Travel Agent magazine held a forum on “Delivering Excellent Customer Service” at the St. Regis Bal Harbour in September. We invited cruise line and hotel executives, as well as travel advisors and top consultants in the industry to share their insights on this important topic. To add to the mix and get some perspective from another angle on delivering customer service, we invited an executive from Graf Diamonds from the Bal Harbour Shops just across the street from the St. Regis. Following is a video with excerpted transcript from the dynamic discussion, which we hope will assist you with your business.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: How do you define excellent customer service? We all don’t look at it the same way.
Jack Mannix, Jack E. Mannix & Associates: Customer service is a function of the client’s expectation and the client’s experience. So exceeding those levels of expectation drives whether or not the client is satisfied and feels like they had a wow experience. In the retail business, that’s really critical because it’s an opportunity to differentiate yourself; otherwise, everybody is pretty much selling the same product.
Attention to detail also applies. In a property like [The St. Regis Bal Harbour], people know your name; they remember what you drink; they remember you were here yesterday and so on. That focus on attention to detail can create those wow experiences.
Susan Pullin, Graff Diamonds: In my experience, it’s been about anticipating what the customer wants. Graff is very small compared to the Tiffanys and the Cartiers of the world. We see ourselves in a different category because one of the features of shopping at Graff is that we have all the time in the world to spend with the customer. So when you come in, you are not standing at a counter with 10 or 12 other people looking at engagement rings. We could spend 10 minutes with you if that’s what you choose or we could spend the whole afternoon. That’s really what we consider to be luxury, when a customer comes into our store, the experience and expectation is they are going to be seated down at a table; they are going to be offered beverages; they are going to be walked through the entire jewelry-making process.
|George Cozonis of the W South Beach; Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas; Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals Resorts International; June Sloane, travel advisor with Protravel; and Chris Austin, VP global retail leisure & luxury sales, Starwood Hotels & Resorts.|
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: So you intuitively wait to get a feel for that person?
Susan Pullin, Graff Diamonds: Part of it is an educational process. We have a lot of gentlemen who are very, very highly ranked in their professional field, but when it comes to buying diamonds, everyone gets nervous, so what can we do to make that gentleman feel very comfortable? I think everyone has had the experience of walking into a shop and being made to feel like you can’t afford anything in the store. We feel that when somebody pushes that big 12-foot door to come into a Graff store, they have pre-qualified themselves.
So you may come in and it’s your wife’s birthday in two months. The transaction may not happen today, because it’s a process. We are not there to make the sale at that particular moment; it has to be part of that experience whether it be an educational experience or maybe we don’t have the right piece in the store, so we have to do a little more research for you. The goal is to develop a long-term relationship with someone. I am very proud to say that we know that our clientbase, which is only a few hundred customers, unbelievably, has been with us for decades because of the way that we treat them. Just as an example, I had a customer in on Saturday. His wife’s birthday is in two weeks. He is a billionaire who lives in Bal Harbour, and I have had a good relationship with him for about 12 years. He selected a piece which cost well over half a million dollars. In the conversation of concluding the transaction, he said, “How do you want me to pay for this?” I said, “However you feel comfortable.” He said, “Oh, she wants to wear it this evening.” I said, “It’s okay. Just sign the receipt,” and they walked out with it.
She came in yesterday to bring me the check, and she looked at me, and she said, “I have to tell you that he giggled all the way to the car because he couldn’t believe that you let him walk out with a half a million dollar piece of jewelry.” So for a billionaire to think that of the service we gave them, which is evidence of a tenured relationship, that speaks volumes to me.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: And he will always remember that moment, even though he can buy anything in the world.
Susan Weissberg, Wyllys Professional Travel: We define excellent customer services going above and beyond for our clients, whether it’s a hotel booking or a customized land experience. We give our clients added value no matter what, and it makes them come back for more.
I want to mention that it’s important in the retail end of travel to be available personally when emergencies arise. An example is the tropical storm we had here in South Florida a few weeks ago. There were approximately 700 flights canceled in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Our customers so appreciated us being there that weekend, rebooking them, getting them to the destinations they needed to get to. In the past, we’ve had the same situations with volcanic ash and earthquakes. This kind of excellent customer service brings our clients back over the years.
Kristian Anderson, Silversea: I really enjoyed Susan [Pullin’s] comments about the giggling billionaire. That stands out because managing anticipation is a core consistency of good service. What's so refreshingly beautiful about it is that above the board customer service has a dynamic that’s consistent, and it never changes. It’s anticipating needs, listening, being attentive and putting a dedicated focus on customers’ needs first.
At Silversea, we consistently tell stories of interactions between our butler service and our guests. In one case, one of our guests said to his butler, “Back home at the office, I pop popcorn at 3 o’clock every day. That’s my little treat for myself.”
