Sunday, February 10, 2008

Two Feedback Questions are Better Than Thirty Six

My intent in providing feedback is to help organizations better understand how customers experience their product and service offerings. Most leaders and managers have blind spots they don’t even know about. In addition, many people are uncomfortable with genuine feedback, so they find ways around it. They collect examples to support their own desires. And they gather excuses to avoid the things they don’t want to deal with. For leaders who are open to change and growth, I provide just one opinion that they may or may not find helpful.

I arrived at Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center (LYBCC) after dark on Friday, so my first impression was that it was a difficult place to find. Their directions from Jacksonville told me to come via SR-40. After I turned onto SR-40, I saw a sign that said Road closed 11 miles ahead, local traffic only. This didn't bother me. I justified that I would drive slow through the road construction and act like local traffic. Ten miles later, I came to another sign that provided one more important detail: Bridge closed, local traffic only. Bridge closed! Why didn't they mention this 10 miles ago? Why didn't MapQuest tell me this several hours ago?

Over the years I've become an expert at getting myself out of being lost. So I came prepared with my Florida map. I drove off the side of the road and pulled my reading glasses out of my luggage. When I was younger I didn't need the reading glasses step, but now I do. I studied the map and found out how I was going to go around this bridge closure. Here I was on a very dark night on the back country road in central Florida. I was disappointed with MapQuest, with LYBCC, with road construction procedures and with myself for not having gotten the memo about the bridge closure.

I was already on a tight schedule and now I was certain to be late for the Friday-night keynote speaker. But I had a conversation with myself, saying that I could get the notes, have lunch with the speaker or hear him at another conference. When I made the first right turn, all I could see in the sky was the moon smiling at me. It was a crescent in the shape of a smile. I felt safe knowing that God was watching over me and giving me yet another life lesson. By now, I was all cheered up, because I realized that I couldn't change what happened. I could only go on with this day from right here, right now. This detour ended up costing me about an extra 45 minutes.

Not only was it a challenge for me to find Lake Yale, but once I did find the property, I drove around turning my car into strange positions on the roads to shine my headlights on the building names trying to figure out how to find my group. The building names were hard to see in the dark.

When I woke up on Saturday morning, I found myself at a serene conference center on a lake. After staying here Friday night and driving around the campus a few times on Saturday, I recognized that there doesn’t seem to be any tight security here. There’s no gate at the entry, no special tags for the cars and no formal check in. Anyone can drive on or off the property with ease.

The breakfast and lunch didn't thrill me, so I ventured off site for a Subway dinner even though it was about 15 miles away. I used a map from the Guest Information notebook to navigate my way to the nearby small town of Eustis. Not only did I want a healthy dinner, but I was also craving a good cup of coffee with cream. All they served here was weak coffee with fake flavored and sugared creamers. I don’t like that stuff! I also don’t like this coffee addiction I have, especially when I’m on the road. Sooner than later, I must do something about it, but not today.

So I ventured out and got a Starbucks doppio espresso with doppio shots of hot water. This satisfied my coffee craving. As I sipped on my espresso doppio, I did a bit of reflection on my personal vision and mission. I love thinking through things or writing as a caffeine buzz kicks in. Then I went to Subway--you can always count on them for a quick healthy sandwich.

Back at LYBCC on Saturday evening when our conference room was too cold, I was able to use a phone on the wall in the in the entry of the education building to call for assistance. I called and got an answering service. This didn’t give me a lot of confidence about how quickly we would get heat, but to my surprise, we got help within minutes. The message got through quickly and a staff member adjusted the thermostat within a few minutes. He must have been here on site and responded to a page right away. The quick response time was impressive.

LYBCC really has an opportunity that they’re missing. Early on Saturday, I checked the times for their café & bookstore. They were only open from 2-4:30 PM on Saturday. I saw a lot of people walking around campus and surely these people would want to buy a coffee or other food if there were good options in the café. In addition, the café is separate from the cafeteria. Since both relate to food and coffee and people may want to eat or linger beyond cafeteria hours, I think they ought to combine the café with the cafeteria. I recognize that they would have to set up some good procedures to make it work and do some renovations, but I believe it would be to their benefit.

