In the meetings and events industry, it’s all about getting people to remember your business, your service and your brand. For many meeting and event planners, customer service is the arena that puts the ‘big picture’ perspective into focus and determines where a planner can make a significant impression. With that said, more and more planners recognize the important role customer service plays in making immediate and lasting impressions on clients and attendees alike.
Whether you’re part of an independent meeting and event planning firm, or if you work within a financial or insurance meeting or event planning department, the bottom line is the same: People’s perceptions of your business or personal brand will be shaped by the experience they have with you.
According to Jon Picoult, founder and principal of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm, those perceptions have consequences. “If positive, they help fuel repurchase and referral behavior, or for internal corporate planners, career advancement,” Picoult says. “If negative, they drive people away and create unfavorable word-of-mouth.”
“If the event doesn’t go well, the downside ramifications, including the reputational impact to all involved, are significant.” - Jon Picoult
Experts agree that customer service has evolved tremendously over the last 10 years to become the focal point of event planning businesses to ensure that customers are satisfied and engaged, will recommend and will return. As Picoult explains, because products and services — including events and conferences — have become so commoditized, customer experience is the only true differentiator. Deliver a better experience for your audience than the next guy, and you win. Customers will return again and again.
In recent years, the concept of customer experience has emerged and for many professionals, customer experience is where the focus ought to be, not just customer service. Annette Franz, founder and CEO of CX Journey Inc., a customer experience strategy consulting firm, is a coach, speaker and an author with more than 25 years of experience in the customer experience discipline.
As Franz explains, customer experience is the sum of all the interactions that a customer has with a brand over the life of the ‘relationship’ with that brand, and importantly, the feelings, emotions and perceptions the customer has about those interactions.
“Customer service is just one of those interactions,” Franz says. “Customer service is what happens when the experience breaks down. When you focus on improving the overall experience — of which customer service is just a part — it leads to a simple and seamless relationship for, and with, your customers and constituents.”
Picoult says two key factors underscore the importance of a great customer experience in the meeting and event planning industry. First, there’s a lot riding on these events.
“They are usually big, high-profile engagements that are closely watched by top executives,” Picoult says. “If the event doesn’t go well, the downside ramifications, including the reputational impact to all involved, are significant.”
Furthermore, event planning is a service that many business sponsors could potentially view as a commodity. “And if sponsors believe there’s little differentiation between planning providers, it creates an environment where attention is focused on the price quoted instead of the value delivered; an environment where sponsors develop no allegiance to planners; an environment so devoid of client loyalty that it all but assures business or career failure,” Picoult says.
What’s more, meeting and event planners have several customers that they need to keep happy, including: the audience/attendees, the speakers, the sponsors, the media partners, the host site, the A/V tech companies, the shipping companies and more.
So what does a good experience mean to the financial and insurance meetings and events industry? It’s the difference between a great event that is well attended versus one that is mediocre and doesn’t get a repeat audience year after year. While this means different things to different customers, in general, if it’s a bad experience, the sponsors won’t return, nor will the speakers or the attendees.
“The only way to know what good customer service means — and to deliver the ideal experience to each constituent — is to take the time to listen to them, get their feedback, understand who they are and what their needs are, and design an experience to meet those needs,” Franz says.
With technology at our fingertips, event professionals need to be responsive, but quality is still very important. Samantha Flowers, meeting and event manager at Special D Events Inc., says having an event planner on staff, whether that is internal or an agency, is a huge advantage to companies.
“Being an event planner comes with a special set of skills and experience that can elevate events. Planners consider details that others may not,” Flowers says. “It is important to utilize these assets to their full potential and provide ideal customer service, because it will show in the quality of the events.”
Rachel Andrews, meeting planner and director of global meetings and events at Cvent, says no matter how big or small an event planning job, great event planners know that to their client, their event means everything. If planners don’t give each client their undivided attention during planning sessions or don’t proactively offer out-of-the-box solutions to their unique needs and requests, they’ll find someone else to plan their event the next time.
