Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Even if your smile is fake, it will probably work.

I'm back to work after seven days off. I spent the last week in Cuba - far away from internet, cellular coverage and morning traffic. I didn't head to Cuba for that purpose, I went for the Vitamin D. For the last five months there has been four feet of snow and below freezing temperatures in the city I live and I was seriously needing a taste of summer.

What is interesting about Cuba, aside from the beautiful beaches, the crazy history, the sub-par food and the fanatic love of baseball - is the people. Literally stuck in a country that attempts to control everything in their life, the professionals that make it to a resort have a lot of personality (and they are professionals. At the resort I was staying you had to be a university student or from an educated profession to work). These people have backgrounds in medicine and industrial engineering and spend thirteen hours a day serving colorful drinks or deep fried vegetables at the buffet. They have every reason to leave their personality at home, resent their job and just plow through the monotonous workday. But they don't.

If you work for or own a company that employees people who deal with other people - than now's a good time to pay attention. There are a few lessons to be learned from Cuba.

Service with a smile
Every single member of the resort's staff had a smile for each visitor they interacted with. Why? I'm sure it's partly out of the hospitable culture and partly out of the 'smile = $ tips' formula. The employees discovered that being happy while they work not only helps their moral, but increases the money in their pocket. It doesn't mean they are always truly happy, but putting on a smile delivers a completely different outcome during the workday. A sun soaked tourist a little tipsy off rum punch has a hard time differentiating between 'real' and 'fake' smiles. The same could be said for any business - you can hear a smile in someones voice and happiness is contagious.

The staff didn't pitty you into giving them a tip - they serviced you into giving them a tip. Too often in any industry, employee's working for tips or bonuses try to communicate the sob story or vent their complaints and terrible day with customers. They may get a tip or that last sale, but they'll lose a customer. A seemingly authentic positive interaction served with a smile can immediately change the brand perception and increase a customers loyalty.

Manage what you can control
On the other side of the equation are the resort owners. They've figured out the profits model. Sure they are the gateway to a beautiful beach and swim up bar, but so many of the reasons tourists travel to a place like Cuba are out of the resort owner's control. A couple of rainy days and you have a resort full of pissed of Canadians. The resort owners know there is a wild card that they can control. The biggest point of visitor/consumer interaction is the people. You can build a great product and service, but one bad consumer interaction can ruin your reputation (and profits. And yes, I'm not talking just about Cuban resorts.) So employees are motivated and rewarded for service and for ensuring that customers provide feedback on the service.

People like to feel special.
We buy products in order to associate with the emotion that a brand delivers. Even if you hate brands, you buy other stuff to reflect you big brand hatred. Everyone's a consumer. As a company, if you forget this and you ignore the fact that customer interaction is the biggest point for sales, retention, marketing, and brand building - you'll consistently be at a disadvantage. Cuba is chastised for its food, politics and has limited access to resources and market share. In the last twenty years it has exponentially increased its tourism industry based on the customer interaction. The employees are as big a part of the brand interaction as free form pools and blooming gardens. This focus has eliminated the disadvantage and has built a loyal growing base of customers.