Lessons From the Overlook: Interview with Dr. Fred van Bennekom

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.

You can get a false sense of security when things are going well.

Sally and I have owned The Overlook for a little over a year now. Revenue is up, guests are happy, and we feel like we've gotten a handle on operations. 

That's dangerous.

Right when you think you know it all, something happens to remind you that you don't. For us, it was a group of guests in December who did some minor damage and stole a few items including a bluetooth speaker from the game room.

The damage has been fixed and the game room has a new speaker, but I still used the opportunity to seek some advice.

I called Dr. Fred van Bennekom, a customer service expert whose company, Great Brook Consulting, helps companies listen to their customers.

Van Bennekom recently sold a vacation rental property in Harpswell, Maine that he had owned for more than ten years. (You can see photos and a short video tour here.) He had plenty of lessons to share.

Before the theft.

Before the theft.

After the theft. Why was the picture off the wall?!

After the theft. Why was the picture off the wall?!

Interview with Dr. Fred van Bennekom

Q: How have customer expectations changed since you first bought your property?

"Customer expectations have changed dramatically in the past ten years. Ten years ago, house rentals were a cottage industry. People did it, but it wasn't widely known.

"If there were some rough edges in the property or the furnishings, people were okay with it. I think it reinforced the idea they were getting a bargain.

"Today, HomeAway has TV ads of a family renting this gorgeous house on the ocean with an in-ground pool so they can bring their dog on vacation. How many of the homes in HomeAway's inventory actually look like the house in the ad? Probably very few, but that ad creates a certain expectation.

"People today are less tolerant of rough edges. Even kitschy furniture that used to be a plus can now be viewed as a negative. People expect to rent a 3-bedroom house on the ocean at about the same price as a hotel room—but have the amenities and services of a hotel."


Q: Have you seen a shift in guest demographics?

"In later years, I started to have more guests who didn't really understand how renting a house is different than renting a hotel room.

"For example, we provide a set of linens and towels for each guest plus a few extra towels. In a hotel, the housekeeper will come each day and change your towels or you can call the front desk and ask for more.

"It's different in a rental house. You need to wash your own towels if they get dirty and we do have a washer and dryer. 

"I got a call one Tuesday night after 10pm. My guests had checked in over the weekend and now wanted to wash the towels but they were complaining that the washing machine was not working. 

"The washing machine worked just fine, but they didn't know how to turn on the water shut off valve. I think they rented an apartment and weren't familiar with how things work in a house.

"I put instructions for things like this in the house guide and even email a copy to guests at booking, but they don't always read it. By the way, two days later this guest called because the dishwasher wasn’t working. The kitchen is directly over the washer, and he had apparently turned off the hot water valve to the kitchen sink when trying to get the washer working and didn’t turn it back on."


Q: Did you do anything different over the years as guest expectations changed?

"When I first bought the house, it was not customary to provide guests with consumables such as paper towels, toilet paper, and dish soap.

"The next year, I went on a trip to Ireland with my family where we rented a house. The very first thing we had to do was go out and buy consumables; there were none in the house. I realized this was a hassle for guests so I decided to provide all the basic consumables at my rental property. You can buy these pretty cheaply in bulk at Costco. 

"That year, the Costco-size supply of toilet paper was left in plain view and someone took it all! People would also throw smaller bottles of laundry detergent into their car. After that, I started providing “starter supplies” of consumables. I put two rolls of toilet paper in each bathroom, and I bought a really big laundry bottle and kept refilling it."


Q: Speaking of taking things, what was your experience with theft and damage?

"The first year we had the place we outfitted it with cute little knickknacks, but we quickly realized things get lost, damaged, or stolen—not sure which. My wife and I played a game called, “What ever happened to the…?” You shouldn't put anything in your vacation rental that you really don't want to lose.

"The one I really remember was my Maine Gazetter—a large, detailed atlas of the state. I’d owned it for decades and had my own notations on the map, so I was really disappointed to lose it."

"One summer, someone once forgot to lower the umbrella on the deck table. There was a major windstorm and the whole table blew off the deck! I put a picture of that on the front cover of the house guide as if to say, 'this is why you need to know this information.'

"An off-season renter got into some sort of fight with her boyfriend and he broke four of the rugged dining chairs and damaged several walls. She tried to glue the legs back on one of the chairs but it completely fell apart. 

"I also found coins and sand in the dryer, as if someone had gotten their pants wet and then just tossed them in the dryer without cleaning them off or emptying the pockets. The dryer’s bushings died a few months later, no doubt from the sand.

