How to get the best customer service from tourist information and visitor services employees: an insider view

One of your most valuable resources as a budget traveler are tourist information centers and the visitor services staff at museums and cultural centers.  The employees of these organizations are passionate about where they live and work and they are experts on what tourists need to know.  They can reliably provide you with brochures and transportation information, and tell you the opening hours of a local attraction.  But when it comes down to the quality of information you receive, it’s relevance to you and it’s potential to increase the quality of your visit, well that’s where customer service karma comes in to play.

I’ve been working in customer service for 25 years, and at my current job, with a well-respected cultural organization in Chicago, for 17 years.  Fortunately, my job is interesting and varied, I have charming co-workers, and essential to this traveling addict, lots of vacation days. While much of my work time is currently involved in a software project, I still spend part of every day working with customers.  I enjoy customer service because I am sincerely proud of my employer’s mission, our programming and of the resplendent cultural resources of the city of Chicago.  The majority of my customers are curious and smart and I am pleased to facilitate their engagement in the arts.  With my background expertise in mind, I’m sure you’ll agree I’m entitled to step on a soapbox for one minute to make two important statements:

1. To the managers of cultural organizations: your customer service team is essential to your operation.  We are the face of your city/museum/performing arts center.  You may have brilliant curators, spectacular events, and fascinating tours, but before visitors partake of your wonderful programming, they are going to have to speak with one us first.  We deserve decent pay, full time jobs with benefits, and your respect.

2. To customers of cultural organizations: remember the golden rule of customer karma: if you want excellent customer service, be an excellent customer.

(Steps off soapbox)

So how can you be a better customer and maximize your karma?

  • It’s critical to ask highly specific questions.  Here’s an example of a bad question: “Where should I eat around here?”  I must say this is my most hated question of all time, but I do my best to answer politely “What kind of food did you have in mind?”  Many people respond with “Oh anything is fine”.   Grrrrrrrrrrrrr.  (Full disclosure, whenever customers said this to me, for years I recommended the same restaurant, a place I never ate at despite working next door to it for 20 years.  Let’s call it Bistro Blah.  When it closed a couple of years ago I had to scramble to find a Blah replacement).  Now here’s the same question, rephrased “I want to eat tacos from an authentic Mexican taquería, and I’m willing to go anyplace I can reach by public transportation within a half-hour.”  Let’s try this again with my second most hated question: “What’s there to do around here?”  to which I always wish to answer, “Well you can march up and down Michigan Avenue and shop at the same chain stores you have in your home town”.  Better question “I’d like to see dance with local choreographers and I’ll be in town through Saturday night.”
  • Do some research before your trip.  If you’re visiting a museum specificily to see a favorite work of art, contact the museum in advance to be sure it’s on view.  Museums don’t keep all of their collection on exhibit all the time, and they loan their work to other museums and touring shows.  If there’s an attraction you’re dying to see, figure out what days it’s open in advance.  It’s bad customer karma to get angry at a visitor services employee for your own failure to do minimal research.
  • If you ask a question, stick around for the entire answer.  People are constantly asking for directions, and then walking away before we complete our instructions.
  • Compliment the city you’re in.  When I’m traveling, I liberally dole out genuine praise to any of the residents I meet, especially those who work with the public.  When a customer says to me “Chicago has the best architecture!” I am eager to help them find even more great buildings and architecture tours.  When tourists complain to me about the weather/sales tax/parking, I am eager to help them find Navy Pier and American Girl Place, the lamest tourist traps in Chicago.
  • Jokes are fine–we like a sense of humor.  However, if you ever wish to request a student discount by claiming to be a “student of life” I beg you to reconsider.

When you’re an excellent customer, that tourist information center employee will hand draw you a map to their favorite taquería in the back if a grocery store in a neighborhood you’ve never heard of.  They’ll call a friend who knows about hip indy  music venues.  They’ll give you the best seat in the house.  They’ll bend the rules for you.   Your customer karma will climb like a thermometer, human decency will run loose on the streets, and ultimately you will have a much better vacation.

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