Lessons From The Overlook: Go and See the Problem

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

Our property manager called with a problem.

The Overlook was too hot. A summer heat wave caused temperatures to soar in Idyllwild and our cabin doesn't have air conditioning. Even at night, the house was still hotter than 80 degrees. 

One group of guests asked to move to a different property. Our property manager convinced them to stay after she managed to borrow a couple of portable air conditioners for the weekend. We weren't so lucky with another group of guests who wanted to stay at The Overlook, but decided to book another property when they learned about the heat.

My wife, Sally, and I were presented with three options:

  1. Spend $800 to install window-mounted air conditioners.
  2. Spend several thousand to install central air conditioning.
  3. Do nothing and accept a decline in revenue until the weather cooled.

We decided to investigate the issue before jumping to solutions. In the end, we identified a great solution that cost just $119.27.


The Problem With Solutions

It's instinctive to skip the investigation and jump to solutions.

That can sometimes be a liability, especially if the solution is offered without first observing the problem and identifying the root cause.

One of my favorite examples comes from a client who hired me to train his employees on phone skills. He felt they weren't friendly at times and assumed that training would fix the problem. 

I spent just 15 minutes talking to his customer service team and found the real issue. Customers sometimes had to wait on hold for as long as 30 minutes during peak times. This caused employees to rush through calls which inevitably created a perception that they were brusque and unfriendly.

A simple adjustment to align the schedule with call volume eliminated the long wait times. Employees were suddenly friendly with no training required.

When we applied this principle to The Overlook, it's hard to choose from three crummy options without first understanding why the place is too hot. 


Go and See

There's a concept in process improvement called Gemba. 

It's a Japanese term that means, "the real place." In business, you can often solve problems by taking what's called "a gemba walk" to go and see the issue first-hand. This often reveals unexpected causes and solutions.

Sally is fanatical about this. She's a process improvement expert whose Twitter handle is @gembagirl. I've learned a lot from her about the value of observation.

Fortunately, we had a long-planned visit to The Overlook in July that allowed us to experience the heat first-hand. 

The first thing we noticed was the ceiling fan in the family room. It was set in winter mode, which draws air up and pushes warm air down. It was actually heating the room rather than cooling it!

The fan should have been set to summer mode, which pushes cool air down. I see how this could easily be missed. You look at the fan spinning like crazy and naturally assume it's doing its job. I only realized the problem when I stood directly under the fan and felt the warm air.

The room instantly started feeling cooler once the fan was on summer mode. We'll be adding this item to our inspection checklist so it doesn't happen again!

Next, we opened up windows to let the cool air in. The night air was a cool 65 degrees when we arrived at 9:30pm. Inside it was 82, so the cool air could help lower the inside temperature if we could find a way to pull the cool air in.

Sally and I once lived in Massachusetts without air conditioning, so we've experienced hot summers. We learned that a window fan can cool a room better than an oscillating fan, because it pulls cool air into the room at night and can be set to expel warm air during the day. So we spent $119.27 at Home Depot to purchase three units of a highly-rated model. Home Depot has a generous 90-day return policy, so buying the fans ahead of time wasn't a risk.

The fans have three big advantages over window-mountained air conditioners. First, they're much less expensive. Second, they can quickly be taken out of the window when the weather turns cold. And third, they're much less unsightly than bulky window box ac units.

We installed the fans in three of the four bedrooms and they instantly worked! The master suite is on the bottom floor and has twin ceiling fans, so was already much cooler than the rest of the house.

Just one hour later, the temperature inside The Overlook was a pleasant 70 degrees.


Check Again

It would be easy to think the problem was solved.

As I wrote in this post, you can learn a lot by experiencing what your customers experience. We decided to keep an eye on the thermostat throughout our stay.

It was good that we did. The temperature started to rise steadily at mid-morning, even with the fans running. By mid-afternoon, it was back up to 80 degrees in the house. It was tough to keep the cabin cool when the air outside was warm. 

That's when we noticed the sun pouring in from our large windows. We had closed the blinds on the lower windows, but there was still a lot of heat coming through the upper windows. I closed those blinds, too, and the temperature began to cool again.

Photo credit: joniephoto

Photo credit: joniephoto

Now we hoped the problem was really solved, but there was only one real way to check. We had to hear from actual guests.

Sally and I waited anxiously to hear from our property manager the next time we had guests booked for the weekend. We wanted to get guest feedback on the temperature.

