Paul Rutter, Cruise & Entertainment Director, tells adventurous stories about his lifelong experience in the cruise industry. Having been working in CX for almost 40 years, Paul teaches business leaders how to deliver More Than Perfect service and explains why perfect experience is only the starting point. This article summarizes the CX Insider episode's key takeaways.
Why "the customer is always right" is a myth
It is no wonder that when customers go on holiday provided by one of the most luxurious cruise lines, they expect to be treated like royalty. The premium price they pay increases their expectations accordingly. Considering the fact that a single cruise might last several months, this ultimately puts a lot of pressure on the crew members. Does this mean that employees should always meet customers' demands no matter whatever it is they desire? No, of course not. As Paul says, "The customer is not always right. However, the customer is always the customer." In other words, the real challenge is finding the middle ground between what the company can offer to satisfy the customer's needs and what the customer is willing to accept and – at the same time – can still be happy.
"The customer is not always right. However, the customer is always the customer."
The first experience determines brand loyalty
Imagine going on a date with someone you have not met. If you enjoy spending time with the person, you will continue seeing them. It would be unreasonable not to go on a second date if the first one was successful. Similarly, the first holiday sets the standard for every other holiday that happens after. If it is exceptional, customers will stay loyal for years. Are you asking yourself why? The odds of getting the same level of extraordinary experience while switching to a different company, cruise or holiday resort are low. Therefore, employees should provide the best service they can, assuming they only have one shot to impress – just like with your date.
Always aim at delivering a more than perfect experience
The customer journey starts way before customers come to you personally. More than often, the first time both sides meet face-to-face or virtually is when things go wrong. When this unfortunate situation happens, customers may display a certain level of dissatisfaction, reflecting on their behaviour. According to Paul, it is not only a great opportunity to take the experience beyond their expectations, but make it exceptional. The Cruise Director gives an example of transforming such a situation when a couple lost their luggage once they got on a cruise ship.
Written by Valentina Svobodova
Full episode transcript
Paul: As a speaker, sometimes you're saying, well, if you get nervous speaking in front of a crowd, just imagine them naked and that should lessen your your nervousness. I don't know why they say that. I don't know if it works. But imagine going out on stage to talk to a group of people and they actually are naked.
Valentina: In today's episode of CX Insider is speaking to Paul Rutter, founder and CEO of Smooth Sailing Communication and who's an entertainment director at Royal Caribbean International. On the top of that Paul is also a keynote speaker, author of a book called Repeat Business Inc., The Business of Staying in Business and upcoming book called You Can't Make This Ship Up. Paul also does workshops on how to deliver more than perfect experience and exceed customers expectations. In this episode, you will hear all about how Paul creates these experiences in an industry in which delivering perfection is only the starting point. Sounds impossible, but Paul will tell you how exactly to do this. So make a cup of coffee, relax on a sofa and enjoy listening to some amazing stories that happen to people on this cruise. Adventurous. Let me ask you a question on a scale from one to 10, how much do you desire to go on holiday right now? One means you just got back from holiday and you will not think about going away for the next couple of months because you need to lose those 10 pounds you gained in Punta Cana from eating out every day. Five is considering a weekend escape from kids to maybe Cornwall. Well, let me tell you, by the end of this episode, you will all be on 10. Paul Rutter got into the cruise industry almost 40 years ago, and ironically, it all started on a random day when he was walking his dog.
Paul: I come from a very unique industry and the way I got into it is also interesting. I took my dog for a walk near my house. I'm from the US. I live in Florida now, but I grew up in Connecticut, which is in between New York and Boston, and I took my dog for a walk and ran into the old principal of the high school I went to, and he just said, Hey, how would you like to work on a cruise ship? And winter was coming. And I'm thinking, wow, that's crazy. I've never been on a cruise ship. I didn't know what it was about. But he knew somebody who knew somebody. And before I knew it, I was sailing on my first cruise ship, working on board. And that's how it took off because I took my dog for a walk. And so it's interesting how everybody should keep their eyes and their ears open for new opportunities, because I never, ever would have thought about joining the cruise industry if I just hadn't taken my dog for a walk. So it's a great industry, obviously. I love it being involved for so long. And and the cruise industry is very unique because we're one of the very few industries where we actually live with our customers. I don't know if you have either of you have taken a cruise before. I'm sure many of your listeners have taken a cruise, whether it's a short three or four day or whether it's a week or a two week cruise.