"Those experiences reinforced the practice of communicating with guests and having your property manager inspect the place so you can charge the guest out of their security deposit when there is damage or theft."


Q: What was the toughest part about owning a vacation rental property?

"The stress of having to deal with crisis situations when you don't have resolutions and knowing at any time the phone might ring with some new crisis.

"I once got a call on Monday that there was no water at the house. I live 2.5 hours away, so I had to work with my property manager to diagnose the problem. We had guests arriving that Thursday for their kid’s college graduation, so I had to reach out and tell them I wasn't sure whether there would be running water when they arrived.

"It turned out that the well pump had died. Fortunately, I was able to get it fixed in 24 hours, but the work pales in comparison to the stress."


Q: What did you like best about owning a vacation rental property?

"I actually enjoyed interacting with renters during the sales process. It was nice having conversations with people about the local area and helping them make plans.

"Maybe only one out of ten guests was a major headache. The rest were really enjoyable. But, boy, those ‘ones’ wear on you after a few years. That’s why we sold."

Insider Perspectives: Evan Watson on Using Improv

Evan Watson, Improv Actor & Customer Service Professional

Evan Watson, Improv Actor & Customer Service Professional

Improvisational theater, or improv, is unscripted.

Actors are typically given a suggestion for a scene and they must make up their lines on the spot. The best improv actors seem to effortlessly generate interesting dialogue with instantaneous creativity.

Just like in customer service.

Many of the principles are the same. Your aim is harmony rather than disagreement. You have to risk feeling uncomfortable at times. And you need to work as a team with your fellow actors (or your customer) to create a successful scene.

Evan Watson is an avid improv actor. When he was working as a customer service agent for a large professional membership organization, Watson noticed he was using many of his improv skills to serve customers. Whether it was de-escalating an upset customer, providing product information, or just being a better listener, his improv training helped keep the conversation going.

Watson was able to convince his management team to try an experiment where he could teach improv skills to other employees. 

He was kind enough to spend some time with me sharing his experience along with a few tips for implementing improv training with your customer service team. You can also find him sharing customer service insight on Twitter.

Q: What do improv and customer service have in common?

"Improv is any kind of unscripted theater. There's usually a suggestion for a scene and the actors spontaneously create their lines based upon that suggestion. For instance, someone might say 'You're on a spaceship' and suddenly you're doing a scene about being in space.

"In customer service, I use a lot of improv skills. I don’t know what the other person is going to say next, or what they’re calling about when the call comes in. My improv training gave me confidence in the uncertainty. I sometimes treat the interaction with the customer as a scene and I'm playing a character in that scene. The scene just happens to be a customer service interaction. 

"It's helped me to not take it personally when a customer is upset. I can distance myself a little by imagining the customer's character is yelling at my character and it's up to my character to smooth things over."


Q: What's an example of an improv skill you use when serving a customer?

"One technique is called 'Yes, and.' The idea is to acknowledge what the other person is saying and then build on that.

"In improv, one actor might say 'We're on a spaceship!' and the other actor might say, 'Yes, and this spaceship is really cold!' This type of dialogue allows the actors to work as a team to build a scene rather than competing with each other.

"In customer service, you have to acknowledge the customer’s experience and needs. A customer might say, 'This product is really expensive!' and I could say, 'Yes, I understand your concern about the cost, and I’m going to help you get the most for your money.'

"The key is to make the distinction between acknowledging what the customer is saying and bending the rules. Notice I'm not saying, 'Yes, it is too expensive, and I'll give you 50 percent off today.' I'm just using the principle of agreement to be a better listener and try to help the customer."


Q: How did you introduce improv to your contact center?

"I had an opportunity to help train a class of new hires, so I thought it would be a good time to suggest to my management team that I take a couple of hours in the training to teach improv skills to our new agents.

"I was a finalist for ICMI's Best Contact Center Agent Award in 2015. Once I explained that improv skills contributed to my success, my management team was onboard with me trying out an experiment.

"There was another new hire class held at the same time, so I got a chance to compare the results of my class with the other one. Initially, we saw the new hires with improv training take less time to meet our minimum performance targets than the other class. Over time, we've also seen much better employee retention from the new hires who learned improv skills."


Q: How did you incorporate improv into training?

The exercises we incorporate into training are very different from what you might see performed in a comedy show. Each exercise is designed to isolate and develop a fundamental skill, like listening or focusing on your scene partner.

"We'd start by reminding participants that they are a character. This is not you. We want them to get out of their own head a little and concentrate on what their character might say. The first games are for the whole group to warm up and focus, so no one is thrown into the spotlight alone. Then we build up to games where you’re making up more dialogue, and always connect it back to the relevant skills for the job.

