My husband and I found a vacation rental on the McKenzie River in Oregon that we have been enjoying for 6 years now. We love it because of the rushing water that you can hear at all times of the day, the outside lounging area where we watch and listen to the river, and the large stone fireplace inside that we sit by and play games. We have taken friends and family there over the years and always look forward to our next visit. However, a large part of the reason we continue to frequent this rental is the caretaker Randy Morrow. He has this way about him that makes us feel relaxed and comfortable, like when he tells us stories about the home, about his mother’s antique collection stored there, or about how the home offers a retreat for him whenever he needs a fishing fix. Each time we visit, I am amazed with his demeanor, and I always tried to pinpoint what it is about him that makes us feel so “at home.”
Finally after a few visits, I came to realize that what keeps us coming back year after year is his soft tone and his choice of words that makes him so authentic. Each time we arrive for a visit, Randy welcomes us with open arms (despite his hour commute, he always insists on being there for our arrival) and a warm fire. When we go through the initial walk-through, he reminds us of the quirks of the 1924 home. When he talks to us, he uses phrases such as, “If you choose to enjoy the hot tub, the temperature stays warmest when the cover is on during times that it isn’t in use.” He doesn’t use phrases like “you must,” “you need to” or “you have to.” His tone is gentle and his words are calming and respectful. He also extends our check-in and check-out time if no one other vacationers have reserved the home on our arrival and departure days.
The vacation rental experience that we had in New Orleans, however, was a stark contrast to our experiences with the home in Oregon. We rented a nice apartment on the edge of the French Quarter with easy access to the attractions we wanted to experience. Here, we had spotty Wi-Fi and multiple hard line policies. We were told (yes, told) about the policies and about what we could and could not do; nothing was suggested to us in the manner that Randy uses. We did not have any parking options, we could not check-in earlier than 4:00 p.m., we had to arrive at 4:00 p.m. sharp to meet the housekeeper (who didn’t speak any English, so we weren’t able to ask any questions regarding the apartment), and we had to be out of the property by 10:00 a.m. sharp. These firm policies were communicated at the time of booking, a week prior to our arrival and on the days of check-in and check-out. Although the apartment itself was nice, the repeated mentioning of the policies and the lack of hospitality were off putting. Since then, we have not gone out of our way to suggest this place to friends and family, and if we return to New Orleans, we won’t go out of our way to rent from this particular vacation home owner again. The firm policies set in place and reinforced time and time again affected our vacation as well as our overall experience in New Orleans.
Little nuisances make a big difference in people’s perceptions and experience with your company or organization whether they are guests or employees. It is important to pay attention to the words we use. I call it warm words vs. cold words. Randy doesn’t say, “you must,” “you need to,” or “you have to.” No one really likes to be told what to do. When employees are new, I notice that they focus really hard on making sure they know the policies and they are quick to state and reinforce them. The next level of their education and training should be, outlining the grey areas of those policies, calling them guidelines with a soft and gentle tone. When can guidelines bend or be broken? How can you turn someone’s bad experience around with the little things that make people smile? There is a ton of grey in customer service and being empowered to see what makes top level customer service experience. Another cold word that I hear more, is “property.” This word is like nails on a chalk board for me. Vacation rentals are an emotional transaction and experience for someone to enjoy their time away. We are selling homes to people for a couple days up to months and we want it to feel like it will be their home for that time period.
I am reminded of these tips in the book, Start Your Own Business, the staff of Entrepreneur Media Inc.; outline the importance of focusing on repeat business. They touch on the following ways to keep your business at the top of the consumer’s mind.
Having empathy for other people is a true art. Some research says that you are either born with it or you are not. I can say that I was not born with it and I did not have it until my early 30s. I grew up in the hospitality industry. I watched my parents work evenings and holidays throughout my life. So it was very natural for me to not have empathy when I entered the restaurant industry and employees would ask for holidays off to spend with their families. I continued the family cycle of working long hours and not spending holidays with my family and fully dedicated to my career. It wasn’t until I had what I call, “Life Challenges” come up when I owned my event planning business that I began to shift and have empathy for others. I lost my grandparents and father in a 2 year time frame along with experiencing a major medical challenge and a divorce. It was then that I started to look at people differently. When I saw someone acting out, whether it was saying mean words to others or yelling, I started to wonder, what was going on in their life? All I could think was that they were having probably one of the worst days of their lives. I knew what that felt like to be brought to your knees with grief and wonder if I was going to be able to get through the pain and anger. This feeling was empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Keeping in mind it wasn’t sympathy, feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. The two are very different and sympathy does not have the same impact as empathy when working with people. From my experience with empathy, I know that it can be learned through life challenges. Yet, what if you are someone who doesn’t have empathy and your life has been very easy, without any life challenges? It can be learned if someone wants to grow their personal skills. Maybe they see there is more to life and they want to be better within themselves and for their family. If this is the case and they have the desire, they can learn empathy. If you are one of these people, I recommend paying attention each time you have negative thoughts about people and stopping yourself during those negative thoughts. Stop and ask yourself, is this person having the worse day of their life? Think about what that must feel like. Keeping in mind that we are all different and one person’s worst day might be having their car break down whereas another person’s worst day might be being told they have cancer with one year to live and they don’t know how they are going to tell their husband and two toddlers. Feel the empathy for the other person in your heart. This is an art and it takes practice and discipline.
