CUSTOMER SERVICE

What You Can Learn from the Second Fall of Atlantis

The Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas has experienced financial hardship of late. Use these lessons learned so you do not suffer their fate.
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Four years ago my wife and I dropped the kids off with the grandparents, jumped on a plane, and headed to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. This week we returned for a family vacation with the kids.

For those of you who are not familiar with Atlantis, it is a billion dollar mega resort built by Sol Kerzner on Paradise Island. It is themed to resemble the mythical city of Atlantis.  Taking years to complete, the resort features multiple hotels, fantastic beaches, fish and shark tanks scattered throughout the resort, and the largest waterpark in the Caribbean.  In short, in my 41 years on this third rock from the sun it is one of the most impressive vacation destinations I have ever seen.

So why then is it struggling? The old adage of if you build it they will come has not paid off for the Atlantis resort which has, recently, had to deal with severe financial hardship. Why? It can't be the facilities, they are amazing. The cost? Sure it's expensive, but it's on par with a Disney cruise or other like vacations.

In my experience of now staying here a second time Atlantis's struggles can be summed up in two words: customer service.

Let me give you a few examples.

On our first night at the resort we experienced an extremely heavy rainstorm. The grand outdoor entrance to the Royal Towers was flooded with standing water. Although the pathways were completely covered with one to three inches of water the staff just stood there while guests had to wade through the water to get into the hotel's main lobby. Of note, the water was mostly standing inches away from drains and only would have needed the slightest push to get off the pathways.

When I worked at a waterpark in South Florida during my youth when standing water accumulated on pathways we were immediately dispatched to squeegee the water away for guests. And this was a simple water park, not a high-priced mega resort.

But at the Atlantis resort no one dispatched anyone to do anything about the water leaving both existing guests and newly arriving resort visitors with soaked shoes and pants. Do you think this would have happened at a Disney property? Absolutely not. They would have had teams out there taking care of the issue and making sure their customers did not have to deal with this quite manageable inconvenience.

Moving on,  a hotel worker charged with the duty of opening doors for the guests was too busy to do so because he was chatting on his cell phone. How do you think the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas would have handled that situation?

One day when we went to the beach my wife, two kids in tow, had to pull her own chairs down to the beach and set them up while three beach attendants stood within 20 yards of her simply chatting to one another. Would this have happened at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Florida. Not a chance.

Eating at one of the upscale restaurants at Atlantis was also an adventure. When you go be prepared to eat in shifts. During a recent meal at the Seafire Grille at Atlantis my fish came out first and, although cooked, it was cold. It was almost like they had cooked it, put it on a plate, and then put it in the refrigerator. My wife's lamb arrived and was, admittedly, perfect. But then it took 10 more minutes for my son's food to arrive and another 10 for my daughter's. And this was one of their premier restaurants. Think something like this would happen on a Royal Caribbean ship? Heck no.

So what distinguishes Atlantis from world-class vacation experiences such as those run by Walt Disney World, Royal Caribbean, the Bellagio, and Ritz Carlton: they've build a world-class property but they are simply missing the world-class customer service to run it.

So my advice to Atlantis, hire John DiJulius, author of the greatest customer service book ever written, Secret Service, to help them craft a customer service program that will rival the best in the world. If you build it, which you have, and you properly staff it, which you have not, they will come (back).

But what if you cannot afford to hire John DiJulius to train your staff? No problem. Here's what you can take away from the possible second fall of Atlantis for your business:

1.  Create Incentive That Encourage Great Customer Service

At Atlantis a 15% gratuity is automatically included on every food bill. Every one. Not just for fine dining or groups more than six. From when you buy ice cream at their Ben & Jerry's to every Piña Colada purchased, an extra 15% is added for the staff. Why?

The theory behind gratuities is to encourage and reward good service. However, in this instance the incentives for quality service is diminished when the staff already knows they are going to pocket 15% no matter what. Sure there is always that line which allows you to add extra gratuity for above and beyond service. But in my experience rarely was that deserved and, in my opinion, it is because the resort has de-incentivized great customer service by requiring a 15% gratuity on all food bills.

So how does this apply to your business? Be careful when you create incentives programs that you do not de-incentivized major components of your business model. Your incentives programs must send the right message to your employees and reward the behavior or results that are expected within your business model.

2.  Trim the Herd

To effectively run a successful business you must also be willing to, as required, trim the herd. In other words, when a weak link is harming your company you must be willing to let them go for the greater benefit of your business. This will both eliminate the direct problem as well as provide a reminder to those who remain that expectations and standards are taken seriously within your organization.

A few years back my wife and I were at an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean. Upon our arrival we were mildly disappointed at the reception: a welcome toast in the form of alcoholic punch served in Dixie cups and not the champagne in crystal flutes as shown on the website. Nevertheless we kept a positive attitude towards the rest of the trip. But over the next day or so we were amazed at how unkempt the property was, staff appeared to be wearing dirty uniforms, paint chipping off the buildings, etc. And then on the third day everything changed.

On the third day a tall, heavy-set balding man appeared on the resort. He was dressed in casual island wear but wore a scowl on his face that I will never forget. In the morning hours he marched around the resort pointing to this and that and barking out orders as the managers of the resort followed him and hung on his every word. At the end of his tour he turned to the head manager, said something in French, turned to the assistant manager nodded and left.

From that point forward we never again saw the head manager. We later learned that the balding man had been the regional manager, had shown up a month early for his scheduled overview of the property, and was quickly remedying the deficiencies apparent in the management thereof. Among those actions he had fired the head manager on the spot.

From that day forward the vacation completely changed. The staff was more accommodating, the property's maintenance crew literally worked 24-hours per day fixing up the place, and they found those Champagne flutes after all. In trimming his herd the regional manager instantly got rid of the problem and sent a message to the rest that they would be trimmed too if they did not shape up.

Atlantis could learn a lot from this message. So can you.

3.  If You Build It, They Won't Necessarily Come

There's no doubt that Atlantis spent the money to build a world-class resort. The hotels and water park are simply amazing. But just because you build it they won't necessarily come.

Let's take Disney for example. Their properties are every bit as spectacular as Atlantis. But when you stay at a Disney property is it the buildings themselves that keep you coming back or something more? What if when you went to ask the clerk for change he said, "Sorry, only if you purchase something." Or what if off duty employees loitered around the premises smoking cigarettes and discarding their butts anywhere they pleased? I doubt it would really be considered the happiest place on earth anymore and, correspondingly, sales would soon fall.

So just because you put the infrastructure in place in your business your work is not done.  At the end of the day most business owners need people - good people - to run their operation. Be you in the service industry, fulfillment, sales or whatever, if you build it they may come.  But if you staff it properly they will come.

So take a lesson from my experience and thoughts on Atlantis: do not de-incentivize your work-force, do not be afraid to trim the herd when necessary, and staff your business properly and they will come.

Last updated: Jun 26, 2012

MATTHEW SWYERS | Columnist | Founder, The Trademark Company

Matthew Swyers is the founder of The Trademark Company, a Web-based law firm specializing in protecting the trademark rights of small to medium-size businesses. The company is ranked No. 138 on the 2011 Inc. 500.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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