Strategies to consider for customer service

Dan Dibbelt
Smoky River Regional Economic Development

We recently returned from a short vacation Las Vegas with my oldest son.

There are many things I love about going to a tourist destination; however, one of my favourites is the restaurants. It is great to go somewhere with a variety of restaurants and a variety of foods to choose from. But one of the things that makes a meal truly great is the service.

Restaurants in northern Alberta have long had a challenge in providing excellent service. Staffing. Northern Alberta has historically had an employee challenge, specifically finding staff. In the north unemployment has been largely non-existent. Salaries have been higher here than in other areas of the province and the country, largely in the resource sector. The challenge for the hospitality and retail sectors has been finding someone to work for what they could afford to pay. As such skill requirements have been pretty low, because employers have had to take anyone they can get. And employers have often had to tolerate substandard performance from their employees because they would be challenged in finding a replacement.

I don’t mean to imply all service staff are providing substandard service, there are many excellent service workers out there. Most staff do their best. Sometimes the employer sets the standard too low, often for fear of disgruntling a staff member who may then up and quit, after all jobs were a plenty.

Well a lot has changed in the last couple years and what used to be an employee’s advantage, has now become an employer’s advantage. There just aren’t that many jobs out there anymore for employees to switch to when the urge strikes. As such, employers can now raise their expectations from their employees, and so they should.

We also know that with minimum wage going up to $15 per hour in just two years, we can expect costs of goods and services to rise as well, further lowering the disposable income of many consumers.

With shoppers and diners having less disposable income, they will have greater expectations from the businesses they choose to patronize. If I have $100 budgeted per month to eat in a restaurant, I want that experience to be excellent, from the quality of the food to the professionalism of the service. If I am only going out to eat out just once a month, it better be good.

Employers in retail and hospitality industries need to step up to the plate and set a new standard of customer service, particularly in our smaller centres. With limited disposable income, the temptation for locals to save that dining out or shopping experience for their next trip out-of-town will be great. We need to provide them a local experience that exceeds what they can get from the larger centers.

In Vegas, my son, a big fan of Chef Gordon Ramsey, wanted to eat at one of his restaurants. Despite the high cost we decided to blow the budget and give it a try. The menu was not extensive but certainly exquisite. And the prices were equally exquisite. All that being said, the service was remarkable.

The waiter was knowledgeable about every dish on the menu, right down to where the menu items were sourced from. They were appropriately dressed, friendly without being too friendly, (most of the time we didn’t even know they were there as they scurried around us doing their job).

The meals themselves were delicious and beautifully and promptly presented. The bill was outrageous, but you know what – it was worth it. Being treated like we were the only diners in the restaurant was a pretty good feeling.

We had similar experiences in shopping in Vegas. The customer service was wonderful. The staff treated us like they themselves were the owners of the business. So is the question is “can we replicate that experience here in the Smoky region?”

Perhaps we can’t nor do we necessarily need to. What we need to do is be better than our competition, in particular our out-of-town competition. It’s not a new concept, customer service was once a given – now it is an anomaly.

Providing staff customer service training should be a priority for every employer. Rewarding staff that go beyond in delivering good customer service should be the norm. And setting by example should come naturally.

With our stagnant economy, employers need to up the ante to ensure they keep and build their customer base. Customer service is essential in doing just that.

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