Fri, 28 Nov 2003

In tourism, excellent service is paramount

Agus W. Soehadi, Contributor, Jakarta

According to a report issued by the World Trade Organization in 2000, the tourism industry then was one of the fastest growing businesses in the world. The report said more than 657 million tourists worldwide spent US$455 billion that year, while foreign tourists to Indonesia increased from 4.6 million in 1998 to 5.06 million in 2000.

While this business promises a bright future, data issued by the International Conference on Networking (ICN) in 2002 indicated that the occupancy rate of hotels worldwide has, in surprising contrast, dropped by between four and six percent in quite a number of countries in the past two years. The ICN report also indicated that to lure customers, many hotels had resorted to the most basic of marketing strategies -- room rate discounts as much as 55 percent. Airlines also face a more or less similar situation.

Most marketing experts say the obvious solution lies, as proven by major brands or corporations that have survived all kinds of economic weather, in providing excellent service to customers. The possibility for a company -- in any field -- to turn out a winner is much heightened by giving its very best.

Excellent service not only maintains customers' loyalty, but also helps to retain clientele, and is thus the most effective tool to win customers' hearts and "erase" competing brands and companies from their minds.

At hotels, for example, courteous and dedicated service from professional staff throughout a guest's stay produces a lasting sense of satisfaction that eventually makes the customer into an indirect salesman through positive word-of-mouth marketing. Certainly, the service provided by sincere, professional and skillful staff is vital in creating a satisfying experience that even exceeds customer expectations.

In advertising or marketing jargon, "moments of truth" are drawn by the customer from their cumulative impressions of contacts and transactions with a particular company -- whether a direct meeting between company staff and customer, or an indirect or virtual communication -- to see whether the company has matched their needs. The company must surpass customer expectations for such moments of truth to enhance the image of the product or service, as well as its producer or provider.

The big question, indeed, is how to create and continuously manage these invaluable moments of truth. Three basic marketing tactics must be attended to carefully: external marketing, internal marketing and interactive marketing.

External marketing is conventionally known as a company's each and every effort to communicate the superior values of a company's product or services to match -- or better, exceed -- a customer's expectations. Such efforts include the first and most important step a customer takes: a trial or the first purchase of a product or service.

Internal marketing, meanwhile, is a communication exercise for and with employees on how to deliver services and achieve customer satisfaction. The employees' high level of competency and motivation are definitely crucial here.

Interactive marketing is mainly about keeping the company's promises and claims as to the superiority of its product or services.

These three areas in any type of business, but especially the tourism industry, are nonnegotiable if growth or, at the very least, survival is at stake.

In 2000, Cornell University in New York discovered an interesting finding from a related survey: The leaders or champions of service excellence were strong in all three areas. They incorporated various strong points, such as a solid service culture, an empowered service delivery system, a friendly-ear approach to customers and responsive services.

In terms of a solid service culture in tourism, Thailand's taxi drivers are famous for their courteous service and are known to take the shortest route to your destination -- not wracking up unnecessary charges by taking a circumventing route. Their no- cheating attitude has greatly helped the country's tourism.

The bottom line is that the commitment to excellent service is not restricted to top management, but must exist at every level.

Another example is the JW Marriott Hotel's implementation of its 12-point service program, which instills its staff and employees with the concept that customers are family, and that hotel guests are no different from house guests. Employees are instructed to fill out "promise cards" on how they mean to provide best customer service. Daily reviews and meetings on improving services are also held. On Fridays, the hotel reads out comments and letters from customers, which are sometimes attended by the customers themselves. Of course, responding immediately to complaints is part of the program.

As for empowered delivery systems, at Ritz-Carlton hotels, this comprises empowering staff and employees of a certain level to handle any problems that may incur costs or expenses up to US$2,000. This has proven to provide instantaneous solutions in many cases, while indicating that hotel management had prioritized customer satisfaction. It also shows that the management trusts its staff and employees to make the right decisions in handling customer complaints. They clearly believe that happy customers, made happy by employees enriched with a sense of responsibility, improve business.

So confident are they of this program that Ritz-Carlton hotels even dare to give a guarantee on their services. If a customer is not satisfied with the hotel's services, he does not have to pay a single cent. The 100 percent-customer-satisfaction guarantee, which is clearly detailed for the sake of the client as well as the hotel staff, can be redeemed if: a) the customer is dissatisfied with below-standard service that has been provided; b) the poor service is obviously due to the staff or employee being incapable of delivering good service; and c) the hotel management fails to rectify and quickly fulfill service needs as per its high standard. Certain hotel staff are also authorized to refund customers. The hotel management has taken every measure possible, from recruitment and intensive training, to prove that their ambitious guarantee is more than a slogan.

Similar to the Ritz-Carlton's "promise cards", one hypermarket in Jakarta provides its sales staff with diaries. They are required to note down their observations on customers as well as any comments or complaints. Daily reviews are conducted and the management and relevant staff quickly respond to the complaints. Complaints of an urgent nature are certainly attended to on the spot. Communicating with customers, getting their feedback and compiling this information onto a marketing database, maintaining active internal communication with employees, updating them on recent product launches and other developments are all part of service excellence.

These are only a few examples to illustrate the great role excellent service plays in any and all businesses, particularly those in the tourism industry, which has built a worldwide empire on service.