Friday, November 20, 2009

Huntin' for some tasty customer service

It’s no secret that we, as a nation, enjoy complaining.

We whine about the slow moving line at Starbucks, moan over the fact that a date at the movies now costs upwards of 50 dollars and bitch because our child was passed over for an athletic scholarship even though we are convinced he or she is EXCEPTIONALLY talented.

Most of the time, however, we complain because we don’t think anybody is listening to us.

For example, we continue to call tech support because our cable keeps going out even though we have done EXACTLY what the CSR ordered us to do (turn off the modem, turn it on and wait for the flashing green light). We hang up and then complain that we’ve already tried that; the entire cable industry is a scam; and why can’t we just go back to the days where television consisted of three channels that only appeared clearly if you held the rabbit ears on your television just so while standing on one foot?

We send our restaurant steak back to the kitchen because we ordered it medium and it arrived on our plate looking as if the cow were blushing with embarrassment. When it returns the second time, the meat is only slightly less bloody because, the waiter informs us, “That is the chef’s definition of ‘medium.’”

Actually, I once went to a “steak house” in Phoenix that averted this problem by requiring the patrons to cook their own steaks, as if this were a privilege and part of the restaurant’s ambience. It worked like this: You ordered a particular cut of meat, a member of the most under utilized wait staff in history served it raw on a plate and you walked over to a flaming hot grill where you actually cooked it yourself. Then you received a bill.

After looking at the bill and realizing I was paying to prepare my own dinner, it became clear that I had already eaten at this restaurant. It was called “My House.”

Suffice it to say that I am always on the lookout for an organization that not only caters to its customers but also makes a noble attempt to avert problems before they arise, thus eliminating complaints. I recently found such a business in Pierre, South Dakota – specifically the Best Western Ramkota Hotel.

On October 27, 2009 the South Dakota Housing and Development Authority invited me to speak to its members. The event, according to my contact, would take place at the Ramkota and a nice room had been reserved for me.

Of course, first I had to actually get to Pierre, South Dakota. For a city that serves as the state capitol, flying to Pierre is about as easy as booking a flight on the space shuttle. I chose to fly American Airlines from Chicago to Denver and then board Great Lakes Airlines for a 90-minute flight to Pierre aboard a plane that did not include a bathroom.

Note that I did not say “non stop” flight to Pierre. Yes, the plane eventually would up there but first we had to land in Alliance, Nebraska, a town that even Google Earth cannot locate. The “layover” time in Alliance is however long it takes to open the plane’s door, remove all the Nebraska passengers, and close the door. Unless of course somebody like me has to use the bathroom in the Alliance terminal. When I requested a pit stop, the pilot looked at me as if I were going to screw up the entire Great Lakes Aviation on time record. But he begrudgingly obliged.

Upon arrival in Pierre, I wondered how this town had earned the distinction of state capitol? During the 20-minute drive to the Ramkota, I noticed nary a government-looking building. Instead we passed gas stations, feed stores, and gas stations that sold feed.

As a professional corporate speaker who logs over 100,000 airline miles a year, I can spot the good hotels from the dregs. When we pulled in, I realized The Best Western Ramkota was clearly the class of Pierre and probably hosted any out of town government dignitaries that needed to appear before the state legislature to discuss important business (like whether to extend feed store hours). I heard Dick Cheney was fond of spending taxpayer money by chartering Air Force Two to Pierre so he could go pheasant hunting. Of course Cheney probably did not have to stop in Alliance, Nebraska to relieve himself.

Once inside, I quickly learned that hunting was a popular pastime in Pierre, as evidenced by the stuffed deer, bear, and aforementioned pheasant that peered down on me as I received my room key. There’s something about stuffed animal heads that freaks me out. Maybe it’s because their eyes are always open, as if they are searching for whomever put them in this predicament. Yet I never relay my fears to hunters, who would probably dismiss me as some lightweight city pansy and continue to make snide comments after I had left the room.

The front desk attendant was cordial, professional and everything one would expect from an employee at a name hotel. He provided good, but not exceptional customer service.

No, the basis for this article occurred upon entering my room – actually a suite according to the attendant. As a frequent hotel guest, I have come to realize that “suite” is a broadly used term. A suite at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas means a marble Jacuzzi tub, a bed featuring four Roman columns and possibly an on-call hooker named “Cleopatra.”

A suite at the Best Western Ramkota Pierre means a bigger closet and a few extra coffee packets. Still, it’s always nice to be treated like a big shot.
So, upon entering my suite, my eyes immediately fell to a coffee table near the bed, specifically the contents on the coffee table. Two small plastic bags held what appeared to be individually wrapped washcloths identical to those hanging in the bathroom. A sign between the bags read: “WELCOME HUNTERS. This year all reports indicate you should have a wonderful hunting season.”

(In other words, Dick Cheney would not be visiting)

The sign continued: “For your convenience we have rags available for your use. We ask that you please do NOT use our good towels, hand towels or washcloths to clean your guns, boots or dogs. For additional rags, please dial 0 and we will deliver them.”

I read the sign at least three times before realizing they were serious. My amazement was soon replaced by fear upon deducing that I could be shot, kicked or mauled if I dared to complain about a noisy guest.

But then it slowly occurred to me that this was customer service at its finest. The Best Western Ramkota knew hunters needed accommodations and did everything it could to appease them, including allowing dogs into the hotel, providing their masters with cleaning supplies and offering to bring more. Who could complain about that?

Plus, the staff has solved its own problem – namely guests using good towels for disgusting purposes – by offering an alternative. Too often, customer service means “our way or the highway.” Cable television not working? Sorry, you still have to pay for the service while you wait all day for a technician to possibly show up. Internet connection down? Get on line and we’ll try and help you. (That’s always been my favorite. How can I get on line without an Internet connection?)

It would be very easy for the Ramkota to hang a sign stating, “Please do not use our good towels for hunting purposes” and leave it at that. (Read: We don’t feel like spending extra money on laundry.) But what would that solve? A dirty hunter would most likely reach for the towels anyway because he has no choice.

I decided right then and there the Best Western Ramkota was true class in terms of customer service. If the “towels for hunters” solution wasn’t proof enough, the point was further driven home when I ordered room service and noticed this message at the menu’s end:

“Our chef will be happy to prepare your kill for you.”

And I thought I was going to have to cook it myself.