Customer Service or Hospitality?

We have a book club here at Patron Technology that is specifically focused on reading about customer service and improving how we treat our customers. This month we’re reading Setting the Table by Danny Meyer, one of New York’s great restaurateurs and the brains behind the fun and addictive Shake Shack, which is now popping up all over the country.

The book starts with a clear definition of hospitality, which Meyer contrasts with customer service:

Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel. Service is a monologue — we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top.

Providing great service has always been one of the values of our company. When I was the executive director of the American Symphony Orchestra, I was frustrated that those of us who ran non-profits were frequently treated like second-class citizens by nearly every vendor. We got second-tier service because we couldn’t afford to pay top dollar, even though we were trying to create an exceptional product and run a professional organization. That left a big impression on me and I vowed that when I started my own business serving non-profits, we would make customer service a high priority. I wanted to make sure that everyone felt they were treated in a first-class manner.

As an example, we make response times a high priority, because there’s nothing worse than calling in with a technical problem and not hearing back. Today we receive hundreds of customer service inquiries a day, and typically we resolve 80% to 85% of them that same business day (many within a few hours) and about 90% within 24 hours. We know that when people contact us they are probably frustrated because something is not working the way they expected it to. As soon as they hear back from a real person who is there to help them, their anxiety dissipates.

But according to Danny Meyer, the speed at which we respond, or the technical skill with which we do it, is only half the battle. The other half is HOW it’s done. Do we give the answer in a way that not only solves the problem, but also connects emotionally with the person being helped? When the problem is handled, how does the client feel? Satisfied? Confident? Empowered?

We are consciously moving from a “service” mentality to a “hospitality” approach. That means paying attention to the tone and manner of our responses, and to the feedback we get from clients. Last week one of our staff got an email response from a client that exemplifies what we’re going for:

You are just such a peach to work with, Alice! And I must say, you have a very calming voice when we’re talking on the phone.

Beyond our own business, I feel that our field could use a big dose of this kind of thinking. Sadly, many interactions I have as a patron of arts organizations leave me wanting more. I wish more organizations would deeply analyze their customer experience. If a ticket is left at will-call at the box office, how is the patron treated when waiting on the line? Or when she gets to the window? When she walks into the hall, does the usher simply hand her a program, or welcome her? Is someone barking orders about turning off cell phones? How long is the line at intermission at the bar, and does anyone at the organization care? What about the line for the women’s room? And if there’s no way to make the line shorter because of the limitations of your building, what could you be doing to help change the way patrons feel while they are waiting?

Ask yourself, is your organization simply providing “service” or are you aiming for true hospitality? And how much do you care? I am thinking about this more and more every day, and I think you should, too.

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