Paul: But we actually live with our customers on board. I work on board the ships. My position is cruise director, which means I'm in charge of all on board activities and entertainment. So we're the fun people on board. And so living with our customers is a very unique dynamic. And so we have to have policies and procedures and principles in place in order to take care of anything that may arise during their cruise, because it's not like they're calling us on the phone. They're actually standing right in front of us. So if they come to the front desk and tells them, well, our air conditioning isn't working, we cannot say, oh, we'll send somebody out in a few days because that's not going to work. We have to take care of the problem in thirty minutes or less. And so living with your customers is a very unique dynamic. And so when I speak to businesses on land, the first question I ask them is, could your business survive? If you had to live with your customers, what would that look like? Would you take your time returning phone calls or emails or taking care of business the way you should if you knew they were right there standing in front of you? And then the other unique dynamic about the cruise industry is that we also live with our co-workers.
Paul: So the people that we work with all day long, we actually live with as well. They may be our roommate because most crewmembers have two people in a cabin that they share. Some of the senior officers like myself will have our own cabin, a single cabin, obviously. But living with your customers and your co-workers presents a very unique dynamic. And what we have to accomplish with those people that we work with and that we live with. Before covid, I had to keep reminding my people that as soon as they walked out of their cabin, they were on duty. They had to have that smile on their face. They had to have the proper attitude. And so it's it's a unique experience. It's not for everybody. Some people who work on a cruise ship just after a week or two or a month, they know this is not for me, but a lot of people who do enjoy the not the rules and regulations, but enjoy the experience. They stay for quite some time. We've had people who have been on board ships for twenty, twenty five years and they're family people and they have to leave their families for long periods of time. But once it gets in your blood, it's kind of hard to get out.
Valentina: When you live with your colleagues and customers for four or five, six months, they become your family. Customers even book their journeys based on which crew is going to be on board. However, it was all gone when the pandemic started, and the cruise industry, unlike some other industries, instantly disappeared.
Paul: Covid certainly has affected the cruise industry. It completely wiped it out. I mean, I won't rehash all the stories about in February of 2020, February and March of of of guests being stuck on board covid ships and not being allowed back into port and crew members on board and their governments wouldn't allow us to fly them back. A lot of the problems in the early days of covid was that the governments of the various countries didn't know how to handle the situation. And so the media attention really went crazy and out of control. And there were some instances that they had a right to be. But a lot of it wasn't just some of it was negative against the cruise line when that really wasn't where the blame should be. We wanted to get it took us months and months into like June and July to get all the crew members off the ships and back to their home countries. But we were being denied every step of the way. So covid, yes, is obviously wiped out the cruise industry for the first year. Now, slowly but surely, it's coming back around the world. There's been a few ships sailing for quite a while now since last August or September. There's been a couple of ships sailing with very few incidences.
Paul: The company I work for now, Royal Caribbean International. We've had a ship sailing out of Singapore since I think it was November, December of last year. It was arranged and in conjunction with the government of Singapore, they were very good at allowing us to dock. Their cruises are now coming back. I know in the UK you're going to have a very busy summer with lots of cruise ships starting to sail. They do have to be, I believe most of these ships, you do have to be vaccinated and vaccinations are going to be the key to the cruise industry coming back really strong. And I should tell you, the bookings right now are through the roof for the remainder of 2021 and into twenty 2022. I think I read a world cruise, a ninety or a hundred and twenty day world cruise in twenty twenty three has already sold out. So people are itching to get away and itching to get out of their homes and I think they see if they can do it in a safe, effective way, that cruising will be a good way to do that. So but I've heard that bookings are already higher than they were before the pandemic, so that's very good. Encouraging those.
Valentina: If you go on holiday provided by one of the most luxurious cruise lines, you pay premium, you expect to be treated like a royalty. You want to be spoiled. So does it mean, then, that customer is always right?