Good news! Our solutions worked!

Why the Huddle Is Your Most Important Meeting

Ugh, not another meeting.

It seems like our calendars are full of them. A 2014 study from Fuze found that more than half of us spend at least 13 hours per week in meetings. 

Most of these meetings seem pretty pointless. That same Fuze study revealed 92 percent of us work on other tasks during meetings, which suggests that whatever we're meeting about isn't too amazing.

There's one meeting that's different: the huddle.

Alternatively known as a stand-up, pre-shift, line-up, or tailgate, the huddle is a short meeting designed to get everyone on the same page, discuss any pressing issues, and quickly get people back to work.

I reached out to a number of customer service leaders to see how they use the huddle to prepare their teams for success.

Why Huddle?

Patrick Maguire is a a hospitality consultant and author of the Server Not Servant blog. He suggests huddles (often called pre-meal or pre-shift meetings in restaurants) are a great way to develop a healthy service culture.

"Effective and consistent internal communications are critical in building and nurturing a culture of trust and mutual respect within every business. Pre-meal meetings in restaurants ensure that your team is prepared, confident, and aware of as much information as possible to maximize hospitality and meaningful engagement with guests."

Jeremy Hyde, Customer Service Manager at UCare, used huddles to help his team handle rapid growth. He continues to use them to keep the team up to date.

"Initially we implemented them because we on-boarded 185,000 new members and wanted to make sure we identified issues and trends and could disseminate information quickly. We've continued them as an ongoing way to share information in place of longer and less frequent team meetings."

The Ritz-Carlton uses huddles to help staff get into a customer service mind-set before the start of their shift. Here's an excerpt from a blog post detailing their process:

"Employees benefit from an activity that will provide a transition from the mindset they 'brought in the door' to the mindset your organization would like them to bring to customers and patients. The Daily Line-Up gives employees the opportunity to shift gears to a work mentality before they ever meet a customer or patient."


How to Huddle

Huddles should be short, focused meetings. Most teams have no more than three topics:

  • Reinforce the service culture
  • Share critical updates
  • Identify any issues

Many customer service leaders use the Customer Service Tip of the Week to provide ongoing service reminders to their team. Others use the time to reinforce some aspect of the customer service vision.

Maguire outlines a number of topics that restaurant managers can draw upon. "Hospitality tips, menu and drink specials, professional and amateur reviews, social media activity, upcoming events, staff questions, and neighborhood news, are all great content for pre-meal meetings."

Keep in mind that the huddle should be a discussion, not just announcements from the boss. Encourage participation from everyone and even consider asking others to help lead the discussion on various topics.

Alex Wyatt, Vice President of Customer Care at Gardner Dixie Sales Inc. tries to limit huddles to three to five employees plus the supervisor.

"We like to utilize small group huddles for updates or Q&A's when call volume allows. We tend to get better participation and questions as a small group."


How Often and How Long

Huddles should be short.

The consensus among customer service leaders I asked was no more than 15 to 20 minutes. Employees typically remain standing during a huddle to encourage a short and focused session.

Some leaders advocate daily huddles while others prefer to meet less frequently. Nate Brown, Director of Customer Experience at UL EHS Sustainability, suggests that customer service leaders consider what works best for their teams.

"I will be the odd man out here and say daily huddles are excessive in my opinion. At least in our environment it became a waste of time. I've moved to two huddles a week (Monday and Wednesday) which has been a very good fit for us. A good checkpoint would be immediately after the huddle to think about if it makes any actual difference to your day or not."

Maguire reminds managers hosting pre-shift meetings to give their team a little bit of extra time to get ready for the day. "Leave at least 10 minutes between the end of the meeting and the start of service for final station checks, bathroom/smoke breaks, etc."



The customer-focused companies I examined in The Service Culture Handbook relentlessly discussed customer service with their employees. The huddle is a great way to foster this discussion.

Here are a few questions for you. You can add your response to the comments or drop me a line.

  • Do you use a huddle with your team?
  • What do you typically discuss in your huddle?
  • How do you keep your huddles fresh?

What is a Good Survey Response Rate?

It's the most common question I get about surveys.

Customer service leaders are understandably concerned about getting a lot of voice of customer feedback. So my clients want to know, "What is a good response rate for our customer service survey?" 

The answer may surprise you—there's no standard number. 

There are situations where an 80 percent response rate might be bad while a 5 percent response rate might be phenomenal in other circumstances.

