Customer Connection -- The Human Touch

When talking about customer service we are definitely getting into a good news/bad news kind of situation.

The bad news: Levels of customer satisfaction with service in so many industries have dropped to almost undetectable levels. Whether dealing with airlines, car dealerships, doctors, or local coffee shops, customers everywhere are reporting lower and lower levels of satisfaction with the kind of service they are receiving.

The good news: Because of these lower levels of expectation, any business, including the summer camp that makes the extra effort to reach out to people and show them that they are valued as customers will reap the rewards of those efforts.

One Simple Idea

Good customer service can be broken down to one simple idea: good communication. That's really what we are talking about when we talk about customer service. The way your show you care for campers and their families is going to be determined by how you communicate with them. And how you communicate with them is going to determine how they feel about you and your camp.

Let's break down the idea of good communication into basic key aspects of customer service. These elements are designed to work across a summer camp's entire year.

Throughout this article I will use the terms customer service and customer care interchangeably, because how you offer service to the families and campers will, in their minds, show how much you care for them as customers and people.

It's ALL Customer Service

That's right. Everything you do, everything your camp is based on, and everything that goes on in your everyday life of running a camp is actually customer service. Summer camps are in the people business, and particularly in the children business. As such, the native level of customer care needs to be a lot higher, than say, the tire shop down the street.

Camps deal with children and families all year long. That's the business they are in. The level of trust needed for parents to send their child to your camp needs to be very, very strong. And that trust needs to be nurtured and developed consistently, over a period of time. From first contact, all the way through to alumni reunions years later, each camper and parent needs to feel that they have been treated especially well by your camp.

Parents want to feel good about choosing a summer camp. Make sure that you give everyone involved as many reasons as possible to feel good about yours.

So, let's look at what I mean when I say it's all customer service…

Pre-Customer Care

Pre-customer care is my term to describe the period of communication before anyone has agreed to attend your camp. And in pre-customer service, as in every step of the customer care process, the little things count.

As we discussed in last month's article on holistic branding, everything that the camp does is going to affect how the camp is perceived.

So let's start with something very simple: Phone calls. This is one of the primary ways camps are contacted. By phone. Someone has gotten your number, maybe from a Web site, maybe a letter, maybe a poster. But someone has taken the time to contact your camp for more information. So this is your first strategic level of impression.

How is the phone answered? By a real person? Or an automated system that gives a menu of extensions and options? I for one, and I am sure many would agree with me, dearly miss the days of a live person on the other end of a phone call. It may be convenient to have an automated system, but at what cost?

There's a commercial making the rounds for a credit card company that dramatizes how painful it is to use an automated, inhuman system; I'm sure we've all beaten our phones against the wall just trying to reach a human being.

And nobody really likes to leave messages. You can never be sure if they will be listened to at all, much less be returned.

The new trend: have a human being available, and available immediately. The solution can be as simple as forwarding incoming calls to your cell phone, contracting an answering service, or simply having a person on hand who can answer telephone inquiries. Those who take advantage of this new trend toward human availability will reap the customer care rewards.

It could make a big difference in how people feel about your camp. Turning over that all important first level of human contact to a machine is taking customer care for granted; a human voice should always be considered the first line of customer service.

And how that phone is answered plays a huge part in the initial contact. Always be polite, maybe even overly polite. Enthusiasm is contagious; the person answering the phone should make the caller excited, or at least glad, that the call was made (say what you want about big oil companies, but when you call the headquarters of Exxon/Mobil, you get a friendly, courteous and helpful person on the phone the second it is answered).

If your camp does have an automated phone system, don't worry. People are rather used to them these days. But try to make sure that your callers have an option that will let them easily reach a live human being if they want to. It will improve the sense of accessibility to your camp.

Filling Cracks

Here are some simple steps to help ensure that your bunks are full and few contacts slip through the cracks.

• After the initial contact, and after the camp brochure is mailed out, follow up with a personal letter from the director of the camp, or even a personal phone call; simply say, "Thank you for your interest in our camp. If there are any questions, you can contact me directly…" and then leave a direct line to the camp director.

• If you receive an inquiry through your Web site, make sure that you respond as soon as possible, ideally in 24 hours. When you receive a request for information on-line, you can be assured that they have looked into quite a few other camps as well. How quickly and how politely you follow up will help determine which camp gets the nod, and which one doesn't.

• Here is a very simple strategy that should win you additional campers every year… Have a system in place where you are able to keep track of all the inquiries that were made for the season. Then, as it's getting down to crunch time and the season is looming large on the horizon, go back to these inquiries, and find the ones that did not sign up this season. Why? Well, they have already expressed an interest. Communication has already been opened, and you are no longer strangers. Families that have expressed an interest but have not signed up can be fertile ground for harvesting new campers. Send these folks a nice letter, or post card. Say simply, "We just wanted to touch base with you to let you know that there are still a few spaces left for the coming season… this promises to be a super summer, and we'd hate to see you miss out on a single minute of it." Or words to that affect. Never let a warm lead grow cold. This technique can also offer valuable feedback; ask why they did not decide to attend your camp; if they are attending another camp, find out what it was that swayed their decision. Successful marketing is about getting feedback from your efforts, and making adjustments for the future.

