Customer Service: Britain’s Tourism Iceberg

Last week I attended the Tourism Society’s Tourism Symposium 2015, enjoying networking, insights and hospitality in the Garden of England (Kent, obviously).

We heard from inspirational speakers including Wayne Hemingway, Sir Peter Bazalgette and Rosemary Schrager, and learned more about hugely exciting developments such as Dreamland Margate and London Paramount. We gained insights into the mutual benefits to businesses and individuals of really well-designed, well-executed apprenticeship schemes, and the power of the arts and culture to drive growth in destinations.

There were two panel discussions (billed as “debates”, with speakers having been urged to “be controversial”) that left me feeling

Engaged Teams = Happy Teams = Happy Customers
Engaged Teams = Happy Teams = Happy Customers

uncomfortable: the first looked at the future for DMOs (Destination Management Organisations) and my concern mainly revolved around the disjointed approach and lack of passion that characterised the discussion. Indeed, the most memorable comment about destination development was not made during this discussion, but earlier in the day, by Wayne Hemingway, who called for local authorities to “look the other way” and allow bottom-up development: “It’s the absence of control that allows people to really make things happen”.

My biggest concern, however, arose from the discussion entitled “Connecting to Quality”. Chaired by Sally Balcombe, CEO of Visit Britain, the panel included the Commercial Director of HS1 (whose “Symposium Express” had unfortunately delivered delegates an hour late the previous day), the (German) General Manager of Ashford Designer Outlet (who was able to provide an external perspective, having been in post for four weeks) and Tourism Society Fellow David Curtis-Brignell, who for me made the most memorable, and telling comment of the session: “I think good service in this country is remarkable; because if people encounter good service, they remark on it.”

This comment followed the revelation that Britain’s image overseas ranks three in the world as a “nation brand” (behind Germany and the USA), yet for “quality of welcome” we are limping in 13th place. whilst London 2012 unsurprisingly boosted our ranking, we have now fallen back to where we were in those dark, pessimistic, pre-Olympics days.

In my view, this situation is akin to a rapidly-approaching iceberg, which threatens to hole the good ship GREAT Britain below the waterline. If we are really perceived as so unwelcoming, we should not take comfort from our overall ranking. As we all know, service drives satisfaction and loyalty, and if we are not delivering world class service we cannot take our current popularity for granted.

Few if any solutions were offered during the debate: the usual theory about the British regarding “service as servitude” was aired, and the organisations represented on the platform naturally emphasised their commitment to quality service.

So what is the solution to this particularly British problem? I’d suggest that avoiding the iceberg must start with acknowledging it is there.

Painting: Willy Stower
Painting: Willy Stower

For example, during the Symposium we received an update on plans for the newly-charitable English Heritage. Investment was promised in conservation, visitor facilities and marketing – however no mention was made of service or developing people. Yet, English Heritage, its counterparts in the rest of the UK, and the National Trust could form the vanguard of a national commitment to driving up the standard of welcome.

If this sounds a tall order, I’d point out that Scotland is already a long way down the road: initiatives such as the industry-led, Pride & Passion movement exhorted and supported Scottish tourism businesses large and small to think differently and do differently, in order to reap the benefits of delivering on VisitScotland’s promise of a warm welcome for every visitor.

Similarly, a few years ago the National Trust for Scotland shifted its focus from properties to people, introducing the concept of “Conservation through Customer Care” and adopting practices from world class service providers such as Disney.

Tourism is now the UK’s seventh largest export industry by value, and its third largest services export. As such it is surely too valuable an industry to put at risk. The Oxford Dictionary defines Tourism as “the commercial organization and operation of holidays and visits to places of interest” – the idea then that Customer Service is somehow an optional part of the business must be a dangerous nonsense. If doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, there is surely a compelling argument for reviewing what we have been doing in this area. World Host training has reached 160,000 people in the UK over several decades – yet the industry employs over three million people! Even though many large employers have in-house training for Service, there is clearly a gap here.

The concerted focus on London 2012 (with 100,000 undertaking World Host) undoubtedly made a difference – after all, we made it into the global top ten for Welcome – yet we are now back where we started. I’d argue that there are three key things that need to change, as a precursor to changing course and avoiding the iceberg:

  1. Improving the quality of Service/Welcome needs to become a national strategic priority – as was done in Scotland. Pride & Passion was designed to ensure that the national Brand proposition was communicated internally in order to engage and support the industry to deliver it.
  2. There should be a national focus on the benefits of improving Service delivery: from improving sales and Customer loyalty to making GREAT Britain a friendlier country to live in. Everything should be done to raise the status of the Hospitality profession: perhaps controversially, I’d argue that subsidies for Service training should not routinely be offered, since they dilute the perception of value, both of Service training and of those who deliver it.
  3. All Service training schemes must be set in a wider context – strategic, tactical and cultural – in order to be meaningful to individuals and deliver sustainable impacts. In parallel with this, clear objectives and KPIs should be set in order to monitor and manage the difference. In 2012 World Host was set in the context of a nation hosting the biggest sporting and cultural event on the planet, with every delivery channel orchestrated to deliver a coherent and compelling vision – and it worked.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers; however I’ve been directly responsible for Customer Service training initiatives, both nationally (in Scotland) and in a range of organisations. Given that our national reputation for Service is going backwards, something needs to change. I’d argue that industry representative bodies and government need to come together to have an honest, no-holds-barred debate about where we are going wrong, and how we can rapidly identify and adapt best practice models.

Changing course is vital if we are to avoid the iceberg. Since we don’t know how far away it is, time is not on our side.

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