sharing our institution and its philosophy is our first obligation.

By emphasizing the science of communication first, all volunteers learn to be comfortable responding to a visitor’s requests from the simple “where’ s the bathroom” to the difficult “I want my money back.” All volunteers take this training, even those who work behind the scenes, because we believe everyone affiliated with OMSI should be exposed to the basic foundation provided in our Communication Skills workshop.

Our Communication Skills Training teaches about such elements as nonverbal communication, active listening skills, and conflict management. A slide show called “What’s Wrong with this Picture” challenges volunteers to problem-solve situations the slides depict. Routes toward resolving the complaints of unhappy customers, such as comment cards and refund policies, are also reviewed.

Next, our training focuses on communication challenges, such as foreign languages or sensitive topics. This section is introduced by a person speaking Tongan. It’s fascinating to watch people as they realize that the class has begun, but they cannot understand a single word being spoken. They are forced to become observant, watching facial expressions and body language to understand. This approach reinforces many of the non-verbal cues discussed previously. When it is time to debrief, most everyone is actively engaged in figuring out what the speaker said, and a few actually do figure it out and even try to respond.

During the debriefing, volunteers describe how they felt. Generally, it takes only a short time before someone says she felt on the outside. This leads to a discussion of how easily people can enter our institution and feel left out.

We believe that everyone connected with OMSI must feel responsible for making the museum accessible, so we talk about ways to enfranchise people. We discuss cultural diversity and sensitivity issues, and give everyone the experience of being a member of a disabled population through activities designed to simulate experiencing our institution with a physical challenge. Discussions and handouts about communication etiquette round out this session.

Since our science center has several exhibits and concepts that could be considered controversial, we role play opposing sides of issues in our Life Science HaU. This activity helps illustrate how easily one can be drawn into an argument — something we do not want volunteers to engage in with visitors.

Training then focuses on children. OMSI follows the same guidelines as most schools regarding the issue of touching children. Procedures for assisting lost children, intervening in confrontational situations, and awareness of gender communication (in other words taking the “he” out of science) are examined. We also discuss sexual harassment.

By this time, volunteers have a comprehensive background in ways to communicate with the public. This concludes this aspect of training for everyone except the Exhibit Explorers, who are responsible for presenting Role play demonstrates how easily a volunteer can be drawn into an argument with a visitor. science on the museum floor. Our training on “Informal Learning” introduces the concept of learner-driven education. This is when such educational topics as open-ended questioning are explored.

At OMSI, we share Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer’s philosophy, that “no one fails a science museum.” Through the principles inherent in our mission, the design of our facility and exhibitions, and our emphasis on positive and effective communication, volunteers and staff can feel confident that we make customer satisfaction a top priority.

Marcia Hale serves as Manager, Volunteer Services for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in Portland, OR. Prior to entering the museum profession, Ms. Hale, who earned her degree in Communications, enjoyed a career in radio and television production.

Hale, Marcia. “Customer Training for Volunteers,” The Docent Educator 3.3 (Spring 1994): 7.

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