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

Drinking the Airbnb Kool-Aid

One of my lesser-known tourism hustles is the Airbnb I run in my basement. My TV room, to be exact.

This little space is comfortable, clean, centrally located, and a great way to offset the fact I’m a single mom carrying a Vancouver-sized mortgage. It also doesn’t displace any long-term rental inventory since, seriously, it’s a TV room in my basement.

So imagine my delight when our dean suggested that faculty and a handful of students attend a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon featuring Chris Lehane from Airbnb. Chris is the senior VP for policy and, frankly, a dynamic and cool speaker.

It’s clear that, in his own words, Chris has started drinking the Kool-Aid at Airbnb, and as a host I’ve been enjoying it for some time. Here are some of the points raised during his presentation.

We live in a time of significant global challenge. 

The first challenge Chris mentioned was that of economic inequality. Today the 26 richest people on earth own as much as the 3.8 billion poorest … a divide that is growing as we see the emergence of AI and the loss of up to 40% of jobs to automation.

The second challenge he addressed was that of conflicts, whether intra-state (Venezuela, Syria), through cyberattacks, the online polarization of people and viewpoints through social media, and the displacing of billions of people due to unrest.

The last challenge he mentioned was that of global climate change, which in the last four years has seen the hottest temperatures on record, and closer to home (both ours in BC and his down in California) has contributed to annual ravaging wildfires.

It’s no wonder, according to Chris, that the world is now sinking to a ten year low in happiness.

Travel has a a role to play in addressing these challenges. 

Chris explained that travel has a rich history of contributing to migration and immigration and cultural exploration. He shared a picture of Burnaby-born hockey hall-of-famer Joe Sakic explaining that the movement of people has real benefits (in this case helping the Colorado Avalanche win the Stanley Cup, twice).

He then shared the Confucian quote that “Wherever you go, go with all your heart”. Bonus points for going from Sakic to Confucius! This part of Chris’ presentation resonated with me — as some of you might know my father is an immigrant and I’ll spend part of this summer going back to the town of his birth.

Chris talked about historical names for travel and its impacts including the Ancient Greek “philoxenia” – the opposite of xenophobia, a love for strangers and an eagerness to be hospitable.

This is where Airbnb comes in.

Airbnb’s mission is that anyone can belong anywhere. Chris was quick to address the fact they’re a disruptor and that new technologies always lead to disruption. And he was clear that in this new digital era we’ve seen the emergence of platforms that are larger than any one country in terms of population and yet, at times, highly unregulated.

He presented different platform models — hierarchical, ad-based, the short-term labour model, and finally the community-based model (people to people) that tracks back to the original model of capitalism, in his opinion.

Chris shared the story behind Airbnb, of a couple of students offering air mattresses on the floor of their San Francisco apartment to pay their rent. In his view, the core of Airbnb has always been about disrupting FOR humans, not being disruptive TO humans. He credits the founders’ art student backgrounds in that they wanted to build something 100 people would love instead of something that 1000 people would like.

I’d say, in that regard, they’ve been successful. Today on Airbnb:

  • Six guests check in every second 
  • There are over five million listings
  • They’ve seen 15% growth over the last year in Vancouver alone

Their future, according to Chris, is as an end-to-end travel platform that facilitates how you get somewhere, and where you stay, who you spend time with, and what you do while there. The ‘Airbnb experiences’ catalogue alone has grown to 20,000 experiences in 1000 cities since it was launched.

It was the transportation vertical (how you get there) that got my attention. Airbnb is proposing to use existing infrastructure to help legacy businesses tap into wider consumer markets (e.g. rail travel) while encouraging innovators to bring their ideas to market.

Another passion of mine is destination development policy. Chris’ particular area of work focuses on exactly this — Airbnb’s commitment to help evolve policy, pay their share of taxes, and share data.

He says their next focus will be the office of healthy travel. Tourism already makes up 10.4% of Global GDP, so why not grow the industry sustainably? Chris spoke about Airbnb contributions including:

Investing in community development, like in Maharashtra India, where they partnered with government to help locals start up immersive homestays in the region.

Enhancing experiential authenticity while increasing spending in neighbourhoods —44% of which stays in the micro community where guests spend the night. In 2017 that meant an increase of  $107 million in spending to Vancouver restaurants.

Supporting diverse experiences by providing guests an opportunity to stay in non-hotel districts and rural areas.

Being inclusive, where currently 55% of hosts are women, and the fastest growing cohort of hosts are seniors.

Creating traffic to underserved areas through initiatives like their Cape Town partnership, and working with the NAACP to develop hosting capabilities in urban communities.

His final words were on the ways in which Airbnb is creating sustainable options simply by using existing buildings (millions of empty homes), in the place of new construction. For example massive events like the Rio Olympics saw an increase in hosting, which diverted the need to build up to 257 new hotels for the event.

Chris Lehane clearly “drinks the Kool Aid” on Airbnb. Vancouver is drinking it too. In 2018 the City and Airbnb signed a historic agreement to recognize and regulate home sharing, which was shortly followed by an announcement of a first-of-its-kind partnership in Canada with Tourism Vancouver.

I’m starting to drink this Kool Aid too. Are you? Share your thoughts in the comments.