The Culture of Service

My recent trip to Europe yielded many new perspectives. One of the biggest things I learned was around the notion of “service” and my expectations as a Canadian guest/customer.

Customer and visitor experiences are complex, but most agree that the journey starts with expectations. Coming up to my trip to France, Germany, and the UK,  many people warned me about France.  Through close friends (including someone who is French, raised in France) I had been warned many times to expect rudeness. A couple of days before my trip, an acquaintance posted a picture on Facebook of striking Louvre security staff with a caption around how of all the places he had visited, Paris was his least favourite (along with some expletives). The frustration was palpable. 

Based on this expectation I was overwhelmed at how pleasant my interactions in France were! To be fair, I stayed in an Airbnb for the majority of the time. And maybe it’s because I speak the language — but I found Parisians to be friendly and helpful; albeit I had to engage them a little more than at home. I was worried service staff would snob my French but … pas du tout! We ate lunch in a high end restaurant with no reservations (I walked in drenched from the rain, two kids I tow); nothing but polite and attentive service. We had pastries in a very popular touristy cafe and my gratuity was met with sincere appreciation. The ladies who worked at Berthillion waved us over when they saw us joining a longer line-up across the street, yelling “we sell the same ice cream here!”

Exceptional service is proactive and ‘wows’ the guest. An experience with what I would call “service excellence” took place at Gare de L’est train station in Paris. Their customer service desk prioritized people leaving on a train same day, using a “take a number” kiosk with a welcome screen in all languages, where “are you leaving today?” is the first question. While waiting for my number to be called an agent approached, asked what language I spoke, and reviewed my tickets (my concern was that the seat numbers looked like I would be sitting apart from my young kids). She quickly explained how the numbers worked, assured me we would be together, was proactive in explaining the boarding process, and mentioned that if I had any issues to ask the conductor who would be in the car.

Adequate service is not enough. By contrast, I had a very tough time in Germany. The restaurant where we ate dinner in Frankfurt our first night was efficient, but not friendly. The two servers engaged in the classic chit chat with each other, their backs turned to the dining room while we were waiting on drinks, our bill. It was a buffet, so not much service took place to begin with. I paid in cash with a 10% gratuity and the server seemed to wait, pointedly, for me to put more money in the tray. A hard pass from me.

Customers go through an emotional journey with a brand or destination. The following day we had a very stressful time at the Frankfurt station. We slept in a hotel across the street to ensure a smooth morning and arrived with more than an hour to our stated departure time for a train to Nürnberg. I searched in vain to find a kiosk to print my tickets as advised in my booking email. After lining up at information and chancing upon a sign at the front stating “we do not issue tickets” I trucked over to the travel office with my four-year-old in tow, advising my nine-year-old to sit on our bags and not move for any reason.

NOTaticket
I’m pretty clear this is not a ticket. 

I walked into the travel centre and, upon entering my info into the kiosk, I received an error message. A staff person tried to help, but couldn’t figure it out. So I went up to take a number. The machine was broken (according to the sign) so a woman handed me a printed number from behind her counter. While the number was random, after 30 minutes I noticed that other passengers seemed to be prioritized. I inquired at the desk – did they advance people traveling same day? I was met with a firm no.

Finally my number was called after 45 minutes. Had I known the wait would have been so long I would have run back to check on my daughter but I had to trust she was okay or risk losing my spot.

What took place at the counter was frustrating. I took notes as soon as I could because it was so antithetical to everything taught in service courses I still struggle to unpack it:

Me: “Hello, do you speak English?”

Ticket Agent: “Yes.”

Me: “My train is leaving in 20 minutes and I need to print my tickets. I’m a little stressed out because my daughter is sitting with our bags at the other end of the station. The kiosk didn’t work, can you help me?” (presents cell phone with email on screen)

Ticket Agent: (reviews email quickly) “This is your ticket”.

Me: ‘No, it says on the email to print it at the kiosk at the train station, but the kiosk didn’t work.”

TA: “You should use this email as your ticket.”

Me: “It says this is not a ticket.” (gestures to “this document is not valid for travel” in the email.)

TA: “I cannot help you, this is not a (rail company name) issued email. You should have purchased the ticket direct from us.”

