Creating a service culture

LCT Staff
Posted on December 1, 2004

Make Them Feel Good

Employees who feel good about their abilities and their contributions to a company or team are more likely to:

* Be happy, which will shine through in the service they provide. * Desire to continue to excel if you recognize them. * Stay at their jobs longer. The small costs of recognition do not compare to the significant amount of money a company loses when a valuable employee leaves.

What does it take to ensure that your employees are providing the best customer service?

Simply stated it’s quality control. You have to properly train and then retrain reservationists, dispatchers and other customer service representatives.

At the October LCT Leadership Summit at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach in Miami, Publisher Sara Eastwood spoke about creating a service culture within the industry. For her presentation, 30 receptionists were earlier surveyed at random from operators who attended the Summit.

Eastwood notes that job satisfaction is No. 1 for exceptional customer service.

“Make sure that only the most positive, pleasant and best informed employees are placed in customer service positions,” Eastwood says. “Also, have your company’s customer service representatives properly and thoroughly trained by professional customer service trainers before they are allowed to take to the phones.”

Start With Training

Bill Alford, president of VIP Limousine in Omaha, Neb., says his reservationists and dispatchers begin training by working alongside the reservations manager. They are then slowly worked into a position where they take calls themselves. It’s a very hands-on process, he says.

For Alford’s operation, 37 vehicles plus 24 para-transit vehicles and 75 employees, all reservationists have either previously chauffeured or have been trained as one. They have accompanied a chauffeur on a ride, which helps their overall perspective of what the company provides. Alford has even done this himself and finds that this extra training helps him tremendously in understanding the problems and issues his drivers encounter.

Jeff Rose, president of Attitude New York Inc. in New York City, says when he hires, part of the initial training his company requires is that all employees must read the driver’s manual first.

“We often hire people who are new to the industry and sometimes we will have them go through driver training so they know what we expect of our chauffeurs and what clients expect,” he adds.

Rose began his business in 1986. He operates 29 vehicles and manages 60 employees. He finds that having employees go through this process helps them get to know the business and understand what is expected of chauffeurs and what clients expect of them. “We want to make sure people know what the dish tastes like before teaching them how to cook it.”

Reward and Motivate Your Employees

Amply reward employees who occupy customer service positions, Eastwood says.

Motivate them to perform their best by offering financial rewards, more responsibility or power; giving employees a sense of accomplishment and achievement; the opportunity for advancement; some sense of ownership by allowing them to contribute; and recognizing them for their hard work.

H. A. Thompson, president of Rose Limousine in Charlotte, N.C., has several ongoing programs to keep employees motivated. His company has a $50 Driver of the Month award; a $100 Driver of the Year award, and a bonus program for dispatchers and reservationists, in which they can earn up to $500. The program rewards reservationists or dispatchers who make the least amount of mistakes.

“It’s an incentive to get them to check and double check their work,” Thompson says.

Rose of Attitude New York says to keep employees motivated, he pays the staff well and offers benefits to long-term employees, as well as a 401K. After a certain period of employment, the company pays 100 percent of health benefits.

In addition, he offers holiday bonuses. Even after 9/11, despite business dropping, Rose went to the bank and borrowed the money to continue giving the holiday bonuses. He and his management staff try to be flexible when it comes to scheduling needs and offering a flexible dress code.

Alford of VIP Limousine says his company realizes the importance of raises. He also owns a high-end car and detailing center that runs during the off-peak season. Since he does trades with local movie theaters and restaurants, he rewards employees with movie tickets. “They’re inexpensive ways to reward our employees.”

Alford also makes it a point to celebrate employee birthdays with balloons, birthday cards and cake, although he notes this is becoming a problem because of all the pounds everyone is putting on.

Communicate Your Expectations You can’t expect proper actions from your employees if you don’t communicate what you want from them, Eastwood notes. What is required of each employee is in a written job description, says Thompson of Rose Limousine. We started implementing these guidelines within the last couple of years, he adds, and chauffeurs receive ongoing training. If you communicate your expectations and train, train and then re-train, you are more likely to get the results you want. Alford of VIP Limousines says he conveys what’s expected of employees through weekly meetings and in job descriptions.

It’s Time to Retrain Retraining means learning how to do something better, says Thompson of Rose Limousine. “Entrepreneurs can’t do everything,” he says.

Thompson, who operates 21 vehicles and manages 38 employees, has been in business since 1986.

“We try to bring in people who have some experience in the hospitality industry, such as hotel and airlines,” he says.

Recently Thompson had a consultant brought in to look at the way he was operating his business. “One of the things that the consultant said was that we were trying to do too many things ourselves,” he says. “We were wearing too many hats and not delegating enough. We had to put out fires, deal with customer complaints and we’re focusing a lot of our time on that.”

The biggest mistake operators make is to try to do everything, he says. “You have to have organization in business.” And that’s hard, Thompson adds, because most operators are small business owners (*see chart).

Rose, of Attitude New York says that constant training within a job is often reflective of companies adapting to change. He notes that his company has a lot of procedures and that almost always retraining employees is a response to changes, such as the company growing bigger or new technology being implemented.

“Part of it is getting people to follow the new procedures and to do it well,” Rose says. “People tend to add their own method. Execution is the hard part.” Retraining means practicing the fundamentals and making sure everybody stays on top of their game, says Alford of VIP Limousine.