According to Roman Krznaric as outlined in his article “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” we can cultivate empathy throughout our lives and use it as a radical force for social transformation.
Habit 1: Cultivate Curiosity about Strangers-Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own.
Habit 2: Challenge Prejudices and Discover Commonalities-Challenge your own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what you share with people rather than what divides you.
Habit 3: Try Another Person’s Life-Expand your empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”
Habit 4: Listen Hard-and Open Up-“It is essential to be present to what’s really going on within-to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that moment,” according to Marshall Rosenbergy, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication. Then followed by making yourself vulnerable by removing your masks and revealing your feelings to someone. This is vital for creating a strong empathic bond.
Habit 5: Inspire Mass Action and Social Change-Empathy happens at the level of individuals yet empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change.
Habit 6: Develop an Ambitious Imagination-Empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way.
As hospitality industry leaders, we have the ability to have a positive impact on many people that we encounter. I encourage you to practice the art of empathy for your own well-being and to spread positivity out into our world.
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” by Daniel H. Pink
Having grown up in the Hospitality Industry, I was taught to always put the guest’s needs first. This mindset then flowed into putting everyone’s needs first. This included characteristics such as watching my tone and words to ensure that I am never offending anyone. Examples include not saying “you should” or “you need to” when talking with people, after all, who likes to be told what to do? Even overworking myself to ensure the guest’s expectations were over exceeded. Yet in all of my efforts to ensure everyone else is taken care of first, I forgot how to take care of myself. Obviously I am capable of simple hygiene and ensuring that I appear professional, especially in the guest’s eyes. Yet I am talking about emotional care. After recently listening to a reservation sales agent share that she cried about how she was talked to by a customer, I wondered how I could help her. The concept that came to mind, was “not taking things personally”, when encountering a challenging customer or some random person who decides to take their bad day out on the next person they encounter. For years I have been beating myself up, wondering what I did or what I could have done differently to ensure they liked me, just like this agent… In the end, it wasn’t about me. I think it is very easy for us “pleasers” to get in this mindset. At a certain point I made a change to take care of myself first.
I would like to introduce a book that offers hospitality “pleasers” a way of providing self-care AND giving top notch service to everyone. This book is called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Following are Don Miguel Ruiz’s agreements.
We are living in interesting times with new territory when it comes to customer service. More than ever, the customer has a voice and they are using it. Those customers that might not say anything about not being happy at the time of their service experience are now using their voices on Social Media websites. Websites that are reaching large audiences and those audiences are listening! Consumers have many options these days and they don’t have to do business with companies that don’t make them feel valued. Then there are customers that are saying something to the company about their unpleasant experience and following up with Social Media outbursts after if they didn’t get the answers they wanted.
So the question is… what should companies do? First, hire the best company representatives you can find, making sure that company values align with the representative. Communicate company values consistently by walking the talk. Then continue to have a pulse on your business. Do you really know what your representatives are saying to the customer? I am not saying listen to every call or micromanage all of their communicate pieces. Yet I promise you that if you listen to a handful of calls and find that your representatives are not acting in line with the company values, there are many more calls where they are saying the same things. Then follow up with coaching your representatives and have continued training on how to work with challenging guests. Ensuring that they understand what company guidelines are flexible so that customers aren’t constantly being told “no” due to company policies.
So what do we do when everything was good with the experience in the beginning and then something bad happens? A human error that can happen to anyone of us takes place. Let’s use the example of a vacation rental management company overbooking situation.
Step 1: Apologize for the situation and any inconvenience that your guest is going to feel. Making sure you are sympathetic and communicating this by phone and not over a voicemail or email.
Step 2: Listen to their reaction. If they scream, let them scream. If they cry, practice active listening between their tears and gasping for air. Active listening, being, don’t be so quiet that they think you hung up on them.
