The hospitality industry sells "experiences" rather than "products." You may rent a hotel room for a night, but the experience you have at the hotel is the takeaway. Was the breakfast good, the room quiet, and the bed comfortable? How did the staff greet you and respond to requests? Did they anticipate your needs or offer surly or grudging service?
These days, everyone really is a critic and eager to share their story. And the many social media outlets means they can share and share and share - quickly too. It's almost impossible for a business to get ahead of a compelling "bad news" story.
Mistakes happen; it's how a business and its employees respond to the problem that makes all the difference.
Bad press can hurt an entire industry
Ferguson's Precept says: "A crisis is when you can't say ‘let's just forget the whole thing.'"
By any measure, Carnival Cruise Lines had a terrible beginning to 2013 when several ships experienced problems. Most famously, the ordeal of the Triumph cruise ship made worldwide headlines after an engine fire stranded passengers at sea for days. Passengers described dreadful conditions on the ship via Twitter and social media. The world was riveted - and the entire cruise industry suffered.
The survey of 2,230 U.S. adults, which took place between Feb. 19 and 21, found a 17 percent drop in a measurement of America's trust in Carnival Cruise Lines following the much-publicized incident. Measurements of trust in rival lines including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Holland America also dropped, though not as sharply.
For Carnival though, there was one bright spot: many passengers complimented the ship's crew and thanked the employees for their helpfulness and professionalism during the crisis.
This is quite the contrast to the behavior of the Costa Concordia's captain in 2012, who abandoned the ship (leaving passengers aboard) after it capsized and then sued the cruise line for wrongful termination.
Employees are brand ambassadors
Businesses are run by humans, so companies will inevitably make mistakes - and when you're selling a service or "experience," a single mistake can unalterably color the customer's perception of the whole transaction. What matters most is how your employees handle what comes after a mistake is made. Nothing enrages a customer more than a business that can't quickly and cheerfully fix a problem.
Many service industries spend a lot of time training employees on crisis management for situations affecting customers' physical safety. But some tend to ignore training in basic customer service skills, neglect that definitely affects the type of service customers receive. The airline industry is a great example: employees at one airline threatened to have customers arrested for complaining, and another revoked a customer's frequent flyer miles because of "excessive complaints."
Good customer service employees respond to customer complaints with sympathy, an apology, and a plan to correct the issue. It doesn't take much acumen to realize that threatening customers is a bad marketing plan. A good reputation for service depends on your front-line employees who deal directly with customers, but the culture of good service starts at the top of the organization. An employee who feels empowered and valued by his/her employer will in turn value customers. An employee who feels mistreated has little incentive to treat customers with more consideration.
The reality is that employees are the ambassadors of a brand, whether they're in a customer-facing role, involved in producing a product or service, or serve in a support or service function. What they do, and how they go about doing it can and often does, make or break a brand.
But it doesn't stop with simply making employees happy so they're effective ambassadors of a brand. It's also about employee engagement as perceptions of how a company treats its employees have the potential to enhance or hurt a brand as well.
This goes double for employees in the travel and hospitality industry. Word of mouth marketing buzz can make or break a resort, hotel, or small travel business. People will share good experiences (especially if you encourage them), but they're often much quicker to relate the bad stories - unless their experience is so amazing and unexpected that they can't wait to tell the world.
That's where your employees make the difference. Hire good people, train them to notice even the smallest details, and give them the authority to correct problems without having to check "upstairs" for permission. There's no shortcut to excellent customer service: the only path to success is to value your employees as much as you do your customers - and profits.
Billy Parris has worked for Cabins of the Smoky Mountains and Venture Resorts since 2004. He attended the University of Florida and earned a BS in Electrical Engineering. I then made the obvious transition from that world to Cabin Rentals. he enjoys everything about my job from marketing to people management to interacting with guests.