The Care and Feeding of a Customer

It is very hard for me to imagine a discussion surrounding customer care is really necessary. But for some reason all businesses swat at the issue as if it is a breaking story on a major news network.

Concentrating on what it takes to ensure a pleasant customer vacation experience is a natural part of business, at least I think it is. But there are other areas we touch, or should touch, our owners and guests.

Often “care” is confused with service, which is, no doubt, a part of caring for a customer. Caring for a customer goes beyond customer service. Customers are assets that should be protected with every fiber of the company’s being.
First, the definition of a customer lies in the attitude of the beholder. defines it as;
kstəmərShow Spelled Pronunciation [kuhs‐tuh‐mer] –noun
a person who purchases goods or services from another; buyer; patron.
Informal. a person one has to deal with: a tough customer; a cool customer.

I will throw in a 3rd definition:
Those who provide goods or services on behalf of others. syn. Employees.
For the intellectuals among us, how hard is this to understand?

Adam Smith conjured up the notion of supply and demand in his 1776 publication The Wealth of Nations and Theodore Levitt bolstered the argument in his 1960 Harvard Business Review manifesto (Marketing Myopia) “that companies should stop defining themselves by what they produced and instead reorient themselves toward customer needs”.

Adam Smith’s premise was that increasing revenues and decreasing expenses results in a profit. It was Benjamin Franklin that took that premise and installed it into what we know as capitalism in the United States.

If the premise that it takes five times the resources to gain a new customer than it does to keep one is correct, the following information is meant to establish a new or renewed attitude toward timeshare owners, guests and employees.

If a timeshare tour hovers around $500 then it seems logical to point at least $100 per customer to take care of their needs. Add to that the cost of the sale and a light bulb should go off in the head of every property manager in timeshare that the budget dedicated to the care and feeding of an existing customer is most likely far too low.

And, there are efficient tools that can be used to continue to touch customers who cost nothing, or very little at all. Most fall into the category of communications. Talk to them, and let them talk back. Ask questions and respond to the answers, provide information, good information, not “so what” stuff.

The vehicles are there; mail, phone, internet, and on site interaction should all meld with the vacation experience to create the warm fuzzy for our customers that will decrease default rates, increase visits, decrease complaints and increase compliments. What could be wrong with intelligent and planned efforts to find out what they are thinking instead of talking to ourselves about what will and won’t work?

As a matter of respect for this forum, a commercial about a product we offer is inappropriate; however, it is a great example. Our product can touch every owner, guest and exchanger that visits your property, and is a proven profit center that has its focus on customer care and experiences.

Yet at times we are informed, “It is not in our budget”. Since I am no rookie to sales, the “budget” objection is a very weak objection and every sales professional knows that is a blow off.

Or, if it is a real issue, it is more often than not the musing of that person who only looks at expenses and forgets there is revenue opportunity associated with caring for a customer. In caring for a customer the budget issue is a weak excuse for not wanting to change, alter or delete a process that most of us inherited and figure that since it is a legacy, it has some place of honor. We get bolted to outdated processes and it just seems like too much hassle to change them. There is so much affinity to the old ball and chain that we continue our old ways of treating customers with policy rather than service.

A result is a surprise issue that could have been resolved for very little money and becomes a larger problem with a non‐budget price tag attached that costs far, far more. I know about this phenomenon because we provide other services to fix things that could have been avoided.

However, think about the question and answer. Why would you not want to take every opportunity to touch your customers? Each time you do, you gain loyalty, and every time they come back, they make you money. As a possible unintended consequence, the more pleasant the experience, the greater the likelihood they will refer a friend or family member.

In the marketing and sales of timeshare today, the collapse of end loan financing forced us to kick up, “owner referral” programs. Offer the owner something of perceived value and they will inundate us with the names, addresses, phone numbers and email information of all kinds of relationships.

More importantly, the success of an owner referral program is wholly dependent on the owners start to finish experiences. If they love it, they will refer, if they like it, they might refer, if they hate it, they won’t refer. (The same is true in ensuring maintenance fees and other payments are made in timely fashion).

Today the acquisition cost for new business is the same. There is no decrease in the per tour expense, just fewer tours. The decrease in the variable side of the ledger is because we are selling less, but the cost per sale is the same. There is no increase in profit, just holding our own until things get better and the bankers tell us it’s ok to go back to the old ways of marketing and selling.

And, the owner (customer) is getting creamed with offers that will eventually lead to a dry well. While somewhat valuable today, there are a finite number of owners (4 million +/‐ depending on who you ask).

The proper care and feeding of a customer will produce referrals, increase traffic at a resort, and cause money to flow. It minimizes complaints and creates efficiencies in areas you may never have thought of (like savings on your toll free lines).

Try these “rules of thumb” as a guide and add them to what you already have to ensure the proper care and feeding of your customers.
* Treat employees like customers. There is a direct correlation between employee satisfaction and service delivery. Employees who like their jobs will better serve customers and stay on the job longer thereby decreasing cost and increasing revenue.
* Satisfied customers are not necessarily loyal customers.
* The vacation experience begins before check in. The tone of the experience starts in your call center when the owner, exchanger or guest calls to inquire and/or make a reservation. If your mandate is to “save on seconds”, the caller knows and will leave the experience with a lukewarm perception, at best.
* Dress well, everywhere, everyone, every time. The next person to call you or walk in the door is a VIP. Get rid of clutter, expect everyone to have shined or new shoes regardless of their function and there is never an acceptable time when property and personal hygiene should not be impeccable. Be mindful of language and grammar.
* It is the little things. The devil is not in the details, the answers are in the details.
* Quality is a path, not a result. Only you can define the quality standards and only you can insist they be met and only you can decide on the commitment you make to maintain and grow on the quality path.
* Document all your processes. If you don’t know how, find someone who does. Just as you can’t tell the players without a program, you can’t know what needs fixing unless you identify the gaps in service.
* Measure, consistently, constantly and regularly. Do more of what pops up as being good and less of what is bad. Ask genuine questions regularly and consistently. Act on the answers.
* Customers and employees are the center of your universe. All good things sprout from them and all bad things fester from them.
* The speed of light is 442,000,000 miles an hour. Coincidently that is the same speed bad new travels. Good news moves at the speed of a snail relaxing.
* There are no shortcuts to care. Every time you think there is, you end up breaking a rule and you will be reminded why it was a rule in the first place.
* Mind your etiquette. Answer every email and return every call. Be responsive. Learn to write in business speak. Teach your employees to write in business speak. Please and thank you go a very long way.

And, finally, none of us knows it all. Keep learning, keep caring and stop talking to yourself. Instead of swatting at the issue do something. Stop trying and take action.
In the words of Charlie Weis, head football coach of Notre Dame, “yesterday is over, tomorrow may not come, there is only today”.

_About Robert A. Kobek, RRP_
_Kobek is the President of Mobius Vendor Partners and a long time member and supporter of ARDA. He serves on several committees and is a past member of the Board of Trustees of the ARDA International Foundation. Mobius is the provider of CustomerCount, an online continuous survey system designed for the timeshare industry._