Me: “I see. I didn’t know that when I was in Canada. But this is for a (rail company name) train. Perhaps you could look me up by name since the number didn’t work?”

TA: (enters last name) “No you are not in our system. You should call the number on your email.”

Me: “I’m afraid that’s not going to help with the train leaving so soon. Can you try something else?”

TA: “No, I’m sorry, you should have bought the ticket from our website. There is a number in your email and you can call it.”

Me: “Yes, I’m sorry but its the middle of the night in North America. Isn’t your company running the train?”

TA: (Blank stare).

Me: “I see your company logo, but there are other train companies operating out of this station. Do I have the wrong one? Who is in charge of the train?”

TA: “I don’t know what that means.”

Me: (holding back tears) “When I fly on an airplane, let’s say it’s an Air Canada flight. Or a Lufthansa flight. Those are the airlines in charge of the flight. Is your company not operating the train today?”

Finally another agent came to figure out what I was asking. She asked to see my email, and after insisting that yes, I had the correct company, and that the email was my ticket (and then being shown it was not a ticket) she asked me to go and use the kiosk as directed in the email.

Me: (looking at clock, more tears of frustration in my eyes) “the kiosk is the first thing I tried an hour ago and your colleague over there told me to come to this area”.

The second agent then re-scrolled through the email and quickly found another number next to my name. Bingo. Tickets were printed, put in an envelope, and handed to me without a word.

With paperwork in hand, I grabbed my daughter, loaded up with bags, and we made our way to the platform. It was rather busy, and as I scanned the tickets I noticed I did not have any boarding information comparable to my prior trip. No seats, no car. After flagging down a staff member on the platform, he told me how to watch for the correct car (those marked second class on the overhead sign) and that as a ‘no reservation’ passenger I would have to find a free seat. When we boarded it was another set of issues.

The journey with a brand involves multiple touchpoints. After being kicked out of the first set of seats, I placed the kids in one apparently free spot with our bags piled up and walked through the car to find the conductor. After waiting for him to scan tickets at the front and confirming he spoke English I asked how to identify a free seat.

Conductor: “You need to find an empty seat.”

Me: “Many of the seats are empty but they appear to belong to passengers.”

Conductor: “An empty one!”

Me: (Blank stare)

Conductor: “Look above the seat, if it is …”. And here he broke into German words.

I roughly gathered what he was saying; that the seat needs to be empty and have a blank sign above it. Back into the car I went. Oof. No seats anywhere together. I found one kid a window seat next to an elderly lady (I lifted him over her to place him in the seat since she did not move). I plunked the other kid in a nearby reserved but unoccupied seat as I came to figure out that seat was reserved starting in Hanau, the next stop.

ItsASystem
Any guesses what this means? (I googled it afterwards).

All the other seats in the car were occupied. I took a moment to stand with the rest of our bags in the hallway by the restroom, sweating from the ordeal. At that moment the older woman walked my son up to me. He was in tears, he wanted me back in the car. I went back into the car to retrieve his things, thinking he could sit with me in the hallway while I devised a better plan or found more seats in another car. At that moment, a mother gave up her seat across from her daughter and moved to the unreserved seat. I sat my son in my lap, fed him lunch, put him back in the seat for a moment to move my daughter to the next car, and then moved her back again after we passed Hanau and the musical seats repeated.

For most of the rest of the time in Germany I was VFR* and thankfully didn’t have to concern myself with relying on service professionals. The friend I was staying with was quick to sympathize, having had similar experiences herself. Her husband tried to explain this could have all been avoided had I booked directly with the railway — until I showed him the search results as they appeared on my phone. Ten links to third parties before the direct option showed up. He agreed at the very least they could benefit from some SEO and AdWords.

