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“First of all – YOU BE NICE!”

February 3rd, 2009 . by Mike Caplin

We all read so much these days in the current economic climate about marketing, advertising, technology and strategic planning.  And yes – much is talked and written about customer contact and customer relationship management.

It seems to me that when contact with our clients and customers is referred to using some of these terms, that it almost implies a detached and impersonal manner.  Unintentional for sure, but nevertheless that’s how I perceive it!

I’ve spent my entire working life (over 40 years) in the travel industry and I’ve considered every one of those years to be also working in the customer service business.  That’s right – interacting and dealing with people, human beings…..not faceless entities that I have to ‘manage a relationship’ with.

I recently had two unrelated customer service experiences that I would like to briefly talk about with you today.  The first was with a well known bank out here in the west (yes – one that was taken over by a larger financial institution) and the other was with a well known technology company.  The latter had to do with a fantastic ‘gadget’ my daughter and her family got me for my 65th birthday – you know, the one where you can program music and wire yourself in for days at a time!

The bank experience should have been very simple – I was depositing what to me was a large sum of money adding to my existing savings account and wanted to see if I could do a bit better with the rate of interest.  What occurred from that point forward was an unbelievable number of mis-steps on the part of several bank employees, ranging from misquotes to outright lying.  Mind you – it was all done in a somewhat polite manner.  That is – up to a point because when I pointed out the errors, I was met with defensive indifference.  So I came away from the bank scratching my head and wondering why this particular branch had never walked away with the corporate award for outstanding ineptitude. 

P.S. – I plan on withdrawing all funds in the account soon and moving on to another bank.

The other experience (I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that the gadget I received was an iPod Nano) was attempting to set up the device and use up the $25 Gift Card I received along with the ‘hardware’.  I won’t bore you with much detail here but what ensued was an intercontinental series of phone calls that I’m sure had me looking like a cat trying to catch its own tail.  I spoke with people who really didn’t take the time to listen to my issue and questions, but instead forged ahead with (mostly) incorrect answers and advice.

These two examples just reinforce to me that for many years now we have all come to expect mediocre service and even worse – we accept it!  So from my viewpoint, it really doesn’t take much to WOW people, because the bar has been set so low for so long.

I spent 30 of my years in this industry working for a very large company and my last position with them, before jumping on an early retirement package, was in senior management overseeing 50 travel agency locations in a three state region.  Within this operation we had two call centers and the manager at one of these centers was a young person I had hired away from United Airlines reservations.  Stacy was the best manager that I’ve ever worked with.  She was so smart and possessed exceptional people skills.  One of the things I’ll always remember about her was that whenever she had to deal with an employee who was called in on a customer service issue, she would lead off the counseling session by emphatically saying to them – “First of all, YOU BE NICE!”  What else is there to say really?  It’s just that simple.

So I’ll close with my very quick list of what I still consider to be the (only) 5 basics of great customer service:

  1. Know your stuff (and don’t ever try to fake it.
  2. Listen, listen, listen (your customers love to talk)
  3. Practice positive body language and good eye contact (that doesn’t mean peering into a computer screen at a right angle to the client)
  4. Don’t ever be afraid to tell your client you don’t know the answer but you’ll find out and get back to them (they’ll consider it a sign of honesty and integrity)
  5. Detail, detail, detail (detail oriented people make the best travel agents)

And oh yes – don’t forget to BE NICE!

Mike Caplin is a 43 year veteran of the travel industry.  A large part of his career, over 30 years, was spent with the American Automobile Association.

Mike was Vice President, Western Division and Vendor Relations of eTravCo, Inc. – a national consortium representing over 1,100 member travel agencies across the United States.  In February 2007 Mike joined the IT Group Network as Vice President.  IT Group is a Travel Agency national consortium based in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL., and has over 900 affiliated members.

Mike also has several years teaching experience at the Junior College level in various Travel Careers programs.  He was on the Advisory Board of the San Francisco Academy of Travel and Tourism and is currently on the Advisory Board of the Hospitality Management program at San Francisco State University.

He is a past President of both the Foreign Travel Club of San Francisco and SKAL Club of San Francisco.  Mike also has been a volunteer arbitrator for the past 25 years at the Better Business Bureau of Oakland.