So the butler found the client every day at 3 o’clock consistently on that voyage and brought him freshly popped popcorn. Just that little treat shows that we are listening to the customer. As long as we make that our priority, we will maintain our success in the industry.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: It’s the small things that don’t cost that much money that go a very, very long way.
Chris Austin, Starwood: Starwood is the largest luxury hotel operator in the world now and we have identified that luxury is no longer a “one size fits all” proposition. We like to say that “what was once prescribed is now personalized.” If you can actually personalize your guests’ stay and you know what they want before they actually know it themselves, you are hitting the bull’s eye and delivering excellent customer service.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: June, can you give us an idea of who some of your clients are and describe your business?
June Sloane, Protravel: My clients range from Florida to the northeast. With some, I have a long-term relationship only through e-mail or phone or fax. But what I wanted to say is I like to be ahead of the curve, to know things before my clients know them. I just heard of a new service called Uber from someone who had used it in several cities. I was going to Boston and I used it about four times and I was so pleased. It’s not something that I can make money on because there is no commission on it, but it’s a service that I can offer clients if they are stuck in a city, even London and Paris, and they need a car service. You just click on the Uber app on your smartphone; the car will know where you are, and you see where they are, and you can see them actually coming toward you. There is no money exchanged; you don’t have to fiddle with a tip or foreign currency; it all goes to your credit card. It’s just like having a private sedan on call and it’s a fabulous addition that I can offer to my clients.
So I always like to know what’s new and cutting edge. My clients can contact me on my cell phone 24/7. I have had clients call me from Europe to say, “You have got to do something. There is a bathtub in the middle of my room. I don’t want this room,” and I’ve had to change it for them. Or they need you to make lunch reservations. You have to be there for them for whatever they want. It’s a customer service business because the moment you do something wrong, you have to wonder, am I going to lose them? Nine times out of 10, if it’s your loyal customer; you will not lose them because they know that you were there for them.
Adam Stewart, Sandals: Many of our successes come from our staff and team members truly embracing a vision. We employ about 11,000 people across 22 hotels. You can build the facilities for them, but the execution comes down to the personal touch of the team member.
Some brands become too proud to have a customer tell them how to run the company. We get it wrong every now and then and when we get it wrong, we need customers to tell us. If they are kind enough to write us and tell us, we listen and keep evolving.
The head of our butler service is like a samurai of thinking ahead of the customer. It’s about documenting what they like, so when they stay at Sandals Montego Bay this time and they stay at Sandals Grande St. Lucian the next time, there is a whole profile on this customer. It’s almost like [the staff] is your best friend. We are preempting people’s thoughts and what they want.
Also, I never judge people. I know a real story of a very wealthy gentleman. He was in the Bahamas on his yacht and he took a tender boat to one of the islands and went into a real estate office. In the Bahamas, they sell all these little private islands. He was wearing a white shirt and cut-off jeans shorts. There was a girl on the phone in the office and he asked her, “How much would an island like this cost?” She looked at him, and said, “A lot more than you can afford.” So he nodded and went back to his yacht, took his helicopter back to Nassau to the competitor’s retail outlet, and bought himself a private island.
You never know whom you are dealing with. The fact that our customers have come to stay with us, makes it our duty to ensure that they get their money’s worth. Whether it’s food and beverage, room service or transportation, you just have to get it right and make sure that when they leave, they say, “I have got to do this again.”
Mark Conroy, Regent Seven Seas: I have three sets of customers. I have the travel agent partner. I can’t survive without them, and they need a certain set of services. I have the guests who are the customers of the travel agent but who are also my customers. And finally, we have employees on board who are our customers because if we don’t treat them right, they have plenty of opportunities elsewhere.
The anticipatory service is really fun but so is the genuine service. People have a lot of choices for travel whether it’s hotels or cruises. You have to have great food and lots of variety, but what really sets us apart is our secret weapon: our team. It’s one thing to give efficient service, but it’s the genuine service that means a lot to people. It creates memories. When you can surprise and delight somebody who sails with you over 1,000 days, you have done something right.
The key element is differentiating yourself to the guest because you want them to come back. You have to differentiate yourself to the travel agent partner because if you are not aligned with them, they have plenty of opportunities to send these guests to different locations. And then you have to really get the team to be engaged because you have to close the whole circle.
You have to listen. If you think about it, most of us have built our brands around the feedback that our customers have given us. And you don’t always get it right, but when you do it, it really works well.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: George, I am interested to hear from the perspective of W South Beach how you define customer service.
George Cozonis, W South Beach: Customer service is the intangible, the emotional part of our product. We sell accommodations, comfortable beds, luxurious decor, a beautiful beach, a pool and so on, but that’s only a part of what our customers pay for. Our customers want to feel good. And it’s by making emotional connections with customers that you are able to achieve that.
