Customer service for holiday parks – a reality check

How important is to provide a great experience to holiday park customers? In a nutshell; those parks who provide great customer service should secure their bookings for the years ahead; those who fail will not only find their occupancy slipping but risk damaging the industry as a whole.

Research shows that the most common reason for a customer not to return is poor service so it has to be at the top of the holiday park industry’s agenda for the summer ahead. The buying public will not put up with poor, indifferent or even average service and, with an unlimited range of other things to spend their money on, nothing short of excellent will do.

It’s easy to think of customer service as a complex ‘dark art’ but actually it’s about common sense and understanding simple realities. The trick is for all staff to understand those realities so that they become an accepted context for the operation of your park and help to create a culture that cultivates, promotes and celebrates brilliant customer service.

Realities for Owners/Operators

There are only two realities for owners and the first of those I have already mentioned i.e. the critical importance of customer service to the success of your park. The second is that the power of and responsibility for customer service vests in every single member of staff not just owners and managers. For many parks it is the most junior, lowest paid members of staff who wield the greatest customer service influence; they and their work are the things that are face to face with your customers. You may have invested a small fortune in a new bar but if the person pulling pints for your guest provides poor service your money has been wasted and the customer will have a poor experience he is not in a hurry to repeat. Similarly, the finest brochures and websites can create a wonderful image and expectation of your park but a surly greeting from one of your receptionists is enough to ensure the holiday is remembered for the wrong reasons. A badly made bed, grumpy groundstaff and disinterested entertainment staff all have the same result.

For owners and operators the reality of customer service is absolutely about the education, engagement and motivation of every single member of staff to provide customer service excellence. Strange then that we only tend to involve managers and supervisors in training.

Realities for all staff . . . including owners and operators

To succeed every member of your team must understand the context of their work and what is at stake. New staff at Disney are reminded that the average Disney customer saves up their dollars for three years to afford their trip to Disney World; that’s a great bit of context to remind staff how important their work is and it is vital your staff have a similar understanding. If your staff truly understand the realities below they will at least realise the purpose of their employment and most of them will respond very positively. Knowing that customer service is required may encourage some staff but really understanding why it is so important will have a far greater effect.

None of what follows is new or ground-breaking; there is no magic or rocket science here. The point is to ensure that every member of your team knows, understands and acts in accordance with these simple realities at all times. The premise for this is simple; you can tell a fool to smile and he will, once. Tell someone why a smile is so important and they might do it more often.

You may already know all of this but do your staff?

Reality 1 – Customers have sky-high expectations

Imagine a family, in their car, on their journey to your park. They may not have saved up for years to make this trip but their hopes are nonetheless incredibly high. All of them have looked forward to this time; time together; time away from work; time to relax, have fun and reward themselves. At no point in the journey does any of them hope that they will have a reasonable or satisfactory experience. They eagerly anticipate a wonderful holiday where they will laugh and enjoy each other’s company; the sun will shine; they will enjoy delicious meals and sleep the most peaceful restorative sleep. These may be fanciful thoughts but they are the reality in your customers’ minds. If they expected the holiday to be satisfactory or even worse then surely they would not bother to book. Your staff must understand that this is how customers arrive; full of hope and impossibly high expectations. The opportunity to disappoint is enormous and perilously dangerous. Imagine the same family excitedly crowding round your reception desk waiting for their key or pitch number and imagine the impact on their expectations if the receptionist ignores them while chatting to a mate or makes them feel anything other than appreciated, welcome and special.

Reality 2 – There are no Mondays for holiday makers

It may be another gloomy repetitive day at the coal face for your staff but it is not for your customers. Each day of a holiday is anticipated and cherished by your customers; your staff need to understand this. Holidays are about feeling special, indulged and happy. All those sentiments will be lost if your staff treat customers like the latest thing in a long line of problems. The key is to see everything from the customer’s point of view; all of us can empathise if we understand why it is important to do so.

