Customer Service at Sea

With all the trouble in the “friendly skies” lately, many travelers are considering vacation transportation alternatives. One such creative option is to take to the water aboard a cruise. Having just disembarked from our families’ third cruise vacation, I can safely say that customer service is alive and well on the open ocean. It’s mind-blowing to consider all the work that goes in behind the scenes to create an effort-free vacation for the guests aboard. Carnival Cruise Line has a bit of a reputation in the industry as being the “party boat,” however from my experience they are simply very good at accommodating all types of passengers (spring-breakers included).

Nate Brown, customer service

When you’re stuck on a ship for seven days, there’s bound to be at least one moment when you find yourself at guest services. Mine came as we were waiting for dinner and I noticed someone had left their purse in a public area. I returned the purse to guest services where an exceptionally kind gentleman named Chaimongkon showed a great deal of gratitude for the action performed. As I was filling out a form, an older gentleman walked in and abruptly grabbed the purse off the desk, muttered something about it being his wife’s, and scowled at both of us. The rudeness of the man left Chaimongkon and me in momentary shock. Later that evening, I returned to my room to find a handwritten note from Chaimongkon thanking me for returning the purse and a gift of two drink vouchers. His kindness turned a sour moment into a memorable service experience. This highlights just a few examples of what makes Carnival agents so good at their uniquely challenging jobs:

  • The emotional intelligence of the agent to witness the rudeness of another guest and then putting forth the effort to make it right
  • The ability of a front-line agent to make an executive decision and provide a monetary gift as an extension of goodwill
  • The timeliness and logistics by which he made these things happen

One of the most powerful things about the guest experience is the consistency. Chaimongkon fit right in with his shipmates – all of whom held themselves to this same standard. And it was not just at the guest services desk either. Both my daughters’ favorite crew member was “Waterslide Walter” who made their time in the water playground an absolute blast. The entire dining team blew us away. Despite a grueling all-day and most-of-the-night schedule, they went above and beyond on every detail.

By this point, the service professional in me came out and I had to peek behind the curtain a bit. How did this remarkably consistent guest experience come to exist? I flip-flopped down to guest services in my swim suit, hoping that maybe I’d be able to set up a brief interview with the guest services supervisor the next day. Just five minutes later, I was sitting across from Sylvie who was happy to oblige the odd request (despite my lack of proper interview attire):

Question 1: How do you stay motivated to deliver exceptional customer service to extremely challenging people?

Patience and empathy were the key themes. Sylvie explained her technique of visualizing the guest as though they are a friend or family member facing significant discomfort. Where as I may see an annoying guest with a serious entitlement issue, Carnival agents are uniquely trained to disarm difficult situations with grace and calm confidence. While Sylvie didn’t explicitly say this, I could see that Carnival is extremely selective in their recruiting efforts. With a talent pool that spans the globe, the organization is somehow able to find those exceptional people for which these skills are simply part of their nature.

Question 2: How do you create such a positive and consistent service culture throughout the entire staff?

I learned here that while this is a trademark of the Carnival brand, each ship will often boost it’s own cultural utopia. This particular boat, the Carnival Magic, was known for having a very tight-knit crew and placing a premium on relationships. They are able to keep the energy up and motivate each other through the rapport gained over many years of shared experiences. As Lydia Dishman from Fast Company says, “meaningful work, leisure time, and positive emotions can’t hold a candle to relationships.”

Nate Brown, Customer Service

Having now lost my great tan and sea legs, I’m happy that the lessons learned aboard the Carnival Magic remain. Whether you’re 2,000 miles off the coast, or operating a support center in the desert of Las Vegas, these touches of Carnival Magic can enhance your customer experience:

  • Spend the time, effort, and money to recruit exceptional talent for which patience and empathy come naturally. While training can help to develop these gifts to some level, the baseline capacity needs to be there.
  • Enable your front-line staff to make critical game-time decisions, even those that may require a certain level of monetary compensation.
  • Work hard to create a “relationship context” within your group. Finding ways to bring people together and form friendships is way more powerful than any ping pong table, gift card, or “gamification” software.

Here’s to smooth sailing in your support center for years to come!

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