The Art of Customer Service

What goes around comes around when you give customer relations more than lip service

By Elisa Kronish

Think about the last time you had a get-together in your home. You vacuumed, mopped and even dusted the top shelves; you stored the kids' toys (and yours) where they belong, double-checked for toilet paper and gussied up a little more than usual. When guests arrived, you were the gracious host, taking coats, offering drinks, serving appetizers—and they, in turn, were the grateful guests, enjoying the attention, pleased by your warm welcome and resolving to reciprocate soon.

Treating your customers like your best friends
is a golden rule of customer service.

Now, think about the most recent customers who visited your facility. How were they treated? Did you offer them similar heights of hospitality? If you have to stop and think about it, you probably didn't. Everyone talks a good game when it comes to customer service, but it takes more than words to win at it. Learn how to go beyond good customer service and achieve great customer service. Then you'll have something to talk about—and so will your customers.

And the bottom line is that excelling at customer service can expand your bottom line.

"We know that if we provide excellent service to our members and show that we value their business by our actions, they will eventually refer their friends and family, renew their memberships and purchase additional products and services," says Bob Stewart, assistant vice president of customer relations at Bally Total Fitness.

Best friends forever

In "How to Provide First-Rate Customer Service," an article from the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), editor Barbara Darraugh refers to the success of Alamo Rent A Car, Inc. To gain competitive ground and grow the company, Alamo instituted its "Best Friends" program in 1989. Its principle, "Make your customers your best friends; treat them that way and they will always be your customers." It took some attitude adjustment, but pretty soon, the number of business transactions had increased, the quantity of repeat customers had skyrocketed, and complaints had decreased dramatically.

As another example, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has always been rated superior in customer service. From the top down, through every aspect of the business, The Ritz-Carlton employees are taught to uphold the "Gold Standards" that encompass the hotel chain's values and philosophy.

"Instead of just selling beds, The Ritz-Carlton is in the service business," says Shelley Marlow, account manager at The Ritz-Carlton Learning Institute based in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. The international hotel chain continues to win guests with its service approach, not to mention major awards. It was the first and only hotel company to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which recognizes achievement in the practice of total quality management principles, and is the only service company to win the award twice.

"Oftentimes, companies will ask what the secret is—and, frankly, there is no secret," Marlow says of The Ritz-Carlton's success. "Put a simple process in place, be true to it, place a significant importance on strategy and standards, and never sacrifice these for shortcuts," she explains. The Ritz-Carlton advocates three service basics that inspire employees' day-to-day interactions with guests: (1) a warm and sincere greeting, using the guest's name if and when possible; (2) anticipation and compliance with guest needs; and (3) a fond farewell, using the guest's name if and when possible. For example, Marlow says, "If it looks like [a guest] has had a bad day up until now, ask them, 'Is there anything I can do at this time to assist you? Can I get you a cup of tea or coffee?' Demonstrate that you care about their well-being." Not unlike you would for a guest in your home, she says.

Incorporating such fundamental principles seems a no-brainer, but many companies don't have any plan—and if they do, it's not always followed. The Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., studies consumer behavior by surveying thousands of companies about their people, processes and facilities. Executive Director Mike Trotter says the surveys reveal that some basics are frequently overlooked.

"You've got to see your business through the eyes of your customer," he says. "Understand you can't change a customer's emotions, understand there are right and wrong customers and start to weed out the wrong, understand it's a journey and a constant challenge, and know what the customers' expectations are."

What do you expect?

Achieving great customer service has a lot to do with the last of Trotter's recommendations—understanding customer expectations.

"If I walk into a health club and buy a membership, but you don't understand what my expectations are—like valet parking, personal training, hot towels, things that are not necessarily in your brochure—am I going to be a happy customer? No," Trotter says.

"The part of this that frustrates customer service people is that expectations are perceptual. They exist in the mind of our customer," writes Paul R. Timm, Ph.D. in 50 Powerful Ideas You Can Use to Keep Your Customers. And, he admits, "Sometimes they are accurate and rational, sometimes they aren't."