The customer is frequently wrong. I know how frustrating it can be, as a service agent, to have guests who haven’t done their homework (as clearly I had not). But as tourism professionals, it’s our job to orient customers to our processes in a friendly way. So I would invite the staff of that train company to check out the following steps of service recovery, and stat:

  1. Apologize. You can be sorry for the person, and their situation, without having personally caused it. “I’m sorry you’re having issues.”
  2. Attune. Get in touch with the person’s emotional state. “It must be stressful travelling in a foreign country with young children.”
  3. Take ownership. To the best of your ability, commit to solving the problem. “I am going to do my best to find a solution.
  4. Determine the cause and scope out options. “It appears your ticket was issued by a third party travel company. I’m not totally familiar with their procedures. Let me take a minute to read through this email.”
  5. Offer options. “First let me try all the numbers in here to see if I can issue you a ticket. If that doesn’t work we may need to call the company that sent you the email. I can do this on your behalf or I can phone them and hand you the phone.”
  6. When in doubt, proactively call on your team. “Before we call them, why don’t I see if a colleague has encountered a similar problem.”
  7. Be ready to ‘eat’ the costs to make it right. “Even though we didn’t cause this problem, we will issue you your tickets and deal with this at our end.”
  8. Help the customer avoid the same problem in the future. “Going forward, here is a brochure with how to book trains using our website.”
  9. Help the customer avoid any future problems working with your company. “Since you’re new to travelling with us, please note there are no seat numbers on your ticket. This means unreserved seating. Reserved seats will be indicated by a red light over the seat with the name of the passenger’s destination. Find seats with no red signs above them.”
  10. Ask the customer whether that solves their problem. “Now that you have your tickets and know how to find a seat, is there anything else I can do for you?”

Service challenges aren’t rocket science. But now that I’ve experienced this type of issue myself I feel even more pumped about customer service training back home!

Lol
PS: after my ordeal with the tickets, I ran into McDs to grab the kids’ lunch and naturally, they don’t have a customer bathroom; I actually laughed out loud. 

*VFR – visiting friends and relatives, not staying in hotels, and frequenting attractions and restaurants with the help of their local hosts

Giving Back: How volunteers shape a destination

I’m visiting a branch of my family tree for this post about the role of local volunteers in shaping a visitor’s experience.

Today’s post is about my mom, Patricia Fraser.

Born in Vancouver, and raised in Grand Forks, mom returned to the city in her 20s and hasn’t looked back. With her recent retirement offering up more spare time, and an enthusiasm for our hometown that can’t be beat, she was recently selected to be part of the Tourism Vancouver 200-volunteer strong visitor services team. I asked for her thoughts on the contribution she’s making to our industry.

TN: How did you become a Tourism Vancouver volunteer? 

(Before she can answer, a British couple come up the Skytrain escalator. Initially they say they aren’t looking for anything but after a moment it becomes clear they’ll need to know how to get to the airport.)

“This whole process started two years ago, when I was first getting ready to retire. I applied but it was the wrong time of year. The intake is in March, then you go for interviews, train in April, and you’re out here in May. This time I applied at the right time, with my resume and cover letter, and I was called in for an interview.  I also had to complete some short tests.

The season for us is pretty short, May to October.”

TN: What would you say is your motivation for doing this kind of work?

“Well, I live here and I like to see Vancouver do well and I think Tourism is a fantastic industry and I want it to succeed. Certainly being down here greeting people gives you an appreciation for the tourism business — and it is a business.

Plus it gets you out of the house, and you get to meet people from all over the world … and stand out in the rain (laughs).

You also get a cool jacket and a shirt and a hat.”

TN: What are the biggest perks of being a volunteer?

“Outside of the jacket and the hat? No, I’m kidding. The best and most surprising thing is this perk I didn’t even realize existed, something called the privilege card which gives you access to events and attractions. So, if I want to take my grandkids to Playland I can get in for half price. To get the card, volunteers and staff have to visit at least 15 attractions and two neighbourhoods and some hotels and things like that in order to complete their passport and get their privilege card.

Next year when I don’t have grandkids to babysit as often I want to get all 40 stamps!

And the whole idea of treating your city as if you were a tourist is so great, the 15 things I’ve done, I probably wouldn’t have done in five years let alone a few weeks. I thought the perks would just be giving back and doing something for the city, which certainly is happening but I didn’t think I would be rewarded in this way.”

TN: What’s the weirdest question you’ve gotten from a visitor?

(Laughs). “Just before my break I had a nice couple come up asking how much it costs to take the ferry to Vancouver Island. So I said ‘do you mean, to drive out to the ferry terminal outside the city and take the ferry for over an hour to get to Victoria?’

And of course no, they meant the Seabus to North Vancouver, which they thought was Vancouver Island.

