Customer Service- the Tourism industry’s key to success

My first experience with customer service training came when I lived in Maine and was hired by LL Bean for a position as a phone representative during the busy holiday season. I was impressed with their training program – 40 hours of class work before we were allowed to even start taking phone calls. We were taught how to engage the customer, handle complaints, and proper phone skills. We were also taken off the floor periodically for individual feedback.  I remember being impressed that the trainers would start the session by telling me something I did well, then telling me something I could work on to improve, and end by reinforcing my successes. Little did I know that was a basic management technique – I just thought it was nice to look forward to reviews!

Leon L. Bean’s famous words defining customer service, “A customer is the most important person ever in this company – in person or by mail” weren’t just a slogan – they were how the company was run. To this day, the laminated copy of that slogan has been on my office walls wherever I have worked; a daily reminder of how to be successful.

My next evolution in understanding the importance of customer service came when I was hired as the Director of Sales at Steamboat Landing, a conference center and home to a seasonal paddlewheel boat operation in the Finger Lakes. I learned the best way to increase sales was to develop relationships with my customers. My natural ability to turn strangers into friends, translated into record bookings for both the boat and the conference center. I worked with corporate groups, wedding parties and motorcoach operators and quickly learned the specific needs of each type of business.

I was hired by Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance  in September 2003, and was excited and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of what I was responsible for promoting. In my role as Program Director, I was responsible for promoting attractions and lodging, along with the destination. A research study showed that one of the perceptions of the Finger Lakes was that people were not friendly. I took that point on as a challenge, and began several programs to alleviate that.

First, I took over the operation of the Finger Lakes Tourism Institute. I re-formatted it into a 3 day educational program, with the first day being dedicated to customer service training. I priced it at an affordable $35/person and  held firm to a rule that managers must attend with staff. I did not want frontline staff getting excited about new ideas and customer service and not have their manager to help them follow-up. I did have some resistance to that each year, but it was always good to see the managers and staff enjoying themselves in a different setting outside their work environment.  A follow-up survey conducted in 2007 showed that one of the top 3 reasons people enjoy visiting the Finger Lakes was due to the friendly people. I believe the changes I implemented at the Tourism Institute contributed to that change.

Today, as the owner of a consulting company, my service is what sets me apart. I remain passionate about the tourism industry and its ability to connect people all over the world. Friendly, informed frontline staff are the most important element in the tourism industry’s success. I am committed to a career that supports their efforts.


There’s never anything to do in your own hometown

Here’s one of the challenges with young frontline staff- they always think there is nothing to do in the area. In fact, I had a student that I have been training for a position in the hotel industry tell me she didn’t know why anyone would even come to her hometown! And this from a resident of a town with women’s history, wineries, state parks, lakes and the Erie Canal! But her view is not unique. I think that many staff feel that way if they haven’t had the opportunity to see their hometown through a visitor’s eyes. As tourism professionals, our job is to make sure they have the experiences and information they need to sell the area and inform guests about all there is to see and do. Here’s some ideas to consider for getting front line staff fired up about their destination:

– Develop Frontline FAM (Familiarization) tours. This is a great way to get a lot of staff to see many places in a short amount of time. However, for this to be effective, managers must be willing to pay the frontline staff for their time on the FAM. Very few frontline staff are motivated without it, but it is a worthwhile investment. The payback will be when your waitresses or front desk employee can tell guests about an attraction they have visited. These FAM’s are most useful at a time just before the busy season hits; your employees have been hired, but are not working full time yet.

-Establish a reciprocal program with other attractions. Ask local attractions to give 2 passes for each interested employee. That way an employee can visit the attraction with a friend or family member. Ask employees to write a one page review of the visit and post it near the time clock so everyone can read it. You should extend this invitation to everyone – from the dishwashers, to housekeeping staff to the groundskeeper. Some staff might need help writing a review -please provide the help. Not only will it be seen as an employee perk, but your other staff will know who to ask about different attractions.

– Have a Chamber staff member or Visitor Bureau member speak at your next employee meeting. They will be happy to attend and will bring visitor’s guides and answer questions. It is in their best interest to have residents who understand their jobs and can help to promote the destination.

– Create a Frontline Passport Program. This is a booklet with various stops of the area listed by page. Frontliners will have their passport stamped at each location. Completed passports can be submitted for prize drawings. There can be sponsors for this program, which will help offset printing costs.

All of these ideas are not one time events.  The hospitality industry has a very high turnover rate and the same programs should be run every year. Knowledge of your area and the ability to answer visitors questions is a valuable asset for any frontline staff. Involvement in these programs could also result in a certificate for attendance and participation. A potential employee could use that document  in job interviews to show that they have made a commitment to learning about their hometown. And that’s a win-win for all of us.