Paul: My personal view is no, the customer is not always right. But and there is a but there first of all, the customer always thinks they're right. And so we have to deal with that dynamic, with trying to convince them or do we even bother to convince them that they're not right. So that's number one. The customer always thinks they're right. And number two is the customer is always the customer. And so you want to make any situation, a win win situation. You never want a customer to walk away thinking that they lost in the transaction. You always want to try to make it a win win for everybody. So, for instance, a guest came on board one time and they thought that we had twenty four hours of babysitting services, that we we would take their six month old son for the entire week and do babysitting twenty four hours a day. Well, that's just not possible. We do have some babysitting services on board, but we don't have twenty four hours a day babysitting service. And he wanted somebody in their cabin with the baby just staying with the baby. And we just don't have the personnel on board to do that for every child. So we needed to work out a compromise where that we would do the babysitting for certain formal nights or four different times where they could get away. So we couldn't do the twenty four hours of the service like they were expecting, but we were able to work out a good compromise where they saw it. From our point of view, we saw it from their point of view, and it was a win win situation because they were able to spend some quality time alone. But we didn't we weren't providing the twenty four hours of service that they were expecting. So you can do things as long as you make it a win win situation. You never want to embarrass a customer. You never want to put them down. But in my world, know the customer is not always right, but they are always the customer.
Valentina: Most businesses do have a form of a loyalty program, if you're like me, a coffee addict, I'm sure you hold about 100 different loyalty cards in your wallet just to get the 20 coffee for free. And when you finally want to claim your free meal casino with extra dairy free, fat free cream, sugar free syrup and a chocolate flake. The card is nowhere to be found, so you start a new card, but these programs come second, you don't choose to go to that specific coffee shop just to get extra points unless it's. Listen to Paul explaining how loyalty is born.
Paul: The key is that the your first cruise, you always compare everything to your first cruise. So we need to make sure that first cruise is really is really an exceptional experience, because then odds are that they're going to come back to our line. They don't if it's a bad experience, let's say, with a a Royal Caribbean or Cannard or a piano, then they're willing to try a different line. But if they've had a really good time, their first cruise, they don't want to risk maybe going to another line because they know they had such a great time with our lot. So you you gain loyalty, first of all, by having a wonderful product and then you try to make your customers, your raving brand ambassadors. You want your own customers to be doing your marketing for you because that's who people believe. Now, you you can't go online and go to a Yelp or a Reddit and read reviews there because you're not really sure who's written those reviews. But if you talk to your family and your friends and they tell you that they've had a great time, then you can believe those recommendations. And so you build loyalty by making sure that the customers you have are willing to refer you and recommend to you. I know there are surveys out there. And usually the first question on a survey is how likely are you to recommend our service to your family and friends? And so that's what's really important now is getting the people that you trust to to give good recommendations for you.
Valentina: In Paul's workshops, he teaches other sex professionals his more than perfect model, and it's all about delivering more than perfect experience. Now, you might think, yeah, but that's financially impossible to consistently exceed customers expectations and it's going to create a massive expectation gap and so on and so on. In fact, sometimes it's only about doing something different or personal. Paul's story describes how he got this idea. It all happened several years ago on a cruise in Egypt.
Paul: When you go to Egypt, of course, you have to go to the pyramids, you don't go to Egypt without going to the pyramids. And so we had we have a many tours from the ship where we have our thousands of passengers that will take a tour, a day tour to the pyramids while one cruise, a lady came up to me, a guest, and said that she had booked her own personal tour through the Internet and and asked if I knew this tour company. And I really didn't, because there's lots of tour companies, obviously, in Egypt. But I told her when she goes on her tour, she was meeting the tour guide at the ship. They were going to pick her up and she was going to do a personal tour instead of going with all of the passengers at one time. And so I didn't see her for a few days after we left Egypt. I was getting a little nervous. But finally I saw her on the ship and she said it was the most incredible tour ever. It was great. The guide was wonderful. It was just a wonderful experience. So she had the guides information. So I hired the guide for me and my family. And she was right. It was an absolutely what I consider to be a perfect tour. We went to the pyramids when the thousands of passengers on our ship were somewhere else so that we weren't there with thousands of people.
Paul: When when our passengers were at the pyramids, we went shopping or we went to someplace else in town. And then when they left the pyramids, we went there. So it was like they had the pyramids to ourselves. It was crazy. It was wonderful. And so we had a great time. We had dinner outside the the pyramids where they were a music show and a light show. And just it was a wonderful tour that I consider perfect. Six months later, I arranged again for our guide. His name was Yasir, by the way, to take a tour with all the crew members and my family and friends. And there was about ten or 12 people. And I arranged it through Yasir again. And I said, Yasir, whatever you do, just give them the same tour you gave me. That was perfect. And he looked at me, he said, No, Mr. Paul, Mr. Paul, this tour will be more than perfect, more than perfect. And I went, yeah, OK, whatever. Just please give them the same tour. Well, as it turned out, the next day, because the people got back at like 3:00 in the morning. So the next day when I finally saw my friends and these other crew members, they were just in the absolute best possible mood.