• When contacting families who have not yet signed up, send two separate targeted messages; one to the parents, and one to the child. If there has been no decision made, and the child gets a personal letter from the camp director… well, what child would want to miss out on a great summer of excitement? (It is always a good idea to offer separate communications for the parent and the children. Parents make decisions for different reasons than kids do, and with the rise of Internet-savvy kids, children have a growing presence in the summer camp decision-making process).

Pre-Season Care

Once families have made the decision to go to your camp, there is going to be a flurry of communications between your camp and the parents. Make sure that these are all very simple to understand, and the applications easy to fill out. Set up a special customer care number just for questions from parents… there are bound to be plenty, so make it easy for them to reach you.

This is also a good time for another personal letter from the camp director, welcoming them to the camp, and speaking with excitement for the upcoming season. Again, offer a phone number for calling the director. They may not use it, but some may. Remember, part of good communication is about how easy it is to actually do the communicating.

In-Season Care

During the camp season is a great opportunity to cement the relationship between camp and family. While the kids are away at camp, make it easy for the parents to keep up to date about what is going on.

E-mails back and forth are always a good place to start (I am sure that emails have replaced the letter home as the primary communication back and forth between parent and child at camp). You can also have photos of activities posted on your Web site every week, so parents can go and see pictures of the kids having fun with other campers. But most camps know and are well-versed in all the interactivity available through the Internet and the mix of advertisers in this magazine who offer reasonable prices for services that take the load off your back when it comes to in-season marketing.

Make sure that parents feel as much a part of the camp experience as the kids do. Have one or more special parents' days at the camp, where the parents can see your camp in full swing. Give them tours, let them participate in activities; build a whole day around integrating the parents into the camp experience. If you give parents a chance to experience the camp as their kids do, and let the inner child run loose for a day, they may become as bonded to your camp as their children.

Too many camps leave these visiting days to chance, with the parents left to feel that they have to fend for themselves. Have invitations made for the parents, and included with the welcoming package sent out to the family with a specific time and day for each Parent's Day (camps with different sessions should plan several days to coordinate with each session) should be a good map with visual and written directions and any important information they should know.

When the day arrives, have staffers on hand to escort the parents to a central meeting place, like the dining hall. Have official welcoming ceremonies, with food, give-aways like caps and shirts, and a discussion of the day's activities. Offer tours, and a chance to participate in the same activities as the kids do: swimming, canoeing, pottery and softball. Let them have fun. In fact, getting the parents involved at this level can also be a vital piece of the pre-care service discussed earlier, when planned as part of a visit to the camp prior to sign up (also known as experiential marketing).

Staff should be prepared for unexpected visits as well, and be well-versed on how to handle guests. There are any number of stories -- and you hear them from parents -- about going into the camp entrance, having a difficult time finding your way around, finally making contact with a counselor, only to be greeted with a shrug, "I dunno… the office is thataway," and a dismissive point in a general direction (the office, you suppose). The point is, you have to drill customer service into your staff's heads. Give them the type of welcome and service they don't get at the local mega-mall!

Post-Season Care

As the season winds down, and campers have gone home, after everyone has had a chance to catch their breath and take a moment, take some time to let the kids and the parents know how much the past summer meant to you as camp director, and how much you appreciate that they could share this great summer with you and your staff.

A nice letter of appreciation, signed by the director and all the counselors and staff, is all that is needed. It is also a great time, while feelings are high, to make your case for signing up early for the following summer.

This is also a great time to get back to families that decided not to attend your camp that season. A simple note to say, "Sorry you couldn't be with us this summer. We had a great time. Hope we get to see you next summer…" could go a long way toward gearing up interest for the following season.

During the off season, keep track of the birthdays of the campers that attended the past season. Simple computer programs will pop up a reminder every time a birthday is coming up. Keep a supply of birthday cards, and mail one out to all the campers who have birthdays during the off season. Besides showing how much your camp is involved with its campers, it is also a great way of keeping your name in front of both child and parent, in a happy and positive light.

The off season is a good time to seriously go over all your avenues of communication. Everything that has a point of contact with a camper or the parents, whether it's your Web site, brochure, letters or post cards, should be looked at with an eye towards its effectiveness as a communication tool and whether or not the communication process is simple or frustrating for customers and potential customers. Obviously, your goal is to eliminate frustration and make communication with your camp not only easy, but an enjoyable experience.

Tim Diering is the Vice President of Marketing at Summer Camp Design, a full service marketing and design firm. He can be reached at (800) 957 7175, at or visit

Bryan BuchkoComment