"So if I'm teaching the 'Yes, and' technique, I might have them do a few scenes that aren't related to work. We'll have them be in a zoo or at a theme park, or wherever.

"Then, as they become more comfortable with the skill, we'll move to a job-related scene. This might be a role-play around a particular issue that they could actually encounter when serving a customer."


Q: What advice do you have to customer service leaders who want to use improv?

"The best thing you can do is to see if there’s a local improv theater in your area that will come and do workshops. Get somebody with an improv background to come in and help you. It's much easier when you can start off working with someone who knows the skills, and you will get more out of the workshop than a fun time shouting random funny things.

"There are also a lot of resources online for improv games and other training resources.

"It becomes a way of thinking. The more you do improv, the more connections you'll see between customer service and improv."

Insider Perspectives: Brent Abshire on Disaster Planning

Brent Abshire, Earthcare Management

Brent Abshire, Earthcare Management

Is your business ready for a disaster?

A disaster has the potential to have an extreme negative impact on your customers, your employees, and the future of your business.

You might experience a technical disaster, such as the computer malfunctions that have caused several airlines to ground their flights. It could be a PR disaster, such as the one many companies have recently faced when they got caught in a political crossfire.

Or your business could experience a natural disaster, such as the flood that submerged parts of Houston, Texas in April 2016.

Earthcare Management, a full-service landscape management company, suffered millions of dollars in damage when its office and equipment yard flooded.

I spoke with Brent Abshire, Earthcare Management's President and Owner, to hear how he and his team handled the disaster, avoided layoffs, and came back stronger than ever.

Q: When did you first learn your business had been flooded?

"It started raining pretty heavily on Sunday, but it wasn't until Monday when the flooding happened. I woke up Monday morning, turned on the local news and saw an aerial view of my shop from the station's helicopter!

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

"I could tell the shop was flooded from the picture on television, but I didn't know how bad it was going to be."


Q: What did you do once you learned about the flooding?

"There was flooding in the streets around the neighborhood where I live, so I was stuck at home on Monday and couldn't get in to the office.

"I knew it was probably going to be pretty bad, though, so I immediately started making calls and hunting down replacement vehicles and equipment. I called the John Deere guy and ordered about 100 machines [lawnmowers, etc.]. I called my truck guy and rented 65 trucks. I ordered about 1,000 tons of gravel rock to put down in our equipment yard because I knew that was going to be a mess too.

"I was able to meet with my management team on Tuesday by mid-day. The shop was still flooded, so they came over to my house and we made a plan to assess the damage, clean everything up, and get back up and running.

"We were able to get to the shop by Wednesday. We had to wade in the last 1/4 mile because there was still water.

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

"My insurance agent came out to help assess the damage. The office itself was a total loss, but we started cleaning up and salvaging whatever equipment, trailers, and tools that we could.

"I had the whole family help. Friends came and helped us too."


Q: How did the flooding impact your clients?

"When I met with my management team on Tuesday after the flood, we targeted the following Monday to get back to our normal operations.

"Many of our landscape management clients experienced the same flooding we did, so their properties had a lot of debris. We called them and said, 'We can't mow, but we can pick up trash and help you get cleaned up.' They were happy to hear from us.

"By Thursday, we got about 25 rented trucks in, so we were able to start sending out crews to our client sites to help them get cleaned up. We kept at it through Sunday while other employees stayed at the shop pulling equipment out, putting new rock in the yard, and cleaning up tools.

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

"We were able to resume our normal schedules by the next Monday."


Q: Disasters like this can have a big impact on employees who risk losing their jobs when there's no work. What happened to your employees?

"Nobody lost their job. We actually grew as a result of the flood.

"My employees are really committed. It was a team effort throughout the whole process. I think they thought, 'If the flood didn't stop this guy, we'll do anything!' I know many of our employees had friends or family members who lost jobs because the place where they worked flooded too, so it probably made an impact that we got people working so quickly.

"We're also contractually obligated to serve our clients, so it was very important that we keep our deals."


Q: Were you able to learn anything from this experience to help you prepare for another disaster in the future?

"We did some research and learned that once rainfall reaches 8 inches, we should start evacuating the equipment yard. The office is pretty seamless since we have offsite backups for the computers. What really hurts is losing our equipment because that's what we take out every day to make money. 

"A couple of weeks ago, we did a small-scale simulation where we practiced a procedure for moving vehicles and equipment out of the yard. It went well, so now we're going to run a large-scale simulation.

"The plan is to practice our disaster plan one or two times per year and never stop practicing, so everyone will know what to do if this happens again."