Regardless of their merit, though, all expectations are valid to the customer. To deal with them in a productive way, Kate Nasser, president of Somerville, N.J.-based consulting company CAS, Inc. recommends stepping outside of your own perspectives.

"Ask yourself where is this person coming from, what are they going through, what experience does the customer want to have," she says. "Are they at that health club to relax or tone up?"

To find out, Nasser stresses the importance of asking questions, watching and listening to your customers.

"If you listen, you get a clear enough picture so you can deliver," she says, adding that you don't have to deliver everything the customer wants, just deliver what you promise. "If you say, 'Let me check on that, and I'll call you back in 15 minutes,' you darn well better call, even if you don't have the answer," she explains.

One of the expectations of a typical recreation facility-goer might include proper signage, Nasser suggests.

"You should make signs easy to see and understand," she says. "If there's a sign for a road, but it's pointing the wrong way, that customer will be upset."

Another biggie she mentions is clean bathrooms: "It's a key moment in their day sometimes; a nice bathroom makes it a more enjoyable day."

At the other extreme is a facility like The Ritz-Carlton, where lofty expectations are based on tradition. Like The Ritz-Carlton, if you already have a reputation for superior service, you can't afford to sit back and ride the wave—years of hard work can be drowned by a few disappointed customers who spread the bad word. Just consider these disturbing statistics from ASTD's article on first-rate customer service: Of unhappy customers, 96 percent won't ever complain; 90 percent won't come back; each of those who don't come back will tell at least nine other people, 13 percent will tell 20 or more people.

Handling the Difficult Customer

Some people can get the better of you—if you
let them. Learn how to settle even the worst situations, and
turn difficult customers into life-long customers.

Take the advice of the Better Business Bureau, which advises, "Remember, just because the customer is upset, doesn't mean he's wrong. It can sometimes be a challenge to wade through the emotional message and get to the basic issues. Until you've found the core of the problem, you can't resolve it."

The BBB also reminds employees to "maintain a clear mental difference between you and your role." Becoming emotionally involved is not productive.

To reach the core of the problem, you need to put on your listening cap and let the customer vent.

"Make sure you're listening to not only what they're saying but to what they're meaning because when people are upset, sometimes they don't always convey what they mean," says Peggy Boccard, facilities supervisor at Foothills Park and Recreation District in Littleton, Colo. "Ask questions and gather more information and use softening techniques," she says. Softening techniques include an open posture (no crossed arms), eye contact (no rolling of eyes) and maybe moving the customer to a quieter area to sit down to talk.

"Silence works well while they're venting, then a short phrase to empathize," suggests Kate Nasser, president of CAS, Inc., a consulting firm in Somerville, N.J. "Never say 'I understand,'" she adds, "because they'll think you're saying you understand their pain, and you don't, and it may escalate their anger even further. Maybe 'I appreciate what you're saying,' or 'I see why you're upset.'"

Nasser also stresses the importance of keeping customers informed if you put them on hold or leave for any amount of time.

"Customers can start to experience psychological feeling of abandonment and emotions start to escalate," she says.

"While you're discussing a possible resolution, remember not to make promises you aren't prepared to keep," the Better Business Bureau says. And "to avoid confusion, have a clear understanding of what you've agreed upon with the customer."

And keep in mind, as manager, you are your employees' backup.

Go the extra smile

If you want to be known for great customer service, you can't just meet expectations, you have to exceed them. But it might not be as hard—or as costly—as it sounds. The CEO of KOA Campgrounds recently presented a talk about wowing customers, and he discovered something that might surprise you.

"He asked the audience how many people have had a wow customer service," says Lori Regele, a Billings, Mont.-based KOA customer service coordinator. "It turned out that the little things were what make the customer feel special. It can be simple; it doesn't have to cost a lot."

