The economic downturn that began in 2008 and has continued ever since has created a market where consumers are looking for value for money whenever possible. In this environment we have seen the growth of low cost living, pound and 99p stores thrive. Airlines such as Ryan Air and Easyjet who pioneered low cost flying, are reporting increased passenger numbers. But with every discussion about the benefits of low cost flying come discussions about poor service and rude staff.
The leisure and fitness industry has also been effected with the emergence and rapid growth of the low cost or budget gym market. Operators that for many years were at the low cost end of the market are now ten to twenty pounds more expensive each month than their low cost competitors. Firmly placed within the middle market based on price and working hard to justify what the difference is between what they offer that is worth the extra money and failing.
As facilities become more and more alike and the difference between the public and private sectors becomes harder to differentiate. It appears that customers are looking for that differentiation with service.
Having spent many thousands of hours interviewing and digesting the comments of customers who use a wide range of public and private sector facilities, I am able to report that customers will pay more for qualify and service.
Now that doesn't mean what you think it is worth, it is what they think it’s worth. But when you measure the length of usage in months and years, facilities that provide better service when all other factors are equal can expect customers to stay up to 12 months longer than the average and 17 months longer than the worst performing facilities.
In a tough economic climate, increased customer service may seem like an unaffordable luxury. However in a socially connected world, a dissatisfied customer will Tweet in frustration even while a company works as fast as it can to resolve the problem. When reviewing comments from customers about service and then looking at the infrastructures of the operators it is possible to identify several key components that need to be addressed.
Lead by Example
The first is that the managers of a facility should demonstrate the qualities they expect from their staff. Many of our current managers are excellent at the processes of running a facility. Checklist and procedural documents are consumed with glee. However the ability to deliver good customer service starts with an attitude that is prepared to deliver service. Where service has equal importance with health and safety. Its not and either or, it is processes and service together. The best service delivery providers in the world rely on having a process on which to deliver service. Apple have their A.P.P.L.E service process, Ritz Carlton has Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen process, and where we measure member loyalty is high their is a process and a manger that have commitment to service. What is apparent form our latest research is that as organisations grow in size, delivering good service becomes more difficult and that a process is essential in order to carry the message to every employee.
Now if delivering good or even great customer service were easy, everyone would be doing it. Therefore staff need to be trained in what the minimum levels of service are expected of them. This training needs to be through and ongoing. With mangers and department heads taking responsibility for staff behavior when service isn’t delivered and praising and feedback when it is.
Not all service is equal.
Customers fed back that being polite was not really customer service, it was just being polite and while appreciated, it was not highly significant. But when it was not delivered it had high negative significance. Customers also reported not needing to be wowed every time either. It was good when it happened but did not need to happen every time.
Customer retention has a lot more to do with how well operators deliver on their basic promises than on how dazzling the service experience might be. Forget bells and whistles and just solve your customer's problems.
Consistence of politeness was more important that a wow in a sea of mediocre or poor service and it is the minimum that all service processes should begin with. What does stand out from the interviews is that personalised service and or feedback was very highly valued. In an age where it is possible to automate almost every interaction into a digital format, customers remarked that a personalized comment from a member of staff was of more value than any number of ‘dear valued customer’ automated e-mails, SMS or RSS feed messages.
Customers are seeing through operators attempts to digitize the customer experience. They expect and welcome it when having digital shopping experiences, such as Amazons, ‘people who bought this also bought...’ approach. But if the experience is taking place in the real world they expect real world service. Unsolicited service was also very highly valued. Staff who seek to improve the member experience during the visit to the facility were singled out for comment in every interview. Customers could even name the person delivering the service. Whilst they used derogatory nick names for those who did not.
The future for leisure is challenging, our customers time and money are being squeezed. Focusing on developing customer experiences where service delivery is equal to the quality of the facility is essential as we progress in the next decades. Customer experience management is the big brother of customer service. Operators that are designing the experience and then supporting it with good facility design, appropriate equipment choice and service will reap the rewards.
Using metrics like the Net Promoter Score will help and would be useful if all operators applied the measurement in the same way. But we must be able to link member feedback to length of membership not just random surveys of a bias selection of a few.
The interviews with customers clearly identified that it was important to deliver on the promise made and to do that consistently. As other sectors up their game to maintain their market share of the consumers time and money so must leisure.
It may be now than in order to achieve the successes of the past we need to work harder just to get the same.