Great customer service and poor customer service can be juxtaposed in the most extraordinary places and the biggest differences between them can be found in the simplest of things.
Our recent expedition to the Andean mountain ranges of Peru to fulfil a lifelong ambition to climb the Inca trail provided me with yet another setting, albeit a (literally) breathtaking environment in which to be able to make such observations.
The trek took us four days from start to finish, over 42 kilometres, climbing three mountains, one of which was 4,215 metres above sea level. The air is thin, your breathing is extremely laboured and your heart feels like it’s about to burst out of your chest every time you exert yourself – I found myself out of breath just rolling up my sleeping bag at 5.30am at the highest campsite.
Anyone who tells you that this trek is easy may have a tendency to fib – it’s not. Sure there are some easy stretches, but it is mostly challenging and in some parts distinctly dangerous, but the rewards are unbelievable. The scenery is magnificent, the camaraderie (if you are as lucky as we were with a fantastic group of fellow trekkers) is great fun and the sense of achievement is sublime.
Imagine our surprise then as we Western wusses huffed and puffed our way up the mountainous tracks, carrying about 10kilograms in our backpacks, a third of which was drinking water, when we were regularly yelled at to step aside for the support team coming through.
“Porters!” was the cry, warning us to tuck in always on the mountain (safe) side of the path. Our local Peruvian porters (descendants of the famous Incas) skipped past us loaded up with massive backpacks weighing about 25 kilograms (of which seven kilograms belonged to each of us). One guy even carried a gas bottle on top of his backpack! They were mostly clad in beanies, t-shirts or soccer shirts, track pants and thongs and they bounced past us like billy goats, sometimes balancing precariously on the edge of a sheer drop to certain death. The waft of the coca leaves on which they chewed was pungent and stale, but it helped them cope with any potential debilitation caused by altitude sickness.
These guys worked their butts off from morning til night. The reason they skipped past us was so they could arrive at camp well in advance of us to prepare for our arrival.
When we finally appeared, dishevelled, sweaty and breathing like Thomas the Tank Engine with a hangover, our guys had already set up the tents and prepared our hot meals. What the chef and his helpers rustled up in a tent on a mountain was ridiculously gastronomically delightful. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner, with entrée, main course and dessert and it was as good as most restaurants with a team of chefs. The menu was varied, balanced and filling and there was always food left over, which was happily used up by the porters, in addition to their own rations.
Every morning they woke us up from the cold darkness with a hot cup of coca leaf tea delivered to our tents, followed by bowls of hot water and soap for a morning face and hand wash. Nothing was too much trouble for them. They ranged in age from 18 to 59 years old and they smiled and laughed their way up the mountain, even offering encouraging words and rounds of applause when we completed the tough stretches.
Our guide, Edwar was a truly magnificent example of excellence in customer service. He amused us, inspired us, briefed us on safety issues, regaled us with his deep knowledge of Inca history and when my partner, Jo was struggling down the mountain on slippery, uneven, rocky stairs, he patiently held her hand as she negotiated the knee-jarring descent. He even produced a celebratory bottle of bubbly from his backpack when we reached the highest peak.
When we finally arrived in triumph at the holy grail of Peru, the abandoned ruins of Machu Picchu, the contrast in service standards was absurd. After no showers and squat toilets or bushes for four days we were glad to use the facilities at the tourist mecca’s reception complex. The attending staff were miserable and abrupt and the girl taking the entry fee was as welcoming a teenage checkout chick on her menstrual cycle and who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. Perhaps the staff are jaded by the sheer volume of visitors, most of whom have gone by train; have probably not heard much of the incredible cultural heritage and spirituality of the Incas; and who unlike us weary trekkers have not really ‘earned’ the right to be there. In short, most tourists just don’t really appreciate what they are seeing.
Nevertheless, the staff who deal with them will not be winning any awards from me. In keeping with Aussie tradition, Jo and I decided we would enjoy a well-earned beer in the cafeteria before continuing on to tour the ruins within.
There were two queues with no clear signage to explain the difference between them, except I went to the one where the assistant was stood in front of the beer fridge. (I’m sure the beers were calling out to me!) The man saw me join the queue but did not acknowledge me. His surly expression didn’t change when it was my turn at last to be served.
I smiled and asked for two beers (politely and in reasonable Spanish). He grunted that I needed to go and pay for them in the other queue first. There was no apology or gentle attempt to explain policy – I was just blanked. So I joined the other queue, which took ages and finally paid for two beers, reflecting that an explanatory sign would have spared me a few wrinkles.
I then had to re-join the original queue. When it was my turn he asked what I wanted, still with a face that didn’t crack, asked which beer and plonked them on the counter. Amusingly he then could not find a bottle opener and searched every nook and cranny of his service area. It seemed so long I had almost grown a beard while waiting, when I remembered that my Swiss Army knife had a bottle opener attachment. Even Mr Grumpy had to finally apologise for his inability to open the beer for me.
Nobody in that reception centre made any attempt to make me feel welcome, to build any sort of rapport or to seek to upsell me on any additional products or services.
By contrast, the previous night, Edwar, a true leader, had briefed us thoroughly lest we had failed to notice, on what a great job these porters do, how little they are paid and how deserving they are of our gratitude. He arranged a meeting for us to farewell our team, as we would have a 2.30am start on day four. I made a speech and distributed our collective tips for them, (a paltry sum for us but a more significant amount for them) before we all shook hands with every single one of them.
Service is not as hard as one might think. It’s about small things that collectively add up to a big difference.
A smile and a nod can do wonders for building rapport. A word of explanation of policy, or a simple ushering in the right direction can be most helpful to a bewildered visitor. The simple courtesies of ‘pleases’ and ‘thankyou’s’ can make a connection.
On our last night, our conscientious chef made us all a special home-baked cake, with icing on top and a piped message welcoming us ‘amigos’ to their country. Great service is not such a big mountain to climb – it can be a piece of Inca cake.
If you’d like to know more about setting your business up to excel at customer service, please contact me, Tony Inman for a preliminary chat. To read about how to make more of life, why not grab a copy of my book, ‘If Life’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Well.’