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Buyers Guide Accelerate

/images/feat_4_08.jpgBy Carl Swanback

By identifying the "critical incidents" at your facility, you can change customer perceptions and define your guests' experiences

Have you ever wondered why a golfer will pay $5 for a beer from the beverage cart and leave a $2 tip, but complain about a draft beer priced at $3.95 in the clubhouse? Or, have you asked yourself why some of your members love the service they receive from a particular waiter or waitress while others seem dead-set on having that person fired? And why is it that one group walks off the No. 18 green thinking the course was in great shape and the next group wants a refund because they believed the conditioning was sub-par?

The answer to each of these questions can be found in a familiar axiom that bears repeating: Perception is reality. Quite simply, it doesn’t matter how good you are—or how good you think you are—if your customers don’t share the same belief.

If you accept the idea that customers’ perceptions make or break any “experience,” you may want to rethink the way in which you deliver service. For brevity’s sake, let’s call these customer encounters “critical incidents”—those moments of truth (MOTs) that define your staff, your facility, customer perceptions and your guest-service model. A MOT can be very simple or quite complicated, ranging from the acknowledgement of a guest with a smile or kind word to the extreme of offering your personal driver as a replacement club to a customer during a tournament round.

To understand just how important MOTs can be to any golf operation, consider the findings from a recent survey of golfers conducted over a six-month period, from July to December 2007. Exit polls (following a round of golf) were conducted in Connecticut at daily fee, semi-private and private clubs, and an online survey elicited feedback from Canada to Singapore. In total, 117 people participated in the survey.

The good news is that between 62 percent and 83 percent of those surveyed were unable to remember a specific incident of exceptionally poor service; the bad news is that only 52 percent to 70 percent could recount a specific time when they received excellent service. These findings suggest that golfers have grown accustomed to lower levels of service and that the industry as a whole is doing a marginal job of capturing and delivering the concept of “service excellence,” “wowing the customer” or “exceeding the guest’s expectations.”

At first blush, these results can be pretty scary. After all, many operators have been holding on to the aforementioned customer-service mantras, incorporating them into mission statements and driving associates nutty trying to have them exceed where it might not be possible to succeed. Yet if you take the time to think about what the survey truly reveals, the findings may just change your perception of service excellence.

Rethinking the Retail Experience

Retail is retail, whether it’s a pro shop or The Home Depot, so the golf industry shouldn’t look at itself any differently than the ski industry, Disney or any other guest-centered business. That’s what makes the survey’s findings with respect to retail operations particularly intriguing. Less than half of the people who responded could remember a positive MOT in the golf retail environment, and even fewer could remember a negative one. In fact, most of those people shopping for golf equipment or apparel chose their pro shop based on selection (i.e., the “right” selection rather than the largest).

That said, respondents defined “customer service” as anything from being able to shop in a non-pushy environment to being treated with respect. Yet what one guest described as a positive experience, others deemed negative. For example, one interviewee stated that a positive experience translated to “fast, friendly, efficient service,” while another participant wanted personal attention. Given these divergent views, MOTs might be better defined as those moments when retailers deliver what the guest wants.

Consider this example, illustrated by two imaginary guests: Bob, who is just minutes away from his tournament tee time and discovers that he has left his putter at home, and Dan, who is looking to invest in the latest-and-greatest flatstick. For Bob, a great MOT is being able to come in, grab a putter off the shelf, walk to the front of the check-out line and pay for his putter quickly—he really isn’t interested in friendly, knowledgeable service. Dan, on the other hand, probably wants to spend some time in the store, perhaps with a staff member, trying different putters, and learning about the performance points of various brands and models. Can you imagine Bob’s reaction if there was a long line when he walked into the shop or if a group of employees was gathered in the back talking and laughing loudly? Or what about Dan’s MOT if he couldn’t find anyone to answer the questions he had about a particular model?

Turning back to the actual survey, a common pattern quickly emerged from these incidental MOTs that either led to a positive or negative experience, regardless of the operation. A knowledgeable staff only accounted for 1 percent of all positive experiences, while 46 percent of respondents cited a specific moment of personal attention as the element that defined their visit as positive. When it came to negative experiences, 9 percent of respondents pointed to a lack of product knowledge as a key moment, and 36 percent indicated attitude was central to negative retail encounters. Moreover, when survey participants were asked to rate their last visit to a pro shop or golf retailer as either “more positive” or “more negative,” 60 percent stated their experience was “more positive.”

