ALA Conference Report

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[dropcap style=”letter” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#0ebbef”]T[/dropcap]he recent ALA Conference in Asheville, N.C. delivered thought-provoking educational sessions as well as valuable networking opportunities. Here is a sampling of what went on.

Better Than Customer Service

For greater loyalty from new and existing customers, strike the hackneyed term “customer service” from your corporate dictionary and practice Gracious Hospitality instead

The boast of providing “good customer service” has become so over-used in the business world, it has virtually no impact on customers anymore. With the recent ALA Conference set in Asheville, N.C., home to the renowned Biltmore® estate, two executives from the nearby landmark’s Center for Professional Development held an interactive session that translated “the Biltmore Way” of best practices into steps that could be applied to attendees’ businesses.

“We don’t use the term ‘customer service.’ That’s not our goal,” explained ALA Conference keynote speaker Anna Sullins, SPHR, SHRM, Training & Development Manager for the Biltmore Center for Professional Development. “We offer Gracious Hospitality.’ True Gracious Hospitality is warm, authentic, and real. It’s how you make people feel,” she explained, citing the example of a restaurant server who, upon hearing a diner rave about her dish, returns to the table with a copy of the recipe signed by the chef. “Gracious Hospitality goes beyond customer service,” she affirmed.

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“Customer service is what you do for someone; Gracious Hospitality is how you make them feel”

— Chris Maslin


Start With the Why

“At Biltmore, we don’t talk about how an employee does a task; we start with the why. Why do you do what you do? All of you have a compelling reason why you do something,” Sullins said. “We seek out ways to exceed expectations that is sustainable and makes financial sense. Now, how can you exceed customers’ expectations in small, yet perceptive, ways?”

Sullins asked the audience to make a list of the service providers they interact with on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis (i.e. cable, TV, phone, internet, electric, delivery). “Put a checkmark next to any service providers that you love,” she remarked. “Now put a big X through a service provider you can’t stand giving money to.” These are the companies you have a strong feeling about, one way or the other.

Typically, there are companies on that list that don’t have a checkmark or an X next to their names. “Those are the companies you are indifferent to — and indifference kills more business than bad service does,” Sullins stated. “We look at ‘lifetime value.’ A customer doesn’t represent a single transaction, but the start of a relationship with your business. Customers impact who they send our way and who they tell to stay away.”

Having a service standard in place at your company provides something you can measure against. “Simplification is key,” noted Chris Maslin, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Senior Director/Talent & Organizational Development at Biltmore, at the break-out session after the keynote. “Prioritize what’s important — and that’s people,” he emphasized. Biltmore uses the acronym G.U.E.S.T. when training employees.

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“When customers are very satisfied with the way their problem was handled – regardless of whether the problem was resolved – slightly more of them are fully engaged (54%) than customers who did not encounter a problem (50%).”  — Gallup Business Journals


Service Standard #1 – G

Greet guests by name with warmth, sincerity, and a smile. “For us, a guest can be someone using the Web site, or buying a ticket [at admissions], or entering the building,” Sullins explained.

What many businesses forget when evaluating their level of service is how employees treat one another.  “Are you instilling a culture of hospitality? That directly translates to how you treat customers,” Maslin said. “We want to deliver warm, sincere service at all times, even if it’s just a brief interaction at the coffeepot. Everyone in the course of history has the desire to feel significant. Having a compelling Why for your service standards tells your guests they are significant.”

No detail is too small. “Everything is delivered with purpose,” Maslin remarked. “The question we want to instill in each employee is, ‘How can I make the person in front of me, or on the phone, or on the receiving end of an email feel significant?’”

Sullins and Maslin recommend conducting a First Impression Audit. “Our goal is to move from a transactional to a relational service,” Sullins explained. Before your company’s next team meeting, Maslin suggested identifying all of the opportunities your business has to make a first impression on guests — whether they are on the phone, clicking on a website, walking in the door, or sending an inquiry by email.

This procedure requires you to “take off your blinders” in every area that a guest experiences. Maslin described how we all have “an invisible radar system” of how we act when someone is approaching us from 10 feet away, and again at 5 feet.  “That invisible radar system is always on, so be aware,” he commented. “Sincerity is key; body language matters.” Smile, show acknowledgement, and offer availability. “Customer service is what you do for someone; Gracious Hospitality is how you make them feel,” he noted.