“Not only is exceptional customer service important for a successful career in the event planning business, it is vital to help showcase the importance of the meeting and event planner role on a larger scale,” Andrews says. “In the past, organizations wrote off events as something that they could handle and plan internally. However, as companies hosted more events and realized the business impact these events had on the bottom line, the meetings and events manager role as a career really came to the forefront. Delivering exceptional customer service ensures we stay there.”
At its core, good customer service in the meeting and events industry means delivering an incredible experience for attendees, ensuring the event supports and helps drive overall business goals, and delivers it all within budget.
As Andrews stresses, it’s not an easy task. In fact, it’s probably why event planning has been named one of the most stressful jobs in the world. “But beyond this, I’d say that at the end of the day, happy attendees mean a happy client,” Andrews says. “If you focus on what the attendees want and what the business needs, that’s the epitome of great customer service.”
Social media has impacted customer service by giving customers a bullhorn of sorts. If they have an issue, clients as well as meeting and event attendees can and will amplify it through their followers and their followers’ followers.
“And if you’re not active on social media, if you’re social media team isn’t equipped to swiftly respond to and address concerns from your customers, then the whole world is going to hear about it — multiple times,” Franz says “The key here is to be where customers are, to communicate with them in their preferred channels or methods. Know and understand those preferences and use them to your advantage.”
Andrews says the customer service landscape completely shifted when smartphones came into the picture in the last decade or so. Customer service used to mean that there was one phone number to call from your landline when you needed help.
“Now, there are so many ways for customers to reach out via phone, web, live chat and social media,” Andrews says. “People have the ability to connect 24/7, in real time, so there is a need to provide greater accessibility, deliver faster response times and even be more transparent in order to create better experiences that result in more satisfied customers. It’s simple — but not always obvious — good customer service keeps clients coming back and also helps define your professional reputation.”
Today social media and customer service has had a significant impact on customer support. While social media used to be a space for people to connect and chat with friends and family in a casual, fun way — in recent years, it has become an important space for customers to share their experiences, work through issues and challenges and learn best practices.
“It’s essentially another customer service channel that organizations need to be monitoring and engaging with,” Andrews says. “Because of social media’s around-the-clock nature, it’s important to build up and nurture your social media support strategy, so that customers’ unsatisfactory experiences don’t go unnoticed and are responded to quickly, while the positive ones are captured and shared with your followers. This especially holds true for live events and how much attendees share to their networks.”
Improving customer service to clients is vital for any industry, but particularly within the meetings and events industry.
To do this, a meeting planner needs to put themselves in their client’s shoes, understand who they’re answering to and do whatever they can to ensure they have the insights and support they need to answer any questions — no matter who is asking them.
“Know how to speak with each stakeholder and ensure you’re armed with the information you need to have intelligent conversations on progress updates, potential issues, overall event results and impact on the bottom line,” Andrews says. “CEOs want to know very different information than a CFO does. It’s important that you speak in their language.”
Andrews has personally found that delivering comprehensive FAQ sheets to the various event stakeholders is a fantastic customer-service tactic. By proactively answering the most frequently asked questions surrounding a specific event positions the meeting planner as the expert and also shows that they care about the needs and the interests of each stakeholder.
Other important customer service skills meeting planners need to incorporate are flexibility and patience. Event managers should be able to modify and tailor their event, both in the planning stages and even on-site, to accommodate changing client preferences.
“A happy attendee will want to return; will speak highly of the event with their peers; and will, in turn, help your client grow and scale their events year after year,” Andrews says.
In addition to listening to a client and following an event countdown, it is important to be consultative as well. As Flowers explains, they learn as they grow from experiences and continuing education, so we need to recall that knowledge and transfer it to our clients on a regular basis.
