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Rachel Shackleton: “Be genuine with all your customers”

Train all team members about the importance of the customer, both internal and external, and give them the autonomy to be individual and shine in each and every customer interaction, going that extra mile not because they were told to, but because they want to. Provide parameters in which they can take things into their […]

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Train all team members about the importance of the customer, both internal and external, and give them the autonomy to be individual and shine in each and every customer interaction, going that extra mile not because they were told to, but because they want to. Provide parameters in which they can take things into their own hands to support the customer.


As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Shackleton. Rachel was trained as a hotelier by Sun Hotels in South Africa and then Hilton Hotels, working at the flagship 5* London Hilton on Park Lane, which was the start of her love for wowing the customer. Working around the world for different hotel groups including Couples group in Jamaica, Windjammer Landing in St Lucia, Grand Hotel Europe, St Petersburg, Russia and several other properties she specialized in training hotel employees in how to provide excellent customer service through being yourself, enjoying what you do and enjoying interacting with the guests irrelevant of the reason.

Later on, Rachel founded her own company in St Petersburg, Russia providing training and development to both local and global businesses in all kinds of industries, including retail, banking, hospitality, production, FMCG, IT, and pharmaceuticals. Areas of specialisation within her company included management and leadership, communication, sales, and customer excellence. Rachel returned to the UK after running her business for 16 years in Russia and continues to offer training and development in leadership, communication, and customer excellence. Added to her portfolio is corporate wellbeing. Through personal experience, Rachel knows that you cannot wow the customer when your working environment is toxic, the business is untrue to its values, and customers, the boss you work for only focuses on achieving the bottom line probably due to pressures from senior management, owners, shareholders and board members and has little or no time to spend with those who deliver the bottom line. Clients include Intermedia, Oracle, JTI, Sperasoft, Novartis, Rocco Forte Hotels, Baltschug Kempinski Hotel, Grand Hotel Europe, Dominos Pizza, and Stone Cold Ice-cream in Nigeria.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My family emigrated to South Africa where I finished my schooling. From a young child, I had this great interest in cooking and knew that I would work in hotels. After finishing school, I applied to the Hotel School in Johannesburg. During the panel interview, I was told that I would not be successful for two reasons — 1. I was a woman, and this is no work for women! 2. I did not speak Afrikaans. The first I could not change and the second turned out to be my motivation to making it happen for myself. Instead of being disappointed and thinking of something else to do with my life, with my parents’ blessing, I left home, to stay with friends in Durban, where soon after I got a job as a waitress in a large hotel in Umhlanga Rocks. This was the beginning of a 25-year career in hospitality. There were many regulars in the Italian restaurant in which I worked and two of them happened to be senior managers for the Elangeni Hotel in Durban. I only knew about after serving them multiple times over several months. One day one of them handed me their card saying “If you would like to be trained in this industry, please give me a call?”. The next day I was on the phone and very soon after I became the first management trainee for Southern Sun Hotels, now Sun Hotels. From there I returned to the UK and joined Hilton who trained me to train to lead to a career in training and development that took me around the world.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

There are so many funny stories that occur when working with customers and guests. On this particular occasion, I was evening duty manager and was covering reception whilst the relevant staff members went for dinner. A male guest arrived and I duly checked him in, giving him the key and explaining how to get to the room. About 10 minutes later the guest returned to reception and explained that the room was occupied. Quizzically and with some doubt I immediately double-checked the system for the room status, which definitely confirmed that he was the only person in that room. Facially, doubting the guest, he invited me to the room to see for myself. On opening the door, laid across the bed was a beautiful black negligee, clearly not belonging to this particular guest. I made some floundering utterances followed by inappropriate humour “Did I not tell you, that we have a special this week, and you are the lucky winner?” I am not sure if the guest found this amusing or not. He did, however, get another room to which I personally escorted him to ensure no further “specials” were to appear.

My takeaway — humour is a fantastic thing? Not for all people, especially if crossing cultures as it is doubtful that the humour will be shared in the way it was meant. An apology would have been a better root to choose for this particular situation.

A different story — on this occasion I was one of about 20 waiters and waitresses who were serving at a large, important, and prestigious dinner function. As one of the more experienced waitresses, I was put to serve on the top table with one of my colleagues. From memory, the table had 12 guests, all of whom were dressed in black tie and ladies in long, often backless and low-back dresses. We were clearing the starter which happened to be avocado with prawns in a Marie-Rose sauce. As you can imagine, on each plate there was an emptied avocado shell with the remnants of pink Marie-Rose sauce. I went first with clearing the avocado plates and my colleague followed clearing the remaining bread and butter and side plates. To clear correctly is a real talent — all food left-overs on each plate are cleared on to a base plate and the cutlery placed on the same base plate whilst stacking the plates in my hand. All plates, from all guests to be cleared in one round. As you can imagine as the avocado shells piled up the stack became less stable, making it difficult to reach forward from behind each guest and keep everything balanced. By guest eleven, I felt sure I could manage the last two plates. This was not the case, on leaning forward to collect the penultimate plate, which just happened to be a lady, the whole stack came tumbling down on to her dress-less bareback.

