Ring bell for service
People say customer service in the North is terrible — but is it as bad as they think? Peter Jickling chimes in.
Last summer, carpenter Calvin Delwisch met with an important client at a hotel in downtown Whitehorse. The client had just checked out and was on his way to the airport, so they asked the desk clerk if they could quickly use a conference room. “We were there to sign papers and we were looking for a room with some privacy for 10 minutes or less.” The hotel employee simply refused, says Delwisch. “So we went to the hotel pub. The waitress asked if we would like a drink, we declined and she made a snotty comment and walked away.”
It’s experiences like this that understandably leave customers angry. And there seems to be an impression that such incidents are more common in Northern Canada than they are in the south.
Leading up to this article, Up Here Business handed out a questionnaire to consumers around the North. When asked how they would compare customer service in the territories to that in the provinces, the vast majority described it as either “somewhat worse” or “much worse.”
Delwisch was one of the people who took the survey; he circled “much worse” and then in the margins beside the question he scribbled: “Less competition leads to less care. If you know you’re the only supplier in town, you can hire whoever, and mark up the prices to whatever.” And we found similar sentiments across the territories.
Although cases like this occur all too often, merely grumbling about terrible service, and carrying on, will get us nowhere. That’s why UHB decided to investigate the service industry North of Sixty to find out what makes it function the way it does, and what we can do to improve it.
Heather Lyon is an educational consultant based out of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. She spends almost half the year in the Northwest Territories teaching a continuing education course on customer service for Aurora College at their Tulita, Inuvik, Norman Wells and Yellowknife campuses.
The North, she says, has its own unique set of problems. “You’re not always dealing with strangers, you’re dealing with people you know,” she explains, saying this can lead to higher expectations being placed on servers. After all, if you can’t get your third cousin the car parts he needs, you might end up sitting at the kiddie table next Thanksgiving.
This also means that some people get exceptional service: close friends and relatives are treated like VIPs. But those who aren’t connected to any such network may end up feeling ignored or further socially alienated by the poor service they receive.
One of the respondents to the UHB questionnaire, who preferred to remain anonymous, described the situation thus: “It feels like an old boys club. If you’re part of the circle, then you get good service, but if not, then you don’t.”
Another of the North’s unique conditions is its remoteness. “You can’t always get products quickly and cost effectively,” says Lyon. This leads to obvious frustrations, but its effects run even deeper than merely not always getting what you want, when you want it.
“Let’s say you’re at a restaurant,” begins Lyon, “and there’s an item on the menu that can’t be served because they are out of it.” She describes a scene we all know well: the waitress explains to the customer that the spinach salad is not available because it didn’t come in on the last shipment, and although most people would take the news in stride, some will occasionally explode with anger. Such an experience usually leaves a bad taste in the server’s mouth and eventually, their attitude may start shifting accordingly – for the worse. “They sometimes develop stereotypes about the people they serve and that effects how they serve the next person,” says Lyon. The belligerence of the customer leads to discontent among the staff, which leads to more belligerence, which leads to more discontent. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
The problem is compounded during the summer, when the territories are flooded with southern tourists. According to Lyon, when people expect things to run exactly the same here as they do in the south, that’s when the vicious cycle really starts spinning.
But it’s still in the best interests of the staff to indulge their sympathetic side rather than their vengeful one. “You’ll be at the job for eight hours and it’s easier dealing with happy customers than difficult ones.” Smiling through adversity is not always easy, says Lyon, but in the long run it will lead to less strife and more calm, and better business all-round.
Suzanne Blackjack is also familiar with the challenges faced by the customer service industry in Northern Canada. As the programming coordinator for the Yukon Tourism Education Council (YTEC), she knows well how tourists and locals can clash. YTEC exists to support the tourism industry and its businesses through education. In their workshop “Welcome Yukon,” service professionals are not only taught how to improve their skills, but also how to act as Northern hosts – frontline ambassadors for the territory. “It focuses on what sort of things there are to see and do in the Yukon, what are things that we should be informing tourists about when they ask us questions at work,” says Blackjack. “And also how to give above-and-beyond, outstanding customer service.”
In an effort to further support the industry, YTEC has initiated a program called “Golden Host,” in which people who go way beyond the call of duty are rewarded for their service. This June, the winner was a front desk agent at the Westmark Hotel in Whitehorse, who went to great lengths to help an exhausted female customer. “The hotel was booked but he let her sleep in the lobby while he phoned around to all the other hotels trying to get her a room,” says Blackjack, beaming.
It is reassuring to know that excellent northern service is not unheard of, but the occasional positive impression doesn’t seem to be enough to stem the flow of negative feedback. On our questionnaire we asked respondents to list one particularly good customer service experience in Northern Canada, and also one particularly bad experience. The bad outweighed the good. In fact, some people chose to leave the “good” question blank in protest, and instead recounted their most horrific encounters.
When filling out the section on what good experiences he’s had with businesses in the North, one respondent drolly answered, “Garage sales have got it right.” When asked to name a bad experience, the same person said, “Without being too specific, I find it odd that a store which prides itself on carrying ‘ethical products’ can’t achieve the ethic of common kindness.”
