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April 24, 2012

THE CUSTOMER SERVICE CHALLENGE:Finding happiness in a stressed-out world

In a recent conversation with several independent meeting/incentive planners an age old issue surfaced; customer service or the lack thereof. 


The customer and supplier many not always have the same perspective of the quality of service delivered. What may be perfectly reasonable to one party could be construed by the other as unreasonably poor or more than necessary.


Sometimes the difference is cultural. Some years ago at a conference on tourism in an emerging nation, one DMC representative (from a multi-national company) complained about a chartered domestic flight for a group of 31 people on a 38 passenger commuter aircraft. The airline sold the remaining seven seats to local travelers and the buyer was furious. The airline executive responded by telling the DMC representative that the plane did indeed depart and arrive at the exact time they requested meeting the obligations of the charter. Since the DMC had not requested an, exclusive charter (according to the airline representative) , the airline assumed they had the right to sell the additional seats: obviously a difference in what the word, “charter” means.


Early in my career with a major national meeting/incentive house (now merged out of existence several times over); my own company often created customer service challenges.


Like many larger meeting/incentive companies, proposals were prepared internally for sales people like me based on requests we submitted to them. They had a 30-day minimum advance-notice requirement which I always honored.


In one instance, I received a call a few days prior to the scheduled presentation date, telling me they were too busy to complete my request and I’d have to get at least a two-week extension. Anyone in sales knows that’s not always an easy thing to do. As one member of the proposal writing team put it, “If your prospect knew how busy we are, they would understand.”  My prospect interpreted the request the same way I did: “If you can’t meet a deadline with advance notice now, what will happen operationally? Are we that unimportant to your company? We’ll take our business elsewhere.”


Back to my recent conversation: One planner shared the fact that she was having a terrible time getting DMC’s to respond, after the business was booked. Clients were pressing her for answers to various questions that were not coming from the DMC. Responses ranged from no response at all to, “we’re really busy right now with other groups and will get back to you as soon as we can.” Shades of what I encountered early in my career.


Another planner shared a situation that happened onsite with a group she had at a Caribbean resort. The function room was not properly set just prior to a major evening function. The Banquet Manager said they could meet the deadline if they could pull the incentive company staff away from the group and use them to help set up. “Due to the weak economy, we’ve cut staff and just don’t have enough people to get the job done” was the reason given.


Every one of you probably has similar stories to share, however it might be worth stepping back a minute and look at solutions, rather than just complaining.


Customer service problems are usually related to a lack of staff, untrained staff or unprepared staff…which may be the fault of poor management as well as with the staff. Solutions from the supplier perspective often add to the cost.


Some ways to prevent these kinds of situations from happening could include:

More accurate descriptions from suppliers as to exactly what is included AND not included. Buyer expectations may be very different that what’s offered in a contract or a BEO that’s too brief or vaguely worded. How about that “exclusive” charter?


Suppliers asking buyers what their understanding of the terms are, so both are on the on same page down to the Nth detail. Our industry is filled with jargon that isn’t always exact.


Buyer and supplier agreements both can actually live with. In a weak economy, supplier sometimes cut deals they regret and resent. In a strong economy, buyers may do the same. It was shocking to hear culinary staff at a meeting telling an attendee facing an almost empty lunch buffet, that “he was lucky to get anything based on what his company paid for the meeting.”


There’s always more than one side to an issue and this is no exception. Customer service will be an issue forever. Recognizing that fact, we can do a lot to reduce its impact with some careful planning in advance.


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