As she gulped, hastily taking in air from the sudden shock of slimy, cold avocado shells hurtling down her back, the only thing that stopped them going further was the material “scooping” of the ruffled lower back of her dress. In a panic instead of apologizing profusely, I hastily tried to remove the shells with my one free hand, which involved literally sticking my hand down her dress! Having retrieved them all, I quickly retreated to the kitchen. My nervousness when serving this lady for the rest of the evening was plainly evident, not to mention her nervousness whenever I came near!

My learning — In the first place, standards of the procedure cannot be applied to every situation. There has to be an element of the “user” in this case the waitress being able to override the standard and therefore avoid over-stacking the avocado shells. Secondly to ask a colleague to assist the lady in removing the offending shells as a dedicated task.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are so many people who helped me along the way. Each one coming along at the appropriate time. My first general manager, sadly no longer with us, was a very special man. In many ways he was difficult to understand, not from a language point of view, but from his approach, points that he would highlight as well as his leadership style. Mr. Stanek was a no-nonsense leader, who called a spade a spade. He demanded very high standards and mostly got those standards. He insisted that his management team were out on the floor talking to guests, and one of the standards was to talk to a minimum of six guests per night in each of the restaurants For me, as a 19-year-old, management trainee, I found talking to the guests when I had to, extremely daunting and if possible would avoid it. At the time I did not understand the relevance and importance of doing this. Now, of course, I understand.

This same general manager would appear on the loading bay when we were returning from an outside catering job at 3 am, dressed immaculately in a pinstripe suit with a fresh rose in the button-hole. He would enquire about the function and how things had gone, observe for a short time, and then after some words of encouragement, he would leave. The next morning he would call me into the office to discuss how things had gone, get some feedback and then make any necessary corrections in a very gentle, quiet voice based on his previous night’s observations.

Mr. Stanek taught me, how to value a team, he taught me the essence of giving feedback both positive and constructive negative, as well as staying calm in all situations. His ability to communicate with each and every guest was a perfect example for me to overcome any fear of the guest, what they might say, and the feedback they might give about the service, the food, the room, and all other hotel amenities. He provided me with standards and values to look up to and to take with me throughout my career.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Great customer service and great customer experience are the foundation of any business. It does not matter whether you are in the frontline serving customers or not. Any member of a team is always either serving the customer directly or serving someone who is serving the customer. The Ritz-Carlton company motto perfectly sums this up “We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.” In other words, there is no difference between the real guest coming from outside and buying our products and services and an internal guest — a fellow team member. Offering a level of service that wow’s the customer has to come from every corner and every level of the company. It is like an orchestra, everyone has to play their part, in time, to the correct standard to present a well-orchestrated piece of music that creates maximum enjoyment for each and every audience member. When the orchestra is playing well customers want more of the same and will bring friends along with them, thus organically growing the business for you.

It is normal and natural that customers will be annoyed when a product or service does not meet their expectations. However, the way it is handled will either build loyalty to the brand and company or completely destroy that relationship, thus losing that customer and potentially several more depending on who they tell. In today’s world in most situations the customer has a choice, if they do not get what they are seeking with you, they will go elsewhere.

Customers who love your company, not because necessarily the product is the very best, but because staff members know the customer, make them feel individual and welcome in each and every interaction, irrelevant of who serves them. Customers who receive this level of service will always be loyal, giving you whatever business they can within their remit. Not only that, if something slips in the product when the service is consistently exceptional, and it is addressed in the same manner, they will overlook the product issues and give a second chance to allow you to get it right. This is the foundation of a strong and loyal customer base.

Just as important, staff members who enjoy working with customers get so much more with each interaction, which increases their level of job satisfaction ultimately leading to an inspired happy and joyful workforce who want to be at work and who in turn share this joy with everyone else in their lives, including the customers.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

I think there are a number of possible reasons for this, which I explain below:

It is an area that I find astounding for the simple fact that customers are the foundation and livelihood of any business. As we know, there are two ways to increase profitability within an organisation — increase sales or decrease costs. Both of these avenues are fundamentally linked to staffing levels, how well trained all members of staff are, as well as overall customer satisfaction. We know that there is a direct link between the morale, happiness, and satisfaction of a member of staff and their productivity. (9.9 Million days lost to mental ill-health, NHS Report 2018) If staff enjoy what they are doing, love their jobs, and are happy they will in turn do a good job for their employer. If times are hard and redundancies have to be made or there is a need to cover for someone who has gone off sick, those that are left behind will do their best for the company and more than likely increase productivity to compensate for the reduced staff numbers whilst maintaining customer satisfaction.