Loving your job- lessons from my septic men

For those of you who live in the lands of sewers and public water, let me explain septic systems. It’s basically a huge holding tank buried underground adjacent to your home. Everything that leaves a drain ends up in the septic tank which is why it needs to be pumped out regularly. As you can imagine, it’s not a glamorous job, but it is a vital industry in the  country. I recently saw a septic pumper truck with the saying ” We’re Number #1 in the #2 business.” Guess it helps to have a sense of humor as well.

George and Don, Septic Men of Excellence

Which brings me to the subject of this post. I have had the septic system in my home pumped by two older gentlemen since I bought the house 15 years ago. I thought they were elderly when they first came to help me in 1995- and here they are in 2010 still keeping all the homes in the Bristol Hills humming along. Don Sherman, the owner, is 83. His partner in crime, George, is 82. They stay busy working almost every day. I always take the time to make them a cup of coffee and sit and chat with them. I am interested in people that really love their job and what makes them feel that way. These two love what they do and have known each other since they were young boys. They are like the original Odd Couple- they tease each other and finish each others sentences, and its obvious they are good friends.

Don told me ” I don’t vacation much or do anything fancy so I enjoy getting out to nice places and getting to visit with friendly people”.  George likes to chat and he is always full of good stories and opinions. My interactions with them always leave me feeling good and happy – and isn’t that the sign of outstanding customer service? So I think these two gentlemen have set the bar very high. They love their jobs and do all that they can to keep their customers happy. If they can find purpose and happiness in serving others, shouldn’t the rest of us be able to try to do the same?

Delivering Happiness- A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose

I didn’t come up with that wonderful title myself; it is the name of the newly released book by Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos. I was one of the bloggers chosen to review his book and received a copy several weeks ago.

As I was reading, I kept thinking: should I write about this theme, or talk about this story and how it would resonate with my readers. Should I just do a summary review or pick one chapter and talk about why I liked its message. I kept a list of the pages that had a phrase or paragraph that I thought was important to remember. So here goes: page 85,98,119,137,143,150,173,177,179,187 and 197. I’ll pick a few and let you look up the rest when you get a chance to read this book ( you can order it from Amazon).

One of the first things that I noticed while reading the book was how simple Tony’s writing style is. It was not full of multi-syllable business speak, or lots of technical terms. It sounds like you are talking to your next door neighbor over the fence- very easy to follow. Even though Zappos is technically a large company, the book has many lessons for small business owners. The early days at Zappos had huge cash flow issues, problems with their warehouse and unforseen problems that came at the worse possible times. Tony said at one point they were in a race against time  – trying to make their limited money last until sales picked up. Sound familiar?

One of the lessons I took away from reading Delivering Happiness is for a business to decide what their core competencies are. One of the goals at Zappos was to sell $1 billion in gross merchandise sales by 2010- a goal they actually achieved in 2008.

Tony says ” Looking back, a big reason we hit our goal early was that we decided to invest our time, money and resources into three key areas: Customer service (which would build our brand and drive word of mouth), culture (which would lead to the formation of our core values), and employee training and development(which would eventually lead to the creation of our Pipeline Team). Even today, our belief is that our Brand, our Culture, and our Pipeline (which we refer to internally as “BCP”) are the only competitive advantages that we will have in the long run. Everything else can and will eventually be copied.”

I will save the discussion on their theory that spending more money on customer service and its 24/7 call center is smarter than spending money on advertising for another blog post.  Also, their theory that the role of a manager is to remove obstacles and enable his/her direct reports to succeed. Simple but brilliant. Check out the website for the book –Delivering Happiness . Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Frontline staff and the art of giving and getting directions

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am working with a group of unemployed women to teach them work readiness skills for the front line positions in the hospitality industry. We work with a great textbook, workbook and videos that provide accurate information about how to perform positions at the front desk, banquets, restaurant, housekeeping and maintenance. I also added two other activities into our day last week that I think would be helpful for any manager to work on with frontline staff and both involve directions.

The first activity we worked on was personal goal setting. Although this seems to have nothing to do with the curriculum at hand, I think goal setting is helpful to give you the ability to see past the bad days and help you remember why you are trying so hard. I was given a goal setting document years ago that has been very helpful to me. Goal Setting can be used by anyone. I like it because it has simple directions – choose a specific objective and put a date on it.  The example that President John F.Kennedy set ” By the end of the decade, we shall land an American on the moon and bring him back safely” shows both the specific objective and a date.  My students set goals such as completing their G.E.D’s, getting a driver’s license and getting a full-time job.  I told them to put them on their refrigerators at home so they could see those goals every day.

The other project we worked on was learning how to give directions to visitors. First, we had to get over the thought that there is nothing to do in the Finger Lakes and start thinking of all the places visitors might want to see. Then we put a regional map on the table and looked at main roads, major attractions and how to get there from the Holiday Inn Waterloo, where they are interning. We practiced saying “turn left” instead of “go that way”. We quizzed each other on main roads and route numbers. We pretended I was a visitor and that they had to give me directions to all kinds of places -airports, wine trails, restaurants and the outlet mall. It was fun and we ended up showing each other where we lived as well and how we drove to school each day. One of the students sent me a text message after her first day at the front desk to tell me she had to give directions to a guest and she thought I had sent them in as a test!  She said she knew just what to do and boy, did I feel proud! Being able to communicate with visitors effectively and give them the information they need is a very valuable front line skill and spending some time every season refining and practicing that is a great idea. Share some goal setting tips at the same time and you will learn a lot about your staff.

