Effective Customer Service Program
It Can Be Done in Any Economy

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Worried about the effects of a depressed economy on this year's ski season? I have one question for you: WWYDIAWO? (What would you do in a white out?) Seriously. If there's one group of people who knows how to get themselves out of gnarly situations, it's skiers and snowboarders. So ask yourself right now, what would your customer service program do? Would you just keep skiing or boarding along with nary a care in the world? Or would you pause for a few minutes to take a good hard look around?

Still with me? Let's say the current economic meltdown is your white out. On clear and sunny days you're so busy charging ahead, there's little time to stop, assess the situation and make adjustments or improvements in your customer service program. But right now the bad economy is a swirling cloud that's obstructing your view. It's forcing you to stop charging ahead and have a good hard look around. And one of the things you're seeing, maybe more clearly than ever, is how the people at your resort interact with your customers. You witness, for example, a less-than-brilliant exchange between an employee and a customer. You're shocked and surprised. You think, "Gosh, I thought that guy (or gal) was better than that." And you want to do something about it. Right now.

Luckily, an exceptional customer service program is one of the few things that doesn't necessarily require you to spend large amounts of money. The fact is you can greatly improve your resort's level of customer service in any economy. In doing so, you can develop ardent customer advocates who ensure your revenues keep coming in no matter what the economic weather may be.

Build yourself a substantial base Just as great runs are built an inch of snow pack at a time, smooth, consistent customer service requires a carefully built foundation. It's surprising how many resort leaders believe a great customer service program is something that is merely applied to the surface of an organization. You make a simple pronouncement, "Smiles everyone!" and marvelous customer service magically appears.

The truth is, for a customer service program to be authentic it must be strategically implanted in the resort's bones. And that requires planning. Just as you have detailed plans for lift operations, grooming, marketing, accounting and F&B you need a detailed plan for a customer service program. It must be a plan that describes how stellar customer service will be incorporated into every business area and job function. Whether an individual is in a customer facing position or works behind the scenes serving "internal customers" your customer service program should nail down clear and measurable objectives for how that person can and will positively affect the overall service your guests receive.

Every job is a customer service job Got a plan? Okay, now take a look at your resort's job descriptions. Do they talk about customers? Sure, most probably contain a one-liner that says something like "provide customers with great service" but how many of those job descriptions actually place customers front and center? Most of the job descriptions I've seen in the past 25 years provide detailed explanations of the daily duties that will be required in a job function. But few of them speak directly to the individual's responsibilities when it comes to carrying out the customer service program. This is particularly true of "internal customer" or corporate office job positions.

Have you ever seen a mention of customer service in an accounting job description? Yet who would deny that there are few things more annoying than an incorrect bill, an unexplained charge or a hassle when you attempt to have an error corrected? Your General Manager can be the most charming person in the world but if the bill is wrong and it's difficult to get fixed, the gig is up. The point is, guest experiences are influenced as much by employees who work behind the scenes as they are by those who deal with customers face to face. Anyone who has ever been told, "We can't do that" by a service team member can probably trace the reason back to an internal employee with little or no understanding of how his or her actions impact the organization's ability to deliver exceptional customer service. Bottom line? If you want your organization to care about customers, the customer service program has to be front and center in every job description and every job.

The fine art of interviewing In my experience, resorts that have the most successful customer service program do a couple of key things during the hiring process that make all the difference in the world. First, the folks in Human Resources involve the supervisors and managers in serious discussions about the job skills and personality traits required to be successful in each position. Second, those in supervisory roles within the organization are provided with training that instructs them in the best way to interview potential employees.

This type of training in a customer service program can, for example, help a supervisor understand the important difference between a skill and a trait. A skill is something that can be learned and may be essential to the job position. A trait is a dimension of the applicant's personality that can affect the success of the resort overall. For example, a senior lift mechanic must possess the ability to repair and maintain a lift's mechanical parts. An unskilled interviewer might stop the questioning once he or she has discerned that an applicant has these skills. But that could be a big mistake. While traits like "caring" "cheerful," and "good communicator" aren't necessarily the first things that spring to mind when you think of a great lift mechanic, those traits become very important when that mechanic encounters a resort guest while en route to repair a broken lift. If the mechanic has the right traits, he or she will have the customer's safety, comfort and enjoyment in mind - whether he's riding past skiers on his snowmobile or is in the engine room repairing a mechanical issue.

Learning to listen to that gut reaction to a job applicant who looks great on paper but somehow isn't quite right for the job can be difficult. That's why training your people to interview well is essential. A customer service program which trains every leader in your organization to focus on the necessary traits, and not just on the tactics and skills required for job positions, you can reduce employee turnover thus saving yourself time and money and directly affect guest experiences.

Now that's what I'm talking about Providing great service across your organization requires a customer service program to create an ongoing dialog around service in every business area. I recently had a client who, as part of customer service program, sent groomers out on the slopes to ask customers what they thought of how the runs were groomed. The results were amazing. The groomers developed a deep concern for pleasing the guests. They felt accountable to the people who mattered most, the customers. The guests felt pride in having participated in the creation of the smooth, even corduroy on their favorite runs. And they bragged to their friends about the experience. What's more, the practice of interacting with guests also created a platform for the grooming manager to promote an ongoing dialog about customers. "Bryce, why don't you share with the team what you heard on your customer day out yesterday."

The bottom line? To create a culture of customer service (that foundation we discussed earlier) dialog with and about customers needs to permeate the everyday conversations of everyone from the corner office to the far corner of the parking lot. Once you've got the customer service program going, you need to make sure it keeps going.

Keeping the momentum high In a down economy customers are harder to find. And the ones who do come for a visit need to be treated in a way that keeps them coming back and telling their friends about you. So while it might be tempting to cut your training budget right now, such a move could put an end to the essential customer service program you worked so hard to build - and result in nothing less than customer service suicide.

The very act of gathering teams together to learn new skills keeps the customer service program going strong and motivates them to do more in their day-to-day work. Working with your resort's leaders to align their teams to the goal of continuously improving service is equally essential.

Ongoing customer service training on every level creates an ongoing customer service dialog. A ubiquitous and ongoing dialog creates exceptional customer service. And exceptional service creates loyal customer advocates, reduces costs and builds efficiency. Bottom line? In a down economy, customer service program planning, communications and training are absolutely essential to your bottom line.

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