Reality 3 – Satisfied just isn’t good enough

Whoever coined the phrase ‘customer satisfaction’ should hang his head in shame. ‘Satisfactory’, meaning adequate or acceptable, has no place in any customer facing business since a ‘satisfied’ customer is one who is left completely unmoved by the service you provided. A ‘satisfactory’ experience is effectively one that you couldn’t care less about; it was neither good nor bad just ok. None of us would go out of our way to buy, find or consume anything satisfactory; we might make do with it in the absence of anything else but we will not be excited or motivated to repeat the experience. Clearly then, your park must deliver something way better than satisfactory. When I was running a park in the New Forest we used to talk about our customers being ‘stunned, staggered and amazed’ by our customer service. Our goal was to almost shock customers with the quality of the service we provided leaving them astonished and compelled to talk about what they had experienced. That may not always have been possible but it helped our staff understand what we were striving for and was part of our effort to make sure they were involved in the reality of running a successful holiday park.

Reality 4 – The purpose of staff

This is the big one and the key to getting the best out of your staff. If they understand this reality you are well on the way to service excellence. While individual members of staff may have different roles to perform they all have the same purpose. That is to say, the primary reason for employing anyone at a holiday park is the same whether their specific job is cleaning, serving food, cutting grass or face painting. The purpose of every member of your team is to ensure every customer enjoys an experience that they will want to repeat and recommend. We all know that keeping an existing customer is far cheaper than marketing to find new ones and we also know the power of recommendations to drive our bookings and sales so no matter what job you do on a holiday park the purpose of you being there is to contribute towards customers becoming ‘returners and recommenders’. In an ideal world you should be striving to achieve a situation where customers do not think about where to go on holiday but think about when they can next visit your park. If your staff can grasp the reality that their role is about creating ‘returners and recommenders’ it will help them enormously. If they understand that goal as the true purpose of their employment it will help them make the right decisions in almost any situation they face. Imagine a member of groundstaff busily cutting grass in a touring field; nearby is a family taking holiday snaps of each other. If the groundsman believes his purpose is to cut grass he will continue his mowing. If however, he understands that his job is to cut grass but his purpose is to create returners and recommenders he might just stop his machine and offer to take a picture of all the family together. These unexpected gestures are the difference between satisfactory and great; they tell your customers that you and your staff are thinking about them and caring about their experience. Consider a receptionist who overhears a customer mentioning it is their birthday. A busy receptionist consumed by a ringing phone and change-over lists might think nothing of it but a team member who understands the reality of her purpose should spot an opportunity to stun stagger and amaze that customer. An unexpected birthday card from ‘the reception team’ and perhaps even a bottle of wine will cost you a few pounds but imagine the reaction of the customer; how may people will they tell about the wonderful people at the holiday park they visited who took a moment to make them feel special? Where will be top of the list next time they want a short break?

Reality 5 – Bad impressions linger longer

It’s a fact that we all love a bit of a moan and tend to focus on what’s wrong. BBC’s Watchdog would have been scrapped after one series if it carried stories of people having great holidays and receiving wonderful service. As it is, we hang ghoulishly on every word of the appalling rip-offs and thoughtless service people endure. So it is on a smaller scale with holiday parks. Wonderful weather; a modern, comfortable holiday home; a delicious meal in the pub and some great entertainment will all be forgotten when customers recall and recount the grisly tale of the miserable and rude staff member who couldn’t even be bothered to make eye contact and tutted when asked if it would be possible have an extra pillow. We can’t do much about the human preference for bad news but if our staff understand this reality it helps them make the extra effort to avoid leaving a bad impression. Of course things will go wrong from time to time and an unhappy guest is only a problem if the situation is left unresolved. Holiday parks will always have complaints and in many ways they give a great opportunity to provide the very best in customer service. A complaint, attentively listened to, honestly considered and respectfully resolved can provide a great impression to our customers and hopefully something that encourages them to return and recommend. One instance of poor service or a bad impression can eclipse everything else in the memories of our customers.