“Instead of simply contracting a hotel, we can first negotiate discounts or free Wi-Fi to help our client’s budget. We can suggest tactics for the event to be more sustainable,” Flowers says. “This includes transitioning to a mobile app instead of printing materials. When selecting the food and beverage, we can switch to water dispensers instead of plastic bottles. These cost savings and sustainability movements can set you apart, and make your clients feel good about more than just your event-planning services.”
One of the best ways to improve the customer experience is to gather feedback and put it into action. For Cvent CONNECT, the company’s annual user conference, they hosted more than 4,500 attendees, and provided them with the opportunity to give feedback before, during and after the event via the mobile event app. This feedback offers a deeper level of insight into how attendees perceive and engage with the event. One thing to remember: Gathering feedback is the first step and is useless, unless you analyze it and put it into action so you can make your event better each year.
Indeed, as Franz explains, meeting and event planners must look at each individual customer persona — attendees, speakers, sponsors, etc. and gather feedback from them.
“The event organizer who does this — asks for feedback from every constituent and then does something with it — will be the premier event organizer that everyone will want to work with,” Franz says. “If you want to stand out in the hearts and minds of your clients, you have to understand your clients and understand what would cause you to stand out for them. The customer experience is defined by the customer.”
Picoult adds that one way to reduce customer effort is to obviate the need for clients to think of — and ask — questions. Make it easy by preempting their inquiries by, for example, using a detailed pre-planning event questionnaire, or simply by being two steps ahead of the client and always thinking about the next question they’re likely to pose.
Picoult also suggests event professionals who are eager to provide exceptional service do the following:
• Be very responsive to calls, texts and emails. If your client has to follow-up with you due to poor responsiveness, you’re essentially creating more effort in their life, which will cultivate negative impressions about the experience.
• Provide information in a clear, easy-to-read format.
• Create the perception of control. It’s human nature that we like to be ‘in control’ of what’s going on around us. When we don’t have that feeling of control — if, instead, we feel confused, uninformed or helpless in some way — then the experience we’re going through feels worse as a result. The good news is, meeting/event planners can combat that sentiment by giving their sponsors the perception of control by doing such things as providing options throughout the planning experience.
“Whether it’s options regarding location, venue, food or entertainment, when a client feels that the design of the meeting or event is something they have control over, they’ll tend to feel better about the experience as a result,” Picoult says.
Julie Austin is an award-winning inventor, futurist and an internationally known thought leader on the topics of innovation and competitive advantage, and CEO of the consulting firm, Creative Innovation Group. Austin says that customer service is indeed becoming the new competitive advantage for meeting and event planners. One way to achieve that is by giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else.
In addition, Austin has learned one important thing about customer service. “You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to respond and respond quickly to their issues. Ignoring a customer or taking too long to get back to them is seen as a sign of disrespect by them,” Austin says. “What they want to know is that you care about them and that you try your best. They don’t want to be forgotten.”
Indeed, poor communication is a major pitfall for event managers and will ultimately lead to unhappy clients and likely, an unsuccessful event. As Andrews explains, clients like to know what is going on, so agree on a communication cadence with your client and stick to it. Deliver daily or weekly progress and budget updates, registration counts, and other key data to the people who need it. Make the information easy to find and digest.
Customer service also extends to attendees, so utilize a mobile event app, which can play a key role in ensuring attendees are aware of event updates, session location changes and more.
“Don’t forget about the little things,” Andrews says. “Genuine customer service can be as simple as having staff on the floor at all times to help attendees find their session or make sure attendees have access to allergy-friendly food options.”
At the end of the day, the ‘customer is always right’ mantra holds true in nearly every industry across the board. And with the increased impact of social media and online review sites, delivering exceptional customer service, quickly and efficiently, will be key in the years to come.
“It’s important to remember that people believe other people — their friends, peers, professional networks,” Andrews says. “So, one bad review — one disgruntled client — can really hurt your credibility as an event professional no matter how many marketing dollars you spend to put yourself at the top of the Google search page.” I&FMM.