Mastering the art of customer service

Published 10:49 pm Saturday, January 1, 2011

Tribune publisher Mike Caldwell recently wrote an opinion piece about the poor or lack of customer service he encountered on a recent travel experience. His observations are the norm, not the exception.

I have a theory about why business and industry are not really focused on the customer. In today’s world customer service is preached about but not practiced.

I believe it is simply a lack of management emphasis and priority that results in zero training and/or retraining in the area of providing quality customer service.

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Add the perception that we are going to do business with them regardless in another reason they turn a blind eye on customer service.

Where do most people learn their customer service skills?

Why it is on the job and in the marketplace. We customer service agents (CSAs) have become practitioners of what we experience. How often are we told in a cursory job briefing to go out and provide “good’ customer service? Have our employers taught us what good is and how to provide it? Highly doubtful! So we provide what we are accustomed to.

There are a few companies that get it right and they have thrived. They’ve trained their staff to apply the concepts and principles of total quality management empowering their employees to make decisions and try to solve the problem immediately rather than later.

Here again training and trust are the keys. I wonder what it is going to take for the rest of the pack to catch on then catch up.

Frequently I’ll ask these questions in class: “How many of you have had a job? How often were you told that one of your responsibilities was to provide outstanding customer service? And how often did the company train you on how to perform these tasks?” There were plenty of “yes” answers to the first two questions and resounding “no” responses to the last question.

A national TV network has picked up on this point and has brought attention to this issue in the show “Undercover Boss.” It is a shame that TV has to do report on this flaw while business, industry and education sit quietly on the sidelines, afraid to tackle it.

Hey leaders and administrators get out of the corner office and train your workers. At the same time why not pay your front line workers more, reduce the corporate bonuses and tell the shareholders not to expect record earnings.

It is your front line workers that make a difference in your organizations interactions with your customers. Train them pay them and motivate them to strive to exceed their customers’ expectations.

Along these lines I received notice that Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) President and CEO Kevin Sheehan has his cover blown while working on the frontlines during the company’s episode of the Emmy-nominated hit reality series “Undercover Boss” airing on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2011 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.

In this episode Sheehan is recognized by Silvia, a waitress in the Manhattan Room restaurant on Norwegian Epic.

During his undercover journey, Sheehan also hosts the line’s signature White Hot Party where he’s forced to step out of his comfort zone to lead a crowd of more than 1,000 guests in a line dance. Sheehan also spent time on Pride of America in Hawaii, where he worked alongside a deck repairman, John, a fellow New Yorker, who was quite critical of Sheehan’s performance.

“Going undercover gave me a much deeper appreciation for our crew and how hard they work every day creating memorable cruise vacations for our guests,” said Sheehan. “I can now better relate to our crew members. I was humbled by the experience and have an even greater respect for our crew since I’ve walked in their shoes.”

Each week, “Undercover Boss” follows a different executive as he or she leaves the comfort of the corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their companies.

While working alongside their employees, they see the effects that their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organizations and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their companies run.

My experiences on Norwegian Cruise Line have been pleasant and I look at them as being one of the innovators in cruise travel.

They have a 44-year history of breaking the boundaries of traditional cruising, most notably with the introduction of Freestyle Cruising ,which has revolutionized the industry by allowing guests more freedom and flexibility. They’re also the only company that has a ship based in Hawaii operating week-long cruses. Aloha!

I think that it is time for the Travel Professor to schedule a “College at Sea” course sailing on NCL with “Providing Knock Your Socks off Quality Customer Service as the core content. Let’s spend the days at sea in the classroom learning how to master the art of customer service!

We’ll return motivated, ready to train and mentor our co-workers then our business soar. Bring the family along and turn it into a working vacation. A win-win situation for everyone. Better yet we may be able to write a portion of the cruise class off as a business and/or educational professional development expense. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Happy travels and have a safe, prosperous New Year.