Paul: They said, Paul, this tour was the best we've ever been on. It was incredible. We did exactly the same things you did. And then they told me that at midnight, as they were ready to start the three hour trip back to the ship, Yasser looked at them and said, I have arranged for a one hour tour, a one hour cruise down the Nile River. Do you want to go down the Nile River for a one hour cruise at midnight? And of course, they looked at him and they said, yes, of course, we want to take a little cruise down the Nile River. That would be even more than perfect. And so that's what he did. He created and took our perfect tour and made it a little bit better. One more wow moment that people will remember the next time. And even to this day, this was like ten years ago. Even to this day, my friends and my family and these crew members are still talking about this tour that they went on in Egypt. And Yasser kept his word. He actually made it more than perfect because he went above and beyond the expectation. And so that's where more than perfect service started because of a tour I took to the pyramids in Egypt.
Valentina: Who would want to visit Egypt after listening to such a beautiful story, but what if something goes wrong right at the beginning of the customer's journey? What did they expect? That something and they got disappointed right after they get on the ship. How do you then create a more than perfect experience?
Paul: Well, I think that's a great opportunity when things go wrong to exceed expectations, because the customer experience of which customer service is just one small part of the whole customer experience starts when people think about going on a cruise. So, you know, the experience starts with how easy is it to manage the website, to go through the website? How easy is it to contact somebody in reservations or if you have any questions about a cruise? How quickly do they respond to your questions? That's all part of the customer experience. And so sometimes when people come on board, their experience before getting there has not been good. So you use the experience of missing luggage. We've had people come on board and they fly to, let's say, Miami, where they join the ship and the airlines lose their luggage without now they're coming on board already, not in a good place, not in a good frame of mind. And so it's up to us to try to turn that around. And so we have on board, we keep some supplies on board, some toiletry supplies, and we can give t-shirts and shorts off for a formal night. We have extra tuxedos on board for the gentleman. We've always had gowns for ladies in different sizes, or some of the crew members will donate some clothes for people who are missing their luggage and then are back of the house. People are in touch with the airlines all the time trying to locate the luggage.
Paul: So it could be that the people come on board with no luggage in there and they're not in the best of moods, let's say. But if they get their luggage in the first port of call, because we followed up and followed through and they've had something to wear, well, then we've exceeded their expectations because they didn't know how far we would go for them. And so we've we've done a good job of exceeding their expectations. And so that's that's our goal on board. We have one goal on board our ships and every business should have the goal, and that is to create such an exceptional, exceptional experience that exceeds expectations. And if that happens, then we know that they will do more business with us. We have somebody on board our ships that will help our guests booked their next cruise. So if they're having such a wonderful time on this cruise, then we know if they booked their next cruise and it only takes a small deposit. They don't have to they don't even have to tell us what ship they want to go on. They don't have to tell us where in the world we want. They want to go. If they give us like a small hundred dollar deposit, then we will hold a cabin for them on any ship at any time. And we know that ninety eight percent of the time they will take their next vacation with us.
Valentina: Not only Paul managed to transform what could have been an absolute nightmare into a fantastic holiday experience, his exceptional service created customer loyalty. This unfortunate situation could, of course, happen to anyone, but only Paul and his team could manage to fix the issue and exceed their customers expectations. Talking about teamwork, it must be challenging to train colleagues to deliver such a high level of service.
Paul: I think we've all had to deal with in everyday life. We've had to deal with employees who have scowls on their face or in bad moods, or they can ruin an experience for you. So we've always said on board happy crew makes for happy guests and it is so true. And so you need to create a culture that your employees look forward to coming to work and want to be part of the solution. Employees just don't want to be relegated to the back room. They want to know that they're being heard. They want to know that their their skills are being used and that their past experiences, even though we may not know about them, contribute to who they are today. And so you want to take advantage of the knowledge of your employees and get them involved. So, for instance, on board our ships, usually there's close to a crew members from 60 to 70 different countries onboard the ship. And so think about all those experiences that these people have had throughout their lives and what they can bring to the table. And so I think creating a really good company culture where people look forward to coming to work and know that they're engaged and know that they're empowered to take care of problems that they don't have to keep running back to their managers and supervisors. Ritz Carlton is a great example.
