That’s not a phrase you’d expected to hear from organisations priding themselves on outstanding customer service, but it’s the message I received from half the major hotels I approached whilst researching course venues in Sydney, Australia, last week.To say I was surprised was an understatement. It did, however, resolve the issue of what topic to discuss in my next blog post!
What lessons can we learn from this impromptu mystery shopping exercise about the critical role of front line staff in creating a positive customer experience and generating sales?
Mystery shopping: my selection criteria and candidates
I decided to spend a couple of hours between business meetings during a trip to Sydney doing some face to face research into potential venues for my Complaints Improvement Workshops. I approached six organisations within a convenient two block walking distance of Town Hall train station in Sydney’s CBD. Now that’s not a hugely scientific method for selecting a venue supplier long-list, but it happened to contain six high quality venues that I had the time to visit in person before flying home to New Zealand later that evening.
The venues in that area still meet my key criteria. They present a brand image of high quality locations, with excellent facilities and a reputation for customer service that I’d be delighted to provide to my clients when they attend a workshop event. They’re ideally located close to public transport that suits locals, Australian interstate and International clients who’d need to travel from Sydney Airport.
The venues identified were (in alphabetical order, not in order of visit)
It was my expectation of these brands that a walk-in customer offering business would be greeted with enthusiasm and the opportunity to showcase facilities that would leave me thinking theirs was the only choice of venue I should consider. I approached each venue’s reception with the same question - "Hello, I'd like to talk to someone about your meeting facilities and services for running seminars and training courses.”
Enough, one might think, to make a conference and events sales manager salivate with the same enthusiasm as Bella when food is placed in her food bowl (the company golden labrador, now available on twitter @Corporate_Dog).
Unbelievably, the first venue’s reaction was the genesis for today’s list of customer service lessons learnt. On making my way through an impressive and plush foyer, I was met by a very pleasant concierge behind his marble clad desk. He passed me to his manager who greeted me with a smile, took my business card and replied with a cheery “I’ll pass this on to sales. They’ll talk to events and someone will contact you by phone or e-mail.”
I actually had to pause for a moment to take this in before asking “But I’m here now and flying out of the country this afternoon – is there nobody I can speak to here today?”
Apparently not. This five star venue would rather take my card and e-mail me at some later point in time to describe their services in writing or over the phone. It’s now been five working days and I’ve received nothing.
Packing up my dignity with my bag, I thanked him (without a hint of sarcasm, surprising myself in my own restraint) and headed to the next venue, my blog post forming in my mind.
Lesson #1: Keeping promises to a customer is a critical factor in delivering customer satisfaction. As is responding by the customer’s choice of channel at the time.
I was again met by a very polite concierge. Now this venue wasn’t the main office, so they’ll get a pass on the evaluation. As the venue was booked out that day, the concierge apologised and said he’d usually be happy to show me around but didn’t want to disturb their client. That’s acceptable and shows respect for the customer they were dealing with that day. He did say the events team were located elsewhere (across town, where I didn’t have time to walk to that day), but if I e-mailed them, they’d be happy to help me out.
A polite customer experience, although I can hear every reader who’s ever worked in a sales team now screaming “Why didn’t he take your business card and ask them to call you?”
I think that's a fair question, although having attended an event with this venue before, I know they’re worth talking to.
Lesson #2: Previous customer experiences of your brand will enhance (or damage) your reputation.
Arrival at the third venue revealed a customer service experience to be proud of. Finally, a positive result for this article! A receptionist took my card, called their events manager and handed me the phone.
After a brief conversation about my requirements and a couple of minutes waiting on a comfortable seat, I’m met by the friendly events manager with a brochure in their hand containing all the information I need. I’m given a tour of suitably sized boardroom facilities. Pricing options and alternatives are explained, including an offer of discounted accommodation for delegates should they need to stay.
Clear, precise, professional and immediately responsive. I left with their business card, an information pack with everything I needed to know, a great impression of a high quality venue and confidence in the customer experience that workshop attendees would receive in person.
They were obviously living their values.
Lesson #3: Responsive, personal service addressing the customer’s implicit and explicit needs creates satisfaction, loyalty and positive word of mouth.
The day is looking up, I thought. Yet reality frequently has a way of bringing you back to ground with a thump. In this case, we have venue four to thank for lowering the average.
Prestigious, central, impressive, busy. I introduce myself and hand over my business card to a receptionist who asks me to wait whilst she contacts the events team for me. After a short wait in another bustling foyer, the receptionist approaches to tell me that “unfortunately there’s nobody available.” She gives me a hotel business card and (I hope you’re sitting down, sales people) hands me my own business card back – along with the suggestion that I send them an e-mail if I want to know more.
Not even the incredulous look on my face as my card is returned to me seems to indicate to her that this might not represent five star customer service or maximising their sales lead potential.
Lesson #4: Front line employees create the customer’s first impression of your organisation. They are the gatekeepers of your business – and your sales leads!
Venue five demonstrated an interesting customer service lesson from complaints management research – that customer satisfaction can be achieved after an initially poor service experience, if the recovery actions taken are positive.
Approaching the Business Centre desk (I thought after my last venue experience they might better appreciate a business customer), my details were taken by another polite staff member, who asked me to wait whilst he called the sales team to let them know I was here. No update and ten minutes later, I approached the replacement staff member now at the desk to ask how much longer I could expect to wait.
It quickly became clear this person had no idea who I was, so again called the sales office. Following a profuse apology, I was met by a very accommodating events organiser and given a tour of the suitable locations whilst discussing my options and future plans. Further information was promised by e-mail and duly arrived – as promised - within an hour of my departing the venue.
Lesson #5: Addressing customer dissatisfaction promptly can turn a customer service failure into a positive service experience generating satisfaction.
Finally, I entered venue six. A promising website and another impressive (and pretty empty) foyer with a smiling receptionist. The in-person ‘moment of truth’ experience, however, was significantly different. Venue six surpassed both itself, and venue four, with the swiftness of their response. In no time at all after introducing myself, I was politely handed a hotel business card and instructed to e-mail the hotel to have my enquiry dealt with.
Clearly this member of reception had something a bit more important to do, although the lack of anyone else in reception left me wondering exactly what it was.
Lesson #6: If you tell a customer to go away, they usually do - along with their custom
What can we learn from this experience?
In addition to the lessons I’ve highlighted throughout, the experience also raises other questions that customer service managers should think about:
- E-mail may be a more efficient and cost-effective channel, but does this mean you should turn away customers who choose a different channel?
- When customer service staff can receive any type of enquiry, have you sufficiently trained them to deal with all the customers they’ll receive?
- Are your business processes clearly defined to help front line staff deal with the customers they’ll encounter (however infrequently)?
- Is your neat, efficient channel strategy actually linked to your business objectives (in this case, maximising sales) with actual KPIs from all channels? How's that working out for you in reality?
I won’t ‘name and shame’ these six venues in a public forum by linking them to the experiences I had. If you’re the General Manager of any of them and you’d like to know how your venue did, feel free to contact me and I’ll happily tell you privately – and potentially offer you some great customer service training for your teams.
Just don’t be offended with a 50/50 chance the course may be hosted in a competitor’s venue.