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Beware of the beast

After returning from a holiday in the US this week, I not only came back with the post-holiday blues, but a sense of frustration about what Australia is so desperately lacking – good service.  

Several BTN commentators have been arguing this point for some time now – that Australia has lost its touch when it comes to good, friendly and valuable customer service.

The formula seems pretty simple. We already have the big hitters – five-star natural and man-made attractions, wildlife, culture, exotic appeal. All we need to add is some helpful, informative, friendly people who know their stuff and we have the most desirable product in the world. Right? How hard can it be?

Obviously harder than it seems.

Working with a bunch of English people for more than three years has turned me into quite an Australia-defender when it comes to comparing my home country with the rest of the world. But I’m disappointed to say that came to an end when I discovered what we were up against in the battle for international visitors from the likes of our American cousins.

From Hooters of Hollywood and the basement restaurant of Macy’s department store to hip and funky bars in New York, the level of sincere service astounded me.

Sure, some would argue waiters are paid less and need customers’ tips to survive so of course they’re going to be friendly, but their service went beyond sucking up for an extra buck. They were actually nice and they were happy to have a conversation with me or check (more than once) whether I was happy how my meal was going.

Add to that hotel concierges who can actually recommend and book a good restaurant and RV (caravan) park staff who visit your site every night to see if you need help selecting any hikes for the next day in the neighbouring national park. Does it cost these businesses any extra money to provide this service? No. Did it make my experience and perception of that restaurant/hotel/RV park/petrol station better? You bet your bottom dollar.

Before I spent the second half of my holiday visiting national parks in Utah, Arizona and Nevada I felt comfortable with the fact that we were always going to have better scenery and national parks.

Enter National Park Week, where entry was free to national parks around the country. Parks which provide parking lots and campgrounds, where free shuttle buses pick up and drop off every seven minutes at different trailheads or attractions. Oh and I forgot to mention, National Park Week took place over Easter.

I am aware that neither our visitor numbers nor population come close to that of the US, but when we’ve got a big competitor stepping on our “nature appeal” territory and doing it so well, there is definitely cause for concern.

Not to mention the dollar. Today, one British Pound is buying US$1.66 and AU$1.52. A gallon of petrol (3.78 litres) costs an average $3.80. A litre of petrol in Australia is averaging around $1.48.

Don’t even get me started about free wi-fi.

I’m painting with a broad brush and I know there are businesses out there who do provide exceptional service, but we as an industry need to realise we can no longer rely on our country being a “dream destination” for our target market. Because the closer, cheaper and, let’s face it, equally diverse country of the US is biting at our ankles and we need to lift our game to stop it from taking over.

If only taxi drivers taking you the long-way round wasn’t universal…

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  1. scotty
    3 May 11
    3:33 pm
  2. Thanks for backing me up, Alice (I hope you`ll run that article I wrote soon……)

    Tourism/hospitality……Yep, it seems we just aren`t “in-to it” anymore. As a nation, we seem to think it is cliched and oh-so-yesterday to be friendly and helpful to our tourists….it`s as if we`ve chosen to go with the famously snooty attitude of the residents of Paris as our chosen ideal of customer service.

    It`s not cool to be a tour bus driver nowadays,where it once was WAY cool: better to say your a mining truck driver than an adventure guide (I mean, everyone knows how much the mining industry pays…and you don`t have to be enthusiastic & motivated for a load of iron ore!)

    I know what Alice is talking about, even if my travel in the US, Thailand, UK, etc was in the very early `90s and I believe we Aussies can match those lofty foreign standards in our own inimitable manner by simply re-focusing our energy on the little things.

    Not every tourist actively expects interest in their lives from those checking them in or serving them drinks or taking them on a tour, but there is no doubt we all like to be paid the courtesy of acknowledgement and to feel part of the experience.I don`t claim to be liked by everyone but I do go for a reaction in my dealings with guests: at least they`ll remember it, good or bad!!!

    As I`ve inquired in the past, can TA and the tourism hierarchy consult more widely in it`s research for the Government and spend some money on a new campaign to teach us to treat our tourists as our personal guests: the ability lies within all of us, it`s just a matter of focus.

  3. Greg C
    3 May 11
    4:30 pm
  4. This is a topic that needs a lot of attention: Thanks Alice.

    Don’t wait for the govt – state or federal – to set the ball rolling. They aren’t in the service game nor are most of their employees. They like to spend and spend big without any sort of accountability attached. Great service requires accountability at all levels.

    Scottys Mission Beach offers good service because of the boss’s attitude. Cityrail in Sydney offers crap service because of the unions attitude. Sydney airport has good retail service, but it sucks when it comes to actually helping it’s customers getting to and from and through it because of it’s owners attitude.

    It starts with training and a committment by management to that training. It takes an integrated approach across the entire business. It’s no good selling beds in your hostel at a trade show in Berlin if the cleaners back home don’t care. More often than not people making plans and strategies operate at 50,000 feet above those who are supposed to execute them. It takes a while for feedback to get back to 50,000 feet. We also seem to have this desire these days for the customer to do all the work in buying us. Develop a strong sales culture and good service usually follows. One won’t work without the other. When I lived in the USA I learned that holding back just won’t cut it in the business world, but if you’re prepared to jump in you first must make sure your service is impeccable.