Paul: Ritz Carlton's motto is Ladies and gentlemen serving, ladies and gentlemen. And if I'm not mistaken, each employee is given a budget of I think it's two thousand dollars to fix a problem immediately. And so think about that in the experience of your customers, if they know that a problem is going to be taken care of and that every employee is empowered to take care of that problem, well, that's just a great, great culture that the employees want to be a part of. They don't want to have to say, oh, let me go ask my manager if I can refund ten dollars to you. They're going to want to know that they can do it right away. And that creates a great experience. So there's an old saying that says you hire for attitude and you train for skill. So attitude is the number one thing, especially in the cruise industry, because the cruise industry is a very public relations oriented industry. We're dealing with people all the time. We're not in the cruise industry. We're in the public relations industry, in the memory making industry. And so you have to have people certainly within the cruise industry that have the right attitude. They're away from home for four or six, sometimes up to eight months at a time. So having the right attitude is extremely important.
Valentina: I know that if you're a financial service provider, you can't possibly think of giving your client an experience as exciting as floating down the River Nile at night, but you can still make the experience memorable. And if there was only one thing to remember from the entire episode, Paul would say that we all are in the industry of making memories. Imagine you could create an experience that would enable your customer to escape their monotonous everyday life that would make them happy and liberated without a fear of being judged. Imagine you could give them a paradise on Earth. And I'm not exaggerating. This is what Paul presents in his love story. And whether you work in hospitality or retail, you can aim at delivering a more than perfect and memorable experience.
Paul: Ship charters are very big for us full ship charters. So, for instance, we might have a company. Charter, the entire ship as an incentive for their people, and obviously this is before covid, so they do a full ship charter. Now, it might be it could be a music cruise. It could be a sports cruise, or it could be a life style cruise. It could be anything but one company charters the entire ship and then we go wherever they want to go. It's basically their ship for the for the week or however long cruises. So one time we had what was called a clothing optional cruise, meaning once the ship went out of the 12 mile limit, which is the unofficial limit, people could take their clothes off. Clothing was optional. It was a naked cruise and it was completely sold out. It was the ship was chartered by a travel agency that does this for a living. This is very, very big business. So as a speaker, sometimes you're saying, well, if you get nervous speaking in front of a crowd, just imagine them naked. And that should lessen your your nervousness. I don't know why they say that. I don't know if it works, but imagine going out on stage to talk to a group of people and they actually are naked and they're staring up at you. Now, I have my clothes on and all the crew has their clothes on. But if you can imagine being on a cruise where clothing was optional and these are these were well respected people, I had a lot of conversations with them. Obviously, maintaining eye contact was very important during this time. And yes, that is a joke. But some of the conversations were amazing. These were corporate CEOs who were on this cruise. These were military people who were on these cruise. These were moms and dads and grandparents whose own families had no idea that they were living this lifestyle. But it was very interesting. It was fascinating to hear these the stories from these guests. And it was also interesting for the crew, because it's something we're still talking about to this day.
Valentina: Let me ask you a question on a scale from one to 10, how much do you desire to go on holiday right now? I do feel confident to say it is more than when you started listening to the episode. Let's summarize Paula's incredible insights he gained during his years of experience in the cruise industry. If you ever think the customer service you provide is good enough, ask yourself whether it would still be true if you lived with your customers. If you ever think your customer service is not as good as it could be. Stop restricting yourself by the industry working and instead work in the industry of making memories. And lastly, imagine you are stuck with your customers and colleagues for months at sea, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. That could literally be a definition of a cabin fever. And the only thing that can help you get through and make everyone happy is the attitude you and your colleagues have. If you like this episode. Please don't forget to like, share comment or subscribe to the podcast on your preferred channel if you're interested in what Paul does. Feel free to check out his LinkedIn profile. Visit his website provided in the episode description below. Read his book, Repeat Business, Inc.. The Business of Staying in Business or pre purchase his upcoming book. You Can't Make This Shit Up. I also hope that you like this new storytelling format of the podcast. And don't forget to share your opinion of social media. And I will see you at.