Written by Helen Oldfield, Founder of Affinity PR:-

I’m out and proud; I’m a customer service geek.When I get great service, I sincerely hope I’m also a great customer; usually responding positively by posting a review online or  writing thank you notes to people and their bosses. When I don’t get great service, I feel cheated. Quite possibly, more people would hear about my bad experience than my great one.

In that situation, the role of an accomplished reputation manager and PR ought to kick in, and hard, to counter the effects of a person sharing their single bad experience with others. That deadly, ripple-like effect is why sites like TripAdvisor, love ‘em or hate ‘em, are so influential and have to be taken seriously by people who are running or working in hospitality-based businesses. It only takes one person to tell all of their Facebook friends online, and collateral damage is done to brands.

I learned something important about customer service very early on, from a client’s Senior Banqueting Manager in a 5* luxury hotel.  I attended an event in the hotel and was very impressed with the service in his restaurant. I asked how he trained his front of staff and his reply was that his team understood that their guests paid the premium rates not for the food and drink itself. They paid for the memorable experience of feeling special, of being served great food and drink byprofessionals who cared.   That learning point has been a guiding principle for me in my own business.

I admit I’ve been spoiled (not everyone’s day job takes them into some of the best establishments in the UK and abroad), but I’ve also been on the other side of that table or counter, serving customers and looking after guests. It’s a very demanding job to appear to remain calm, cheerful and upbeat, especially if an operational disaster strikes (such as unexpected guests turning up and needing diplomatic re-shufflings of table plans, contracted speakers failing to turn up, guests becoming suddenly ill, special dietary requirement food orders getting mixed up etc). You’re usually on your feet the entire time and it can also feel emotionally draining when you have a guest who is, how shall we say, “particularly discerning”!

But, it all comes down to personal career choices. If you can’t hack being kind to other people all day, if you are mercurial in temperament or bad at early/late shifts, then stay out of roles that require great interpersonal skills and a genuine interest in looking after others!  There is no excuse, in today’s climate where there are so many well-skilled people still looking for work, of businesses hiring (or failing to retrain, or even let go) staff who don’t engage with their customers, who are surly or rude, who fail to care for guests and anticipate their needs.

And when business leaders see their company through the eyes of their customers, it can be astonishingly beneficial, in commercial terms.   I love the TV show “Undercover Boss” (ok, it is a little schmaltzy, but stick with it!) as those bosses learn commercially-useful facts first-hand, and really have their eyes opened about some of the inefficiencies and inequalities happening within their own workplaces.  Short of going undercover in your own firm, how will you ever really be able to gauge how it feels to be a customer of your business?  The answer is “mystery shopping”, but it’s only of long term value if it’s supported by professional customer services training and skills coaching support for the team members who are interacting with your customers.  You need the entire team to be pointing in the right direction, otherwise they won’t be equipped to buy in to your vision of improving service and enhancing profitablity.

In the early days of Affinity PR, I used to carry out my own brief mystery shops of clients, just for background research purposes, thinking it would help me as a PR consultant to learn more about a client’s day-to-day operations.  Then I saw so many useful things, that it was soon evident to clients that they could benefit too.

Now, when I meet with a potential new client who’s in a customer-facing sector, we will have prepared a comprehensive report on every aspect of their service offering, as seen through the eyes of their customers.

As a consequence, I’m addicted to any TV shows that feature hotels or customer service professionals at work.  I was glued to “Michell Roux Jnr’s Service” and was lucky/brave enough to be asked to give my professional advice and feedback to the production team of last year’s “Hotel GB” show, featuring staff teams led by Mary Portas and Gordon Ramsay.   My professional Imaginary Friend motivational supporter is Alex Polizzi of “The Hotel Inspector” TV series.  If I have to face a tough situation, I give myself a good talking to, Polizzi-style.  The air is momentarily thick with “beeps”.

At the time of writing, I’m about to nudge my favourite purveyor of fine patisserie for a  decision on our bid to run mystery shopping services in all their cafe outlets (well, someone had to do it!). So it’s turned out that this geeky tendency of mine to please people and to want to put things right (spouse calls it my “Mother Theresa complex”) has actually led to business growth and a genuine USP for Affinity PR.

My advice to you, readers, is that you reward and acknowledge all great customer service, and complain at the time when you experience bad customer service, so the team have the opportunity to put things right immediately.  Let’s make 2013 the year when poor customer service is banished forever!

You can see Helen Oldfield’s “Mystery Shopping” video tips on You Tube