Distilled to its core, the retail portion of the survey revealed that personal attention has the greatest impact on a guest’s experience. For some customers, this means a simple smile or that the staff addressed them by name. For others, a positive MOT was more complicated, as evidenced by one respondent who recounted an American retailer’s ability to order a particular style of shoe that wasn’t available in Canada. No doubt, this type of personal attention left a lasting impression—a positive MOT, if you will—in that person’s mind.

From the Fairway To the 19th Hole

It’s no secret that most golfers view course conditioning as a key component of a positive golf experience, but what role does on-course customer service play in a person’s enjoyment of his or her round? According to survey results, “service” in the traditional vein of thought doesn’t have an overwhelming impact on guest satisfaction.

Overall, 59 percent of respondents could not remember either exceptionally poor or great service. The results for private and semi-private clubs showed the greatest variations, with 71 percent of survey participants unable to cite a specific moment of poor service and 60 percent of interviewees able to recount a time when they received great service. These findings support what most would expect: In general, members and guests of semi-private and private clubs expect and receive a higher level of service.

However, two staff members have a profound impact on positive experiences: starters and marshals. In fact, 98 percent of the negative MOTs reported by survey respondents involved an interaction with the starter and/or marshal. Not surprisingly, marshals and starters at public facilities had the greatest effect on both positive and negative experiences, which suggests that operators of public-access and daily fee operators should exercise care when hiring, training and supervising the men or women who occupy these highly visible positions.

To underscore the financial ramifications that can be caused by a marshal or starter who doesn’t understand the significance of positive guest relations, consider a scenario from the ski industry. One study showed that a lost customer (as a result of a bad experience) at a lift rate of $45 equates to a total loss of more than $1 million in a 10-year period. Given that the National Golf Foundation estimates the median peak-season rack rate for daily fee facilities nationwide to be $40, it doesn’t take a math major to draw similar conclusions for the golf industry. Conversely, experts believe that a 5-percent increase in customer loyalty could lead to increases in revenue of 25 percent or more. Given these types of numbers, isn’t it worth asking yourself how good your starters and marshals are at creating positive interactions with customers?

When it comes to positive experiences, there may not be a more direct connection than through guests’ stomachs. While this survey didn’t address specific incidents of positive food-and-beverage MOTs, it did reveal a number of elements that customers say contributed to a positive or negative dining event. Staffing had the greatest influence on customers’ experiences; however, food quality weighed heavily in their decision as well. One respondent stated, “Friendly service, enthusiastic about the items on the menu...staff was well informed about events that are going on, and much more.”

Regardless of how you slice it (pun intended), this response highlights the importance of great communication and a well-trained sales staff. That’s right—sales staff.

Step No. 1 in assessing your food-and-beverage operation should be to honestly ask yourself whether you employ sales people or order-takers in your dining room or grill. If you’re trying to service customers with mere order-takers, you’re leaving quite a bit of money on the proverbial table. There are numerous examples of guests being loyal to eateries that serve marginal food at higher prices simply because the service is excellent. Just imagine the value and the number of loyal customers you could create if the staff was well trained, the food tasted great, and the price supported the quality of both food and service.

As with any survey, the results from this research can be interpreted in a number of ways and used to draw a wide range of conclusions. Even so, it’s pretty safe to say that the golf course industry has a number of “hot spots” where it can improve its image and the perceptions that guests take away. Meanwhile, individual operators would do well to heed the example of Mary Kay, who built a cosmetics empire with a simple philosophy: Pretend every person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says, “Make me feel special.”

If you give your staff the tools they need to succeed, they’ll strive to make every guest feel special. This, in turn, will drive your revenue line and guest experiences while building perceptions that any operator would love to have define his or her business.

Carl Swanback, who has an extensive background in club, hospitality and international resort consulting and management, is the vice president of operations and a freelance consultant with Links Consulting Group in Connecticut.

© 2000, National Golf Course Owners Association