In fact, I'm not overly concerned with the percentage of people who respond. My advice to clients is to use a different set of criteria for judging their survey responses.

Here's how to evaluate your own survey response rate the same way I do.

Three Response Rate Criteria

There are three criteria that you can use to determine if you're getting a good response to a customer service survey:

  • Usefulness
  • Representation
  • Reliability

Usefulness is the most important consideration.

Any response rate that provides useful customer feedback is good. That's not to say you can't do even better than your current rate, but the whole purpose of a customer service survey should be to yield useful data.

For example, let's say you implement a contact opt-in feature that allows you to follow-up with customers who leave negative feedback. That survey could become tremendously useful if it allows you to contact angry customers, fix problems, and reduce churn.

Representation is another important way to gauge your response rate.

You want your survey to represent all of the customers you are trying to get feedback from. Imagine you implement a new self-help feature on your website. A representative survey in this case would ask for feedback from customers who successfully used self-help as well as customers who weren't successful and had to try another channel.

Sometimes you need to augment your survey with other data sources to make it more representative. The authors of The Effortless Experience discuss the self-help scenario in their book and suggest having live agents ask customers if they first tried using self-help.

This question can help identify people who didn't realize self-help was available and therefore wouldn't complete a survey on its effectiveness. It could also capture feedback from people who tried self-help, were unsuccessful, and didn't notice a survey invitation because their priority was contacting a live agent to solve the problem.

My final criterion is reliability.

This means the survey can be relied upon to provide consistently accurate results. Here's a summary of considerations from a recent post on five characteristics of a powerful survey.

  1. Purpose. Have a clear reason for offering your survey.
  2. Format. Choose a format (CSAT, NPS, etc.) that matches your purpose.
  3. Questions. Avoid misleading questions.

Many surveys have problems in one or more of these areas. For instance, a 2016 study by Interaction Metrics discovered that 92 percent of surveys offered by the largest U.S. retailers asked leading questions that nudged customers to give a more positive answer.

For example, Ace Hardware had this question on its survey:

How satisfied were you with the speed of your checkout?

The problem with a question like this is it assumes the customer was satisfied. This assumptive wording makes a positive answer more likely.

A more neutral question might ask, "How would you rate the speed of your checkout?"



A survey response rate is good if it generates useful data, is representative of the customer base you want feedback from, and is reliable.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't strive to continuously improve your survey. Here are some resources to help you:

You'll need a Lynda.com or LinkedIn Premium subscription to view the full training video. You can get a 30-day Lynda.com trial here.

A Simple Way to Double Your B2C Survey Responses

Everyone wants a better survey response rate. The Center For Client Retention (TCFCR) recently shared some data about business-to-consumer (B2C) surveys that revealed an easy way to improve results.

TCFCR helps businesses conduct customer satisfaction research. The company's client focus is primarily Fortune 500 companies in business-to-business (B2B) and B2C segments.

There's a big need for these type of services given that a recent study from Interaction Metrics found 68 percent of surveys offered by America's largest retailers were "total garbage."

I provide similar services to small and mid-sized businesses, so I was curious to see what TCFCR's survey data might reveal.

One quick look and I immediately saw a way for businesses to double the response rate on their B2C surveys.

The Response Rate Secret

TCFCR pulled aggregate data from thousands of surveys across all of their clients for a 12-month period. The company compared response rates for "in the moment" surveys versus follow-up surveys sent via email. 

Here are the results:

Follow-up surveys had more than twice the average response rate!

An in the moment survey is offered at the time of service. It could be a link in an email response from a customer service rep, an after-call transfer to an automated survey, or a link in a chat dialog box.

A follow-up email survey is sent after the customer service interaction is complete.

TCFCR also found that sending a reminder email after the initial survey invitation typically generated an additional 5-point increase in response rates!

Some companies do follow-up surveys via telephone instead of email. TCFCR's data shows that those surveys get an average response rate of 12-15 percent, which is on par with in the moment surveys.

One thing to keep in mind is that this data is for B2C surveys only. TCFCR found that B2B surveys typically get a response rate that's half of what you'd expect from a B2C.


Increase Response Rates Even More

There are a few more things you can do to stack the deck in your favor.

One is to keep your surveys short. A 2011 study from SurveyMonkey found that survey completion rates drop 5-20 percent once a survey takes 7+ minutes to complete. The same study discovered that's usually around 10 questions.

