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.

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)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Tony A.

    We all want to be treated as PEOPLE and not just a sales transaction. And the best way to accomplish that is for travel related companies to treat their employees as people, too. For some reason, many firms don’t get it.

  • Ex-Yank

    Gosh, there were so many grammatical errors in that story. Is your editor on holiday Chris?

  • NoOne

    This works in all business sectors because all of them have people. I read a book about this several years ago called “The Customer Comes Second.” The premise is that if you take really good care of your employees they will take really good care of your customers, and that not every good person is a good fit (either as an employee or as a customer).

  • Christopher Elliott

    I inadvertently posted an early and unedited version of this story this morning. It’s been fixed. Sorry about that!

  • Marvin

    Hotel prices in New York City and other large cities are outrageous.  We travel up the East Coast from Florida to New York City and compared to lodgings along the way, NYC is astronomical.   How about some information on small, inexpensive, lodging in that city? 
    I very much enjoy your emails
    I post as “Marvin,” just because I like my anonymity

  • April

    I have to take exception to your comment that the reviews on Trip Advisor are “deeply flawed”.  Yes, there glowing reviews by property owners, but these are easily discovered and discarded by anyone who reads a lot of TA reviews.  I have relied on TA reviews for many of my accommodation choices–from Montana to Texas to Washington, D.C. and, most recently, Ireland.  The places I stayed were exactly as I expected based on the reviews I read.  Also, unlike your assertion, these properties gave us excellent customer service. 

    (And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have contributed many reviews to TA which have been read by hundreds of people according to the report I get periodically from TA.) 

  • D.C. Native

    While I appreciate your revealing the sponsorship of your various trips, it makes your comments about the service you receive from these businesses a bit suspect.  When you are receiving money, free accommodations or other free services, it creates the impression (true or not) that you are giving a good review of a property or business because of that “sponsorship”.  While I appreciate your efforts on behalf of consumers, I must take your reviews with a grain a salt.  I’ll rely instead on sources such as the travel writers for the Washington Post who must pay their own way for every trip they take.  (They get paid for writing articles by the Post, but they have to travel on their own dime.) 

  • Scapel

    Looks like I have voted with the majority again.

  • JennieW

    And yet when most people travel they do so based on the price alone.  We have exactly the industry we’ve asked for by voting with our dollars.

  • JennieW

    I almost always have a good experience because when I go on vacation I stay at places that cost more, that have many published amenities, and tend to have things like spas on premise.  I don’t stay at any property with the word “budget” or “quality” or “motel” in it.  Yes I pay more, and I am almost guaranteed to have a wonderful time.  When you pay for quality even small issues are repaired quickly. 

    I think you validate this with The Pierre experience.  You pay a lot more for that 5th star, but I don’t see a lot of problems in your stories from these places.

  • deemery

    As a corollary, don’t nickel-and-dime the customer!  Better to provide an all-inclusive fee, than to charge for the room, then for the internet connection, resort fees, etc, etc.  

  • deemery

    Not everyone!   I’m much more willing to spend more money for better service these days.  The whole travel industry has turned us into bottom feeders; there’s opportunity there for those companies that take a different approach.  Apple and Mercedes, to pick 2 examples, are companies that charge a premium and make a very tidy profit (particularly Apple :-) based on product differentiation and quality, rather than raw price.

  • Vivi

    I agree, I’m completely willing to pay more for good service.  For me it is the you take care of me and I’ll take care of you theory.

  • Charlie

    “Inexpensive lodging” and “New York City” are mutually exclusive terms using the venues mentioned as a comparison.  There undoubtedly will be a hotel with a price that is inexpensive but the distance outside the city makes the drive back impractical.  If you could find anything inexpensive in the city, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to stay there.

  • Guest

    I think a Southwest CEO wrote something similar to that…

  • Tony A.

    JennieW, when I check a GDS for the *base* fares of airlines, they almost look alike most of the time. Included in that category are JetBlue and Southwest. So it’s possible that these 2 excellent airlines will offer the cheapest fares between some origin & destination. They might be the cheapest yet they are best U.S. carriers according to J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction ratings. So low price does not necessarily mean low quality. By the way, Southwest salary scales are one of the highest in the airline industry. When we call Southwest, we get answered in the USA (not India, not the Philippines). Southwest Airlines currently operates six Customer Support and Services Centers located in Albuquerque, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio.

    So I wonder, why can Southwest, a so-called Low Cost Carrier, pay employees better and operate their own call centers right here in the USA so their customers are treated better by Southwest employees; while other carriers cannot?

  • Tony A.

    Take the train back and forth NYC from Stamford CT (as an example). This is where UBS and RBS have huge buildings right across the Metro North station. This (and Greenwich)  is also where most of the hedge funds are. $10 each way, express to Grand Central in about an hour. Hotel shuttle takes you and picks you up the Stamford train station (very near the heart of town). BTW it is also a major Amtrak station.

  • Nancy Dickinson

    More and more customer service is on a downhill slide.  As the “me” generation enters the work force in a customer service capacity so goes the skills we once took for granted.  What was once expected when one traveled (Hello.  How are you? Thank you for traveling with us) has been replaced with surliness and an unwillingness to recognize WE are the reason for their paychecks.

    On the other hand, some companies have gone out of their way to be obsequious and drive me a little crazy with it.  I can’t call Sprint or my electric company w/o hearing, at the end of the call, “Have I done everything to resolve your issues today?”  If you don’t answer their question, they keep asking it, over and over until you want to fairly scream, “Please!  Just let me off the phone!”  You just want to slit your wrists to make it stop.

    There has to be a happy medium somewhere.