The challenges of Front line staff

The hospitality and tourism industry is heavily dependent on frontline staff- those employees who meet and greet the customer and help set the stage for a good or bad experience. So why do we pay them so little and why is there such high turnover?  Is there hope of advancing from a frontline position to management at some point?

I have just begun teaching a START program for unemployed individuals in several Finger Lakes counties. This program was developed by the Educational Institute of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. It includes classroom time with textbooks, a student workbook, and videos along with my stories of working in the industry. It also includes a partnership with a local hotel so the students can get actual work experience in the different departments of a hotel. It is an ideal workforce training program.

So why do I feel frustrated and a bit discouraged?  Any of my readers who have worked with frontline staff know that their personal life issues often intrude on their working hours. Most of my students are young single mothers who are also studying for their G.E.D’s at the same time. A noble goal and a necessary one.  Their upbringing and decisions have gotten them to this place and they have  huge obstacles to overcome. But it seems like they signed up for this program with the goal of obtaining a job and some job skills.

 I can see that they are capable of so much, and then they all start taking time off for various appointments or not showing up at all. I have tried to impress on them that punctuality and responsibility are the most important skills to posses in this industry. We have talked about how each department functions as a team, and if one banquet server does not show up that it affects the amount of work each of the other servers has. I told them they have to think of their internship as a way of being screened for a job. And still they are telling me all the days they won’t be able to work. One young mother tells me that everything she does, she does for her daughter. And then she tells me she didn’t go to her part-time job, didn’t call in, and was fired.  How does that help her daughter?

When we toured the hotel property yesterday, one of the students asked the Director of Engineering ( head of the Maintenance Department) how long it took him to become a manager. When he answered ’10 years’, I think I saw disappointment in everyone’s eyes. It would be necessary to work 10 years at close to minimum wage to become a manager? That is a long time to wait.

And then there are issues that most of us never have to deal with – lack of transportation, or limited funds that make it a challenge to just purchase khaki pants for their internship days.

So will all their personal issues and lack of workplace skills such as personal responsibility keep them from success? I am going to do my very best to help them overcome those challenges with my industry expertise and guidance into how they need to act. I hope they will show up at class and at the hotel with their positive attitudes. Wish us luck.

Traveler Reviews- We see what we seek.

I am a big fan of traveler review sites like Trip Advisor. TripAdvisor-branded sites alone make up the most popular and largest travel community in the world, with more than 32 million unique monthly visitors, 15 million+ members, and more than 30 million reviews and opinions.  It was one of the sites that started the ‘Web 2.0’ phenenomenon – the ability for people to interact and connect and share information. I always use Trip Advisor or a similar site before I book a hotel, just to get an idea of the property.

What I have noticed is that the reviews tend to reflect the reviewer as much as the property. I am always amazed at NYC hotel reviews when people talk about how small the rooms are. The whole point of visiting NYC is to be in your room as little as possible! And because it is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, there is a need to make money from every square foot of commercial space.

I read the reviews of the unkind staff and how rudely the reviewer was treated. I wonder how they treated the staff – sometimes the customer is not always right. I do admit to being a bit of a Pollyanna but I think if you are looking for something bad to happen, it usually will.

I just stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania, in New York. It was a last-minute booking and the hotels I usually stay at were all over $250. Hotel Pennsylvania was $125. I have heard all the stories- bedbugs, nightmare looking rooms, and unfriendly staff. I booked the room anyways, thinking that we would only really be in the room from midnight until 7 am – how bad could it be. I had read TripAdvisor reviews that said the check in time takes over an hour. I was a bit worried about that since we would be getting to the hotel around six and had theater tickets for an 8:00 show. I brought flip-flops so I wouldn’t have to walk directly on the floor and packed everything in large ziploc bags to keeps my clothing safe.

Can I tell you it was a great hotel stay? My daughter and I arrived and got into the check in line, which was moving along. Just as we made our way to the front of the line, a young woman named Raquel came up to us and told us she would check us in at another area and to follow her. As she checked us in, I asked her how long she had worked here and she told us 3 years and that she loved working here, although it gets crazy at times. Very friendly. We got our room keys and got to the room before 6:20. The room will never win any design awards, but was clean. When we got back from the show, the hallways were quiet and we slept well. We stored our bags in the morning so we could tour around and the young man checking bags was smiling and happy.

So I learned something yesterday – don’t always trust other’s opinions. If you are willing to have an open mind, you might have a great experience. It reminded me of a quote I saw a few years back:

Two men looked out through the prison bars;

one saw mud, the other saw stars.