A lot has been said about meeting and exceeding the needs of your customers. Well, you can’t do that if you don’t know what they are. It’s the relationships with the customers that create great customer service because that’s how you get to know them, and that’s how you are able to deliver.
We recently launched the VIP Suites at W South Beach. We took 26 of our best suites and added a lot of enhancements. We put in Nespresso coffee makers with milk frothers and flowers and we deliver fresh fruits every day. But the one component we provided that has been best received is the W Insider, which is a VIP concierge. That person reaches out to you and begins to create a relationship that becomes more and more evolved as time goes on. That is your go-to person until the moment you leave and you come back again. At W, the core of our service culture is the “whatever whenever” concept which our customers love. The idea is that we will offer whatever the customer wants whenever he or she wants it, as long as it’s legal.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: At W, it’s not really about a demographic; it’s more of a psychographic, people of all ages and all walks of life.
George Cozonis, W South Beach: Absolutely. One of our most loyal customers is 85 years old, and he comes to us several times a year and rents a big suite. It has nothing to do with age.
Chris Austin, Starwood: As Mark said, your customer can change your brand. When Starwood launched W Hotels, it was a four-star brand designed for the insider that wanted to escape into a world that is a little different from the every day. It was wow; it was whacky; it was wonderful. But the consumer has driven the W brand to become a five-star luxury brand. The W South Beach is a classic example of what W is all about now. We have had to change our customer service from the first blueprint to what we are delivering now. And as we renovate all the hotels that we opened 15 years ago, they now have to meet the new standards.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: Chris, how do you use the customer service aspect as a competitive advantage at Starwood?
Chris Austin, Starwood: You have to separate yourselves by clearly defining your brands. For example, what does St. Regis as a brand stand for, what are our rituals? We have to get those right and they have to resonate. You have to live and breathe it and have a brand strategy and a chief brand officer. But it’s what we are talking about today, delivering on excellent custom service that puts you ahead of the competition.
Mark Conroy, Regent Seven Seas: I have an example of your [St. Regis] hotel in Rome. The day I was there they decided to have a political demonstration and the hotel is in a very strategic location. I was waiting for my car and my driver couldn’t get anywhere near the hotel. So the guys at the bell desk and the concierge went out and found my car and then made a little caravan carrying our luggage for four or five blocks so we could get to a place that the driver could access. We were getting nervous and those guys could see that and they said, “We are going to solve this problem,” even though obviously they have very little control over the political activities in Rome on a Saturday.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: June, how do you anticipate your clients’ needs?
June Sloane, Protravel: I get in touch with my clients even when I don’t have a prospect on the horizon. I send out a New Year’s card and usually every year it’s a picture of me from a trip I’ve taken somewhere in the world. People always want to know where it was taken. So there is always interplay between a client and myself. I had a client who lost his son-in-law in the World Trade Center attacks and his wife was afraid to leave the country. I didn’t get back to them for two years. You have to sometimes know when to keep a little distance. But then once they overcame that hurdle I sent them all over the world every year on a trip.
You can’t get too close because we are not bartenders. But you still want to be there for them and anticipate their needs by asking, “Have you ever thought about traveling to Eastern Europe or maybe taking a safari?” You need to be in touch without being annoying.
|Kristian Anderson of Silversea and Susan Weissberg of Wyllys Professional Travel discuss serving the client’s needs as personally as possible.|
Susan Weissberg, Wyllys Professional Travel: It’s also important to keep in touch because you never know how much they will spend in the future. For example, I have this relatively young couple from the Las Vegas area and several years ago, they said they had $5,000, and asked me if I could get them a trip to Egypt in a group. And I did something. It wasn’t an exclusive trip or a luxury trip but I did it. They had a wonderful time and I kept in touch with them. Whenever I visited Las Vegas, I would give them a call. Well, I don’t know if they won the lottery but their next trip was a $40,000 safari to Africa and now they have booked another $40,000 luxury trip to Antarctica. So you just never, never know.
Mark Conroy, Regent Seven Seas: Every consumer has the opportunity to go on that experiential luxury trip at least once in their lives whether it’s for their 25th anniversary or their 50th birthday or whatever. When people say they don’t have any luxury business, I say, “Absolutely not. Every single one of your customers has that opportunity to drive that big-ticket luxury trip and it’s about delivering every single time, even when they want to go to Las Vegas for two nights.”
Susan Pullin, Graff Diamonds: Graff’s average price point is a hundred times that of Tiffany. So the purchase could be a month-long process. We just concluded a sale that we started in January. Sometimes it might be months that have gone by, and we might see that customer walking through the Bal Harbour Shops and sometimes we just invite them in for coffee or a glass of water.
