How a Well-Run Lab Visit Can Improve Business, Attract New Employees and Gain Community Respect
Using a bit of showmanship to exhibit your lab to current and potential customers, R&D partners, and employees; coworkers from other locations; the media; and the general public has many advantages. The key to successful showmanship is to stress your lab’s ability to solve problems. Current and future customers and potential codevelopment partners will be impressed by your capabilities and will be more likely to award your company business or to work with you on codevelopment projects. Potential employees will be more likely to accept the job offers you extend to them. The media will be more inclined to trust your lab employees, using them as sources for stories and giving your lab favorable publicity. If your lab is an academic laboratory, you will be more likely to attract undergraduate science students and science graduates to your institution.
The most effective strategies for showing off your lab depend on the people to whom you want to show it. However, all your visitors must see tidy laboratories with equipment in good condition. They must see appropriate safety equipment installed and staff members wearing their personal safety gear, particularly safety glasses. Lab visitors must also be issued the appropriate safety gear, especially safety glasses, when in your laboratories.
There should be a designated host for each laboratory your guests visit. Each host should prepare a list of points they want to make and the laboratory manager should approve these. Hosts should explain how equipment is used on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, hosts should remember that some of the guests may not be chemists. If this is the case, they should briefly explain the use of every piece of lab equipment they discuss. They also should define each technical term the first time they use it. When discussing a piece of research, they should explain what is interesting about it, and particularly what will be relevant to each set of visitors.
A schedule should be set for the laboratory tour, with times allotted for each lab to be showcased. Be generous in your time allotments as visitors’ questions can substantially lengthen a laboratory visit. If it can be done safely, have experiments or demonstrations running when the guests visit each laboratory.
Visitors – customers and prospective customers
When current and potential customers come to visit your laboratory, be sure your invitation includes decision makers who can steer business your way. Often these will not be researchers, but business managers or purchasing agents who may bring along plant operating personnel or researchers as consultants. Design the visitors’ schedule to show and persuade guests that your laboratory has developed outstanding products and processes relevant to their business. Finally, you should emphasize the high quality of your lab’s customer service and how your staff can help your visitors solve operating problems in their production facilities.
To meet these goals, your visitors’ lab tour should include plenty of time in labs devoted to developing products and processes in their areas of interest, plus customer service labs performing the types of work they may require later as customers of your company. It is also important to perform applicationstesting using equipment and procedures that demonstrate how your customers would use your product. The tour should also include analytical or quality assurance laboratories performing the analyses and tests required to ensure the products your firm offers will meet their specifications. Production plant quality assurance labs, while perhaps less elaborate or visually impressive than research center labs, should be a part of plant tours for the same reason.
When scheduling lab tours, allow plenty of time for discussions with staff members. Brief your staff members on which details can be discussed with the visitors and which should be kept confidential. Put away containers of chemicals being used on confidential projects so that they are out of view.
Allot time in the schedule for meetings to discuss current products, and ongoing and potential projects of interest to the customer. Also allow time for one or more presentations on the lab’s capabilities. These presentations should not include extensive discussions of organizational charts or your company’s history. Invite visitors to discuss their product and process development needs. After these presentations, allow ample time for discussion of how your laboratory could help your visitors meet their business growth and quality improvement needs.
Laboratory visits can be the seed for joint development programs of new products that can help your own and your visitors’ companies grow. Lab visits can help dissolve an “us versus them” attitude—on your staff members’ and the customer’s part.
On-site employment interviews
The final stage of screening many job candidates is to invite them for an all-day series of interviews. Your assessment of the candidate is the final determinant of whether or not the person gets a job offer. However, don’t forget the candidate is evaluating you and your laboratory as well. Candidates are concerned with having four primary questions answered:
- Will the work be interesting and challenging?
- Will you, the lab manager, be a pleasant person to work for?
- Will the other laboratory staff members be congenial coworkers?
- Will the laboratory be a physically pleasant place to work, and provide the equipment and instrumentation needed to get the job done?
Enabling the job candidate to answer these questions, particularly the last one, will mean putting your lab on display. Customarily, a candidate’s interview day includes a series of discussions with laboratory staff members who will be his/her coworkers. This day also includes a tour of the laboratory to permit the candidate to see what could be his/her future workplace. Of course, you want your facility to be clean and tidy for this tour. Your staff members should always work in a safety-conscious manner using the appropriate protective equipment, such as safety glasses and laboratory gloves. Mid-career job hunters will be particularly likely to notice lapses in safety protocols.
