One of the trickier parts of delivering an exceptional customer experience is when you cede control of the experience to subcontractors. Maintaining service standards with the company’s team is challenging enough; maintaining those same levels of service through a subcontractor can border on the impossible. The experience we had when vacationing on the island of Curacao last fall provides an stark lesson in how quickly a subcontractor can put an ugly mask on the face of a business.
Note: Names have been changed to protect the guilty
We scheduled an off property snorkel tour through our hotel which was subcontracted through a company called Curacao Underwater Outfitters. A twenty something Curacoan picked us up at the hotel with an elderly Dutch couple from another hotel already in tow. The vehicle was of the sort that makes one appreciate modern safety features like shoulder restraints, seat belts, and air bags. The first thing that came to my mind was that we were going snorkeling in a German troop truck from World War II. Judge for yourself.
Janz the tour guide was nice enough. He showed us a scenic overlook on the way to the snorkeling site. He did inform us that, depending on the parking, he might not be able to go in the water with us. The truck had been broken into a few weeks before, and he might have to stay with the gear if we could not park inside the private lot. Works for me, I thought. I don’t like leaving my stuff anyway.
Unfortunately, this discussion prompted Janz to begin talking about the break-in, an event which he had clearly not come to terms with. His “two hundred dollar sunglasses had been stolen,” he stated more than once. He seemed quite raw on the topic.
The snorkeling was beautiful.
We were able to park in the private lot, so the guide was able to join us for the swim. Ironically, he seemed very responsible and safety conscious while we were in the water. If only he had maintained that outlook on land.
As we were leaving, Janz became very animated. “Did you see that car? Those were the guys that broke into my car. It was them!” We were at the top of a craggy mountain road when Janz floored the truck and began speeding down the mountain to give chase to the alleged thieves. Soon the mountain road gave way to asphalt, where we caught up with the perpetrators.
As he continued to rant over the loudspeaker — the only method of communication from the cab to the open-aired back of the truck — it was obvious what had happened:
Our guide had snapped.
So, here we were: our lovely day snorkeling had descended into adrenaline-fueled madness. We were following the alleged thieves at high speed, barely a foot from their bumper. My wife was freaked, the elderly Dutch couple was aghast, and my brain was spinning with alternatives for “what-to-do-if.”
Here we were in a foreign land, being bounced around this death trap from the Museum of the Wermacht and holding on white-knuckled to the edges of the seats so as not to not get thrown around — or worse, out of — the back of the truck. All the while, our hero Janz was taking matters into his own incapable hands, driving one-handed while calling the police on his mobile phone (as if a tactical team was on standby to descend on the criminals in real time). At one point, I turned to my wife and said, “Just think, we paid extra to do this.”
In the end, we survived. The guide seemed to regain enough presence of mind to not chase the car off the main road, and we eventually made it back to the hotel.
Yes, it happened. When we got out of the truck; the guy actually did the pause, like he was expecting a tip!
Okay, here’s a tip: Don’t try to kill your clients. Thanks!
Later, once the adrenaline had subsided, I would think about what a negative impact this subcontractor had on our feelings towards the hotel. The property was gorgeous, and we had received nothing but great service at the hotel our entire stay. However, if we were to return to Curacoa, we would have to seriously evaluate whether we would revisit that hotel. Curacoa Underwater Outfitters is the hotel’s primary provider of offsite water-related adventures, and those types of trips are among the primary recreational activities on Curacao.
Like the hotel in Curacoa, every business that uses subcontractors is vulnerable. When we hire a sub who interacts directly with our customers, we have placed our brand, our business, and our reputation in that sub’s hands. Implementing systems for quality control like secret shoppers or post-experience surveys are crucial to maintaining a grip on how your subcontractors are representing your company.
In the end, none of these would necessarily have prevented our experience. Our guide seemed like a fairly decent fellow who snapped. However, a post experience survey might have alerted the Hyatt to this problem and helped prevent other issues going forward.
Do you use subcontractors? How do you maintain accountability with subs? And for fun: Have any crazy vacation stories?
By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.