Reality 6 – Lifetime values

This is a useful concept for staff to understand as it helps them appreciate the bigger picture. Your team will be aware that a customer pays good money to visit your park, for arguments sake let’s say it costs £500 to hire a holiday home for one week. The reality is that, potentially, each customer is worth far more than that £500. If you and your team succeed in making that customer a returner and a recommender the effect is shocking. Let’s assume the customer comes back for a further three visits over the following few years that brings the value of the customer up to £2000. Let’s also assume the customer recommends your park, on the basis of the service experienced, to four other people who visit, say, twice each; that’s a further £4000. If those customers recommend your park too the numbers keep ticking up. Even on these fairly conservative numbers (and ignoring any spend on park) your staff might think differently if they realise that the customer in front of them represents not £500 but £6000 or much more to the park.

A customer service toolkit for your staff

Once your staff have got to grips with these simple realities you should see a significant difference in how they behave. No one comes to work with the intention of getting things wrong or causing trouble and most staff mess up only because they do not know what is required of them or they feel undervalued. A clear understanding of purpose, context and goals will help your staff perform and enjoy their jobs far better. It is far more rewarding to realise you are playing a part in creating memorable holiday experiences than it is to think you are a cleaner. Your staff have immense power at their disposal; the opportunity to make or ruin your customers’ experiences. If they are aware of this the vast majority will rise to the exciting challenges that the realities of their role provide.

To help your team deliver service excellence you could introduce a toolkit of ideas that will help them know what to do; a short list of guidelines that are simple to remember, effective and relevant. For example:

1. Smile and acknowledge every customer

We all like to feel as if we have been noticed and a simple smile or greeting sends the clear message that your staff value your customers

2. Look the part

Staff should be presented in a way that reinforces your customer service ambitions. A former Chief Executive of Swiss Air once said “if our tray tables are dirty our passengers will think we don’t look after our engines properly” the same applies to staff; smart and clean uniforms reinforce the fact that you care.

3. If I can’t help a customer I’ll find someone who can

Staff should never leave a guest without a solution to a situation. There is nothing wrong in saying you are not sure about something provided you then find someone who can resolve it.

4. Look for opportunities to provide great service

This can be as simple as taking time to talk to customers, acknowledging their children or petting their dog, the point is to look for chances to make a difference to your guests. Why not give housekeepers a small budget to buy chocolates or flowers that can be put in your accommodation; it could surprise your customers and empower your housekeepers to really make a difference.

5. Don’t be afraid to be amazing

John Lewis has a culture that encourages ‘random acts of kindness’ these are rewarded and fed back into the system as example stories of how to further develop the reputation of their service. The same should be true for your park. Encourage staff to be bold and inventive in finding ways to thrill your customers and make sure everyone gets to hear about successes

No doubt there are many alternatives but the key is to keep these tools simple and find ways to reinforce them regularly. Some form of reward and recognition system for providing great service is a vital component. Short regular newsletters to all staff praising the actions of your service-stars are a good idea or perhaps make it a part of team meetings. Of course the new BH&HPA scheme is great way to really make a fuss of your star-performers.

Keeping it fresh

Unfortunately telling your staff the good news about the reality of what they do is unlikely to work forever and you have an ongoing challenge to keep these things at the front of your staffs’ minds every day, week after week, month after month and season after season.

It will be important to have regular training for staff; this need not be formal but must provide an opportunity to refresh and remind them about the culture you wish to promote and the realities of what you are all trying to achieve. It can be hard to keep reinventing the wheel and you are likely to find it helpful to bring in outside expert speakers who can tell the same story but with a new voice and different emphases. This is also something to consider if you find it personally difficult to get your team excited about what they do.

Bringing it all together

Customer service excellence should be the ambition for every holiday park in the UK and never more so than with the opportunities of this summer ahead of us. You can read and train yourself as much as you want but the reality is your staff will determine whether you are thrilling your customers or losing them. Every member of the team plays a vital role in making sure customers return and recommend and you may have less opportunity than most of your team to make a difference.

Your challenge is to make sure your staff understand what’s at stake and the realities of their employment. It will make their jobs more rewarding and your park much, much more successful. Keep refreshing the culture and if you can’t do it yourself get help from someone who can.

Good luck for a fabulous season; let’s all hope for thousands of happy holiday-makers stunned, staggered and amazed by their taste of UK holiday parks!