Kicking Up Customer Service

By John Houser

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NOVA Parks) is a multi-faceted agency with 32 facilities serving three counties and three cities. NOVA Parks operates golf courses, waterparks, camp grounds, waterfronts, historic sites, and more. In 2012, as work began on a new 5-year strategic plan, one topic presented a unique challenge—how to develop an agency-wide, customer-service program. NOVA Parks Executive Director Paul Gilbert set an agency goal. “In a world where customer service is talked about, but often not practiced, having a comprehensive training program is a way to distinguish your parks from all the other experiences the public is having,” Gilbert says. The challenge was to develop a customer-service training program that would reach across the diverse workforce of the agency. How do you make the program relevant to a 15-year-old lifeguard and also a 60-year-old mechanic?


Creating Standards
Customer Service Experts (CSE) of Annapolis, Md., was hired to work with staff members to develop a Customer Service Culture Training Module. Several staff brainstorming sessions resulted in the creation of a training module based on service purpose and service standards. Staff members created the service purpose: “We take pride in providing GREAT experiences, one PERSON and one PLACE at a time.” Using the standards of safety, courtesy, and responsiveness, the staff created a workbook that included a YouTube welcome by Gilbert, an agency scavenger hunt, service purpose and service standards, sample work scenarios, and a feedback page. Key staff members became trainers while training events were scheduled, and all full-time, part-time, and seasonal staff members received training on the purposes and standards, and on how to deliver quality customer service.

Each staff person was introduced to the concept that “Purpose Trumps Task.” Although NOVA Parks has many people of diverse tasks (from lifeguards to docents to maintenance staff), every employee has a singular purpose for coming to work each day. That purpose is to provide GREAT experiences, one PERSON and one PLACE at a time. Staff members are trained and empowered to seek opportunities to provide the great experience, even if it means stepping out of their task for the moment. “One of the revelations in the last few years is that it is all about the customer’s experience. Traditionally, we have thought about facilities, or programs as silos. But from the customer perspective, the experience is a mix of everything they encounter in the park. One of the areas where we can move the needle on providing a great experience is to make sure all the human interactions with staff are positive and helpful,” states Gilbert.

Recognition And Rewards
The challenge quickly became how to keep the service purpose fresh in people’s consciousness, and how to recognize and reward staff members who delivered outstanding customer service. Working on a suggestion from CSE, NOVA Parks staff developed at each facility a unique GREAT Board, and staff members and volunteers were encouraged to post GREAT Cards recognizing outstanding customer service provided by fellow staff members. This tool quickly took off, as staff used the ideas to create unique and fun representations. An incentive and reward program was developed using gift cards and items, such as lanyards, pins, and other rewards for on-the-spot recognition. At the end of each month, all GREAT Cards are turned in to agency headquarters, and a drawing is held for a $50 VISA gift card. Staff members developed a monthly, agency-wide newsletter offering customer-service tips and recognizing outstanding staff efforts. Each year, “The GREATEST Contest Ever Held” has each facility entering a picture of its GREAT Board, and the winner receives a pizza party for all staff and volunteers. Second- and third-place winners receive an ice cream party.

Site-Specific Training
The next challenge became how to keep the training fresh and also how to become more specific in training different job responsibilities. Each facility was asked to name a “Customer Service Champion,” whose responsibilities included training and advocacy of the program at its operation. A small group of Champions took on the task of developing monthly customer-service strategies, such as personal appearance, dealing with difficult people, and communication skills. Each strategy listed learning opportunities, one or two exercises, and graphics that could be placed on the GREAT Board. To date, more than 20 strategies have been developed. Staff members also wrote Level 2 training workbooks, such as “Internal Customer Service” and “Telephone and Email Etiquette.” All full-time staff members are encouraged to receive Level 2 training. Most recently, staff members have developed site-specific training workbooks in areas such as golf courses, waterparks, historic sites, and special events. Each of the site-specific workbooks still uses the service purpose and service standards developed in the original training workbook, and provide trainings and scenarios unique to that specific operation.

Be Intentional
The concept of over-managing is an important component of the program. Not to be confused with micromanaging, over-managing means to be intentional where others are unintentional. Staff members are encouraged to look for opportunities to think differently and see differently, to pay attention to the details. What improvements can we provide in simple areas—such as parking lots and trash areas—that other agencies might overlook? Each visitor should have a unique experience beginning with the first touch point, such as a web page or flyer, and then proceed to the next series of touch points, from parking lots to facility presentation, staff interaction, program offerings, and follow-up and feedback. The relationship we build with the individual visitor is the most important function of customer service; we want that person to return and bring a friend.

All of the components of the NOVA Parks Customer Service program beyond the first Service Culture workbook and training have been developed in-house by park staff. Each operation commits to spending around $200 annually for incentives. Headquarters assists with other costs, such as the incentive parties. By internalizing the development of the customer-service program, NOVA Parks has seen tremendous buy-in from staff. Conversely, by providing incentive and reward programs, staff members feel appreciated for the customer service they provide. Every NOVA parks employee knows the reason he or she comes to work every day is to provide GREAT experiences, one PERSON and one PLACE at a time.

John J. Houser has over 35 years’ experience in parks and recreation and regional development. He has been a municipal parks and recreation director, State Director of Rails to Trails, Executive Director of the Lorain, Ohio, Main Street Development Corporation, Director of Partnerships and Marketing for the Ohio and Erie National Heritage Canalway, and currently is Manager of Occoquan Regional Park in Lorton, Va. He also manages the Customer Service training program for NOVA Parks. Reach him at