The cafeteria has a view of the lake, but the café doesn’t. The café only had a few unhealthy quick food options. Neither the cafeteria nor café offered a good cup of coffee with cream. Why call it a café? The cafeteria salad bar at lunch was pretty good. They offered several vegetables, but the blue cheese dressing wasn't the greatest. The drink lines weren’t set up efficiently. The Styrofoam cups were placed right in the middle of a combination drink and condiment stand.

People bottlenecked at the drink/condiment stand, trying to get a coffee or hot chocolate and then step sideways through others in line so they could make their way to the creamers and stirs. People were stirring their coffee while others were reaching across them for ketchup. Since none of the staff asked my opinion about their assembly line, I didn't say anything. This is the don't ask and don't tell principle in action. This would be a good project for a college student wanting to become a process specialist.

The dining hours were limited to one hour and I don’t mind that so much, as long as the food is good and they can get people through the lines quickly. I liked how the lines formed inside the building rather than outside. Last October I went to the LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center for a writers conference and I remember shivering in line because the doors had to be propped open to accommodate people waiting in line for their food. During some meals the temperature was in the 40s. It made for a very uncomfortable wait. The architects didn't plan to accommodate the long lines at dinner.

The pillows in the LYBCC rooms were all the same—too big and too puffy. I’m petite and my neck was propped up too high. I felt the kink in my neck on Saturday and Sunday mornings. This is the reason that some people travel with their pillows. Maybe I should look into some small travel pillow to solve this issue. I’m constantly trying to reduce the amount of stuff I travel with, however, so I’m not eager to add items to my travel checklist. I think that they ought to have a variety of pillow sizes in each room, or at least offer an extra one or two with less poof. Even if they’re trying to make sure that the bed looks balanced when it’s made, they can provide housekeeping with instructions to put two flat pillows in the middle of the king bed and two poofy ones on the sides. That way it would all balance out. Problem solved! Another way I can solve the problem is to accustom myself to sleeping flat on my back so I never need a pillow anymore. Maybe I'll find some time to read up on this to see what the sleep experts say.

Something else I really didn’t like about the room was the fact that it was somewhat musty and the window was bolted shut. The only way to get air in the room was through the noisy HVAC unit. If the room didn’t have carpeting, but had hard surface flooring instead, it probably wouldn’t hold onto as much dust and odor. Don’t get me wrong, the room was clean on the surface. Other things in the room can carry musty odors as well, such as the mattress, the bedspread, the furnishings and even the walls. On both mornings, I woke up stuffy and my eyes had that squinty red look I get when my allergies are acting up. I often feel this way when I wake up in older hotels with poor ventilation. I slept with the HVAC unit off because I don’t like the noise of a loud fan going all night.

Here are best things I found about LYBCC:
  • This is a beautiful property with lake views. Because it’s in central Florida and far from malls and outlets, it really promotes rest and relaxation.
  • The facilities seem to be well maintained and basic procedures seemed to be quite effective.
  • Since “Baptist” is in the name, I assume that the facility is backed by the Baptist church and therefore probably has the means to promote and improve the facility for greater maximization of its asset. I noticed a campsite on the property, for example. This mixed use of the property is an innovative idea and provides visitors with options.

