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Discovering Service

Posted by A Colin Treadwell on 8/1/2017
Posted in: Musings From Colin Treadwell
Tags: Travel

My wife returned home the other day with a handful of packages, breaking into conversation as she came through the doorway.

“I stopped at that store we don’t like,” she told me. I knew what she meant. The little convenience store a block from our home had been our go-to place for a generation. We saw it pass from father to son. We knew each other on a first-name basis.

Then one day they sold to a chain. The new owners upgraded it, made some changes and put into action a strategy to make the store more profitable. They were smart alright, but they weren’t friendly. They seemed uptight. They would barely respond to attempts to be friendly.

“I would say ‘Hello!’” my wife said, “and nothing. I would say, ‘Thank you!’ – and nothing. They wouldn’t even look at me.”

Discovering ServiceWe were used to casually making a purchase and greeting a neighbour. To suddenly confront people who seemed to regard you as only the next sale was unpleasant. They seemed almost hostile, like alien invaders. So we stopped going there.

But on this day my wife had almost arrived home when she realized she had forgotten the wine. She was near the corner store and could either stop there or walk back to another store. She stopped for a moment, reluctant to enter. Then she went in.

But this time it was different.

“They had this new guy there, a young guy – and he was so nice!” she said, looking slightly amazed. “He smiled at me. He said hello. And when I brought the wine to the counter, he said, ‘Would you like that cold?’ And he went and got it for me.”

She was slayed. Her sales resistance melted like a snowball on the August concrete. They had won a loyal customer they would probably have a hard time shaking.

Good for them, I thought. Was that so hard? Just to be nice? And how much difference does it make to the customers and how they feel?

It took me years to understand how important service is. Now that I understand the importance of this simple principle, I feel bad when I find myself doing business with a company that doesn’t get it.

It’s not just that I don’t like being treated badly, though of course I don’t. But I also feel sorry for the company and the individual for not having made this discovery, for missing an opportunity to make their work more enjoyable while also making their business more successful.

It is the transcendent dimension of business, an area of potential growth that does not require a capital investment, only the incorporation of an idea. In today’s competitive business environment, service is more important than ever.

My corner store experience was as close as you get to a laboratory test case for observing the principles of service in action. One store, two starkly different styles of customer service.

In travel, that principle is multiplied many times over, because the travel industry is arguably the most service-centric industry of all. When you travel, you spend most of your time in service environments where you rely on others to do things you may at home do for yourself.

When you travel the principle of service is playing out around you in multiple layers of activity, at every restaurant, every hotel, every attraction and in between as you use transportation. Practically everything you do is impinged upon by other people in service positions. And if too many of those experiences are unpleasant, it will wear you down, and lower your capacity to enjoy your trip.

It is called the hospitality industry for good reason. It is almost entirely about service, only fractionally about goods.

These practices are handed down and modified from the earliest times. Hospitality was one of the first businesses, going back to when the first settlements were established, creating the dynamic balance between nomadic life, settlement life and trade that has been with us throughout history. It all goes back to being a good host.

Some people intuitively understand the principles of service. Some cultures are particularly adept at it. A hotelier in India told me that in his culture being a good host was the highest source of pride. To make your guest happy was one of the greatest honors and pleasures possible.

For a person who believes that, making you feel good makes him feel good. Not everyone feels that way. I have encountered people whose attitude is more like: “Why should I serve you? You are no better than me.” People who feel that way shouldn’t be involved in service.

After kindness and caring, the next indispensable component of good service is treating customers as individuals. How great do you feel when you walk into a restaurant and the maitre d’ greets you by name and tells you he has your favourite table waiting?

On top of that foundation each profession must develop its own specific professional standards for its particular kind of business. That’s where the hard work begins.

An analysis I read recently showed that there were 400 service encounters in a seven-day trip. If even one of them goes wrong, it can have a significant effect on the traveller’s experience.

That’s how important service is, how detailed the study and practice of service can be, and how much I appreciate good service in whatever context I encounter it.

Speaking to some of my friends who have worked for years in the tour industry, I compiled a list of some of the main principles of service as they apply to a tour operator.

 Great Service is…

  • Doing the right thing. Even if it costs money. It will pay dividends over time with trust and loyalty.
  • Treating customers as individuals. Travellers should not feel like they are treated as a group. Each person should be addressed by name and treated no differently than if they were travelling independently.  
  • Authentic personal interaction. Communications should be from one individual to another. Not from a company, but from a person you can get to know. A letter should not sound like it’s written by a marketing department. 
  • Attention to detail. Excellence sets companies apart and it takes a lot of hard work. It comes down to getting it right and being able to do that time and time again. Consistency is part and parcel of attention to detail.
  • Anticipating needs. Nothing is more pleasing than not having to ask for something, but having it anticipated and provided. This could be anything from an umbrella to a bottle of water.
  • Surprise and delight. They make a huge difference. It’s those little unexpected things, whether it’s a book on your bed as a turndown present or an unexpected access behind the scenes.
  • Consistent standard of quality. People do not want you to spend their money needlessly. Sometimes an inexpensive meal, like a lobster at a picnic table on a dock with a bottle of beer, can be just as satisfying as a five-star restaurant. What’s important is that there’s a standard based on the value of the experience, not necessarily the cost of the experience.

That is great service.

On that note, I bid you adieu.

Farewell and Happy Travels.

Your humble reporter,

A. Colin Treadwell

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