Feature Article - January 2010
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Staying Afloat

Operating Aquatics in the Black

By Dawn Klingensmith

Customer Service Is Key

Unfortunately, customer service is an area where many facilities fall flat. A common failing is that the only way to get information about the pool is by calling the parks department office, which has limited hours, Rowland said. Customers who really want to swim will figure things out. "But to make a pool work you need to attract the users at the margin—those who are mildly interested in swimming but not committed," he said. "Committed swimmers are fairly rare or at least don't exist in sufficient numbers to support a facility. You need the ambivalent users, and to get them you need great customer service."

That includes an informative, user-friendly Web site; quality brochures that give a professional impression; and well-trained, friendly staff who are eager to help. "How many aquatics facilities have employees—customer service or otherwise—who aren't really performing their job properly but who keep their job simply because they haven't committed any egregious offenses? Most people in this country are in situations where they'll lose their jobs if they don't do them well," Rowland said. "In community aquatics, a different set of rules seems to apply."

One thing is for certain: The rules are changing—not just for customer service but for community aquatics as a whole. Most important, "We're having to justify ourselves more than we ever had in the past," Stroupe said.

In fact, when Raleigh was forced to make budget cuts, there was a showdown of sorts between pool users and supporters of the local art center, which was required to reduce its hours. Although the city's pools also reduced their hours, some people argued that if further sacrifices should be made, they should be borne by aquatics. "Thankfully, we had been tracking numbers, so we could demonstrate our relative worth to the community," she said.