A Different Tipping Point

The cruise ship passenger ran down the passageway to the concierge’s desk. “My husband’s bleeding badly. We can’t stop it. We need medical help.”

It was late evening. The Viking River Cruise ship was docked in Heidelberg, Germany, in anticipation of our castle tours there the next day. Within minutes, there was an ambulance waiting at the foot of the gangway and Jeff, who had a severe nosebleed, and his wife, Diane, were off to the hospital for emergency treatment, accompanied by a Viking representative as advocate and translator.

As they recounted the story to Anne and me the next day, Jeff and Diane, who had returned to the ship several hours later on the mend, couldn’t say enough about the service that the ship’s personnel had provided. But they saved their greatest accolades for the housekeepers.

“There was blood all over the sheets and towels, the vanity, the carpet – it was a mess,” Jeff recounted. “But when we walked in later, the room was spotless – not a single sign of blood anywhere. That was amazing!”

That was the most impressive example, but the evidence of extraordinary service was everywhere during the cruise – in the dining room, in the lounge, at the bar, behind the desk. The crew was always smiling, always offering to be helpful, always facilitating, but not to excess. They were even good-natured to each other – they really looked like they were having fun themselves.

What motivational technique was the cruise line management using, I wondered. The Captain had excellent skills on the bridge, but didn’t seem to be an exceptional communicator. The head of “hotel” services clearly had strong administrative talents, yet he blanked on the names of several of his team members when he introduced them all at the Captain’s Banquet.

I watched it happen all week. Even the deck hands seemed to make a game of “three men in a tub” as they maneuvered their dingy around the hull applying touch-up paint to cover scrape marks picked up in one of the sixteen locks we navigated through during our 550-mile voyage down the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam.

On the next-to-last night, I got the answer. In the debarkation package was an empty envelope marked “Gratuity.” Not surprising. The orientation materials we’d received several weeks earlier mentioned a per diem tip level, which I had glossed over in my rush to find out what we were really going to be doing for a week. Now I went back to the handbook:

“We suggest a gratuity of €2 Euro per guest, per day for your Program Director and €12 Euro per guest, per day which is distributed among the ship’s staff. Additional tipping is at the guest’s discretion.”

The math was simple: 12 x 7 x 180 passengers meant a pool of over 15,000 Euros to be divided among the 50 crew members, with an additional 2,500 to the cruise director. Having spent the week dealing with hard cash Euros rather than just a theoretical value, I realized the average tip would be something over $400 per employee.

Even with a presumption that the distribution of tips was probably in rough proportion to each employee’s regular wages – and recognizing that not everyone was likely to tip at the suggested level (though appearances can be deceiving, most of our fellow passengers acted like they could afford it) – the prospect of expanding one’s weekly paycheck by 50-100% was clearly sufficient to keep the crew fully engaged in customer service, and to limit employee turnover to less than 20% per year.

What does it take in your organization to reach a different “tipping point,” a point at which every customer contact results in a “Wow”? Viking Cruises is asking people voluntarily to increase the cost of their on-board experience by roughly 5% as a measure of their satisfaction. How much of a premium would your customers pay to do business with you, and where would it go? To your bottom line? To your employees? Would a different tipping point make a difference to your business? How can you achieve it?

It’s a question I intend to ask on behalf of my client the next time I’m interviewing a prospective customer service manager.