Hosting visits from students and faculty members from local universities, colleges and high schools can be a great way to get good publicity for your lab. Invite local newspaper reporters to tag along during the visit. You may wish to set up demonstrations of how your products work and how they help customers. Invite local newspaper reporters to join the tour. You may even wish to invite local TV news reporters and camera crews. Be careful, however, as cameras may be intrusive and make it look as if you’re trying to exploit your visitors.
Lab visits can lead your visitors to develop good feelings about your staff members and the facilities in which they work. They may be more likely to later consider your laboratory as a future employer.
Non-visitation ways to show off your laboratory
Laboratory managers have several other strategies they can use to show off their laboratory’s capabilities and accomplishments to current and prospective customers and other visitors. These include:
- Developing a section of your company’s website that describes your laboratory, its capabilities and recent accomplishments. This may include video tours of some of your lab’s facilities and demonstrations illustrating how your customers might use your products and processes in their own facilities.
- Preparing hardcopy bulletins describing your laboratory and its recent accomplishments. Sales personnel may provide these to customers during their customer calls and distribute them at trade shows.
- Presenting papers on your lab’s recent accomplishments at conferences, particularly trade conferences, for industries to which you currently sell your products.
- Using online social media and online newsletters to communicate with current and potential customers. For example, a lab manager may develop a Facebook page for your laboratory; this could be an excellent activity for staff members who are highly interested in online technology. However, you may need to supervise them to be sure they don’t become overly enthusiastic and devote an excessive amount of time to the project.
All these examples involve communications with individuals outside your laboratory and your company. Consequently, data and information security can become an issue. Your staff members should be thoroughly coached to avoid inadvertent disclosure of confidential information. Should your laboratory staff members begin working with nonemployees on joint projects, you and your counterpart at the other company may need to work with intellectual property attorneys to prepare confidentiality agreements for the appropriate personnel in both firms to sign.
These strategies can also be useful for contract research firms and independent analytical service labs. They also provide opportunities to get lab staff involved in marketing your laboratory. However, you should brief your staff members on what information should remain confidential—particularly if your firm doesn’t have signed confidentiality agreements with the organizations your staff members are talking to.
Diagnostic and other laboratories, particularly those in the pharmaceutical and food manufacturing industries, have to be prepared for inspections by regulatory authorities such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ensure your laboratory’s compliance with Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs). The Laboratory Safety Institute (www.labsafetyinstitute.org) and other organizations have developed checklists that laboratory managers can use to prepare for these inspections.
Since some regulatory agencies may conduct unannounced inspections, it is best to keep your lab prepared at all times. To assist with inspections, make sure your staff members are familiar with the inspection process and what the inspector is looking for. Have the necessary procedure manuals, personnel folders, quality assurance documents, etc., organized and ready for examination. Appointing one person to answer the inspector’s questions and to collect any requested information can expedite the inspection.
When inspectors arrive, provide a clean, quiet, well-lit work area. It is usually best for this to be an unused conference room or office. Bring all the needed documents to this room when the inspector arrives. Also make yourself and any other staff members available as necessary. Occasionally check on his/her progress; however, don’t hover around the inspector when he/she is trying to work.
Treat inspectors as though they are guests in your home, i.e., with courtesy and respect, not as an uninvited annoyance. Be courteous in greeting the inspector. If you are not the overall lab director, you may wish to introduce him/her to that person. Show the inspector to the room you have prepared. Offer him/her a beverage and then leave the inspector to his/her work.
Outside of the lab
Don’t forget about the areas outside of the lab. Make sure the grounds are clean and tidy. Repair any building deterioration—inside or outside. Have windows cleaned on both sides. You don’t want visitors inside your buildings looking out through dirty windows. Should your visitors arrive in the winter when there is snow on the ground, be sure walkways are shoveled and treated with rock salt or gravel to facilitate sure footing.
It’s not just industrial labs that should be prepared for visitors. Academic laboratories should be prepared for visits from prospective students. Well-organized visits can persuade prospective students that your department may be the best place for them to continue their education, whether they will be pursuing a graduate or undergraduate degree. Many science and education departments schedule periodic tours. The basics of these tours should be the same as with industrial labs. Tours should also include teaching and research labs. While visitors should have time to visit with faculty members, the best tour guides are their future peers: undergraduates for undergraduate tour groups and graduate students for prospective graduate students.
Well-organized laboratory visits can help your company expand sales, recruit new employees and persuade people that your laboratory is a community asset. So it’s worth spending time and effort to organize them.