All businesses are people businesses. The level of customer service depends entirely on the qualities of the people delivering it. Honesty, determination and dedication are among the most important characteristics in a good employee. Punctuality, charm and all that sort of thing are valuable, as is the ability to anticipate the customer's needs. All these fine attributes, however, must be tempered with flexibility and the ability to listen, or they are for naught. An example might make the point.
The locus of the story is a 13th century convent in Lisbon, Portugal, some years ago. The ancient building had been turned into a "Pousada," one of a chain of national treasures, the absolute top end of the international hospitality experience. Antique furniture, fine dining and all-around smarminess: the currency of fine travel experiences.
Due to foreign-exchange fluctuations, rooms in the convents, castles, knights' barracks and other stunning accommodations all over Portugal cost about $8 a night in real money at the time we stayed there. The guests were titled gentry, oil barons and insurance executives, and we were just human garbage (and still are). But the wonder of capitalism is that, if you can afford it, they have to bow and scrape and treat you as if you matter.
A cheap airfare from Bermuda, via Moscow and Nairobi, landed us in Lisbon at about 2 a.m., and we arrived at the darkened Pousada two hours later. At the front desk dozed a night watchman, whose English was limited to speaking Portuguese, the exact reverse of our condition. I established that we just wanted to crash, and hold all my calls, please, and thank you. We went upstairs and fell into a pair of 13th century beds, with 13th century mattresses, but we were too tired to care.
At 7 o'clock in the morning, just as I had slumped into the deepest category of REM ever recorded, the telephone rang, its jangling echoing hellishly around the uncarpeted room. I came to and picked up the phone. A woman started screaming in my ear: "You wan' your brekfess tray, Mr. Cramble?" No, I did not, thanks awfully, I said. I put the phone down and slumped back to sleep.
Exactly an hour later, the phone rang again. I was very seriously not amused. "Yes?" I asked, in a grave voice.
"You wan' your brekfess tray, Mr. Crimple?" screamed the same voice I'd heard earlier. This time, I explained more firmly in several languages that no, I did not want my breakfast tray, thanks all the same. She should save up the trays for three days, I said, and then we would eat them all at once, I told her. I went on and on until she seemed to grasp the idea.
At 9 o'clock, sure enough, the phone rang. "You wan' your brekfess tray, Mr. Gramble?" she demanded to know. And at 10 o'clock: "You wan' your brekfess tray, Mr. Grumble?"
It was a pretty fair guess that it would happen again at 11 o'clock, so there was no point in going back to sleep, even if I could. The whole business had made my head hurt. Instead of sleeping, I padded up and down with a dictionary in hand, preparing a short, simple statement in Portuguese that would solve all our problems. The basic message was that we were deeply religious people and we were fasting. Clever, huh?
At 11 o'clock, of course, the phone did not ring. This did little to help my mood, but at about quarter past, I was over it and figured we were home free. Laying my aching bones down to finally catch some shut-eye, I quickly fell into a coma.
At noon, the phone rang once more. The woman screamed: "You wan' your lanche tray, Mr. Cramp?"
the alternative risk columnist for Risk & Insurance®, lives in Bermuda.
February 1, 2007
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