ART OF CUSTOMER SERVICE
By Bill Rautenstrauch
Savvy business operators know that positive word-of-mouth is the best advertising money can't buy.
Word-of-mouth brings new customers in, and keeps the old ones coming back. And it stems from good, old-fashioned service-with-a-smile.
And there's a move on at both the county and state levels to stir it up.
"Hospitality workers who put on a smile and go out of their way to help not only make the customer's experience more positive but also improve their own day and increase sales," said Janet Dodson, executive director of Union County Tourism.
Good word-of-mouth doesn't cost a dime, but it's not free. It takes effort, and lots of it.
That effort comes from the rank-and-file employee, the one who faces a customer over the counter and sees to it that customer walks away satisfied.
Dodson's organization teamed with the Union County Chamber of Commerce this spring and summer to train about 70 local hospitality workers in the art of customer service.
A class called "Hospitality 101" showed front-line workers the importance of going out of their way to help visitors.
The class taught the basics of good customer service and included a section on what to see and do and where to find visitor services in Union County.
Customers appreciate friendly service
One who took the class was Donna Ross, a desk person at Howard Johnson's in La Grande.
Ross has worked at the hotel for 12 years, going back to the time it was the Pony Soldier. She said Hospitality 101 reinforced things she has learned over the years.
"If you have information to give customers, they really appreciate it. If you help them, they remember and come back," she said.
Ross was one of six Howard Johnson employees to enroll. Manager Janice Smyth said she made the class a requirement for employees working the front counter.
She said it was a good move.
"When questions are asked, they know how to answer them," she commented.
Ross recently was the recipient of the first-ever Red Carpet Award, an incentive created by Union County Tourism and the Union County Chamber of Commerce.
She was picked for the award for efforts she made to keep herself informed about entertainment and things to see and do in the region.
"Donna has proven herself to be one of the most diligent providers of good customer service around," Dodson said. "She makes an extreme effort to know what is happening in the community and make recommendations to visitors about entertainment, places to eat and shop, and things to see and do."
Ross was presented with a $25 Chamber Cash certificate, and a special name tag that identifies her as the award winner.
Howard Johnson's, meanwhile, will display a "Red Carpet" welcome mat until the next month, when a new winner is selected.
Efforts to train Union County hospitality workers in the art of customer service will continue in the coming months.
Besides resulting in a better image for Union County business, it will provide an infusion of state lodging tax money into local tourist-related economic development.
When the state Legislature passed the 1 percent lodging tax last year, it was stipulated that up to 15 percent of what is collected within a recognized region can be returned to that region for tourism promotion and development.
The Eastern Oregon Visitors Association has been recognized as the entity to which that money estimated to be $50,000 to $60,000 will go.
To get the money, the association of which Union County Tourism and the county chamber are members is required to provide hospitality, or Q Program, training to 10 percent of the visitor industry workforce in the next 16 months.
That amounts to 600 workers in Union, Wallowa, Baker, Grant, Malheur, Harney,
Umatilla, Gilliam, Wheeler and Sherman
Dodson noted that Union County has a head start in the training.
"In Northeast Oregon, some elements of our Hospitality 101 class will be incorporated into the Q training," she said.