Blackjack knows that conditions unique to Northern Canada can facilitate bad service. “Being short-staffed at some of our businesses is probably a common problem,” she says. Anyone who has ever waited half an hour to order another drink in a pub knows this pain all too well.
The cyclical nature of Northern customer service is another issue. We have a short summer – only 100 days. It is during these brief sunny days that business owners hope to make a substantial portion of their profits, and in attempting to fill their expanded staffing needs, they end up hiring whoever’s available, even if they know nothing about the business or their customer’s needs. “For newer employees the priorities are knowing who the customers are and really knowing what it is they need,” says Blackjack. “Maybe they need to have a little bit more training or understand that a little bit more.”
This disconnect between the needs of the customer and the knowledge of the staff can lead to delays and frustrations. ”If you don’t know who the customer is that’s coming to you and what it is they want, it’s going to take longer to give them what they really need,” says Blackjack.
As the job pool is limited, often employers end up hiring students who are only in town between semesters. “For some people, owning a small business is their dream. They are living out their dream and those are really the people who will go above and beyond,” says Blackjack. “But for others this is only a summer job. They don’t have quite the same investment, so they may not care the same way.”
Still, unlike most of the respondents to our questionnaire, Blackjack stops short of saying that customer service is worse up here than it is down south. “We do hear often that the North is definitely unique from the south. We don’t have as many large corporate chains. Most of our business is small business. But I couldn’t generalize and say that it’s worse.”
Lyon also doesn’t believe that service is generally worse North of Sixty. In fact, she believes it’s slightly better up here. “People treat me like a friend,” says Lyon. “It’s not just about making money; it’s also about enjoying your life.”
But let’s be honest, running a business or going to work is about making money. And Lyon says this fact alone should provide incentive for servers to give it their best. “You make more profit from returning customers,” she elucidates. “This will allow the employer to keep you employed.” Good service brings return customers, which brings increased profit, which allows the business to stay open, which in turn allows you, the employee, to keep your job.
Sounds logical enough, but does Lyon’s algorithm apply to a company in the North the same way as it would to a company in Edmonton or Vancouver? If there’s only one bad tire shop in a Northern town, residents will be forced to go there, whether the service is poor or not. In Edmonton, they’d have choice.
On our survey, we asked Northern consumers if they were likely to continue supporting the same business even after receiving poor customer service. The majority said they’d be forced to. “I often have to because of what’s available,” said one person. “There’s often no choice,” said another.
This brings to mind evolutionary theory. You know, how only the fittest survive. The theory attests that as generations pass, a species becomes stronger and better adapted to survival as members compete for limited resources. But if the competition ceases, so too does the evolution. The slowest, weakest, dumbest moose will thrive if it has no competition.
Similarly, if a business in one of the territories is the only supplier of certain products in town, the impetus to improve service ceases. They can graze in their meadow of slightly disgruntled customers without worry.
But times may be changing in the North, particularly in Whitehorse, which is undergoing a population boom. As more people move in, so too will additional businesses, and companies that have gotten fat with complacency may find that they their monopoly on the market will abruptly end.
Of course there are limits to the evolutionary analogy. Some businesses, even those without competition, will do more than the minimum required for survival.
Consider the case of Pat and Barb Irvin. They are longtime Watson Lake, Yukon, residents who have owned Watson Lake Foods – the only full service grocery store in town – for six years. If residents chose to support the Irvin’s closest competitor, they’d have to drive 450 kilometres to Whitehorse. Simply put, the Irvins have the town by the balls. They are in a perfect position to charge whatever they want and treat their customers however they want; good customer service is not imperative to the survival of Watson Lake Foods.
And yet, in 2010 they won the Yukon Chamber of Commerce award for Business of the Year, given annually to a company displaying exceptional service. Why go the extra mile? Well, a bit of civic pride is a good place to start. “Watson Lake gets a bad rap in the media sometimes,” says Pat. “It’s totally unjustified.”
He considers it part of his duty as a business owner to improve his town in whatever way possible. “We support everything we can possibly support. We want to be part of a vibrant community.”
They also seek out employees that have a similar set of values. “We look for people who are not just satisfied with doing their job but who try to do their best.” He adds that he feels lucky to have such good employees.
Here, then, is an example where good customer service is not the result of a cost/benefit calculation, but rather emerges from the desire of the owners to provide the best possible grocery store for their community. It also reveals that Northern business owners and employees who fail to provide proper service have also failed to master the most basic, and most important, tenet of customer service: what, earlier, a respondent called “the ethic of common kindness.”
Of course there is one more possibility: perhaps up to this point we have been looking at the whole question of service completely backwards. The territories, after all, are the last frontier; the closest thing we have left to the wild west. If Northern Canada lacks quality service, as our questionnaire seems to indicate, maybe we should consider it part of our authentic frontier character. Perhaps our lack of “southern-style” service is charming. Perhaps tourists are coming up here to experience exactly that.
One of the respondents to our questionnaire seemed to express such sentiment. “Customer service isn’t as good up here, but that’s OK, because it shouldn’t be expected,” she said.
When presented with this theory, Lyon paused for a second before answering: “I would have to strongly disagree with that. Bad service is bad service, no matter where you are.”