  5. Jeff
    3 May 11
    6:36 pm
  6. Thanks Alice – very interesting read. Service is an issue that comes up very often in tourists’ and expats’ conversation here in Amsterdam. And rarely in a positive light.

    Here, the bad service is overblown – there are plenty of helpful businesses and people on the street willing to help you – it’s just that when it’s bad, it’s incredibly bad. Like, am-I-on-a-hidden-camera-tv-show bad. It’s (sadly) kind of refreshing to hear that other parts of the world struggle with it too.

    Having not yet been to Australia, I can’t compare exactly. But I can re-affirm that businesses in North America “get it”- consumers have a lot of choice out there, at the street level and in terms of which part of the world they are going to spend their limited tourist dollars. Smart businesses know this and make sure that great service is a key differentiator that keeps people coming back.

  7. Tui Eruera
    3 May 11
    7:32 pm
  8. It extends far past service to customers. Currently Australia in general is so far behind our competing countries in how we market, products we provide to customers and value for our destination. Alice you hit the nail on the head, we can’t rely on Australia being a “Dream Destination”. We need to start playing the game and start competing aggressively with our competing destinations!

  9. Darren McClelland
    3 May 11
    9:45 pm
  10. Alice thanks for reminding everyone of some fundamental values most tourists want from their experience – respect and attention. It usually costs little and attention to these values are common traits of award-winning tourism businesses I speak with.

    Take for example Bruny Island Cruises (see my blog on this company for more detail). Or the caravan park (a Hall of Fame recipient) that chose to invest in extra staff to make customers feel welcome, similar to your experience in the USA, Alice.

    I just wrote a blog on ten tips to improve winery cellar door experiences and the first on-line comment I received noted that I missed the number 1 quality – customer service and a friendly smile!

  11. Andrew Smith
    4 May 11
    8:06 pm
  12. Tend to agree, and apart from much lower level and consumer feedback, present day Australian culture seems more comfortable with commodities or quantitative numbers things versus quality and service.

    We see this often in another international servcie industry, especially state sector of international education (lesser extent private), where students are seen as an expensive nuisance to be tolerated, and even if students are asked for feedback (generally so indirect to be meaningless, e.g. no one in TAFE/Unis knew that Indians students were copping it?), middle and senior management do not seem to hear….. as opposed to US education culture….

  13. scotty
    6 May 11
    10:31 pm
  14. And you have just discovered, Alice, why I believe US national parks are the benchmark by which we should compare our parks to; if I had my way, we`d put similar money into adequately resourcing them so that we were running them as well as the Gringos do…..

  15. Greg C
    7 May 11
    11:22 am
  16. And after all, innovation can be as simple as just doing things better than the other guy.

    The funny thing is about US Parks Service is that while they’re being cheered here, they’re generally chastised in the US. Which isn’t good news for our parks service.

  17. Ronda Green
    17 May 11
    10:34 am
  18. There’s certainly a wide range of service in Australia, from really excellent to abysmal. I’ve experienced both in my own travels around the country.

    A tourist is paying not just to get to a place, have a bed for the night and take some photos etc., but a total, enjoyable, relaxing, refreshing experience. Being treated rudely, whether it’s being snapped at, being a target of sarcasm or being left waiting without apology as though they are someone who just doesn’t matter or even deserve having their presence recognized, this can cut right across the kind of experience they are seeking (and probably need, having left a stressful work or family situation to unwind on their holidays). The tension it creates may not last just for those few minutes or even seconds that it happens, but keep on grating over the next few days, and can certainly lead to the guest deciding to go somewhere else next time or not recommend the destination to others.

    We do have AussieHost in Australia which offers some very brief training in how to treat guests, but general commonsense and a reminder to think of the guests’ comfort and enjoyment, and to really listen to what they are trying to say, would go a long way to repairing many of the problems

  19. Ronda Green
    5 Nov 11
    8:16 am
  20. A recent guest one one of our tours injured herself badly in a fall from a bicycle just before coming with us. We were happy to help, opening doors, tying her shoe-laces etc. for the two days she was with us.

    We were shocked afterwards to hear that when she arrived at the airport to fly home no one would help her take her bags the short distance from the door to the checkin (the airline staff told her they couldn’t afford to pay people to help the disabled and she should travel with a companion, but she protested she was not disabled when she started her holiday, and wasn’t expecting these injuries).

    When she made it to the plane she was told she should disembark and travel another day because she looked so pale and distressed. She said she wouldn’t have been so distressed if there had been someone to help her for a few minutes, and now they wanted to put her through more pain insisting she reverse the journey back to her accommodation without assistance, then repeat the whole process later. They let her stay on board.

    She found out on her arrival home that she had fractures in her shoulder and hand, exacerbated by lack of help.

    This is not the way to treat a traveler (or anyone!) I was certainly treated much better in Singapore when I arrived on crutches.

    I’m now told this is to be expected of any airline in Australia – what is it like in other countries?

  21. scotty
    6 Nov 11
    2:51 pm
  22. I hear Somalia National Airways offer assistance to the temporarily incapacitated, if that can be considered any sort of benchmark….

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