Reporting from Aruba

This is a charming island not far from Venezuela which has a strong Spanish and Dutch influence. Yet it is dominated by American tourists. Everyone speaks English, the dollar is the major currency, the electrical outlets require no adapters, and cable television brings in every major network, HBO, and all the other essentials of American life. It’s sort of like Nantucket drifting toward the equator, except the TV reception is better here.

About the only concession to local requirements is that the time zone is an hour later than eastern time, and I’m surprised no one has thought to try to change that.

Yet the island and the resorts retain a local dignity and professionalism which, in management terms, is both soft and hard. That is, the local operations do their best to accommodate their American customers but don’t make unnecessary concessions.

Americans have this habit, for example, of somehow showing up at the crack of dawn to “reserve” the best beach and pool chairs with towels, paperback books, old shoes, and children’s toys. (I’ve never seen this with truly international guests.) They then disappear to return to sleep, have breakfast, sightsee, or just gloat at their cleverness, generally showing up to claim their prime space around lunch time, having denied it to all others. It is a peculiarly American and obnoxious habit.

The resort where I’m staying has posted signs indicating that such “squatting” rights are not allowed, and that any chairs unoccupied for more than two hours (even Americans can sweep the “all you can eat buffet” clean in two hours) are open for all comers. It’s a gentle way of saying, “that’s clever, but knock it off.”

The service demanded at the resorts is acute. People want help with their dinner reservations (often only a couple of hours prior to the meal), rental cars, massages, sightseeing, babysitting, and an array of other special treatment. No one, of course, wants to wait for more than about 90 seconds. The concierge staff has an ingenious solution: They have an answering service, which politely apologizes for not being able to take the call, but guarantees a quick response. The message encourages the caller to leave the precise request on the machine. Invariably, the concierges are back to you within an hour with an effective resolution. In other words, “we’re here to serve you, but not instantaneously.”

There is, of course, some quid pro quo. In most cases, a 15% service charge is added to the bill. Yet the credit card receipt provides a place for a gratuity anyway. Most of my countrymen, who haven’t read the menu carefully or who think they know everything, add another 15 or 20%, providing a tidy 30% or more tip. I think this is pretty funny, and really quite fair. (I always leave an extra tip, too, so I don’t spoil the fun.)

In all of our businesses, we have to ensure that dependence on a few, strong clients or a particular kind of buyer doesn’t make us subservient to that source in terms of our service, quality, and independence. Excellent customers deserve to be treated like valued friends but shouldn’t be confused with a boss. Here’s how to keep the ledger balanced:

  • Provide the services and responsiveness that your customers desire, but not to the extent that they are unprofitable or inconvenience other customers.
  • Establish service standards which are highly competitive, but don’t be bullied by demands that you exceed them to please a minority.
  • Bear in mind that the output (e.g., a reservation made by the concierge) is the goal, not the input (e.g., make it immediately while the guest waits for it).
  • When a customer is disappointed because your own service standards weren’t met, apologize and do something about it. When a customer is disappointed because the customer’s own and arbitrary service standards weren’t met, simply point out that the customer was unrealistic in his or her expectations.

Sometimes we all have to practice “tough love” in our businesses. That means that, unless you’re in it, the chair doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the hotel. Occasionally, customers have to be reminded about who actually owns the place.