For example, after the tragedies of Sept. 11, the CEO sent out coupons to value cardholders for a free night's stay.

"Kind of a get-back-to-the-basics-with-your-family, think about the good things in life, and thanks," explains Regele, who saw complimentary letters to KOA increase as a result.

"You don't have to give the customer everything free," Nasser reiterates. "But you do have to make them feel special."

She says if a guest checking into a hotel has lost his luggage, "Ask him, 'What can we do? Can I offer you a shirt and sandals to sit by the pool?'" These are small things but, Nasser says, "You become the person who took away the customer's pain, and that could produce revenues far beyond the cost of a shirt."

The last line of The Ritz-Carlton Credo states that an experience there "fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests." Although the company is willing to spend money to achieve this goal—like the two years spent developing a guestroom child safety program—it doesn't usually have to spend much at all.

"In the restaurant, if a meal comes out and it's not to the customer's liking, that doesn't mean you have to comp their stay," Marlow says. "Ask the customer what they would want, maybe they would just want a glass of wine," she says.

Another easily implemented—and cost-free—service idea is stated among The Ritz-Carlton's 20 service Gold Standards: "Escort guests rather than pointing out directions to another area of the hotel." And another motivates phone etiquette: "Answer within three rings and with a 'smile.'"

Good Service Resources

The Ritz-Carlton Learning Institute


Get information on
workshops and speakers.

Purdue University Center for Customer-Driven Quality


Find out about conferences focused on service issues,
membership information and best practices.

CAS, Inc., Kate Nasser


Get information on workshops, consolation
and speaking engagements.

American Society for Training and Development


50 Powerful Ideas You Can Use to Keep Your Customers

by Paul R. Timms, Ph.D.

301 Great Customer Service Ideas

edited by Nancy Artz

Feed on feedback

You say you don't know what your customer's expectations are? All you have to do is ask. The Center for Customer-Driven Quality surveys reveal that 35 percent of the companies don't gather customer feedback at all. If you don't hear complaints, it's more likely that your customers don't have an effective way to voice complaints and concerns than everything's perfect.

"Once a customer engages your company, the No. 1 thing they want is access to your company—a voice, a person, an e-mail," Trotter says. If you're relying on e-mail, make sure you have a procedure for responding immediately. "It's better to have a Web site with no contact means than to offer the contact info and not respond," he adds. "A customer expects a real response within 24 hours. Good companies can turn around a response in three hours."

The Ritz-Carlton is continually revisiting its processes for handling guest objections and problems.

"We do a lot of surveying of guests to find out what's important to them, so we can focus on these things rather than on what we think is important to them," Marlow says.

The same goes for tents as well as hotels.

"We want our campground owners to see their feedback as free advice; it's a way for them to better their businesses," Regele says of KOA. When reading complain letters, Regele is able to set aside the customer's emotions to find the message and then find a way to remedy the problem for the future. And, although counter-intuitive, Regele says that "a person who complains and has a satisfactory outcome is more likely to be a loyal customer than someone who never had a problem to begin with."

The employee factor

Because feedback is often directed face-to-face, your frontline force can make or break your customer-service efforts.

"The environment of the company is created by the people in it," Marlow says. If you take time to hire the right people, you can trust them to handle any situation appropriately.

"Look at not only what skills they have, but what type of attitude," advises Peggy Boccard, facilities supervisor at Foothills Park and Recreation District in Littleton, Colo. "If we saw someone with excellent computer skills but didn't think they could deal with customers very well, we'd hire someone else," Boccard says.

The Ritz-Carlton looks for, holds out for and invests in people who are naturally service-oriented.

"People who aren't, won't fit well into The Ritz-Carlton," she says. "We can provide training, but they may find it's not a good environment for them to work in; it would be uncomfortable for them," she says. "Trying to hold out for these people makes business sense."

