Guest Blogger: Orange’s Jeff Curtis on rallying Main Street around customer service training

We’re turning over the space today to Jeff Curtis, director of the Orange Downtown Alliance for some tips on rallying downtown merchants for an effective training. 

One of the recurring issues addressed in our Business Development Committee meetings has been customer service, or more specifically, the lack of it.  It’s an important issue for any community, and especially important for those wanting to tap tourism markets.

Orange is barely five minutes away from James Madison’s Montpelier, which has more than 90,000 visitors a year. We’re close to some of Virginia’s wineries, including Barboursville, and we’re  part of the regional cultural heritage trail, The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which follows the Old Carolina Road from Gettysburg to Monticello.

In addition to having our doors open and making sure people find Orange when they’re visiting these attractions and exploring the area, we also want to make sure that tourists have a good experience while their here.  So when the opportunity arose to engage the community in customer service training, we leaped.

Here are some key points to consider when planning a customer service training event:

  1. Commitment.    Agree as a group that there is a need.  The backing of a committee or a board is important so that you’re not out there on your own.
  2. Confidence.  Be sure a positive message is sent out from the start.  Nothing worse than the subliminal message of, “Our stores suck at customer service”.  Better to have the message that “We are dedicated to providing the best customer experience available in (town).  We care about you (the merchant) and you the customer and are here to offer suggestions.”
  3. Capability.  Who do you have that can do this: a community college? A business leader?  A college intern?  Virginia Main Street retail consultant Marc Wilson?
  4. Cost.  If it’s free, participants may not think it’s worth their time.  What do you have to charge to recover expenses and perhaps make a profit while still maintaining an affordable tuition?
  5. Location and Timing.  Make it accessible. Can you do it before opening hours or after closing hours.  Are there competing events on the community calendar? What is the ease of getting there?  How accessible is parking?
  6. Promotion.  You don’t want this to be a case where you built it and they didn’t come.  No secrets here:  do whatever it takes to get people there.  Even if they come kicking and screaming about being sole shop-owners, no time, don’t have the money, etc…  Get them there.  They’ll thank you about three minutes after the class is over.  Use your newsletter, your Web site, direct mailings, announcements through an e-mail listserv, go door to door with flyers, make phone calls, hang posters, send press releases (why you always stay close friends and lunch buddies with your local newspaper editor),  find a sponsor to help pay for advertisements, talk it up–send it out–float it around.
  7. Appreciation.  Thank anybody who does anything at all to make this happen.  Give away the credit–the newspaper, the trainer who’s volunteering his expertise, the sponsor, and the town for use of the community room.  People are motivated by being appreciated. 
  8. Modification.  What are you going to do different next time?  Write it down or you’ll forget.

Finally, make note of participants who get really involved. They might be good candidates to help organize the next training, and you can encourage them to spread the word to their peers who couldn’t make it about what they learned.

Let me know if you have any comments or additional suggestions by e-mailing me at: