Existing and potential customers are what commercial organisations exist for. Most organisations set high standards of customer service, and design spaces that customers will use in order to create the best possible experience - for their eyes. Unfortunately, customers' ears have been almost completely ignored, and the result is that the overwhelming majority of customer spaces have inappropriate soundscapes and are less effective than they should be as a consequence.
It all starts in the corporate reception area. When someone visits an organisation, whether they have come to sell or to buy, they transform from a relative neutral into an advocate or a critic. As someone who actually has direct, physical experience of the organisation they will pass their opinion on to others, who in turn will pass the opinion on to still more people, and so on. Every direct contact is a pebble dropped in the pool of reputation.
Receptions are there to receive visitors, by definition. They should also welcome people, offer useful communication and initiate a strong and positive relationship. It's sad that most of them fail to do any of this effectively. So many receptions just try to be impressive - to awe people rather than engage with them.
The main background elements in most corporate reception soundscapes are inappropriate acoustics (at worst those of a cathedral) and air handling equipment. In terms of foreground sound, the clear winner in the UK is one of the world's most effective cuckoo brands: BSkyB. Another all-too popular foreground sound is inappropriate music, often chosen by the receptionist.
There are so many opportunities for positive sound in receptions. Pleasing ambience would be a good start, maybe using generative natural sound or appropriate musical elements (in accordance with BrandSoundTM guidelines of course) on top of decent acoustics and quietened air handling kit.
Once through the reception area, we often enter the lift to reach the offices. The growing fashion to install news services with sound in lifts should be resisted: these are places where people have their last chance to prepare for important meetings, to reflect on actions arising, and to talk with colleagues. Distractions in this space are unnecessary and unproductive. Lift lobbies are usually silent but need not be. Why are lobbies and corridors silent everywhere when there is so much potential for setting mood and tone with sound?
We might also need to visit lavatories during our visit. The most common sound in most toilets is that of noisy extractor fans or air handling equipment, along with hand dryers that seem to output more noise than air. Replacing this unpleasant soundscape with intentional and appropriate masking sound is probably a polite and helpful move anywhere in the world, regardless of toilet etiquette. The masking sound could be musical (subject to BrandSoundTM guidelines) but the most obviously appropriate sound is running water, which most people find soothing and which is entirely in context in a bathroom.
Improving the sound setting in these areas proves to have an amazing impact on overall brand experience. An effective illustration of this is BP.
BP's customer research established that satisfaction with its service stations was low - mainly due to the toilets. The solution was to come up with a radical redesign of the whole toilet experience called Five Star Bathrooms, using nature-based visuals and sound, and kept spotlessly clean.
Ogilvy coordinated the project and engaged The Sound Agency to create the sound. To complement the visuals of sunflowers, fields and tress, we installed a soundscape of forest ambience and birdsong. As a result - people now come out of these toilets smiling, and customer satisfaction has risen by an incredible 50%. You can hear a sample of the BP soundscape by going to their website.
Let's look what happens in the meeting rooms. Very few meeting rooms are fit for purpose when properly listened to. The prime sound requirements for any meeting space are a high signal to noise ratio (in particular good insulation from people and any other noise sources nearby), confidentiality (again, insulation) and good room acoustics so that multiple voices do not become overwhelming. All too often one or more of these features are absent, and the result can significantly affect the outcome of the meeting, as those present strain to listen over intrusive background noise, and nerves fray due to unpleasant reverberation.
If meetings are important to your organisation, provide for them properly. Create meeting spaces with good insulation, which means acoustically effective walls that reach the real ceiling. Ideally employ a professional acoustician to give specifications to your architect or interior designer because every space is different. As a rule of thumb we would recommend that any meeting room is no noisier that NC 25, with NC 35 as an absolute maximum. The soundproofing performance of the room's walls, floor and ceiling required to achieve this standard will vary depending on the amount of noise trying to get in. As a guide, but I stress this should always be reviewed case by case, a meeting room located in a noisy office will probably need all its border surfaces to have a Sound Transmission Class performance rating of around 50 - that is, they attenuate any sound passing through them by 50 dB. This means that even a noisy outside office at, say, 75 dB becomes a comfortable ambient noise level of 25 dB in the meeting room.
Soundproofing is only half the battle: we still have to consider sound quality, which acousticians think of in terms of speech intelligibility. Apart from noise, the main enemy of intelligibility is reverberation. Inside a meeting room, the target should be a warm, dry acoustic; I suggest aiming for RT of around 0.3 seconds. To achieve this, you will need to avoid the widespread designer obsession with wood, stone and glass, all of which reflect the vast majority of the sound that hits them, creating confusing and nerve-jangling reverberations that will raise stress levels in every meeting. Start by having a carpet: all meeting rooms should be carpeted, whatever the rest of the office looks like. Next, consider the ceiling. All acousticians look up when they enter any space, because absorbing unwanted sound is all about square footage: the more sound absorbers they can install the better the result, and in most cases that means using the ceiling. Install acoustic tiles, or if that is impossible get an acoustician to make some acoustic panels and suspend them from the hard ceiling. If you still have too much reverberation, hang some more panels on the walls. They can be made to look like unpainted canvasses in any colour, and can be very attractive as well as soaking up unwanted sound. In extremis you can even treat the underside of the meeting table. Any sensible investment in creating acoustically appropriate meeting rooms will be repaid many times over through hundreds of much more effective meetings over the years.
Most commercial spaces are fully designed for the eyes but the soundscapes in them are accidental, incongruous and often downright hostile. If marketers think about this at all, they tend to install mindless music, which is like putting icing on mud; it may be superficially attractive but it is absolutely not a good cake. I believe generative sound has a major role to play in creating effective and appropriate soundscapes for places corporate receptions and offices, as well as shops and transport termini. This is an area that requires professional input by experts in sound planning and application.
Julian Treasure - a global expert in the evaluation, strategic planning, implementation and deployment of sound in business; the chairman of The Sound Agency - a leading audio-branding consultancy; the author of Sound Business, a seminal book on how to apply sound for business benefit, and the creator of BrandSoundTM : a strategic framework for the effective use of sound in brand management.