Insider Perspectives: Ideal's Don Teemsma on Field Service

Don Teemsma, President of Ideal Plumbing, Heating, Air, & Electrical

Don Teemsma, President of Ideal Plumbing, Heating, Air, & Electrical

Every home owner needs a few go-to service providers.

One of mine is Ideal Plumbing, Heating, Air, & Electrical. This company is my first and only phone call anytime I need a plumber, HVAC technician, or electrician. 

Ideal has remodeled two bathrooms in my house, installed a new heating and air conditioning system, installed a new hot water heater, fixed a slab leak, installed a new electrical panel, and made numerous smaller repairs over the years.

Yes, I'm a huge fan.

The work is first-rate, the prices are reasonable, and Ideal's technicians are consistently friendly, helpful, and reliable. The company consistently earns top customer service honors from companies such as Houzz and Angie's List.

If you live in San Diego, you should have this company on speed-dial!

There's one aspect of Ideal's service that particularly fascinates me. How does the company get its field service technicians to consistently arrive on time, do great work, and provide great service?

I sat down with Don Teemsma, Ideal's President and Owner, to ask him how his company sustains a customer-focused culture with its field service technicians.

Q: Ideal offers two-hour appointment windows and your technicians are always on-time or even early. How do you manage this while other service companies struggle to maintain a four-hour appointment window?

"We've tried four-hour appointment windows, but people really don't like that, so we've made a commitment to stick with a two-hour window.

"It starts with our dispatch team. We keep track of all our appointments and technicians via computer and a dispatch board. It's the service manager's job to make sure we're on schedule.

"We're constantly moving the board around to make sure we can fulfill that two-hour commitment. If we see a service call is taking longer than expected, the service manager can proactively call the next customer to let them know there will be a delay or find another qualified technician to move the call to.

"Our service area is also an important factor. We really try to keep our service area tight and not overcommit. That's why we generally don't serve cities in [San Diego's] North County like San Marcos or Escondido. There are too many unknowns like traffic conditions that would make it difficult to keep our appointments and provide a rapid response.

"Maintaining the right parts and supplies on our trucks is also important. We try to keep our trucks fully-stocked so they can handle 80 percent of service calls with the parts on the truck."


Q: There's a stereotype of a typical repair technician who is pushy and will try to suggest a lot of expensive repairs. How does Ideal avoid that?

"A lot of field service technicians work on commission. This pay structure means it's in their best interest to try to sell additional repairs and services to their customers.

"We don't want to create that incentive because our business is built on relationships. We'd rather earn a customer's repeat business or get new business through referrals from customers who trust us.

"Our technicians don't work on commission. They tend to prefer it that way. They're in this business because they like to fix stuff and make people happy.

"Many of our technicians will refer to a customer as 'my customer,' because they take a lot of ownership and personal pride in helping the people they serve."


Q: What else do you do to ensure your technicians are customer-focused?

"It starts with hiring the right people. 

"We look for integrity in our hiring process. If we don't feel someone has an innate honesty about them, we won't hire them.

"Our interview process includes a few assessments but we also put candidates through three interviews to see if they will fit our culture. For example, one of the things I ask candidates about is whether they perform any service in their community. Are they involved in their church or do they volunteer for a nonprofit organization? People who give back to their community in some way are more likely to be successful in our culture.

"One of the things we do around here is encourage people to constantly improve. If you're not the best at a particular skill, keep working on getting better. Our culture is not to be perfect, but to perfect.

"We really strive to inspire technical excellence. Having good skills allows you to perform better work, get jobs done faster, and solve challenging problems. 

"Over the years we've hired a lot of technicians with good skills who have been nurtured by their coworkers until they've gotten really good at their trade.

"We also have an Ideal Mascot: Mr. Bill. He truly embodies our culture and is a great ambassador for showing care towards our customers."

[Editor's note: Bill has worked the front counter in Ideal's showroom for over 17 years and is a wizard at locating hard-to-find parts. His friendly and helpful service was one of the reasons I personally became an Ideal customer. He helped me track down a part for a leaking toilet tank that I couldn't find at any of the big-box hardware stores.]


Q: Ideal's managed to maintain a reputation for outstanding service for many years. How do you keep everyone continuously focused?

"We talk about service a lot. We have company-wide meetings four to six times per year. All of our technicians attend a smaller meeting every other week where we talk about customer service, share customer feedback, and discuss opportunities to improve.

"We're also fortunate that most of our customers are repeat customers or they came to us because they were referred by a customer. These customers tend to be understanding that things can and will go wrong occasionally because we've had a great relationship with them and they trust us to do a good job.

