Customer service

Where the frontline is key to the bottom line

professors Muzaffer Uysal and Vincent Magnini
Vincent Magnini (left) and Muzaffer Uysal (right) discuss the importance of business frontlines.

Customer satisfaction and loyalty in the hospitality and tourism business, say professors Muzaffer Uysal and Vincent Magnini, greatly depend on frontline service providers — employees who are in first contact with the customer.

The frontline is an important part of the bottom-line, in both profit and customer satisfaction terms, they note. Yet, they found that though many books and articles have been written about service satisfaction, few, if any, have focused on the specific details of customer-provider interactions.

So the two hospitality and tourism management professors, collaborating with Francis Noe, a retired research director at the National Park Service and former adjunct professor in their department, wrote a book to fill the gap: Tourist Customer Service Satisfaction: An Encounter Approach (2010, Routledge).

“Service is about people, how they relate to one another, fulfill each other’s needs, and ultimately care for each other,” wrote the scholars, who collectively have extensive experience observing service providers. “The ultimate value an organization can communicate, according to what we have seen, is the personal touch.”

Photo of book, Tourist Customer Service Satisfaction: An encounter approach

Synthesizing research and theories from the hospitality, tourism, management, and psychology fields, the authors examine the customer-provider relationship and identify strategies and tactics that have worked.

“Few adults like to be told how to behave,” but the customer service process can be analytically examined, like almost any other subject, and successful approaches documented, the authors note. Their target audience is “students and practitioners in the hospitality field, from the frontline to the back office.”

The two commandments

Service, the authors say, can be summarized in two “commandments,” that, abided by, would help create customer loyalty and promote business profits, growth, and longevity. “One, do unto your internal customers as you would have them do unto your external customers. In other words, take care of your employees … be concerned for their well-being, and invest in them.”

Two, always treat customers as though they will remain customers, “never as though this is the last time you’ll see them.”

In the final chapter, they identify several emerging areas of interest in frontline services and recommend ways that hospitality businesses can respond.

Employee recruiting and selection is critical

They emphasize that good recruiting and selection programs are essential to a firm’s ability to provide superior service at the frontline. “Not everyone is well-suited to be a frontline customer service provider. Customer contact personnel must possess the proper combination of traits.”

Firms with a well-liked and distinct brand personality will have the best ability to recruit top people, the authors point out. Firms may wish to conduct research to determine external constituent perceptions of their brand personality, and use the results to change, reinforce, or develop their brand’s personality in their marketing communications.

“Non-traditional means of attracting staff will become even more critical, as competition in the industry continues to escalate,” the authors note. They advise managers to seek talent in other service settings and from non-typical sources, such as retirees, and to create good incentive programs that encourage employees to recruit other qualified individuals.

Firms will have a distinct advantage, if they have well-structured employee selection procedures, such as behavioral interviewing methods. All firms should also consider emotional intelligence screening of frontline applicants. “The stress of the frontline requires that providers have the ability to manage their own emotions and recognize the emotions of others.”

Data and text mining

Firms with effective data mining programs, to detect useful and non-obvious trends in data, will have a distinct advantage over their competitors. A good data-mining program can better prepare frontline associates to serve customers upon their arrival. “Mined information could indicate which customer segments are most likely to request particular amenities.”

In addition, text-mining programs, which extract patterns from natural language text, can help firms analyze open-ended comments on customer comment cards and surveys. “Currently, open-ended responses are likely read by a select group of individuals within a firm, but then what happens to the information? Few (firms) have mechanisms in place to determine if a written comment is an anomaly or if it has sufficient validity. With text-mining technology, the comments can be analyzed to detect patterns or trends in customer sentiment.”

Text-mining technology could also be used to analyze comments in Internet blogs about hospitality offerings and performance. As travel and tourism is a popular blog topic, they note, opportunities abound for mining these narratives for insights on frontline service.

The authors point out that the Ritz-Carlton has paved the way in using various technologies. The hotel’s frontline employees, for example, typically carry “preference pads” to manually record guest preferences or habits that the employees observe. The information, such as a guest’s preferred pillow type or preferred name, is entered into the company’s guest information system (to which only authorized individuals have access) and shared among frontline staff to prepare for guest arrival.

Such activities result in top-rate personalized service, the authors note. While Ritz-Carlton’s system appears straight-forward, such systems are not commonplace in the industry. Other hospitality providers, they write, should develop comparable customer preference systems tailored to their operations.

Making the job easier for frontline staff

The authors discuss other ways to assist frontline staff, including developing marketing communications that appropriately shape customer expectations; blueprinting a servicescape (mapping areas of customer flow and employee-only areas can reveal inefficiencies and uncover additional ways to serve customers); and using snapshots of frontline employees at work to use during meetings with those staff members to discuss ways of improving service.

Motivating employees

The authors discuss the importance of understanding how role ambiguity, role conflict, and lack of psychological empowerment can deflate employee motivation; the challenges of managing ethnically diverse frontline employees; and the need to use training opportunities to reduce ethnocentric attitudes that may exist among staff. “Those firms that best understand cultural differences in communication will have an advantage in coming years,” the authors write.

Staying one step ahead of competitors

Lastly, the authors urge firms to keep up with competitors’ offerings and develop service innovations that will delight customers at the frontline and that competitors will find hard to beat. Hospitality firms must continually seek and implement new ways of beating their competitors at the customer frontline. “For example, the first firm that offers face-recognition and name-recall training for its frontline employees will have a sizable advantage over the last firm that offers such training.” For any customer service innovation, the authors note, “the first firm that implements it spurs customer delight, because the customer is pleasantly surprised — but the last firm that implements it is simply providing something that is commonly expected.”

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