The Tale of Two Cities (from a Customer Service Perspective)

The first step in training is to get customer service representatives to recognize the opportunities to assist customers with their everyday challenges and requests.

“It was the Best of Times and the Worst of Times” —Charles Dickens

My wife and I were excited about our very first trip to Rome, Italy, a few years ago. We had flown all night, wanting to give ourselves as much time to do all the things during our trip of a lifetime that we could. We got off the plane tired, hot, and looking like we needed freshening up. We immediately went to the small hotel we had booked on the off chance the room was ready for us. 

We arrived at the hotel at 11 a.m. and were met with the fact that the room was indeed not ready for us. But after seeing us, the customer service agent realized we needed to freshen up a bit. He courteously informed us that even though the room was not yet ready, we could go to the room, change clothes, brush our teeth, and make ourselves presentable for touring the city.  My wife was very appreciative as she wanted to feel “human” again, as she put it.

Flash forward to 2020 and our trip to a beach town on the West Coast. We had flown all morning from the East Coast to arrive at the San Francisco airport. From there, we proceeded on a four-hour drive to reach our destination. My wife was not feeling very “human” when we showed up at the hotel. Once again, we arrived early for check in, and understandably the room was not ready yet. But this time, the customer service agent reaction was very different. My wife asked if they had a lobby bathroom she could use to freshen up.

The customer service agent informed her there was no lobby restroom available. My wife asked if there was someplace she could change, etc., and the customer service agent replied she thought there was a public restroom at the beach she could utilize but she wasn’t sure since she had never used it. When my wife asked for any other options, she was told there was nothing else the customer service agent could think of.

Thus began the Tale of Two Cities. What was the option my wife chose? We ended up changing in the car, taking turns watching for people passing by.

Being of Service

In the new COVID-conscious world, where every customer is valuable, can we afford to have associates who look at our customers as simply “being there”?

The first step in training is to get our customer service representatives to recognize the opportunities to assist our customers with their everyday challenges and requests. The customer service agent at the California hotel was good at answering a question by providing the only “solution” she was aware of, but not good at recognizing a true opportunity to be of service to the customer.

Recognizing a customer service moment takes training for all customer service agents. Some of our associates look at the job simply as a series of tasks to perform to come up with a result. Our first opportunity as leaders is creating an environment where we view the customer as a person—a person with needs that may not fit within the box we train our associates on.

This means when training our associates, we need to focus on two major things: listening and empathy.


How do we train our associates to listen effectively? We need to realize we listen in three different ways:

1. The first is combative listening, where we simply tell the person he or she is wrong or “No, we can’t possibly do that.”

2. The second is passive listening, where the person listening simply looks at the other person, not giving off any sign he or she is concerned nor showing he or she cares about the topic the person is talking about.

3. The third and best way to listen is to listen actively. In other words, active listening is where the listener seeks to understand what the customer is saying or asking. Actively listening allows us to seize the customer service moment. Only by actively listening to the customer can we fully understand the scope of the guest request.

Fully understanding the guest request can help us decide what options we can offer the customer. At the beach town in California, as guests, my wife and I were left with the impression the customer service representative was offering a solution without really understanding our request.


This leads to the second skill we need to train our customer service associates to employ: empathy. This is the skill of putting ourselves in the shoes of the person speaking. The customer service representative in California said she had no knowledge of the public restroom at the beach. So, in my wife’s mind, how could this be an option if the customer service person had never used it? Did it even exist? From my wife’s perspective, the rep was offering a vague option, not a real solution. So it didn’t solve the problem in the eyes of the customer.


How do we train on our associates on these two skills? First, we need to set the example by listening carefully to our associates and our customers, even when we know the answer. Model the behavior you want from your associates.

Second, use real-life examples to role-play with your associates. Take to time to sit down with associates and go over different scenarios you know they will be faced with in their position. Let them tell you how they would handle the situations that surely will arise.

Also, when working with associates, have them brainstorm options while showing empathy for each guest. Training associates to think from the customer’s perspective can only be done through training and reinforcement of empathy in each scenario. Without empathy, the option presented will be looked at as only that—an option—instead of the best solution to the problem for the customer.

If a guest visits your business, which “city” will they experience?

As a Training account manager, Joe Lipham is responsible for the delivery of customer service and sales training for Signature clients. Lipham has more than 25 years in Human Resources and training experience within the hospitality industry. Prior to joining Signature in 2003, he worked for the Marriott Corporation’s Crestline Davidson Hotels, where he served as banquet manager, project manager, and director of Human Resources. Lipham was recognized by former Georgia Governor Zell Miller for his instrumental role in implementing a General Educational Development program for the Chateau Élan, helping 13 associates earn their diplomas.