Most surveys will gather adequate data with just three short questions.

Another way to improve response rates is through rules-based offering. A lot of customer service software platforms, such as Zendesk, have a built-in survey feature that allows you to adjust which customers receive a survey and when.

For instance, you might only send a follow-up survey once a support ticket is closed rather than after every single interaction. Or if you offer a subscription-based service, you might survey all customers when they reach the six month mark in their annual subscription, regardless of whether they've contacted your company for support.

You can learn more about response rates and other survey-related topics here.

How to Harness the Power of Peer Recognition 

Employee recognition can be a minefield.

One key distinction is to decide between rewarding or recognizing good performance. Rewards are a pre-determined "if-then" proposition. If you achieve X result, you get Y as a prize. 

There's a volume of data that proves rewards often unexpectedly lead to poor performance. Check out Daniel Pink's excellent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, for an easy-to-read overview of some of the many studies that show rewards don't work in a customer service context.

Recognition can be healthy if done right. It's unexpected and delivered after the performance occurs to let employees know their performance is valued and appreciated. 

So where to start?

The Pitfalls of Recognition

Formal recognition programs are fraught with pitfalls that can demoralize employees. Take the venerable employee of the month program as an example:

  • How do you make the selection process seem transparent and fair?
  • Can you allow repeat winners without prompting feelings of favoritism?
  • What is the impact on morale of not winning?

Even informal recognition can backfire. 

A manager I know once bought his employees donuts to recognize the team for some extra effort. It was so well received that he bought donuts a week later, which quickly started a weekly tradition. 

Soon, the weekly donuts were expected rather than a treat. A few people even grumbled about not getting their favorite kind.

Remember: recognition is unexpected. The donuts no longer recognized good performance once the team expected to receive them.

While researching customer-focused companies for The Service Culture Handbook, I noticed several companies were putting a twist on traditional recognition.

They were using peer recognition to drive culture.


The Power of Peer Recognition

According to a 2014 employee engagement study by the employee feedback company TINYpulse, peer recognition is the top reason why employees go the extra mile at work.

Shawn Anchor, bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review detailing a study on JetBlue that he co-authored. This study found that "for every 10% increase in people reporting being recognized, JetBlue saw a 3% increase in retention and a 2% increase in engagement."

Coincidentally, I profiled JetBlue in The Service Culture Handbook for their employee engagement best practices.

There are a couple of easy explanations for why peer recognition is so powerful.

One is Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs. Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his now famous ranking of basic human needs in 1943. They are, in order:

  1. Physiological 
  2. Safety
  3. Love and belonging
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualization

I've written about this hierarchy before, as a way to explain why employees provide better service (priority #5, self-actualization) when they feel like they're part of a team (priority #3, love and belonging). Peer recognition is powerful because it reinforces a sense of love and belonging.

There's one more explanation: we take our social cues from others.

Experiments by Solomon Asch and other psychologists demonstrate that we humans instinctively try to conform to the groups we're a part of. Conformity is often thought of as a negative trait, but it doesn't have to be.

Imagine a team of employees conforming to a group norm that values outstanding customer service! Peer recognition helps promote this positive conformity.


Practical Examples

I reached out to the Inside Customer Service LinkedIn group for some practical examples of peer recognition programs.

Two members shared excellent examples:

Jeremy Hyde, Customer Service Manager at UCare, wrote: "We have a 'hats off' program where people can fill out a brief form on our intranet. Then something is delivered to the Supervisor with the details on who nominated them and why with a little 'hat' pin. A lot of people put the pins on their lanyards or tack them up on their cube walls. After you collect 10 you can redeem them for a gift card."

Jenny Dempsey, former Customer Service Manager at Phone.com, wrote: "At Phone.com, I developed the Smiles peer recognition program. Anyone could write a note of gratitude for a coworker and drop it in the Smile box. At each CSR meeting, we would draw a few entries from the box and read them aloud. The people they were writing about would receive gift cards. The team loved it!"

Both examples are simple, practical, and don't require a lot of input from management. They're also easy to implement.

But wait! You don't even need a formal program. As a customer service leader, you can lead by example. 

Recognize your employees for a job well done by thanking them one-on-one, writing a short handwritten note or email, or praising them in a team meeting. At the same time, encourage employees to pay the compliment forward!

Even a simple "Thank you!" from a colleague can be a powerful form of recognition.