Recruiting a new employee is so much more costly than looking after and keeping those that you have already trained and are doing a good job. It makes financial sense to keep a high level of morale and inspire employees to take care of the customers.

Companies today, especially in the Western world are so focused to profitability and paying shareholder dividends, that goals set within companies to achieve the desired level of profitability tend to become the overriding drive, often at the sacrifice of working with people, as people to achieve the goals through them and not because of them. The pressure that is put on management on all levels distorts the image of how to achieve the desired goals, pushing “bottom line” through inappropriate leadership styles, eventually becoming overly controlling, micro-managing, and authoritarian, whether consciously or not. This takes away enjoyment, leads to what is interpreted by team members as lack of trust, undermines morale, and consequently effective communication and teamwork. Under these conditions in the short term, a company will look quite healthy and continue achieving goals, in the medium to long term this is unlikely to be the case as absenteeism, sickness and turnover all rise as morale, communication and teamwork sink further.

Very often CEO’s, General Directors and other senior managers are put in roles on a 2–3-year contract with performance being measured through profitability. More often than not bonuses are paid out that are linked to financial performance at the cost of all other KPI’s (key performance indicators), such as morale, absenteeism, sickness, staff turnover etc. which has an impact on everything, but most importantly customer focus, investment in training and development of employees, and the consistency of service offered.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

In my opinion, when the customer has a choice, this is always a good thing for the customer and for the businesses themselves. It can bring more people to a town, city or another area. It can increase the profile of a particular service or product, such as a sports activity or personal service, for example, hairdressing, reflexology, and dry cleaning. However, I do not believe competition forces companies to improve customer experience. Excellent customer service is not something that everyone understands how to do, which is quite strange, because I believe most of us know when we have had a good customer experience versus a bad one? Customer service on a good level is not intuitive for many, it is something on the side — a “nice” to know, but it is not the fundamental aspect of the business success. When things go belly-up owners will often turn to an external force to blame — the weather, the government, the economy, and so on. I think the only pressures that might force a company to improve its customer experience is a severe shock followed by the guts to really investigate what is going on in their company. Not all senior managers are willing to open that “can of worms” through observation of what is happening, perhaps using a mystery shopper service or consultant to gauge the customer experience — a Gordon Ramsey approach, as well as talking to staff members and existing customers. They rather rely on their own knowledge and try to make changes that will impact the customer experience positively.

Perhaps the power of social media has the ability to force a company to change and improve the customer experience. In recent years we see the introduction of websites such as Trip Advisor and Booking.com where the potential customer can read about previous customer experiences. Sometimes on these sites, the responsible person in the restaurant, hotel, or café has the opportunity to reply and make “good” of a potentially damaging situation to their business. Facebook, Instagram, and other personal platforms certainly do have an impact as individual customers are not slow in sharing terrible experiences in their group. The biggest impact with this is that the responsible person within the company at fault will, firstly know nothing about it, and secondly not have the opportunity to comment from there side. The end result — certainly loss of potential new clients.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

There are so many experiences in a lifetime of working with customers. Such a customer experience does not have to be huge, because at the end of the day it is all about what was going on for that customer at the time, and therefore what you did to “dance with them on that spot” in that very moment, thus having that “wow” factor. Here are a couple of examples:

1998 financial crisis in Russia, my company was two years old and just beginning to see the fruit of two years of hard work. All international and local companies are laying people off overnight to try to stay afloat. To support the same goal, companies were cutting all services that were not essential — training was on the top of the list, and literally all business on the books, of over US$250,000 was cut leaving me and my team with no business in a time of crisis. We came together as a team to brainstorm what we could do to keep customer contact and find potential customers for the future, thus trying to secure business for when the crisis ended ensuring we were the first off the starting block. Very simply we took turns to call our customers and genuinely to ask “how they are?” and to share a few words of encouragement and diversion from the mayhem and panic that was the daily norm. I got to know from some customers only sometime later that those calls were very much appreciated. The intended diversion and genuine interest had the impact of lightening the load and giving perspective.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

The Wow experience long term effects that we saw were as fast as the business was cut at the beginning of the financial crisis we picked it back up again. Not only that some of those companies who we knew were potential customers for us in the future called us for proposals, most of which were converted into business.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

In no order of importance:

Be genuine with all your customers.

Of course, we all want to front our companies in a positive and successful light. However, that does not stop us from being genuine and showing the real you. Encourage your employees to do the same. Customers know and sense the difference. I believe the example above demonstrates this very clearly.

