Housing & Residence Life

Rethinking Customer Service: The Power Behind “Hello!”

This post was co-authored by Valerie Bruce.

It can make my day. I’ve entered my favourite coffee shop and before I have the chance to speak, the barista at the cashier points and asks, “double americano?”

“Oh my gosh. I’ve finally done it. They know my drink!” A small win. Something I’ll think about bragging to my friends, before realizing they won’t care. Either the shop really appreciates my business or I must come here way too often. But it still affects me. This interaction is beyond customer service. I feel a connection with the barista on a personal level. It’s like they know something about me and aren’t afraid to share that with me.

This is the goal of the Residence Service Desks (RSD) at Ryerson. We’re striving for interactions that are beyond customer service. Moments and conversations that let residents know they have a relationship with the desk agents.

The facts: the Residence Services Desks are located at the entrance point of two of our three residences at Ryerson—Pitman Hall and the International Living Learning Centre (ILLC). To ensure safety for all occupants, residents and their guests must check-in with our front desk before making their way upstairs. On top of access control, the desk serves as a place for residents to pick up mail, report any cleaning or maintenance issues, and seek general information about Housing, campus, and all of Toronto.

But on top of the administrative support the desk offers, student staff who work as residence service desk agents are encouraged to build meaningful connections with residents. We’re continually building an environment where stopping to talk to the desk staff instead of heading straight to their room is a common occurrence for residence students. Staff will come to learn their programs, their hobbies, their stresses, and their wins. But it wasn’t always like this. Not more than 5 years ago, working as a Desk Service Agent was about watching movies and pushing a button. To residents, the desk agents were there as a security presence and nothing more. But with a little elbow grease and imagination, we have been able to shift the thinking and perception of the desk staff role and objectives to be an unconventional community builder.

There’s no question this evolution of the desk was a direct effect of the environment forced upon our operation. At it’s core, the reason we have a 24/7 staff is because of our location in downtown Toronto. The residences are located on the often forgotten East side of campus; the ILLC is Ryerson’s most eastern building. Because of location, precautionary measures are a must. Most Ontario residences allow students the ability to enter through multiple locations, usually only needing to scan an ID or use a “house key”. We have one monitored entrance to each residence where residents and their guests must pass through—and engage with our Desk Service Agents.

We’re bound by our need to have a staffed front desk, but instead of seeing this unique position as a sore point or nuisance, we’ve used it to offer more to our students and student staff. The first step was to enhance the physical space to create more meaningful interactions. It all started with a whiteboard. The moment of change came from the installation of a whiteboard at each desk that allowed staff to create personal messages for residents to see. Whether it was trivia, restaurant recommendations, exam tips, or events on campus, the whiteboards gave a chance for more conversation. Students starting stopping because their interest was peaked—they were seeing a personality at the desk instead of an authority figure.

The RSD crew, with inspiring thoughts on the whiteboard that started it all.

The next step was to change the expectations set upon the student staff working the desk. It was now to be a part of their job to try and connect with as many residents as possible, to become someone they feel comfortable talking to. Give them the same experience as the barista that knows your drink. It’s a lot to ask—there are over 850 students in residence—but we are continually amazed by the amount of connections these staff can make. If you walk down Gould Street with a desk agent they are continually bombarded by “Hey!” from resident students, current and past.

It took time for us to actually understand the impact these connections were having on the residents. For first year students, moving away from home for their first time to DOWNTOWN TORONTO is an extremely daunting experience. Any support we can offer them is going to ease this transition. But students don’t always seek help; we know that. What we’ve done is create another outlet of support, an informal one—and it works. The desk agents are upper year students, most of whom have been through the same residence experience as the students. The relationships they build are anchored on the idea of mentorship and guidance. Our desk agents are also the only residence student staff that live off campus; an invaluable addition to the knowledge shared with students by the live-in team. Residence is just as much about easing the transition from high school to University as it is about preparing for the transition of living with your parents to moving into the condos and apartments of downtown Toronto.

And the culture shift is still growing. This year marks a first for the desk agents as they’ve been planning and executing passive and active programs for the residence students. Voting info, a fall walk in the Don Valley, and gallery tours are part of several programs that come from the mindset of preparing residents for life outside of residence. We reached a point where the possibilities of connections and community building through the desk’s perspective are endless.

It’s been a transformative experience having worked with the RSD team for the past several years, and watching its growth and development over the course of that time shows that anything is possible if you find the right people, put the time and energy towards the project, and shift your mindset about what customer service means. There is so much that can be done to activate a community by starting with, and then expanding upon, the simple, “Hello!”