Great Customer Service

By Kurt Podeszwa

We’ve all heard the sayings, “The customer is always right,” and “The customer may not always be right, but he or she is always the customer.” These phrases are attempts to simplify a complicated issue.

Customer service is not about right and wrong, but about how the customer feels. In order to provide quality customer service, we need to understand who our customers are, how to be intentional with our words, how to exceed our customers’ expectations, and, if necessary, how to deliver sincere apologies.

Identify The Customer
We teach staff members how to work with campers, but are they our only customers?

My daughter Salem was nervous and excited the first time she went to camp. When we walked into her cabin, her counselor Luna was in the middle of a conversation with another counselor. Both were sitting on beds. Luna looked up at us, smiled, and said, “You must be Salem. You can choose one of the open beds.” Then she turned back and continued her conversation. Gulp.

My wife and I exchanged looks, and went to help Salem make her bed. She met some other girls, and they started talking. When we left, Luna looked up, said goodbye, and then she and the other counselor began to interact with the girls.

My wife and I didn’t feel particularly confident about Luna when we left camp because she had largely ignored Salem and completely ignored us. While Luna turned out to be a great counselor, she had forgotten who the customers were.

Words Matter
It’s important to recognize that the words we select have an impact on the message we are trying to convey and further, the camp experience itself.

For example, one camp I directed had a tiny kitchen. The staff was committed to not serving pre-made foods, but in that kitchen, cooking was difficult. Making pancakes was especially challenging with the small griddle, so the plan was to have campers start with one pancake and then more could be cooked during the meal.

I was not at breakfast that morning, but learned later that day from some campers and staff that we had run out of pancakes and everyone was able to eat only one.

When I asked the head cook, she said there had been plenty of pancakes, and they actually had to throw some away. As we talked through the problem, she admitted she made an announcement about having one pancake.

I asked her what exactly she had said. She replied, “We have a very small griddle in the kitchen and cannot make enough pancakes for everyone to have more than one to start with, so please only take one pancake at first.” This made sense, but all the campers apparently heard was “cannot make enough” and “only take one.”

We could have spent all day talking about “That’s not what I said.” But that didn’t matter. What mattered was what people heard.

The following week, I made this announcement to the campers: “We have been working hard on making sure you get hot, fresh pancakes! Nobody wants pancakes that have been drying up in a warmer for an hour. So, Donna is going to cook pancakes fresh for you! Your first plate will have one pancake per person. Enjoy that first one and then come back for seconds, thirds, fourths, or 55ths. Donna will keep making pancakes.”

Campers and staff thought they were getting a treat. Some staff members even approached Donna and thanked her for working so hard on the pancakes.

Words matter.

Another example of how words matter is the power of “yes.” While “yes” is certainly positive, sometimes we feel like we have to qualify that “yes.”

For example, a group has already informed the camp about renting the pool, the lake, the archery range, and the BB gun range, so the appropriate staff is engaged. Then, two days before the intended arrival, the group calls to ask whether the high-ropes course can also be used.

There is not enough staff to run all of these activities and the ropes course, so the first thought is to say “no.” Better customer service would be to say, “Yes, and if we do that, we will have to take out two of the other activities you asked for so those staff members can run the ropes course. Which activities would you prefer?”

In this example, you said “yes,” and the user group was able to make the choice. This feels much different than a flat “no.” Plus, using the word “but” is intentional. That word negates what was said before, whereas “and” enhances it. Again, words matter.

Exceed Expectations
Our camp hosts a large bike ride every year. The event starts at 8 a.m., and the gates open at 6 a.m. Bicycle riders have a habit of arriving early; in fact, there is usually a line of cars at the gate by 5:30 a.m. Because of this, we are very specific in helping with customer service.

The sign at the gate reads, “Welcome, riders! Gates open at 6 a.m.” We also post a staff member there to talk with riders and let in volunteers. When the cars pull up, drivers are reminded about the gate-opening time.

However, we set a goal to open the gates at 5:45 a.m. By opening early, we exceed the riders’ expectations, so they feel better about their wait. In order to exceed expectations, we had to establish baseline expectations that were realistic and clearly communicated. Success is in the planning, a step that is easy to overlook.

If your plan is to open the gates for check-in at 2 p.m., and you ask staff to arrive by 1 p.m., there may not be enough prep time. As a consequence of inadequate planning, you may run late, which is poor customer service.

Better planning might include an earlier staff arrival or a published check-in time of 2:30 p.m. With either choice, the gates can be opened 10 minutes early and thereby exceed expectations.

An Apology Goes A Long Way
A genuine apology helps people feel appreciated. I love going to places that are known for customer service and watching how the staff members react to a mistake.

On a family vacation to Disney World, we were charged double for a dinner. Because we were using the pre-paid meal plan, I didn’t realize the mistake until two days later as I was checking our account. I went to the front desk and explained what had happened.

The woman said, “I am very sorry, sir. We will take care of this.” Then she asked about the quality of the restaurant and the meal. Notice that at the point she apologized, she didn’t know whether the mistake was mine or Disney’s. She apologized anyway, which put me at ease. Eventually, my account was credited.

An apology can be beneficial, even if the agency is not at fault. “I am very sorry you feel that way. Is there anything I can do?” “I am sorry that was your experience.” “I’m very sorry about the misunderstanding. Let me see what I can do to make things right.”

A genuine apology—if only for an upsetting circumstance—is another cornerstone of good customer service.

In recreation and youth development, we spend a great deal of time focusing on quality programs. Great programs will get the camp noticed, but great customer service will bring people back.

Knowing who the customer is, being intentional about the use of words, exceeding expectations, and apologizing are all examples of superior customer service. The customer is not always right, but staff trained in customer service can make customers feel that things are right in the universe.

Kurt R. Podeszwa is the camp director at Camp For All in Texas, and the founder of Journey Consulting. He is an accomplished presenter and author, and a faculty member of . Kurt has presented at national and regional conferences as well as for companies and schools on topics ranging from staff training and development to adaptive programming and processing.