Also, don't assume you can take on all the customer-service responsibilities yourself. As Regele points out, a manager or owner might take negative feedback too personally, "like someone's insulting their child," she says. "We all have different qualities, and dealing with customer service is not one everybody has."

Valuable assets

When you've got these great employees, you'll want to hold onto them, and that starts with proper training. The Ritz-Carlton spends a lot of time on training and orientation, covering practicalities, as well as service philosophies, Marlow says. This training continues every day when The Ritz-Carlton employees from the top down gather before their shifts to discuss the customer-service Gold Standard being focused on that day.

"They'll talk about energizing these Basics as a company—and that's pretty powerful on an international scale," Marlow says.

Along with ideals and strategies, employees need the authority to satisfy customers on the spot.

"Make them feel like they can help solve problems," Regele says.

At The Ritz-Carlton, "if you receive a problem, you own the problem," Marlow says. Each employee is empowered to spend up to $2,000 per guest per day to resolve an issue, she says. But that's rarely necessary because employees are trained to ask questions and provide a solution that will satisfy the customer, while corresponding appropriately to the situation. For instance, "If a guest arrives at a hotel, and they were caught in a rain storm, the valet would be empowered to offer to get the guest's coat cleaned," Marlow says.

But don't assume you need money to make customers happy. The point is, if appropriate for your facility, every employee can be empowered in some way to help customers without always requiring a supervisor to step in.

The teamwork component cannot be taken for granted, either.

"Very little customer service happens with only one team member," Nasser says. She suggests offering a "helping hand" pin that can be awarded to a staff member for helping not a customer, but a team member to do their job. This public display gives the staff member a sense of pride, shows your customers you value your employees and sets an example for your employees to follow when dealing with customers.

"When a manger demonstrates a commitment to exceptional customer service to his or her staff and internal customers, the staff tends to mirror this skill," Stewart says. He also stresses the importance of "consistent acknowledgement of a job well done."

Reward and recognition programs are, in fact, important motivating factors for employees. Rewards are generally tangible—cash bonuses or prizes—while recognition is typically verbal appreciation for work above and beyond the average.

"It's important to do that when they're in front of their peers," Boccard says.

All this giving can be exhausting for employees, though, and Nasser stresses the importance of time away from the front line.

"It's impossible for most people in customer service to work eight hours without a break and be absolutely above and beyond to the end," she says, adding that it doesn't have to be a loss to the company. Even if they just work in a back office for a short time, she says, that can help rejuvenate them.

In a slow economy

When the economy is pumping along briskly, it may seem easier to provide excellent customer service. But customer expectations don't depend on the economy.

"If a customer continues to buy my product or service, then I'm going to have to have the same amount of customer service," Trotter says. He warns that if you've eliminated jobs, the quality of your service can go down, generating more complaints.

Your visitors may have less money to spend on free time, though, and it may be significant that they're spending it with you.

"When people are struggling with meeting their financial obligations and are concerned about job security, their monetary situation becomes more precious," Stewart says. It's important to be flexible about revising practices to meet customers' changing needs.

During the past few months, Bally Total Fitness has revamped its training module for new hires to help ensure quality customer service. The Ritz-Carlton has noticed that business travelers are staying for shorter periods of time, so staff has responded to this faster pace with increasingly efficient check-in.

No matter what the economic climate, though, your facility should provide a warm atmosphere for guests. Welcome them to your facility like you'd welcome them to your home. And, Nasser says, "Every time you face a customer, strive for 150 percent. You have nothing to lose."

Respond in Seven Steps

Lori Regele, customer service coordinator for KOA Campgrounds
offers this checklist for responding to customer complaints, which can
be applied to any means of communication:


Thank the customer, explain why you appreciate the complaint and apologize.


Let the customer know what you've done to remedy the situation.


Admit the customer is right—even if they're not.


Personalize your reply (that is, no form letters).


Be simple but specific.


Exceed the customer's expectations— try to wow every customer.


Check customer satisfaction—follow up with both the staff and the customer.

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