So if LYBCC were to improve on a few things, here’s what I’d suggest in order of importance:

  1. Enhance the dining experience by doing some or all of the following:
    a. provide outdoor seating with a view of the lake
    b. move the café to the same building as the cafeteria and keep the café open for most of the day so people can buy drinks & snacks during their breaks
  2. make contact with the people who come on site, give them the option to keep in touch by signing up for a newsletter and/or provide a brochure that they can take back to their church. Some type of front desk check in would probably work best. I spent the weekend here and had very minimal contact with anyone from LYBCC.
  3. Continuously improve the look & feel of the rooms:
    a. provide a way to freshen up the smell of the room, while minimizing the noise. Hint: the answer is not a deodorizer! The room is often a big part of a person’s first impression at a retreat center.
    b. provide some pillows with less stuffing
    c. add color to warm up the white walls

There’s no question in my mind that LYBCC has put effort into pleasing their visitors. They placed a Guest Information notebook in my room. I had notebook #417 and I was in room#709. These differing numbers indicates to me there’s probably an opportunity for improvement. I visualize a manual inefficient process going on behind the scenes. Because the notebook has so many pages, I imagine that it’s time consuming to go through it after each guest departs, to make sure that any missing pages are replaced.

The notebook included numerous computer-generated pages organized into five categories:
· Emergency Services
· General Information
· Guest Services
· Around the Area
· Comments

It looks like several people have put a lot of effort into doing this research and compiling these pages over time. It does look rather homemade, however, cheapening their effort. I think they would benefit by converting some of this information into more condensed and graphically pleasing brochures to lay out in the rooms. I'm not saying this to harm the organization, but to help the organization. If I thought it looked homemade, it's likely that someone else thought the same thing.

The three-page evaluation form in the last Comments section probably goes unnoticed by most guests. And even if a guest did notice the “Guest Evaluation” form in the Comments section of the notebook, I doubt if many people would complete a three-page form that would take longer to complete than filling out an application for a drivers license. The Guest Evaluation form does, however, provide an instrument for people to communicate to them and they clearly identify all the areas where they’re seeking feedback:

  • Office Staff
  • Housekeepers
  • Dining room
  • Groundskeepers
  • Audio-visual crew
  • Miscellaneous
  • Comments

It’s tempting for me to type out this three-page form so you can check it out, but I think the main value in this list is internal, for the benefit of each department head. The questions aren’t numbered, but I counted up 36, not including the option to include additional comments!

They’re organizing the customer’s comments by their departments, rather than how a customer experiences a weekend or week on their property: check-in process, room, conference rooms, dining experience and so on. Their "Guest Evaluation" might be a good checklist for the staff, but I’m certain that if we counted up the number of people who slept at LYBCC in 2007 and the number of people who completed the Guest Evaluation form, I bet we’d discover that less than 5% of the visitors found the form and completed it without any prompting. If people did complete it, it’s probably because their meeting organizer included it in their participant packets and requested them to fill it out. I'm notorious for providing feedback, but this one was so long that I didn't want to fill it out.

One final note about the Guest Information notebook is that it also included the business card of their Director of Guest Services--a bold gesture for any organization. I’ll send her this note and see what happens.

After the conference, I learned that much of the staff here are volunteers who work hard to keep this beautiful facility running. Again, I'm only one opinion, but I believe that that they are achieving their stated mission and they're doing it at an affordable price which provides an open door to many.

How do you know if your mission is translating into the results you want? What are your measures?

Are you open to feedback in the way that your customer wants to give it to you--the way the experience goes for them? Are you sure? Learning to accept feedback takes time. For individuals, it's transforming. For organizations, it's a cultural shift.

Is it worth it to you to work toward getting better and better each day? It's up to you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, now I know why I was hot on Saturday evening. Most menopausal women of more than 120 pounds could have stood the air! :) As for the pillows, they were perfect for me...almost as good as the ones I have at home. But maybe I have a fat head since I'm not as petite as you, for sure! :) Finally, it's a conference center! They're supposed to be rustic and far from Ritz quality. If you didn't like THIS one, I can tell you some I've stayed in as a speaker for writers conferences across the country that will make this one FEEL like the Ritz.

Personally, I love Lake Yale. You are right about the serene quality to the landscape. I often think I wouldn't mind coming here just to get away. It ain't the Judean Wilderness tho! Now that's really roughing it.

Eva Marie Everson