A question related to customer service has historically occupied a place on interview questions in park and recreation departments across the country. So why does it appear now as though customer service is being rediscovered? The new face, or rather, new name of customer service in the parks and recreation industry, is customer satisfaction. With additional players challenging parks and recreation departments for the market share of the recreation and leisure pie, new approaches to customer service are required.
Moving Past The Cattle-Herding Mindset
In years past, a parks department’s programs and facilities were the only means of recreation and leisure activities in a community. Customer service was not the primary focus, nor was it thought of as an area that needed training and development. Since there were no alternative service providers in and around a park district, customers dissatisfied with a program or overall experience had little recourse other than attempting to recover all or part of any money paid and voicing their displeasure.
Adding to this formula of bad customer service is that many programs and facilities were subsidized heavily by a parks and recreation department. The sustainability of a program or facility rested more in the taxes brought in by the local government than what fees were collected for room rentals and programs. Most parks and recreation departments thought and acted like a public service and less like a business. I liken it to the general population’s experience with the Department of Motor Vehicles, where the lines were long, and it never seemed like anyone ever cared (a cattle-herding mentality).
Again, the bureau was the only game in town so there was not much pressure to improve the service. When you think of the strengths of the larger, private fitness chains, phrases like “clean, modern facility,” “friendly and well-trained staff,” and “up-to-date classes with many opportunities to attend” come to mind. Their survival rests solely on your satisfaction with their product.
Look To Employees
Several key markers--financial and social--suggest a more aggressive approach is needed in developing a modern customer-service policy in the parks and recreation industry. With tax reform and budget shortfalls now commonplace, a department’s first line of defense and support is its employees. When the cost for renting a picnic shelter or participating in an after-school program increases, the public although educated as to why this is occurring, will still expect more.
While you may not be able to give the public added features for the extra dollars, you can upgrade customer service at little or no cost. Socially, customers are more educated and savvy than ever; they know what good customer service is, and they demand it. They also know there are other service providers out there, and shop around for the best deal. Cost can sometimes be overcome by quality customer service. Every customer, experience and dollar counts in the effort to provide sustainable quality recreation and leisure opportunities.
They Should Walk Away Smiling
What is this new way of thinking and servicing our customers? They expect to be handled in the same manner as our counterparts in the recreation and leisure industry. Think of your last experience at a private health club or commercial recreation business and how you were treated. Besides the constant sales pitch, the employees have a strong understanding about the activities offered and portray a pleasant demeanor. Additionally, the facilities and equipment are usually clean and in great working condition.
Employees in this work environment are customer-focused and realize their livelihood depends on the quality of your experience. This idea is not radical, but one that needs to be championed by all for it to work. It’s making sure the customer walks away satisfied, and feeling good about the experience. Every encounter with the public is a customer-service opportunity. The difference is making the customer feel the experience is less like a service (e.g., the DMV), and more like a one-on-one encounter where needs have merit, are being listened to, and will be addressed. Fundamentally, it is thinking like a business.
Expectations For Employees
For a business to sustain and grow, it needs its customers to return and to advertise its services or goods to new customers. To that end, you must engage your customers in a way that ensures their return patronage and that they will speak highly of your business to others. Some philosophies and practices championed by businesses with great customer service stress to employees that they:
· Are friendly, sincere, respectful and attentive.
· Engage the customers by using active listening skills.
· Find a resolution to any issue immediately, without passing the customers onto someone else.
· Are dressed appropriately.
· Have a strong understanding of the job in order to deal with customers in a timely and error-free manner.
· Identify and anticipate the needs of customers.
· Use a customer feedback loop.
· Know how to apologize and adequately compensate customers when something goes wrong.
Rallying The Troops
For a municipality to take its customer service to the next level, it must first convince the staff to agree with the plan. All employees need to be on board and supportive of this new approach. Also, when implementing a new customer-service philosophy, all employees should be well-trained in the techniques as well as its principles. This is the glue that helps the skills and learned behavior stick. Lastly, it is about being creative and flexible. Use as many resources as necessary to obtain the level of service desired and to aid in the staff’s education:
· Model other successful businesses.
· Research books available on the subject.
· Talk with and/or partner with other parks departments that are looking to make the transition, or that are already performing at a high level of customer service.
· Attend or send a starter group of leaders in your organization to customer-service seminars.
· Create evaluations specifically tailored to customer service.
· Bring in a consulting firm with experience and success in this arena.
· Create a system where employees can be rewarded for their efforts.
Not all of the above methods are necessary to improve a department’s customer service. If only one book on the subject is read and the materials are then shared and applied, any result from this will be positive.
In today’s unsteady and challenging economic climate, parks and recreation departments need to be thinking less like the public services of years past and more like the modern businesses of today and tomorrow. The sustainability of our parks, facilities and programs depends on how we develop and foster relationships with our customers. With a good ear and the desire to effect change, we all can play a role in improving the quality of the experience our customers have. Our customers today demand more than service; they want satisfaction and beyond from their recreation and leisure provider.
Steve Yeskulsky is a CPRP currently working in the parks and recreation industry in Sarasota, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Is The Customer Always Right?
No, and why this ridiculous notion has ever been passed on is beyond all practical reasoning. Most assuredly, the customer is not always right, and with issues pertaining to policy, it is all right to hold your ground. For arbitrary issues, such as the color of a shelter or whether or not a child had a good time at summer camp, you can still take this archaic belief out of the closet now and again. But just as quickly as you take it out, put it back in, or you’ll find yourself agreeing with a customer in an effort to end the conversation.
When a policy issue arises with a patron (e.g., hours of operation, fees and charges, facility rentals) some of the basic principles of customer service can assist the parks and recreation professional in alleviating the dispute:
· Be an active listener.
· Do not interrupt the customer.
· Explain the policy thoroughly.
· Assure the customer that, although at this time you cannot break with policy, you will bring this topic to your supervisors and follow up with the customer.
· Find alternative solutions, inside or outside your business. For the customer to accept the policy, he or she needs to walk away feeling like a winner.
· Ask for contact information and thank the customer.
All customer-service situations are different, and require different approaches in finding a compromise. The outline above is not an exhaustive list, and serves only as a reference during customer-service issues involving policies.
Many times, a customer jumps the chain of command until reaching a level that holds true to the archaic belief that the customer is always right. It’s similar to the parent the grocery store who will not say no to the child, no matter he or she begs for candy. Employees who feel supported by the decisions they make, on behalf of municipal or company policies, return that support and loyalty threefold.