I have a customer who probably hasn’t bought a piece of jewelry from me in six or seven years but I still include him on all the invitations for events that we do in the store. I saw him the other day he said, “Susan, I’m sorry you keep sending me all these invitations but I never come to anything.” I said, “It’s all right, one day you will.” But just to receive that invitation means the world to him. Some customers make jewelry purchases on an annual basis and it takes other customers a few years before they are ready to embrace that idea.
|Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas, and John McMahon, EVP, group publisher of Questex Hospitality + Travel.|
I think whether it’s travel or jewelry or luxury cars, we all aspire to do something different from what we are doing now. We aspire to take our family on a trip to Africa. I think a lot of people who offer service are shortsighted in that every single customer they have presently is aspirational. But in addition to aspirational is generational. We have clients who have been selling to for years and now their sons and daughters have the financial means to become customers.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: Adam, can you talk about how you empower your employees to deliver excellent customer service?
Adam Stewart, Sandals: It’s the systems and the spirit that run confidence of companies. Typically in an all-inclusive hotel, if somebody has a problem, they’re told, “You’ve got to find the manager and the manager is not here right now.” So there are all these barriers. We added a dedicated person four years ago, who is available 24 hours, seven days a week who has the authority to make it right, meaning that they could actually refund the entire vacation. You never want somebody to have to wait to speak to somebody else. Every ticking minute that passes by when they are annoyed feels like an eternity. I have had people call me and say, look I just gave away $10,000, and I am saying, “You did it in the name of customer service. Fantastic.” It’s about the long-term relationship with the team member and with the customer.
This year we launched a corporate university, which is designed to take people to a higher level of empowerment and grounding them to a point that they become a better professional. We just issued 200 scholarships two weeks ago to rising stars. We put $5 million into an account to build these people up so the training programs don’t stop. So the bartender that joins your company that typically will be a bartender for the rest of his life, we’ll now take him in to finance, and water sports so they’ll understand more about the other divisions. Now there is no such thing as “that department” and “this department.” It’s one seamless vacation experience with 20 different departments. So it’s getting down to what’s wrong and then how do you turn around and put systems in place so that team members don’t feel goose-necked by their environment.
Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: Susan, how important are suppliers when it comes to delivering good service?
Susan Weissberg, Wyllys Professional Travel: We have a very vigorous training process and it starts with product knowledge and training of the product and supplier contacts. I cannot tell you how important our cruise, hotel and land supplier products or contacts are and also our on-location suppliers that we have all around the world. Communication skills with clients, technical skills and passion for selling are the key things because if you don’t have the passion and you are just an order taker, you cannot succeed in the retail and the travel business. Being a good listener and problem solver is important.
Last week, one of the cruise lines pulled out of Egypt because of the turmoil there, so we had to think on our feet and quickly put together short excursions in other countries. Another time, we had a whole group scheduled for segue tour in Florence and we just got word the Florence Marathon is going to be on the morning of the segue tour. So we had to quickly make those changes. But these are all empowerments that we give to our employees and it is the key to our success.
Kristian Anderson, vice president, North America, sales at Silversea Cruises:
“Managing anticipation is a core consistency of good service. It never changes and what’s so refreshingly beautiful about it is that above the board customer service has a dynamic that’s consistent, and it never changes.”
Chris Austin, vice president of global retail leisure & luxury sales with Starwood Hotels & Resorts:
“If you can actually personalize your guests’ stay and you know what they want before they actually know it themselves, you are hitting the bull’s eye and delivering excellent customer service.”
Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas:
“If you think about it, most of us have built our brands around the feedback that our customers have given us. And you don’t always get it right, but when you do it, it really works well.”
George Cozonis, general manager, W South Beach:
“Our customers want to feel good. And it’s by making emotional connections with customers that you are able to achieve that. It’s the relationships with the customers that create great customer service because that’s how you get to know them, and that’s how you are able to deliver.”
Jack Mannix, owner, Jack E. Mannix & Associates:
“Customer service is a function of the client’s expectation and the client’s experience. So exceeding those levels of expectation drives whether or not the client is satisfied and feels like they had a wow experience.”
Susan Pullin, general manager for Graff Diamonds located at the Bal Harbour Shops:
“When a customer comes into our store, the experience and expectation is they are going to be seated down at a table; they are going to be offered beverages; they are going to be walked through the entire jewelry-making process.”
June Sloane, travel advisor with Protravel in Boca Raton, FL:
“You can’t get too close because we are not bartenders. But you still want to be there for them and anticipate their needs. You need to be in touch without being annoying.”
Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals Resorts International:
“That our customers come to stay with us makes it our duty to ensure that they get their money’s worth. You have to get it right and make sure that when they leave, they say, “I have got to do this again.”
Susan Weissberg, president and CEO of Wyllys Professional Travel in Coral Gables, FL:
“Communication skills with clients, technical skills and passion for selling are the key things…Being a good listener and problem solver is important.”