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Can You Connect with Your Customers Like These Coloradans?

By Adrienne Burke | Small Business

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If you’re looking for ideas to improve your business’s customer service—and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be—a recent New York Times article offers an idea. Times writer Ian Mount reports on how an entire town undertook an initiative to make customers happier. 

The town, Steamboat Springs, Colo., relies heavily on tourism and competes with more than two dozen other Rocky Mountains ski resorts for business. When an annual survey revealed that customer satisfaction ratings were drooping, the Chamber of Commerce called in Ed Eppley

Eppley, a management consultant whose advice has appeared in Profit Minded before (see 6 Signs Your Leadership Skills Could Use Some Work), has a track record as a rainmaker. He had already helped reservations agents at the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corporation alter their approach to win more business. He taught them to ask better questions of callers in order to offer more customized vacation packages.

Eppley told me, “Previously, agents focused on generating a quotation. They asked callers a few quick questions: ‘what are your dates, how many people are in your party, what do you want to do when you’re here, and are you going to fly or drive?’ With that information they could prepare a quote, but they weren’t providing a very personal experience for callers.”

Instead, Eppley coached them to ask for details that could clarify how the caller imagined a great vacation: “Have you ever been to Steamboat before? Why are you coming? Is it a special event or just a winter vacation? Have you taken a ski resort vacation before, and, if so, what made it enjoyable or not enjoyable?” 

The outcome was more specific and tailored recommendation that were far more likely to appeal to the caller. As more customers experienced vacations that met or exceeded their expectations, the resort’s customer satisfaction rates jumped.

The new approach started catching on, Mount reports in the Times

“…the emphasis on connecting with customers spread around the resort, and soon people in town began to notice a difference. Even the notoriously cranky lift operators began to ask skiers their name and how they were doing in their few seconds together.”

This past summer, Eppley trained a class of customer-facing restaurant workers in Steamboat to engage guests by asking them questions such as, “Where are you from?” and “Where do you travel?” And in 2015, he’ll train workers in the town’s retail sector. 

Eppley told the Times: “The idea is to improve the customer’s experience — and encourage loyalty — by teaching workers how to form a warm connection with clients and use the knowledge they glean from this connection.”

Though the Chamber’s chief executive told the Times that it’s too early to measure the program’s impact on Steamboat’s reputation, Mount reports that “hotels there had 12 percent more guests this summer,” business was up 15 percent at one café that participated in the training, and tips at a participating bar were up 2 percent.

Aside from customer happiness, Eppley says he has no doubt that employees who learn how to connect with people enjoy their work more. And that’s good for business too.

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