Work with and through your staff.

Train all team members about the importance of the customer, both internal and external, and give them the autonomy to be individual and shine in each and every customer interaction, going that extra mile not because they were told to, but because they want to. Provide parameters in which they can take things into their own hands to support the customer. When they do go that extra mile, support them, and give praise and recognition. Share the example as an inspiration for other team members.

My logistics manager, without any direction from me, used to call the customers randomly simply to say “hello, and ask how they are.” I had no idea about this until one day one of my customers told me how much they enjoy the calls from Andre. On enquiring what the calls were about I was informed “Oh, just about saying hello!” The pride I felt at that moment was something that cannot be described!

Live and share the company values.

Ensure that each and every team member understands how to apply company values in their day to day life so that the values live, and there is no disconnect between what you publish and what is actually adopted in practice. Ask employees to share what these values mean for them as well as giving examples of how they might apply them through their work, and encourage them to do so.

Company values are usually a part of any Customer Excellence training that I deliver for each customer. When I find that the group either don’t know them or don’t understand how to apply them, I support them through a full explanation of the importance and why, as well as what they are. This is usually followed by a group exercise that will ask them how to answer the question “How can you apply these values in your job roles?” Employees who feel a part of the company, are able to align their own values with the company are more self-confident, feel connected to the overall team, and more comfortable in taking steps that perhaps before they would not have done without this knowledge.

Find your team members doing a good job.

It is human nature to be quick to see the negative, what has not been done, what was done poorly, being late, missing deadlines and so on. Noticing the small things as well as the large things done well and giving the recognition each and every person in your team deserves, goes a very long way to building a positive, loyal team and strong company culture. There is no such thing as a bad employee, only bad management!

As a leader, in an open plan office, I used to spend part of my week working from other work-stations outside of my own office. This gave me the possibility to hear the banter amongst the team and to join in, to listen to calls with the customers and suppliers, to help where needed and generally get a very good reading of what is going on within the company, providing me with fuel to find individuals doing things well. Managing from a spreadsheet, does not manage the people, it manages what the people are doing.

Lead by example, get out there and be with your staff on the front line. Get feedback from your staff on what is working well, what is not and how they think it can be improved. Talk to your customers, showing each employee that the customer is important and that you are not afraid to communicate with them and to hear what they have to say, whether good or bad.

Approximately four times a year we would invite customers and potential customers to attend an informal networking event, which was always held in our office. We would make any relevant announcement about “our news”, introduce new team members (irrelevant of position) and perhaps showcase a small part of a technique, course, service etc. The rest of the event was dedicated to talking to customers, helping them network with other customers and generally getting to know each other over a light lunch.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

Word of mouth is the most effective benefit gained by any business when customers share their “Wow” experience. Encouraging the customer to tell their friends, colleagues and family does lead to more customers over time. Of course, social media is also effective, but it depends on who sees it for the limited time that the post is in the spotlight. Encouraging customers to put their comments to platforms such as Trip Advisor and other social media platforms can be a very beneficial tool for hotels, pubs, cafes, and restaurants as well as being a good gesture on the part of the customer. Facebook live, recorded at the moment is something that can be shared and re-shared as an inspiration for others to contact you. Customers can also be asked to participate in a recorded interview based on certain questions that guide the conversation, as in this interview. One of the questions, might be “how long have you been working with X company? Why do you choose this company? These can be posted on various social media platforms.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My philosophy has always been that if your team members are happy they are more productive, they are more inclined to go the extra mile in whatever they do and consequently are more loyal.

I would focus my attention on the link between wellbeing, productivity, and happiness in the workforce because this is the foundation of giving customers the “wow” experience in ways that are completely unplanned and genuine. I would base my movement on experiences in nature, which is free and available, and to my mind under-utilised. The focus of business today, especially in the West is profitability at all costs, and often the cost is the health and wellbeing of employees which is why we see mental health escalating. A very simple idea would be to influence all organisations worldwide to encourage individuals and teams, on a daily basis to connect together and share “humanness” whilst feeling the calming and clarifying effect of being in nature. I do not just mean going out in the lunch break, but actually working with nature as a space to be utilised, instead of an office, conference room or similar, for problem-solving, brainstorming, holding meetings, coaching and any other business activity that might be suited to some of nature’s influence. It might also be for activities such as mindfulness, meditation, Qigong, and walking. These are not new, however, to have this movement influence such activities to become a normal part of any company culture as seen in companies in Japan and China, thus supporting the de-escalation of chronic illness that we see so often now in companies in the West.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rachelshackleton/

Website: https://greenkeypersonaldevelopment.com/

Twitter: @gkeydevelopment

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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