Step 3: Have a couple of solutions to the problem. This could be different dates for their stay or another place for them to stay during the same time. Let them select the option that works best for them so they feel empowered with a situation that can make guests feel helpless and frustrated. Keeping in mind to only offer two fair options, this way they don’t feel overwhelmed with making a decision that they didn’t see coming.
Step 4: Offer atonement. A gift certificate at a favorite local restaurant, ski lift tickets or whitewater rafting, etc… Since your reservation sales agent was such a super star, they have great notes on the reservation outlining details about the guests that will help in deciding what gift certificate would be the best fit. I know that everyone says do a discount for your next stay so they will be sure to come back… I disagree. Give them something that will create a memory that they might not have had if you hadn’t given it to them. That will go much further in their loyalty then making them feel like they have to stay with you again.
Step 5: Keep your promise. Set up the new reservation for them, with special notes that they are VIPs. Get them the gift certificate that was decided on with a hand written note thanking them for being so understanding.
Step 6: Follow up. Call them during their stay with someone else or with your company, making sure that they received their gift certificate and ask how they are enjoying their stay so far. This piece is one of the most crucial and forgot steps. It can be scary, because they might say that they aren’t happy. Yet it is a crucial step to the recovery process.
Always keep in mind that customers complain because they want to keep doing business with you, they just don’t want it to be so painful when doing so. Spin the customer challenges around and see them as opportunities for growth instead of one more upset customer that you have to deal with. In true entrepreneurial spirit, that is why you own your own business, right?
“Life is Relationships; the rest is just details”. The DiJulius Group
When I think about the topic, “Providing Excellent Customer Service”, the first thing that comes to mind is my favorite quote, “Everyone’s Perception is Their Own Reality.” So really, excellent customer service will look different to every customer we encounter. Some people may feel excellent customer service is smiling often and asking them how their day is going. Others may feel it is going above and beyond, such as sharing insider knowledge about secret beaches in the area or a home that includes beach passes that usually cost $20 a day per car. What we are really talking about is managing customer’s expectations so the service they receive is perceived as excellent. The question is how do you as a company ensure that customers walk away saying, “Wow, that was excellent service. “ So much so that the customer decides to write a review or make a post on social media. My recommendation is to implement “Surprising and Delighting” as described in Dave Kerpen’s book, Likeable Business. Surprising and Delighting is another level of service that requires a very active listener who strives to under promise and over deliver. Following are some examples of what this could look like for a Vacation Rental Management Company.
The potential customer is looking for a vacation rental, yet has not made a decision and needs to go back and talk with the rest of the group. Instead of just waiting for the potential customer to shop your competition, ask to setup a time to follow up with them by phone and answer any additional questions the group might have. It is very surprising how many customers embrace this type of follow up. After hanging up, take the time to send them an email with details of the conversation and suggested rentals as well as what is going on in the area while they are visiting. This sets the tone for how their vacation experience will be, showing that it will be easy and seamless to make the reservation and then will be the same once they arrive. It always starts off with the first impression.
The caller shares that they are flying from the East Coast to the West Coast and arriving late at the vacation rental. The reservation sales agent is then able to offer from their concierge service, a delivery of food already in the refrigerator, for some late night snacks when they get in or even a few breakfast items, until they have time to go grocery shopping. Even if the customer is not interested, a simple gesture of some coconut water for dehydration from traveling and a few Emergency packets so they get their morning off to a healthy start.
The caller shares that their group coming to stay will be driving back and forth to a nearby city and is concerned about traffic. Of course on the phone, there are helpful tips given. Then as a surprise and delight, the company leaves in the home a map of the area with the city they will be driving back and forth to, with highlighted routes to use to avoid traffic and the best times to travel those routes.
The caller shares that they are coming to do some fishing in the area. When they arrive they are greeted by a few fliers on great fishing holes, along with a hand written note on some secret fishing spots and then some secret fishing bait in the refrigerator.
A fun activity for companies is to have a meeting where the staff gathers to discuss different customer profiles and how to surprise and delight each customer profile with a simple touch to make their experience pleasurable.
My favorite story of excellent customer service was where this customer frequented a hotel and was a serious coca cola drinker. The next time he checked in to his hotel, there was a six pack of coca cola waiting for him in the room with a note that they appreciated his business.
“A true leader always keeps an element of surprise up his sleeve, which others cannot grasp but which keeps his public excited and breathless.” – Charles de Gaulle
I encourage you to find ways to surprise and delight your customers!