Alford notes that the reservationists’ and dispatchers’ areas are very open so he and management can hear what’s going on and determine what needs to be improved.

Thompson of Rose Limousine says his operations manager sits down with reservationists and other employees and goes over what they are doing right and wrong.

“We don’t have voice logger,” he says. “Certain employees we sit down with on a weekly basis and others are so good and have little to no mistakes. As long as they are doing their job, we try to encourage them and be positive, but when things go wrong, we have to address that. You just can’t throw them to the wolves and leave them.”

Alford of VIP says that anytime employees handle things well, they are commended for it immediately. When something needs to be corrected, it’s approached in a positive manner and they review the issue, how it was handled and how it could have been handled differently.

“We do have weekly meetings to go over how sales are going and how to do things better and review some policies,” Alford adds.

Give Them The Right Environment When asked about what they like least about their jobs, employee responses led back to the work environment: stress levels in the office; low morale; office politics; messy work environment; too much negativity; disheveled co-workers; and long hours, Eastwood notes.

At Rose Limousine, employees are given a proper working environment with quality workstations and desks. Since the company has been continually growing and there has been renovation, a new dispatcher area guarantees privacy because voices can overlap while on the phone.

Rose of Attitude New York says he provides a comfortable workspace for his employees and doesn’t buy the cheapest chairs or equipment. He spent money on a HVAC system for the office, adding that occasionally he buys meals for dispatchers and chauffeurs so there’s always enough staff to lend a hand when things get extremely busy. Rose says he hears laughter and that’s a good sign that everybody seems to be enjoying their jobs.

“We maintain a professional, but relaxed atmosphere,” says Alford of VIP Limousine. “We require our employees to dress up and don’t allow jeans. Taking to this business attire has helped quite a bit and it affects the way we talk. You take more pride in yourself if you’re dressed up.”

Cross Train Employees If You Can

Rose of Attitude New York doesn’t have reservationists answer the phones. Instead, dispatchers are trained to answer phones and then different tasks are broken down. One day a dispatcher might be working the radio and another will be dispatching chauffeurs. “Our standards are very high. Tasks may be different, but in every aspect the emphasis is on attention to detail.”

Thompson of Rose Limousine says his management can do all positions and some dispatchers are trained to do reservations, but reservationists can’t always do dispatching.

“If the phones are blowing off the hook, management picks up the phone,” he says. “They’ll wear another hat for 15 minutes or a half hour.”

Alford of VIP Limousine notes that while they try to keep everyone within their job duties, there are very busy times when reservationists will clean and prep cars, and some of the administrative staff are trained as chauffeurs. Even Alford has a suit ready to go for times when he needs to step in and drive.

Give Them a Break

On average, reservationists surveyed said they handle about 60 calls every day. This means reservationists need breaks, Eastwood says. If there are no breaks, reservationists will wilt and that impairs their customer service level. She notes that according to the Customer Service Association, “In a high-volume call center, the ICSA recommends a 15-minute break from the phones every two hours, not including lunch.”

When asked how long they work on the phone before they take a break, 43 percent of respondents to the random survey taken for the LCT Summit say they take breaks every one to three hours; 48 percent take a lunch only after working three and half to six hours; and 9 percent say they don’t take breaks.

“We have enough people to cover for breaks, but we don’t have a formal system,” says Rose of Attitude New York. “I’ve always assumed that people will take breaks when they are needed. One of the things that I picked up at the Summit was that we need to explore a formal system for break times.”

Follow Your Customer Service Mantra

Some of the most common customer gripes, Eastwood says, are: service is too expensive, surcharges, late or no shows. Other common gripes are misquotes in pricing, no receipt or confirmation, rude reservationists, being put on hold too long and unprofessional chauffeurs.

Alford says his customer service philosophy is, “We strive to have the newest equipment to provide the best customer experience. The customer experience is what counts. We bend over backwards to make sure it is positive.”

After 9/11, Rose of Attitude New York says he took a good look at what his business does and its focus. His operation is about five miles from Ground Zero. “In order to have this type of business, you need to take very good care of the clients. We exist for the benefit of the employees, but we serve them by putting the clients’ needs first.”

A professional environment often equals professionalism. “Professional is executing your job,” says Thompson of Rose Limousine. “You don’t only look like a professional. You act like one.”

Prepare Your Frontline

About 73 percent of reservationists surveyed said they had sales training. Only 27 percent said they had no sales training.

In order to best serve your clients, your frontline must walk in the customers’ shoes, Eastwood says.

You’ve got to teach your reservationists how to handle price objections, she adds. “This is the biggest challenge your frontline must contend with. Be sure your reservationists have good sales skills too!”

Rose of Attitude New York says when his staff encounters price objections with customers, he instructs them to point out that there are no extra fees. Other than gratuity and tolls, nothing else is tacked on.

“We’ve turned away six-figure accounts because they demanded excessive discounts,” Rose says. “One company took six months to pay its bill and that was too long so we let them go as a client. And that account was about 5 percent of our company income. In each case we become stronger when letting a client go.

If people find our prices too high, they certainly have other options, but we can’t sell a BMW for the price of Chevrolet.”

Alford of VIP says he informs clients they are in a regulated market and rates are on file with the Public Service Commission. We are not a low price provider, but cater to relationships, he says. “The person who will call 20 companies for the lowest price is probably not going to pick us.”


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