Also people frequently gesture over to Stanley Park and say ‘oh, so that’s Vancouver Island?’ Which, it’s not (and also it’s a peninsula), but you can see where they might think that.

68DE03A5-3747-4E64-B164-E5BD1662711A
Good old fashioned metrics.

TN: How do you think Tourism Vancouver’s visitor services team shapes the guest experience?

I only see my end of it but I know there are wheels within wheels because of the whole tourism challenge, which is brilliant. All the different businesses and organizations that belong to Tourism Vancouver, all of the coordination, to get everyone involved in visiting others’ attractions, it must be quite the undertaking.

And the city is going to welcome 1.5 million visitors just through the cruise terminal this year, so to have us on the ground, waiting … you once told me about someone from Tourism Squamish saying they had to be like eagles, scooping the tourists up … well we’re kind of like that. Perched here, just waiting for people who have a need.

This morning there was a man grumbling about how ‘signage here is terrible’ and it was really affecting him, he was frustrated. Certainly the city has some challenges, some weaknesses and we’re the team on the ground filling in those weaknesses and solving the issues as they come up.

The volunteers themselves are always trying to find a way to spot things to address with guests. Today someone on my team said ‘make sure you stop people with suitcases on their way into the station’ because in their experience those visitors think this is the entrance to the Canada Line to the airport. I can redirect them to a better entrance.

And if someone has an hour you can send them to Flyover Canada and if they only have 15 minutes, you can send them down to Harbour Air to watch the float planes take off. Things like that.” 

TN: It’s 2019. No offence, but why couldn’t a kiosk offer what you do?

I just don’t see how it would be possible because what we do is proactive, rather than reactive. A lot of times we see people and they don’t know what they want. So we see people taking selfies and offer to take their photo together. We see someone who’s older with a walking difficulty like I have and I tailor the recommendation so they can avoid stairs. You see people who look confused and offer help.

And this is locals as well — today it’s a bunch of families looking for the dinosaurs which is over at VCC West. So a friendly face to recognize them and say “oh, are you looking for the dinosaurs?” on a rainy grey day, with all this congestion down at the terminal, it makes it better for everyone.

It’s great to be proactive where we can. One of the issues with cruises, sometimes people are used to being accosted with salespeople as they disembark in other ports, things like time shares, so I have to tell them I’m a volunteer right up front. 

On our lunch break these two ladies saw our uniforms and asked about changing money and we had a list handy, as well as letting them know how to withdraw Canadian cash from an ATM. We also mentioned to them that the currency exchanges might have limited hours or be closed — we know it’s a holiday, but they don’t.

(At this moment mom spotted a couple looking at the transit map. She directed them to the Seabus terminal and gave them a tip on how to watch the city spring up around them from a particular seat.)

So there’s an example of a couple who thought that this was the entrance to the Seabus when it’s much better to walk around to the main station entrance.

People don’t know when they’re taking the bus they can use their credit card, but it’s one card per person and you can proactively tell them these things you pick up along the way.

And ultimately we can direct them to the full service Visitor Centre around the corner where there are many languages spoken, they have salaried staff there ready to help and even offer them ticket purchases and deals on attractions.

So I think that kiosks and technology can play a part but there’s nothing like have a person, a resident, who’s giving of themselves for free, explaining the best way to get something done.”

That’s my mom’s take on the role of volunteering in the visitor experience. For more info on Tourism Vancouver’s volunteer opportunities visit https://www.tourismvancouver.com/about/volunteer/ 

Does your community use volunteers to enhance the guest experience? Share your feedback in the comments. 

Back-to-School (already overcommitted)

So in case your Facebook feed didn’t pile up with pictures of little back-to-schoolers on Tuesday, I’m here to remind you it’s that time of year again!

It’s the time of year I:

  1. Completely panic
  2. Realize that I am the teacher
  3. Promise not to take on too much
  4. Take on way too much

Here’s a list of commitments that I entered into over the summer, and am now realizing might be impossible to meet:

  • Elected member of the BCIT Education Council (EdCo)
  • Member of the programming committee
  • New volunteer at Kudoz
  • Volunteer member for the BC Hospitality Foundation scholarship committee
  • Member of a cool new committee to do with the Tourism Industry Conference (TIC is my jam, as you know)
  • Member of the selection committee for a new Associate Dean for our department
  • And assistant coach of the marketing team for JDC West

Of these, I have decided to drop the last item (coaching) because mercifully another (more qualified) volunteer stepped forward out of the woodwork. That’s great, because as an instructor I’m now having to go from public speaking hibernation to ‘on’ several hours a day. And plan. And prep. And parent. Also apparently I have a social life?