Mike can be contacted at mike@itgroupnetwork.com

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Join the Discussion - Post your comment  5 Responses to ““First of all – YOU BE NICE!””

  1. Bob Mamberg, CTC, CTIE Says:

    I absolutely agree with you! That is good advice. And it should be noted that no one in any profession or industry,knows “everything.”
    “These are the “things” I know; you (the customer) know things that I do not. But I am
    responsible for my council and advice. My experience and my Company stands behind me. You can trust me.” Bob

  2. JESS Kalinowsky Professional Travel Consultatn Says:

    Good info, and common sense! Unfortunately the industry has allowed technology to become “god” over customer service. Technology should be a tool, not the end all!
    Years ago as Manager of Sales and Marketing for Pan American Airways in Upstate New York, I encountered several great travel agents, one was at DePrez Travel, he was amazing, and I learned a great deal from him. He did not even know how to operate Sabre, and was still the largest selling agent I have ever met! He would take his clients by the hand into a consultation room, serve them beverages of their choice, anything! and treated them as a guest in his home. He was able to sell them dream trips of a lifetime and got their money the same day, often full payment, and even in the early ’70′s was charging a consultation fee!
    The other wonderful sales person in a travel agency was Richard DiMaria. He too had a similar sales technique. They operated in two diversely different styles: DePrez was immaculately dressed, impeccable manners, and incredibly knowledgeable. What he did not know, he would find out immediately. He would buzz his assistant and it was their job to get the required info right now!
    Mr. DiMaria was also a great dresser, but his office looked like most travel agency offices today, a constant state of disarray. He had everything he wanted or needed at his finger tips and could find it in the stacks of brochures, almost immediately.
    Another great agency was Pittsford Travel. I think her name was Dianne. She was amazing with her knowledge.
    I learned from these agencies how to run a travel agency! I was not even aware that I would ever be a travel agent! I thought Pan Am would be forever!
    Customer Service Customer Service Customer Service. NEVER let a client see your anger!
    As a Professional Travel Consultant today, I depend on ME and my knowledge to sell travel. There are many things that mega online booking engines do not have, and the most important is personal knowledge of actually having personally visited 133 destinations around the world. A computer will never be able to capture the excitement of telling clients about intricate details of a destination. Because computers do not have personalities!
    We get calls all the time: I made a reservation on ‘xyz’ booking engine and I have the wrong dates, or I cannot travel at that time, or a myriad of other problems. People asking us to ‘fix’ their problems, and we do! [Not for free like yesteryear!]. After leaving Pan Am, I did what many old Pan Am folks did, I became a travel agent! I then put into working what I had learned, not only at Pan Am, and traveling around the world, but from all of my wonderful travel agents in Rochester NY. Their knowledge had influenced me for life!
    To this day I do my consultations away from a computer, and in a 100% non-smoking environment. I treat them as ‘guest’ more than as ‘clients’, even if the consultation is on the phone or by email. Always respect them and they will in turn respect you.

  3. Sara Harloff Says:

    It’s the client’s money so you owe them 100% of your attention. Leave out all your own personal opinions. Offer advice and don’t dictate. You want to service your client thousands of time, not one client once. If you have a headset, take it off prior to greeting the client.

  4. Ina Schweitzer Says:

    Our office is family-owned and has been in the same location in Riverside, CA for over 30 years. I’ve known many of our customers since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and they are like family. Customer “service” encompasses many things. Sometimes, it means offering a cup of coffee and listening to someone’s family drama; it means driving someone to the airport because the pocketbook’s a little tight and a shuttle is expensive; it means going to lunch with a client even though it’s not easy leaving the office for two hours…

    Sometimes, I feel like putting the “the Doctor Is In” sign on my desk, but that’s our customer service and it’s how people have come to know us over the years: the friendly agents with the bendable ears!

  5. Bongs, Michael Phelps and travel: Handling mistakes Says:

    [...] can likely count your client as an ex-client and perhaps even count yourself as an ex-travel agent. Mike Caplin spoke about being nice recently. And owning up to your mistakes might be an appropriate [...]

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