Customer service lessons learned from a summer of travel

It’s the little things that matter.

After being on the road nonstop since finishing my book Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, back in June, I can tell you that good customer service isn’t a big deal — it’s a lot of small ones.

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In July, I took a road trip with my family to kick off our family travel blog Away is Home. We drove to Richmond, Va., Montreal, Quebec City and Washington. Then we took a Nickelodeon-themed cruise of the Western Mediterranean on NCL. In September, we spent two weeks in Italy on an Adventures by Disney tour. And last month, we’ve been touring Florida. (It is, after all, the off-season.)

I also wrote a customer service blog for CBS Interactive over the summer — a short-term project that immersed me in the world of customer service while I wrote Scammed. So I’ve not only seen good service, I’ve pulled back the curtain and watched what happens behind the scenes.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Remember me. I learned this about service while staying at The Pierre in New York last month. Few hotels have their own elevator operator; it’s something you see in old movies or on reruns of Mad Men. This luxury hotel still does. Its operators could just phone it in every day, but the ones at the Pierre don’t. They are the best of the best. You only have to tell them your floor once. After that, whenever you return, they remember. And they always greet you with a smile and a sincere, “How are you today?” I think good service often just means being remembered and acknowledged. (By the way, I’ll have more on the Pierre just as soon as I get a few photos from its incredible art collection).

Don’t hover. I’ve stayed at hotels where the customer service is so overbearing that you feel as if you’re about to asphyxiate. Yeah, the same resorts that force their employees to say, “certainly” and “my pleasure” and refer to themselves as “ladies and gentlemen.” It gets old really fast when you travel. Which is why we appreciated how Shawn Duytschaver of Native Rentals on Anna Maria Island handled our family when we dropped by for a tour of Robinson Preserve a few weeks ago. He plopped our kayaks in the water, pushed a map in my hand, and said, “enjoy!” And we did.

Kids first. I learned this small but critically important lesson thanks to our friends at Disney. Most tours are created for adults, but kids can tag along and learn with their parents. But Disney does it the other way around: It creates tours for kids, and parents are welcome too. Our tour of Italy was punctuated with pasta-making classes, special meals and mask-making workshops in Venice. And for every completed day, we were awarded a special collectible pin. These are small and relatively inexpensive things — a subtle shift in focus, a pin that costs a few pennies to manufacture, a special item on the menu. But they make a big difference. The kids are begging us to take another Adventures by Disney tour.

What’s mine is yours. We’ve been staying in a lot of vacation rentals as part of our Away is Home project, thanks to sponsorship from the the Vacation Rental Managers Association. Vacation rentals are not hotels. The service levels can vary — one rental may offer shampoo and soap and a plentiful supply of toilet paper, another may not. But the rentals we’ve stayed in — one on Anna Maria Island and the other on Palm Coast — both had something in common: the little touches that said, “this is your house now.” On the island, it was the little red wagon with a plastic pail, shovels and beach toys you could take to the beach. In Palm Coast, the super-charged entertainment center, the pool table and the coffeemaker on the third floor balcony, where you could watch the waves crashing ashore. Hotels can’t really do that.

We want you to have a good time. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been touring Florida during the off season (and a hat tip to our sponsor, Florida Vacation Auction for suggesting that we start our trip here). This is such a small item that it is usually forgotten when you plan your trip. And that is, when you plan your trip. Travel to Florida in March, and yes, you’ll find plenty of folks in the tourism business who want you to have a good time. But they won’t be able to act on it the same way they can now, when there’s no one here. In order to offer comparable service to you during season, many parts of the tourism industry would have to double or triple their staff. It’s just not practical. I’m not saying you’ll feel like a number when you visit the Sunshine State early next year, only that during the “off” season, you’ll definitely feel special.

Most of these items are small and relatively easy to implement. Remembering a customer’s name or what floor they’re on? You don’t have to be the Pierre to do that. Not crowding your guests? Ditto. Taking care of the kids with little pins and special meals, that’s Parenting 101. The personal touch and special attention — same there.

In other words, if you’re looking for great service when you travel, don’t turn to the big customer service awards (sorry AAA and Conde Nast) or the deeply flawed reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.

Pay attention to the little things.

(Photo of the Pierre in New York by Alex/Flickr)