"Many of our technicians have worked here for a long time. They like working for a company with a great reputation and they like the culture, so they work hard to help us continuously deliver great service."

Insider Perspectives: FCR's Jeremy Watkin on Outsourced Service

Jeremy Watkin, Head of Quality

Jeremy Watkin, Head of Quality

Outsourcing your company's customer service is a leap of faith.

Companies like Oregon-based outsourcer FCR can be hired to handle a wide range of customer contacts including phone, email, chat, SMS (Text), and social media. It's often faster and less expensive for small companies and start-ups to use a third-party like FCR than it is to set-up an internal customer service team, but there needs to be a lot of trust.

Will the outsourcer take great care of your customers and do a good job representing your brand?

Jeremy Watkin, FCR's Head of Quality, recently shared with me some of his secrets to outsourcing success. Watkin is the co-author of the Customer Service Life blog and was named one of ICMI's Top 50 Thought Leaders on Twitter. (If you are on Twitter, do yourself a favor and follow him!)

This is the second time I've interviewed Jeremy for the Inside Customer Service blog. We spoke back in 2015 about the impact of team size on corporate culture.

Q: Many people perceive outsourced customer service as inferior. How is FCR trying to change that perception?

"There may be a stigma around outsourcing where the perception is you're hiring second rate folks, but that's really not the case for us. 

"FCR's contact centers are located in small communities in Oregon where there's often high unemployment because other industries like lumber and fishing have declined. These employees tend to be smart, well-educated, and very dedicated.

"We offer our colleagues [FCR's term for "employee" or "agent"] good, well-paying jobs with opportunities for career growth, and the chance to support well-known brands. It's exciting for many of our colleagues to know they get a chance to provide technical support for a cool start-up. It's really interesting to see how colleagues take a lot of pride in the clients they support."


Q: Do your colleagues support multiple clients or are they dedicated to one account?

"FCR used to have a shared model where colleagues would support multiple clients, but we've moved away from that. We've found that we can provide better service by having colleagues totally dedicated to one particular client.

"One thing that's really cool about our model is we diversify the clients we serve at each of our contact centers. The way it works is we try to balance seasonal needs, so one client might be ramping down after a busy season while another client's busy season is just starting. This allows us to keep more colleagues employed throughout the year while reacting quickly to our clients' seasonal needs."


Q: How do you adapt to the unique service cultures of each client you serve?

"Having colleagues dedicated to a single client helps a lot.

"Another thing that I see that really helps us is FCR is very transparent with our clients. We invite them to visit our contact centers and spend as much or as little time with their team as they want.

"It actually works best when colleagues strongly identify with both FCR and the client they're serving. You'll see colleagues with client swag at their workstations and it's obvious they take a lot of pride in supporting that brand. 

"Many of our clients will also bring in their own trainers when we launch with them to help our colleagues get immersed in their culture. This helps us get to know their service philosophy and adopt their brand voice and style guide if they have one."


Q: How do you keep your colleagues engaged with your clients?

"I have a unique perspective because I came from an FCR client to work here. 

"When I was an FCR client, I realized that using an outsourced model meant someone else was managing people who do support for my company. So one thing that we started doing that's really unique for outsourcers was an employee engagement survey. We actually surveyed the FCR colleagues who were supporting us to see what we could do better.

"A lot of our clients now do that.

"Many of our clients act on feedback from our colleagues to improve their products, processes, or services, and take time to empower our colleagues to serve their customers at the highest level. That helps people feel even more connected.

"I've never had an agent or a colleague refuse to talk when I ask about the pain points they're experiencing. We like to run focus groups with our colleagues when a client does a site visit so our clients can hear first-hand what colleagues are hearing from customers. This might help confirm what our client is already seeing in their customer service surveys or reveal a brand new insight. Our colleagues really appreciate being heard like that."


Q: A lot of outsourcing relationships are based on cost savings, but FCR is known for providing clients with extra value. How do you do that?

"I spend a lot of time talking to clients and looking for ways to improve not only our service, but the client's overall business.

"For example, I might identify a best practice that one of our client teams is using and share that with our other programs. One of our teams had someone who was a wizard when it comes to generating reports in Zendesk [a customer service software platform]. About half of our clients use Zendesk, so we were able to share those insights with all those other teams.

"Another area where we try to add value is through customer service surveys. We try to marry our quality monitoring process with our clients' surveys so we identify what's driving satisfaction or dissatisfaction and share that insight with our clients. We're also able to share a lot of best practices we learn with all of our clients, so when we work with one client to solve an issue, all of our clients can benefit."