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The art of customer service

I suppose calling customer service an art may seem like a stretch, but I do believe there is something to the notion that superior customer service cannot be taught. There is an instinctual element that you either have or you don’t. That being said, good management and training can teach people the very basic skills that result in good customer service, so there really is no excuse for poor customer service.

But I digress. Let me start by saying perhaps the best part of being an innkeeper is the customers. We get to meet the most interesting people on a daily basis who engage us in fascinating conversation. Many of our guests have become more like family than simply paying guests and that in itself is enough to keep us going back for more. Yet, I would venture to say that being an innkeeper isn’t a job for everyone.

Not everyone is what I call a people person, meaning they don’t necessarily enjoy being around a lot of people and have issues with privacy or proximity. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you intend on getting into a business like running a bed and breakfast or restaurant, you better be sure you are, indeed, a people person. Your home will no longer be your private abode. You will be at the beck and call of guests 24/7/365. They will touch your stuff, ask you questions you may not be prepared to answer and otherwise require your attention. If that seems like something that would be tedious to you, stay away from innkeeping.

At the most basic level of customer service is the notion it doesn’t matter if you are having a bad day. You may not feel well; you may have had a fight with your spouse; or you may have lost a loved one or a pet. Guess what ... the customer really doesn’t care. They just want to be treated with respect, enthusiasm and greeted with a smile. Sometimes it is like being an actor. The show must go on. So you go out there, put your life aside for a moment, put a smile on your face and you do your job, which is to make people happy, feel like they are the most important person in your world and ultimately to make them comfortable.

I am probably the most generous tipper there is in a restaurant or hospitality situation. I always start with a 20-25 percent tip automatically because I know how tough customer service is. That being said, I’m also the worst critic of someone in customer service because I expect them to act professionally and do what they are paid to do which is to at least be cordial with their customers. It may sound harsh, but it’s a reality. In my past life, while living in Las Vegas, I ran a call center. We fielded approximately 2,000 calls on a busy day looking for reservations for shows, tours and other attractions in Vegas. While I gave my employees the benefit of the doubt when it came to monitoring themselves, I was also very particular about their customer service. You never answered the phone without a smile on your face. You never passed a call along without making sure the next person knew the customer’s name and what the situation was. You always said your name at the beginning of the call so that customer could address you directly. And you always thanked them politely at the end of the call. These are super basic skills that don’t require much extra effort, just a little attention.

And a final note about customer service is particularly useful to innkeeping. One must always be able to sense when guests want to be left alone or if they want to be engaged in conversation. Most bed and breakfast-goers visit B & Bs because they enjoy chatting. They are interested in the innkeepers lives, how they got there, history of the house, etc. That being said, many are coming to you to celebrate a special occasion like an anniversary, birthday or wedding night. Knowing when to pay attention to guests and when to let them be is something you can learn with time but ultimately involves a little bit of mind reading, which as I say, can be considered an art.

Monika Sudakov is the chef and innkeeper at the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield. She can be reached at monikaandjeff@chestnut-inn.com.

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