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

Relocalization: The “Roots” Trip

On August 20th, 1954, the SS Groote Beer docked in Quebec City and my two-year-old father disembarked alongside his family to start their life in Canada. My Opa made the decision to leave Germany as a result of his experiences in World War II.

As I approach a milestone birthday in 2019 I’ve been working towards a trip that combines a bucket list destination (Paris) with an opportunity to connect with my German roots. And since I’m the “tourism nerd”, I’ve been thinking about this trip and what it means from an Explorer Quotient (EQ) perspective.

EQ is a psychographic tool developed by Destination Canada, and in use across the country, that attempts to move beyond demographics (age, gender, country of origin) and into the psychological motivations and desires behind travel.

Typically as Canadian tourism professionals we focus on the ‘hot’ EQ markets for our destinations: Free Spirit, Cultural Explorer, and Authentic Experiencer. These are great segments to target, and you can read more about them, and how to apply EQ, in this handy PDF: EQProfiles2015.

Originally, however, nine EQ profiles were developed. And while I’m not suggesting we should focus on all of these, in my circumstances think it’s important to note a ‘special’ category, which is the Personal History Explorer (PHE).

EQ
The ‘Original 9’ EQ Types – there I am in my kilt and tam.

In the context of this specific trip, as a PHE I’m having a hard time accessing the resources I need. Part of this journey requires birth records (destroyed during the war), part of it relies on memories (my dad is a grandparent now, it’s hard for him to remember when he was two years old), and the rest relies on research that frequently yields incomplete results. For example, I’ve visited seven different websites with Groote Beer manifests, all of these are partial, most focus on arrivals to Australia and New Zealand … it’s a bit of a mess.

And let’s talk about shifting geography for a second!

My Oma and Opa were from the Sudentenland, which was the area of the now-Czech Republic inhabited by Sudeten Germans. Since Bohemia and Sudetenland are no longer political regions, and haven’t been for decades, I’ve had to rely heavily on my uncle to determine where, exactly, I should be visiting.

Finally, there is the emotional component of developing a trip like this. Immigration is a stressful change for a family, even when it’s for the better. Talking about family origins can dig up deep feelings of regret, loss, or even anger. If I’m honest I’m currently harbouring some resentments at my father for choosing not to keep his German citizenship, and for not teaching us to speak German – even though intellectually these decisions make sense in hindsight.

ThreeApples.jpg
My dad (no apples) and his two older brothers.

In his book “Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche“, Bill Plotkin talks about our need to return to our psychospiritual roots. He asserts there is an innate connection we have with our ecology of origin. I’ve looked at photos of the Black Forest (Schwarzwaldsince childhood and deeply known that those streams, trees, and mountains are somehow of me, just as parts of British Columbia like the Fraser River, North Shore Mountains, False Creek, and Burrard Inlet are part of my makeup.

Returning to these primal, ecologically-emotionally connected places is what Plotkin calls “relocalization” (p.55). I think as more boomers, Gen X, and even Millennial travellers start seeking out PHE trips, tourism developers and marketers will need to provide more support for this type of journey.

What I’m recommending is:

  • Local tourism professionals keep an eye out for unique stories like these and create customer journey maps to understand the ‘pain points’ of developing this kind of trip
  • Residents, staff, or other passionate locals help PHEs develop itineraries
  • Destinations with shifting geography/place names make this very clear in their marketing materials
  • Tourism marketers use these stories as a means to connect with other PHEs who may be interested in the region

Do you have a PHE trip on your mind? Where might you need to go to feel truly reconnected to your psychospiritual roots? Share in the comments.

The future of work in tourism?

It’s that time of year again! The annual BC Tourism Educators Conference is being held at Okanagan College and as per usual much debate, discussion, and learning is happening around key themes in tourism education.

First up this morning was Tom Baum from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. For over 36 years Tom has been seeking to address the social and strategic contexts of low skills employment, with particular focus on hospitality and tourism.

Dr Baum challenged us, as a group, to look at the future of work in tourism, by first looking at the past. He suggested that for decades we have been engaged in the same conversation around tourism employment issues: lack of meaningful pay, low-skilled work, and high turnover – to name a few. He referenced a quote by George Orwell who was a pot-washer (plongeur) in the Paris of 1933: “a plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work.”

The fact is that in 2018, if we take a global view, there are still many “plongeurs” in our industry. Dr Baum cited reports including:

Global hotel chains – making London an unethical tourist destination through ‘standard industry practice’  by Unite the union Hotel Workers’ Branch: UnethicalLondon

Wage Theft in Australia – finding of the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey: WageTheft

The great training robbery – assessing the first year of the apprenticeship levy: TrainingRobbery

No Holidays for the Burmese: NoHolidaysBurmese

Dr Baum shared findings from one document in particular, “Working for the Mouse”, in which they found that despite challenges including homelessness and extreme commutes, and yet over 85% of the workforce interviewed at Disneyland in Anaheim reported that they loved their jobs. You can read that report here: WorkingfortheMouse

So where to from here? Dr Baum’s presentation set the stage for a day of “backcasting” (also the process used by The Natural Step), in which we looked at the outcomes we want to produce in our institutions, communities, and industry.

For more information about Dr Baum’s work in this area, see https://www.strath.ac.uk/staff/baumtomprof/.

What kind of tourism industry do you want to see in 25 years? How can you be a part of that vision? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

It’s TIC Time!

I can’t believe a year has passed since I started this blog at the Tourism Industry Conference. Here we are again getting ready to learn about pressing issues in our industry including:

  • Labour
  • Housing
  • Transportation
  • Marijuana Legalization
  • Taxation

And all of the marketing best practices that can have an influence on the way that destinations and businesses sell themselves. First up we had the TIABC Town Hall where delegates broke into tables and went deep on an issue.

The feedback is going right to the top where TIABC will take forward our suggestions to help advocate of the policies that will shape our industry.

I hope to publish at least two pieces out of the conference*, but first up, the Winning Pitch provincials where BCIT will battle it out with TRU, VIU, and Selkirk College for the crown!

#bctourismmatters

*I fly to Vietnam with my daughter late Friday night so we’ll see what I can do