Master the Art of Great Customer Service

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As Victoria prepares for prime tourist season, Douglas talks to people with a deep understanding of what it really takes to win and keep customers.

Ian Powell has been in the hotel business for almost 30 years and has managed some of Canada’s top hotels, including the Inn at Laurel Point in Victoria. He says he doesn’t have any secrets to offer, but he does have a philosophy on how to hire and orient employees to deliver excellent customer service.

“You have to hire the right people with the right characteristics,” says Powell, managing director at the Inn at Laurel Point. Potential employees are interviewed at least three times to determine if they are genuinely friendly and competent.

At the Inn, must-have traits include empathy, a glass-half-full attitude and the ability to multi-task and find the “joy” in serving people, says Powell, who is also an Anglican priest.

Orientation involves teaching basic service principles. Instead of hard rules for providing great customer service, new staff get a skeleton version of rules and are expected to use critical-thinking skills to flesh out how to behave. That way, instead of mouthing scripted greetings and clichéd dialogue, staff pay attention to what the customer is doing. For instance, a businessperson rushing to check out might not appreciate an employee asking, “What are your plans for the day?” They would more likely appreciate a fast but courteous check out.

Another feature of the Inn’s approach to customer service is that there’s no meaningless mission statement. Instead, staff — up to 200 employees during the busy summer season — are expected to personify the Inn’s four core values: curiosity, respect, excellence and stewardship. Curiosity is Powell’s favourite because inquisitive staff try to think of better ways to get the job done. Yet, great service doesn’t happen overnight.

“It has to be cultivated,” Powell says.

It Takes Time
Smaller businesses may have the somewhat mistaken perception that they don’t have the time or resources that large companies have for staff training, says Mark Colgate, a University of Victoria professor of service excellence at the Gustavson School of Business. But at large businesses, leaders are often removed from the frontline staff, whereas owners of smaller establishments have likely served their customers, so they know what customers want.

“Small businesses have to carve out the time [for training],” says Colgate, who is also a customer service consultant. “If you’re not coaching staff, what are you doing?”

Businesses often think that doing the extra work necessary to provide great service is expensive, but that’s just not so, says Colgate.

“Your processes get sharper,” he adds. “There are less bottlenecks, fewer inefficiencies. In the end, you’re saving money.”

What Customers Really Want
Colgate has discovered that customers really want three things: reliability, so that when a promise is made, it’s kept; responsiveness, which means timely, efficient service; and relationships which entail real warmth and attentiveness.

Businesses try to satisfy those needs by hiring friendly, responsive people, but what’s often missing is coaching, Colgate says. Employers also have to show that they trust their staff members by letting staff make some decisions. While giving employees carte blanche can be risky, a rigid system of rules and scripts can prevent them from being empathetic and creating the customer connection. Employees also have to sense that their job is meaningful.

Highly important is customer feedback. Recently, Colgate was crestfallen after a “horrible” dinner at one of Victoria’s top-rated restaurants. No one from the eatery asked him about the experience, which drastically needed improvement.

In fact, he’s lived in Victoria for 12 years and not once has a retailer or restaurateur bothered to get his opinion about the service when he’s leaving the premises. “It’s incredible. You’re running a business and you don’t talk to people,” he says.

While working in Australia, Colgate observed a restaurant owner, who each day asked five departing customers about their visit. Great service comes from knowing what’s done wrong. Ask the customer, don’t wait for them to scream at you or rant on social media.

Tweets, Beefs and Freebie-seekers
Today’s customer service world includes social media and websites like Trip Advisor so customer-review opportunities are ubiquitous. Employers, particularly in the hospitality industries, are keenly aware of people who use social media to spout off about a bad experience. Some of them may even try to squeeze out a fancier room or free meal.

Ray Freeman teaches at Royal Roads’ School of Tourism and Hospitality Management and is also a tourism consultant with Left Coast Insights. He’s well aware of customers with an agenda, who want to get the most they can out of a business. Part of this is fed by the growth of mass tourism, where profits are the focus and customers’ needs are secondary. Just think of the negative perception of some airlines.

“We’ve set the bar low. Customers don’t expect good service,” says Freeman, a Tourism Victoria board member. So when customers get fine service, it stands out.

His advice? Because small and medium-sized businesses tend to fail if the “passion” for customers is missing, it’s important to encourage staff to understand what customers want. Being happy and enthusiastic isn’t enough — there needs to be empathy for the customer.

Freeman points out that cruise ship visitors alone make up about 465,000 of Victoria’s three million annual visitors, and those numbers are climbing. Many of these return to Victoria, drawn back by the atmosphere and unique experiences provided by small businesses.

And that’s why “hospitality” — from the word “hospitable” — is so important. “Treat visitors like family,” Freeman offers.

Just Like Home
Daniela Cubelic would likely agree. When she co-founded Silk Road in 1992 in Victoria’s Chinatown, she decided the customer service experience had to be warm and welcoming.

“Treat people like you would treat guests in your home,” she says. Her customers responded well to this approach. Business grew. Today Cubelic has 35 engaged and responsive employees who know what great customer service means.

Her success comes from training. “It’s really a missed opportunity when you don’t spend time on customer training. I don’t think businesses realize how much it costs them [when they don’t],” Cubelic says.

Most employers focus on orientation, but standards and ongoing coaching are necessary. Cubelic is so serious about customer service that’s she’s developed training manuals and tests. Good service can be taught through constant training, she believes.

Another challenge is fixing the damage to interpersonal skills caused by the rise of  digital communications such as texting.

“Younger applicants also don’t always have strong one-to-one interpersonal skills,” says Cubelic. “Eye contact, confident voice projection and conversational skills don’t seem to be as strong as they used to be, yet they are crucial for great customer service.”

Dealing with unhappy customers in person is also difficult for staff more accustomed to the digital world. But it’s all about how the message is delivered. “How you say ‘no’ affects how it’s taken,” Cubelic adds.

When Nothing Seems to Satisfy
And yes, there are always a few customers who aren’t content, no matter what.

Ian Powell recalls one customer at Inn at Laurel Point who wouldn’t back down from his demand to have a room with a view of the Inner Harbour. The guest was making such a scene in the lobby that Powell was summoned, a rare occurrence. It just happened to be a day that the Reverend Ian Powell was wearing his priest’s garb.

A strong believer in respecting not only customers, but also staff, the Reverend told the customer to leave. “I’ve never seen anyone clam up so quickly,” Powell recalls.

Not all business owners can don a priest’s collar to placate customers but they can hire staff who wear honest smiles and can give heavenly service to both saints and sinners.

8 Must-Have Traits for Excellent Customer Service

1 – Learn everything about a product or service
Having extensive knowledge of a product or service adds depth to communications with customers and inspires confidence.

2 – Practise empathy and  attentiveness
Expressing understanding helps to establish  trust and rapport.

3 – Engage in creative problem solving
Thinking beyond the training manual leads  to more personable, flexible service.

4 – Practise Effective communication skills
Listening to customers and responding  appropriately helps prevent conflict.

5 – Maintain a calm presence
Having a calm composure helps keep  customers calm, in turn.

6 – Anticipate customers’ needs
Thinking ahead of time about what customers want makes them feel like they really matter.

7 – Be clever with multi-tasking
Learning to deal with multiple customers  without appearing stressed is the hallmark of great customer service.

8 – Under-promise and over-deliver
Following through with commitments  and exceeding expectations creates loyalty  and wins good reviews.