Waiter,skip the steak — just give me some service, please
By Michael Lewis
Just when we think we've licked our image problems, they bite us again. Maybe we got complacent.
It happened after the 1981 "Miami: Paradise Lost?" Time magazine cover so corroded our image that it took us a decade to polish it again.
But what happened? The image then slid so much that last year Time came back to write of Miami "There's Trouble — Lots of it — in Paradise" and US Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado called us Third World.
Was paradise ever lost? Was trouble ever as great as portrayed? Or was it a matter of keeping our image clean — or failing to do so?
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau last month decided that the fault, at least in part, is internal. It plans to hire a national firm to repaint the image of customer service inside our own hospitality industry.
There's a great starting point. A bureau-commissioned survey of taxis, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and Miami International Airport found service levels that flunked visitors' expectations — as bureau CEO Bill Talbert said, "nowhere near where we need them to be for a world-class destination."
Service problems are like weeds: you've got to root them out over and over. It's never ending.
Recall 1984, when a local symposium blackballed our tourism hospitality.
In response, in 1985 we created Miami Nice, tied to St. Thomas University, to drive courtesy and professionalism into taxi drivers. The county forced all 4,000 drivers to attend, which took two years. Taxi service complaints to the county tumbled 80% and the program became a model picked up by eight big cities.
But after the program ended, think how many new drivers got behind the wheel. No wonder the training didn't all stick — better than 1984, but not good enough.
Service is a pack of little things in each customer's mind, hard to measure and even to evaluate, but you know when you get it — and even more when you don't. Good service brings you back — and the bad taste of bad service repels you.
In two restaurants and one hotel where I dine I'm confident of a greeting by name, a smile and excellent service. It helps that I've never had a bad meal in any of them, but I'm fully confident that if I ever had a complaint, it would be fixed quickly, and again with a smile. That's what brings me back.
On the other hand, I believe every reader could relay at least one horror story of poor service in Miami's visitor industry. I don't mean the waiter who spills on you, because accidents are inevitable. I mean what happens next. Or the hostess who asks where "you guys" want to sit. Or the waitress who grabs your half-finished plate while your fork is raised. You can add to the list.
We all know where to go for good service, and where not to go because it's bad. And we want Miami in the former category, not the latter, because service can set us apart among destinations.
Achieving that comes one institution at a time, one worker at a time — from taxis to hotels to restaurants to stores to the airport.
That the convention bureau plans to develop a permanent customer service program is commendable. Miami Nice came and went — as did the higher ratings for taxi drivers.
Because sales grow with service, and service falters without repeated training and then repeated incentives to keep workers doing what they know. A big incentive in services is larger tips — San Francisco found two decades ago that just dressing a taxi driver better increased tips $140 a week. Imagine adding a smile and service.
Miami's service suffers because so many in hospitality consider themselves temps awaiting a big acting break or admission to college. They often act like it, giving Third World service.
But with good training and attitude, incomes rise — including tips — and what was once a steppingstone can become a bedrock profession.
The convention bureau's training can expedite that change in service level from amateur to professional, increasing employee incomes, customer loyalty and, eventually, Miami's image as a place to visit, do business and live.
The trick is to keep working on those image problems until the good image becomes reality.