Don’t let the calm-and-poised instagram post fool you, folks, I’m low-key freaking out over here. Next post I hope to address some (relatively healthy) ways I’m trying to cope with the stress.

What are your ways of dealing with back-to-school stress? Hit me up in the comments.

 

 

The future of tourism: social cultural enterprises

One of the best experiences of my trip to Vietnam was participating in a cooking class called Oodles of Noodles run by Streets International in Hoi An.
Doang was the first up from the Oodles of Noodles team. She taught us about the program and asked us to “please correct our English so we can learn”. Throughout the experience all the hosts were very good at interacting with the group. “We need your help to learn. You will do that, yes?” “Yes!” we all promised.
Next we watched a short documentary about Neal Bermas’ vision for Streets International. They conducted research to find the right city and chose Hoi An due to the high levels of visitation and its history as a multicultural port and culinary destination. Their goal is to launch careers in hospitality.
The program provides participants with full health care, lodging, and three meals a day. These are orphans, children from HIV backgrounds, or formerly trafficked and prostituted people. The facility has a working kitchen, a classroom for culinary lessons (both internal and external, like ours), and a 16-station computer lab for learning English.
The cooking class that followed the program description was immersive and entertaining.
Nho
Nho the noodle expert

A young woman named Nho taught us about noodles and I now consider myself a rice noodle expert. Dai from Hanoi did a demo which was also broadcast on a TV for the people at the back.
M Nhi is from close to Sapa. She taught us to count down in Vietnamese as well as guided us through the noodle making process at our table. Our noodles were combined with a charcoal broiled variety to make a smash cake which made a delicious appetizer.
The tables were then wiped down and we were served the local specialty prepared by the culinary students.The entire group agreed that the meal, the service, and the cleanliness of the facility far exceeded anything we had experienced so far.
Streets International also runs a restaurant, one that is designed to stand on its own. The servers, hosts, and culinary team are all program participants.
Recognizing that front-of-house trainees receive the lion’s share of immersive language and hosting experience, Streets International also partners with local tour operators to offer tours led by back of house staff. These tours allow budding chefs to take guests through Hoi An, where they practice English and share the culinary history of the destination.
Intake for this program is every nine months. So far 250+ youth have graduated and there are more job offers (high end restaurants, resorts, etc) than graduates. A second location recently opened in Hanoi.
My experience of Hoi An was one of a busy destination, one where popular sites were choked with tourists barely grasping the significance of what they were seeing. While at times I experienced the dreaded ‘overtourism’, the afternoon spent at Ooodles of Noodles was educational and entertaining – all while making a difference in the lives of young people.
This is the future of the industry as far as I’m concerned and a model for tourism done right. I’ve already challenged my soon-to-be tourism graduates back home to explore this model and see how they could bring it to BC.

Travel Through Tough Times

I’ve been going through a tough time lately in my personal life. It’s not something I can share about here … but I’m okay, the people I love are okay, and it’s going to be okay.

That said, this rough patch is starting to make me reflect on the way travel can be used to get through tough times just like these.

It’s not always possible to go vagabond when the going gets rough – but just the promise of a future trip is something that can help us get through.

For me, it’s a tour I booked last August that doesn’t take place until March 2018: my daughter and I are going to Vietnam!

It started as an attempt to plan an intergenerational journey with my dad and the planning ended with just the two of us signing on the dotted line. We’ll catch dad on the next one.

Ah, Vietnam! For twelve days my little girl and I are going to eat noodles, swim, visit monuments and historical sites, sleep on a boat, take an overnight train and hop a puddle jumper over rice paddies. We’re going to practice our French if we can, and eat all the pho. Did I mention there will be noodles?

When I get through a long day of teaching and come home to a pile of marking – only to be faced with another personal hurdle –  I go over to the G-Adventures site and read through our itinerary.

Travel gives us hope. It gives us something to look forward to. And, yet again, I’m reminded why I work in the best industry on earth.