After observing your company’s service from a guest’s point of view, grade yourself on each impression and search for gaps or lost opportunities. “Task your team to find solutions individually or as a group and report back at the next meeting to build off their ideas,” Maslin stated.

When a guest is approaching, watch for context clues that hint at the level of engagement the guest desires. “Go first. Approach guests before being asked to help. Don’t make them search for you,” Maslin advised.

Sullins and Maslin invited the audience to relay conversations that have worked well in their showrooms. Among the suggestions were: “What brings you in today?” and “Tell me about your project.” One retailer said she typically asks on a Monday or Tuesday, “What did you do this weekend?” On Wednesdays through Friday, she asks, “What do you have planned for the weekend?”

Focus on conversation that creates an emotional connection.

“Great salespeople build relationships and solve a problem,” Sullins noted, adding, “Our goal is to treat our guests as a blessing rather than a burden.”

Service Standard #2 – U

Understand and anticipate guests’ needs. “Occasionally, our guests don’t know what they need,” Sullins explained. “The things you don’t know they need are the hardest. Show Gracious Hospitality even when saying, ‘No’ to a guest.”

Biltmore emails past guests, asking them to rate their visit. “People are usually flattered that you are asking about their experience,” she said. Whenever you ask for feedback, Sullins reminded the audience to listen carefully. “If there’s a negative experience, empower your employees to say, ‘Let me make it right for you’ instead of having to leave the customer to find a manager for approval. In a feedback survey, ask data-rich questions such as, ‘Would you recommend us to a friend?’ or ‘Would you hire this person in your business?’”

Service Standard #3 – E

Exceed guests’ expectations. When something goes wrong, Biltmore employees practice “Service Recovery.” There are 5 steps in Service Recovery (easily remembered by the acronym B.L.A.S.T.). “We want our customers to feel like we care about them,” Sullins stated.

For starters, Believe [them]. Listen closely to [the complaint] in order to match the right solution to the problem presented. “You need active and empathetic listening skills,” she added. “Taking ownership of the problem is critical. The difference between a ‘reaction’ and a ‘response’ is a pause.”

Apologize. “The apology matters, especially when you feel that it’s not your fault,” Sullins explained. “Say something like, ‘Let me make sure I understand what happened…’ or ‘I’m so sorry that happened, let’s find a solution. What would you recommend?’” These types of statements diffuse emotion. “Sometimes the customer just wants the apology so that the same thing doesn’t happen to someone else down the road.”

Solve the problem. “Ask your team what are the top [complaints] that come up and have them brainstorm solutions,” Sullins suggested. “Your employees want black-and-white guidelines for addressing ‘gray’ situations.” One solution Maslin proposed was to develop dollar thresholds to empower the front line in solving problems without consulting a manager.

Thank the customer for bringing the matter to your attention and “to keep it from happening to someone else.” Maslin remarked, “We emphasize to our associates that we can make a difference to one person, and that will have an exponential effect.”

Service Standard #4 – S

Serve guests and each other with a gracious spirit. “Customers can sense tension between employees and it makes them uncomfortable,” Sullins warned.

The “plus one” rule benefits all employees. “For every opportunity or interaction, there’s one extra thing you can do to make things better,” she said, suggesting maybe it’s taking the extra time to adjust a piece of furniture, or staying late to help someone, or writing a thank you note to someone who helped you.

“Food is the universal language of appreciation,” she joked. “Your boss is never going to tell you to bring in donuts or wipe down a counter after you use it, but you do these things to show you care,” Sullins remarked. One manufacturer in the audience noted that he holds an “appreciation lunch” the first Friday of the month, complete with food trucks. It’s also an opportunity to announce employee birthdays for that month as well as give shout outs for individual appreciation.

Sullins suggested audience members list the five people most critical to their workplace effectiveness and success. “Over the next 30 days, invite them out to coffee or lunch,” she said. During that meeting, get to know them better by asking a few questions such as “Describe a day in your life” or “What challenges are you currently facing?” From there, you can inquire, “How can I best communicate with you — do you prefer phone calls or email?” Emphasize the team dynamic by asking, “How can I better support you [in your job]?” and “How can we work together to achieve our goals?” Apply that feedback to your day-to-day interactions with that person to strengthen your relationship.

Service Standard #5 – T

Thank guests by name for their visit and invite them to return. While it seems like common sense, it’s surprising how often this last step is forgotten when there is a line at the counter or another distraction, but that acknowledgment of appreciation makes all the difference to that customer.

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