Last weekend I took my two oldest kids to a state park. As we pulled up to the entrance, we were met by a park ranger with a shiny badge. He was proudly wearing his neatly starched-and-pressed brown uniform with a big white-toothed grin, grasping a clipboard as if it held nuclear launch codes.
As an annual pass holder, this was a scene I was familiar with and I wasn’t at all worried. I climbed out of the truck and met him with the enthusiasm that you would expect from a busy dad who had finally carved out some time to spend in nature with his kids.
“Welcome,” he said as I approached him, matching him tooth for tooth with a smile. “Thanks,” I responded.
“Do you have a pass?” he asked. “Yep,” I answered, providing the paperwork I had.
“Great! I see that you have people with you. Who are they?”
“They are my kids,” I responded with a modicum of fatherly pride.
“How old are they?” he asked, still clinging to the Ranger Rick persona.
“16 and 18,” I answered with even more pride.
What had been a friendly conversation now took a turn for the bizarre, ultimately inspiring me to write this article.
“Does your 18-year-old have her own pass?” he asked. His tone was noticeably different, and his eyebrows were raised accusingly.
“No. Does she need one?” I asked, happy to comply with whatever needed to be done.
“She is an adult, and as such, she is not covered by your family pass. As you can see here,” he said, producing a regulation book, “in section 63.345, a family pass covers any children who are under the age of 18.”
“Huh, ok. Well, she has only been 18 for about a week and it never crossed my mind. What do I need to do?” I responded, ready to comply.
“She needs to have a pass of her own,” he said again.
“I understand that. How do I go about getting that right now so that we can go in and do what we are going to do?” I asked.
“Our offices are closed, so she can’t get one.”
“Huh. Can I pay you?” I asked, trying to defuse the situation.
“No, we don’t accept money here,” he responded.
“Can I go online and buy her an annual pass?” I asked, already launching the website on my phone.
“Yes, but once you buy that, you have to wait two weeks for the sticker to be mailed to you; she couldn’t come in today.”
“Ok, so what are my options?” I asked in an obviously exacerbated tone.
“There is another park 10 miles away that you can drive to and pay a $4 entry fee to the lock box. If you do that, I will let you in.” He said that with a look like he’d just discovered the cure for cancer.
“Okay, I would be happy to do that. Is there any way that I can do that on the way home since it will take me 30 minutes to go there and back and we only have about 2 hours before the park closes?” I asked, trying to salvage what I could of the little time we had left.
“No,” he said coldly, taking a crossed-arm stance and puffing out his chest as far as he could.
“Um… ok,” I responded, already halfway back to my truck.
I sped away, drove the 20-mile roundtrip distance to an unattended lock box, filled out a piece of paper and deposited $10 (I didn’t have change), and sped back. When I got back, he had the same Cheshire grin. When I tried to produce some photo evidence of my deposit, he said, “I trust you, come on in.”
As I’ve reflected on this experience over the last few days, I’ve realized that far too often in the motorcoach business, we are this park ranger: well-intentioned, but so set on enforcing policy and so focused on our operational and procedural norms that customers have the same frustrations with us that I had with him.
First, I want to say that I am not advocating any policies that include the customer always being right. They aren’t. But I am saying that we need to teach common sense when it comes to working with a general public increasingly used to point-and-click, tap-and-go solutions to their issues. When we enforce policies that seem outdated and difficult to comply with because that’s how we’ve always done it, we actually encourage upset customers or potential customers to pigeonhole our industry as a group that can’t be bothered to provide customers with the experience they want.
Change is happening fast—really fast—in terms of technology. Digital natives (those who’ve grown up never knowing a time before Google), iPhones, and YouTube are now decision-makers who control a great deal of the nation’s spending. Older generations also are reporting the old ways to be “tiresome and annoying,” embracing the idea that these newfangled devices really do make life easier.
What we referred to as a “point and click” revolution just a few years ago is no longer even that, as that term specifically referenced the use of a desktop computer and mouse. Today’s world is “tap-and-go,” with people having most of their daily online interactions on mobile devices.
We must realize that the new normal is simple, fast and easy. Our customers use things like Uber, Amazon, and Doordash all the time. One tap, and boom: someone picks them up, groceries are delivered to their house in a few hours or a hot meal is on their doorstep in minutes. All of these advances encourage a reliance on technology to simplify our lives.
Let’s go back to Ranger Rick. In situations like that where the protocol seems so antiquated, unfriendly, and backwards, we tend to react because we don’t do things as they were done in the past; we live our lives now, in today’s modern and convenient world.
I am sure that this particular park ranger went home feeling great. He probably congratulated himself on keeping the world safe from those wanting to take advantage of the great state parks system. He may have even had the support of his superiors who would have congratulated him on enforcing an established policy with someone who was trying to “break a rule.”
I left feeling like the policy was inane and upheld in a remarkably limiting way. It felt like I had been forced to jump through antiquated hoops and pushed to do something totally stupid, and I lost precious time with my kids as a result.
I also left feeling like they’d missed an opportunity from a business standpoint. I would have happily bought a daily pass online for 10 times what they wanted or paid a convenience fee or penalty in exchange for my time. I had good cell coverage and could be on the web, and they could have had a credit card app for phones or a lock box at this location. If this was going to be an “on your honor” program, the park ranger could have allowed me to go after the fact or accepted the cash and put it in the box the next time he drove by. The point is: there were simple solutions that were not on the table, and the whole interaction was ultimately frustrating.
How often do you think a soccer mom feels this same way when she calls to inquire how much it would cost to get the team to the regional finals, and we require a 20-minute phone call to discuss logistics before we’ll even give her a quote? How often do you think a group feels like this when a driver is unwilling to deviate from paperwork? How often do our customers feel like this when we push them into our way of doing things instead of rethinking what we do in order to create a better overall experience for them?
Businesses of all kinds need to be careful to not allow business practices to stand in the way of success. They need to help employees understand the difference between customer service and policy enforcement and empower them to use the golden rule more.
In the motorcoach industry, we need to treat customers how we want to be treated. We need to look more at how we can help a customer use our companies in the ways they want to use them. I have spent a great deal of time with companies all over North America talking about competitive advantages and how to use them to differentiate themselves and ultimately charge more for their services.
This may be the ultimate competitive advantage: the ability to be easy to work with, use common sense to solve issues that cause frustration, and capitalize on the willingness of people to pay more for convenience.
If you spend more time thinking about how you can do things in an ever-changing, technology-embracing, tap-and-go world, you’ll find yourself selling more of your services to more people—for more money.