Customer Service is Everything

Top tips to make your guests feel like VIPs

The coronavirus numbers in Germany are dropping nicely, so my husband and I decided to book a holiday for late summer. That said, we are being quite conservative about the whole thing. The first thing we agreed on was no flights. Instead, we plan to drive. We also wanted to be able to cancel at late notice, just in case the infection rate starts going up again.

Before we settled on a location or booked our hotel, we did one last thing: we checked the major review sites to reassure ourselves that our choices were the right ones. We weren’t alone. It seems that nearly everyone relies on online reviews. Travel statistics for 2020 showed that:

  • 90% of travellers research their holidays online
  • 80% of all travellers, regardless of booking method, will spend up to four weeks reading reviews on sites like TripAdvisor when researching a destination
  • 85% of travellers trust online reviews; in fact, 72% of new customers won’t book anything until they’ve looked at the reviews

And, apparently, travel is booming in 2021.  It seems that a lot of people saved an awful lot of money during the pandemic, and all that money is burning a hole in their pockets. The Washington Post reported that Americans alone saved an estimated $2.5 trillion during the lockdown and are ready for a high-end, post-pandemic shopping spree. Even the fiscally conservative Germans are ready to spend. According to a consumer survey report by McKinsey & Company, 44 percent of German consumers, regardless of age or income level, want to spend extra on themselves in 2021. In both cases, travel is at the top of the list.

Competition for customers will be fierce. Online reviews could make or break your organisation. Luckily, 95 percent of travel reviews are positive, which is why anyone getting a rating below very good or excellent needs to look at the reason behind it.

Now, I realise that sometimes a bad review is unjustified. If you book a weekend on a dairy farm, you shouldn’t complain that you can smell the countryside. That’s just ridiculous. But most of the negative reviews aren’t silly city people complaining about cows. Instead, they are real customers complaining about real issues. More often than not, the biggest complaints are about customer service.

To test this, I went to TripAdvisor and checked out the reviews of some of the hotels, museums, and tourist sites in Frankfurt and a few other places. The results were the same wherever I looked.

With museums, most of the bad reviews revolved around ticket prices, wait times to get in, a lack of cohesion for the exhibits (see my article about storytelling), and rude staff.

With hotels, a few things regularly came up: the hotel’s refund policy, substandard rooms, and rude staff.

Restaurants: bad food, location, and rude staff.

Do you see the pattern here?

Bad customer service can kill you, even if you have the best hotel, restaurant, or museum exhibits in the world.

(Just to be sure that those giving the bad reviews weren’t people who just did it for fun, I clicked on each person who posted one. Usually, that was the only bad review they had ever written.)

What constitutes good customer service? 

Marketing strategist Brittany Hodak boils good customer service down to three basic principles: professionalism, patience, and a people-first attitude.

For me, it’s going the extra mile. Let’s look at two real-life examples.

I like to do DIY (do-it-yourself) projects around my house, and I’m pretty good at it. Anyone who has ever been to a DIY store will understand that sometimes it’s hard finding what you need. One time I went into a store and asked an employee who was stocking shelves where I could find a particular item. He looked up and simply said, “aisle 3.” I went to aisle 3 and guess what? I still couldn’t find what I needed. I was just as lost as when I came in. When I tried to find someone else to help me, there was no one in sight. Frustrated, I left the store and went to their competitor, just down the road.

This time, when I asked where I could find this item, the employee walked me over to the aisle, showed me where it was, and asked me several questions about my project.  To my surprise, she suggested a product that was actually cheaper than the one I came in for. She also showed me several other items that I didn’t know I needed (but I did) and still other items that would make the project easier. When I asked a question she couldn’t answer, she called over a colleague who could.

I left that store feeling confident that I had the right tools for the project. Did I spend more than I would have in the other store? I have no idea. But the people in the second store saved me both time and frustration. Guess which one is now my go-to store? Their help didn’t cost the company one extra penny, but for me it was priceless.

Let’s look at another example from the tourism/heritage side of things.

When I first arrived in London, I was doing contract work near Trafalgar Square, which meant I got to spend a lot of time in the National Gallery. It was wonderful. I would go there at lunchtime and was able to enjoy the art in a way I never had before. One day, I asked a security guard if he knew where a particular painting was. He did and gave me very specific directions to find it. (Obviously, he couldn’t leave his post to show me.) But then, he went the extra mile by describing two other pieces in the museum he thought I might be interested in and marked their locations on my map. As I was leaving the museum, he waved and asked if I had found the paintings and what I thought of them. It wasn’t a long or complicated conversation, but the fact that he went out of his way made me feel like a VIP.

Many of the customer service complaints I read came from staff members being downright rude. One person was horrified when a security guard at a museum yelled at her from across the room for supposedly getting too close to the exhibit. In fact, she wasn’t near the painting; she was bending over to read the very small print on the label. In another museum, a staff member “ranted” at her because he thought her bag was too big to be allowed inside. (It seems that there was no hard and fast rule about the size of ladies handbags. The person who let her into the museum thought it was OK; however, the staff member in the first room thought it was too big. She was so embarrassed, she left without seeing the rest of the exhibit. Reviews repeatedly described staff at museums, heritage sites, and hotels who are grumpy, cold, or simply unwilling to look up from what they are doing to acknowledge guests. One reviewer even described a staff member so caught up in her own work she wasn’t able to help a guest who had cut themselves and needed a plaster. Needless to say, this is unacceptable.

When I discussed this with friends, they suggested that maybe the staff members in question weren’t being rude or grumpy. Perhaps they were just being direct and straightforward.

Newsflash: you cannot always be direct and straightforward with the public. You have to soften your language in order to be as polite as possible.

My top tips for great customer service

Acknowledge your customers. Simply say hello or good morning. Smile and nod. When someone approaches you, stop what you are doing and ask: “How can I help you?” If you are busy with another customer or are on the phone, indicate that you will be with them as soon as possible.

Don’t just answer their question. Go the extra mile. If you are on hotel reception and a guest asks you how to get to a local tourist attraction, ask them about the rest of their day. You might have local, insider knowledge that could help them. For example, maybe you know some great places to eat that most visitors miss. Ask: “After you visit the town museum, do you have plans for lunch? I can recommend several restaurants in the area if you like.” If they refuse your help, no worries – don’t push it. But if they accept your help, go even further and call the restaurant to let them know to expect your guests – even if you don’t have a firm reservation time. When your guests return, ask how their day was. These small acts of kindness will make your guests feel special.

If you need to say something negative, like a guest needs to take their backpack to the locker area, do it politely and quietly. Do not make a scene! Apologise – even though you haven’t done anything wrong.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid backpacks aren’t allowed in the museum. They should have told you that at the front desk. Would you mind putting it in a locker by reception?” 

Let’s look at those sentences again. Did you notice how many softeners we used here?

  • Excuse me…
  • I’m so sorry…
  • I’m afraid…
  • Passive verb construction
  • Use of the anonymous “they”
  • Would you mind…

Truthfully, if this was a business meeting, that would be too many softeners. But when you are working in an industry that focuses heavily on customer service, you can never be too polite.

The same amount of respect should be shown if your guests are the ones misbehaving.

“Excuse me. I’m so sorry to bother you, but I’m afraid we have had some complaints. Would you mind lowering your voices a bit? Thanks.”

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir. I’m afraid you aren’t allowed to use a flash inside. You can still take photos, but would you mind turning the flash off? Thanks for understanding.”

Now, most people will probably be fine when you approach them. Others will not and you might need to escalate the situation. Whatever you do, keep it polite and professional.

What happens if you do all this and still get a bad review?

If you do get a bad review, answer it. If your organisation is at fault, apologise and do what you can to make amends. If it isn’t your fault (it’s the countryside and we have cows!), at least acknowledge that you’ve read their complaint and understand their disappointment.

Don’t let all your hard work go down the drain because of a bad review. Keep your visitors happy and the good reviews will flow.


Laura Marshallsay, owner and founder of Marshallsay English, is a public historian and Business English teacher. She provides English language services to the tourism and museum industries. If you have any questions, comments, or if would like to discuss training needs for your organisation, feel free to contact her at laura@marshallsayenglish.com.

Marshallsay English – Because words matter 

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