Feature Article - September 2005
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A Field Guide to Patrons

Tips for keeping customers happy

The Best Friend Customers are a special breed. They hang around. A lot. They even follow your employees.

"We call them Social Sallys," Soisson says. "When it's slow, they're the best, but not when it's busy."

It might be fun for a time, but after that, these puppies begin to take time and energy away from other customers or from work that needs to get done. And then it's time to give them a pat on the head and send them on their way.

"There are ways to set boundaries that are both polite and graceful," Carnabucci says. The main idea is to offer a closing to the conversation. Exactly what you say depends on your personality. You might be straightforward or use humor. Carnabucci suggests: "'Nice chatting with you, now I need to input this data, check in these customers,' whatever it is. Or 'My boss is looking over my shoulder, gotta go.'"

To prevent the customer from feeling disappointed or rejected, keep the focus on them, Anderson says. Ask if there's anything you can do to help. If you're actually providing them a service—a tennis lesson, a training session—and their chit-chat is chewing time, gently remind them of this. On the other hand, Soisson suggests, they may just want to pay to talk to you.

"Maybe they never get to be heard at home, and this is their time," she says. "You can humor the person as well as making her happy."

Also, don't take on the Best Friend as your own. Let other staff members know what's happening.

"Communicate it to other employees, so they'll take a hint when they see this customer coming in," Carnabucci advises. "Maybe there's a signal that alerts another employee to call you over. Cooperation is important among employees."

Another way to look at the Best Friend is as a loyal ally.

"You might be able to turn that affinity for the schmoozing into a benefit for the person and the [facility]," Griffin suggests. "Maybe this person can be turned into a new-member welcoming role. Make them more a member of the club, so to speak."

Ready, Aim, Hire

Your front-line employees often set the vibe for your venue, and you want it to be a positive one. But maintaining that attitude can sometimes test even the best. Beginning with a strong staff can help keep customers happy in the end.

"When we look at the business aspect of it, hiring is certainly important," says Karen Carnabucci, MSS, LCSW, owner of Companions in Healing in Racine, Wis. "People skills are valuable."

When interviewing candidates, it's important to choose those who are most likely to succeed in dealing with every type of customer who enters your facility.

Carnabucci offers some matters to consider:

  • How does the person present him or herself?
  • Does the person converse easily?
  • Does the person seem to listen to the questions being asked?
  • Is the person giving one-size-fits-all answers, rather than genuine answers?
  • Does the person seem to like people?
  • Does the person have life experiences that would relate to the job?
  • If the person doesn't have good skills or there are certain circumstances the person finds difficult, is there training?

Carnabucci also encourages asking for references and asking situational questions. For example:

"Ask the person being interviewed, 'Do you remember a time when you were really challenged by a situation?' If they can provide an example and show how they dealt with it well, that's good," Carnabucci says. "Or, they might say, 'I didn't handle it that well, but I learned from that experience and would do it differently next time.' The person would earn extra points if they could come up with an example when they did, in fact, handle it differently."

Also, it's important for you to adequately inform the candidate about the responsibilities of the job. Describe what a typical day might entail, Carnabucci suggests.

"Then, the person being interviewed will have a good sense of whether the job is right for them," she says. And you will have a more prepared and better qualified staff.