It’s most unusual for a town to train the whole community in customer service techniques. But this is exactly what Steamboat Springs, Colorado decided to do in 2014.
The innovative plan was hatched by management consultant, Ed Eppley in conjunction with the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association and also the Steamboat Ski and Resort Company (SSRC). Pivotal in planning and implementation were Jim Clark, Executive Director of the Chamber, and Rob Perlman, Senior VP of Sales & Marketing for SSRC.
Steamboat has long been known for its western, family-friendly atmosphere, so focusing on service isn’t new, according to Perlman. “The new part is how we approach service,” he says. “The Service Excellence program at Steamboat is really a derivative of a sales conversion initiative through our call center operations at Steamboat Central Reservations that we started back in 2010. This whole thing began as an exercise to convert more sales leads into Steamboat vacations. During that process, we really moved the needle with a consultative selling style that connected with customers in way that isn’t possible through traditional product sales. This approach of building relationships with our guests quickly spread to other departments and Service Excellence was born.”
According to Eppley, owner of Ohio-based company, ProspeX at the time, it was all about exceeding customers’ expectations. The impetus for the dramatic move came after the town of Steamboat Springs witnessed the resort achieve two years of industry leading guest service results from their Service Excellence program while comparing those results with the town’s visitor survey in 2013 which revealed a significant decrease in responders saying they would recommend Steamboat Springs to friends and colleagues. The town’s survey showed a seven point drop from a previous 2010 study.
Several years before the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corporation had engaged ProspeX to improve the conversion rate for incoming sales enquiries. “This work resulted in SSRC raising their Net Promoter Scores with external customers to be the highest in their competitive set,” Eppley recalls. “It also produced a 20 per cent plus increase in their bookings conversion rate through their call center.”
The idea of training the whole town as well as the ski resort was the brainchild of the Steamboat Chamber CEO and SSRC's COO, Chris Diamond, who was also on the Chamber Board of Directors. “They felt it was important that someone who comes to Steamboat have exceptional experiences, whether they were on the mountain or in the nearby town,” Eppley explains.
He went on to custom design a pilot training program, initially involving four four-hour sessions over the space of a month, teaching the very latest in customer service culture and using many Disney examples of ‘going the extra mile’. His course included techniques such as the connection stack: finding common ground with customers and then using that more intimate relationship to gain their confidence and loyalty to the destination.
From summer 2014, the Chamber worked with leaders in government, lodging, restaurants and retail to enlist top customer service providers from within these sectors to help train others within the community. Eppley taught a pilot group and those participants then went back and disseminated the new information and tactics among their own staff. “We've trained key thought leaders in the community to become semi-subject matter experts in delivering what we call Service Excellence,” he explains. “They go into businesses that ask for the training and present the concepts to their staff.”
Eppley says that the first requirement is for the owner or executive management of each company to embrace the idea that exceptional customer service is important, and that it comes as much from the culture of the company as any external program or training. “Second, we teach the staff that directly interacts with the guest a simple, quick method to ‘connect’ with the guest,” he explains. “The process of teaching them the connecting method tends to build confidence in the staff to actually use the tool right away. Finally, for the companies who want to change their culture to support Service Excellence, we teach their managers an approach to managing and leading that makes it easier for people to behave the right way.”
|Rob Perlman, Steamboat Ski & Resort|
At SSRC, the following guidelines were identified by Eppley and Perlman:
1)Find out why you want to do this.
2)Clear focus on what you want (or need) to achieve. How will we know if we are successful?
3)Passionate internal champions at all levels of the organization. ‘Street Cred’ is critical.
4)Persistence – this will take years to gain full traction. It’s been said you’ll need one full year for every layer of management.
5)You’ll need a doctrine to make your own. For Steamboat, that’s our culture and Service Excellence.
6)Determination – when challenged, use your decision making to reinforce your commitment to Service Excellence. Don’t undermine it.
Not everyone in Steamboat Springs is on board yet, however. Eppley says, as with any broad initiative, it is a ‘bell curve’: “There are certain businesses that feel they don't need help. At the other end of the spectrum are companies that are hungry for the help. The companies that have embraced the concepts feel like they have really benefited from doing so. When asked, most of their staff feels like it has helped them. And they also feel like it makes their interaction with their guests more fun.”
Results are measured quantitatively via the town’s Net Promoter Scores, although instant increases were not anticipated since only 15-20 percent of the town’s businesses had gone through the program by early 2015. “As of February, Net Promoter Scores for the town have not moved in any significant way and were not expected to do so,” Eppley acknowledges. At the ski resort, however, every employee receives an introduction to Service Excellence and results have already proved its worth. “At SSRC, the real movement came starting in the second year and third year,” Eppley says. “It wasn't until the Christmas and New Year's weeks this season, that SSRC had their highest scores to date.” He adds that those were the two busiest weeks of the entire season – a time when customer service scores might logically be expected to decrease. In March 2015, the resort recorded a 91 per cent Net Promoter Score as a result of which they offered 90 randomly selected staff members with prizes.
Qualitative results had already started to show around town with one multi-unit restaurant owner recording improved guest satisfaction scores and asking for more training for his management team. A condominium owner also noticed significant increases in bookings. “Another good indicator is unsolicited comments from guests to Steamboat Springs. Those appear to be moving up,” Eppley confirms.
Improving customer service is definitely a trend in ski resorts world over. In a recent survey of businesses, over 60 per cent said they wanted to make customer service a competitive advantage by 2016, Eppley says. “Saying you want to create customer service experiences that are greater than your competitors is easy,” says Eppley. “Creating a culture that supports that and rewards your people for doing so takes a tremendous effort. SSRC has been doing this now for four plus years. I also know that customers of all kinds, retail, B2B, etc., have higher demands and expectations than ever before. It may be that delivering exceptional customer experiences won't be a competitive advantage, it may be what's required to stay in business.”