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Tourism Training Takes Flight in Miami

May 13, 2010

It is a typically hectic day at Miami International Airport. Businesspeople scurry past in frantic last-minute efforts to catch departing flights. Amid the clamor, a shoeshine man calmly buffs the wingtips of a 30-something executive, whose face is buried deep in a newspaper. Across the concourse, a waitress in a navy blue apron serves up fully loaded hot dogs to a family en route to a vacation spot. Passing in front of all this activity, an airline worker pushes a woman in a wheelchair, steering through a maze of people toward the far end of the terminal.

Scenes like this play out hundreds of times a day at Miami International. Owing to its proximity to various tourist destinations, Miami International served nearly 34 million passengers in 2009. That makes it the 12th-busiest U.S. airport and 25th-busiest in the world, according to Airports Council International, a trade group in Geneva.

Unlike other airports, though, Miami International is assuming a sizable task: It is trying to persuade disparate groups of employees to think and act as ambassadors for regional tourism. Rather than workers carrying out their narrow tasks in a disjointed way, “esprit de corps” is the new rallying cry. Airport workers in all jobs are learning the importance of finding solutions to myriad issues that beset travelers on their way to and from Miami.

Dickie Davis, the airport’s director of terminal operations, recites a motto that embodies the airport’s evolving attitude to customer service.

“What happens here at the airport may not be our fault, but it is our problem,” Davis says.

If you think customer service training is a tough sell inside your organization, just imagine what it must be like to walk in Davis’ shoes. Beginning in 2010, all 35,000 employees who work at Miami International are required to complete mandatory training on the principles of hospitality and customer service.

About 1,400 people are employed directly by Miami International, which is run by the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department. The rest work at ancillary businesses that operate on the grounds of the airport, including shoeshine and hot dog stands, concessionaires, retailers, restaurants, custodial services, federal airport screeners and the airlines themselves.

Rolled out in conjunction with local tourism agencies and Miami-Dade College, the airport’s service training is an adjunct to a $6.2 billion expansion that includes new terminals and other infrastructure. The capital improvements are one reason Miami International was able to vault from 14th place to sixth place in JD Power and Associates’ annual customer service survey of North American airports last year.

The gleaming new facilities are impressive, Davis says, but equally critical are efforts to boost service for air travelers.

“Miami is a very big, very important airport. We are the gateway to the Americas. People might walk through our new facilities and remark how beautiful they are, but what they’ll really remember is how they were treated,” Davis says.

The required training is tied to renewal of airport ID badges, which expire every two years. That time frame enables Miami International to target a select number of employees and phase in the training gradually to the entire workforce. For instance, an employee whose credentials expire during the next 12 months must finish the training before receiving a new ID badge.

“Without an ID badge you can’t work at the airport. That’s a pretty big impetus” to take the training seriously, Davis says.

Credentialing initially provides a captive audience, but Davis says the larger objective is to foster a cultural shift within the organization. Namely, it helps airport workers understand how the airport makes money, and the impact their individual performance has on business results.

The customer service learning program is in addition to security and other required training for airport workers, including any training provided by individual companies. The fast-paced course takes about one hour to complete and is taught on site by instructors from the Center for Service Excellence at Miami-Dade College. Customer service training isn’t new to the airport, however. The program builds on previous training provided in 2007 by the Disney Institute. Davis says the Disney training was intended mostly for airport employees, while the new program targets all workers.

In this round of training, the content shows airport employees the links between airport-related jobs and Miami’s tourist-driven economy. According to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, one in five jobs in Greater Miami is tied to the hospitality sector, which employs about 100,000 people. Roland Aedo, the agency’s senior vice president of marketing, says the region is undergoing a renaissance, having added a spate of upscale hotels, restaurants and cultural facilities during the past decade. The building boom helped revive Miami’s once-decaying inner city and inject it with a new and vibrant character.

“With that comes the expectation that you’ll be able to offer world-class service. But for a variety of reasons, Miami [as a region] lagged behind in that area,” Aedo says.

Unlike other municipal entities, Miami’s airport is not funded with taxpayer dollars. Instead, it generates revenue entirely from airport operations, such as landing fees charged to airports and other passenger fees. A reputation for poor service could prompt travelers to avoid Miami International, which indirectly affects airport revenues, Aedo says. In other words, airlines may respond to consumers’ dissatisfaction—and the attendant drop-off in passengers—by limiting the number of flights landing at Miami.

“If the customers stop coming—and by customers I mean the airlines—it ultimately could mean the loss of workers’ jobs,” says Aedo, whose agency teamed with the neighboring Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority to provide $10,000 to launch the training program and line up Miami Dade College as an instructional partner.

Stories of shoddy customer service at airports can quickly go viral, as evidenced last year in a YouTube video by musician Dave Carroll. Titled “United Breaks Guitars,” it chronicles how careless baggage handlers at United Airlines purportedly destroyed expensive musical instruments when Carroll’s band was boarding a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Although done with humor, the video started out as a defiant statement against what Carroll perceived to be United’s indifference toward customer satisfaction.

Scandal touched Miami International last summer after the federal Transportation Security Administration fired six security workers for allegedly pilfering items from passengers’ luggage. Those incidents came less than six months after the TSA named Miami International its airport of the year in 2008 for its ability to process 98 percent of passengers through security screenings in 10 minutes or less.

Davis says the new training was not a response to the TSA firings, but rather stems from the vision of Jose Abreu, who took over as airport director in 2007. “He is totally committed to changing the service culture here,” Davis says.

Pivotal to that idea is quickly responding to customer complaints in a personal way. Davis and her team use e-mail correspondence, handwritten letters and direct phone conversations with customers to address service complaints. The direct approach of owning up to service failures and vowing to improve is winning converts such as Petrewska Nicholson, whose mother recently missed a connecting flight in Miami. On top of that, a piece of carry-on luggage got lost.

Once she found out about the mishaps, Nicholson called the airport seeking answers, expecting to get a runaround. Instead, she was connected to American Airlines agent Roberto Lopez, who already was aware of the problem and had taken steps to book her mother on another flight.

“He treated my mom just like it was his mom. He kept telling me not to worry, that he wouldn’t leave her until she was safely in the air. It’s what I wanted to hear, but it wasn’t what I expected,” Nicholson says.

Lopez went on to win a monthly employee award for his above-and-beyond effort. Davis says such anecdotes are becoming more common as customer service emerges as a top priority. It revolves around getting employees from hundreds of different organizations to appreciate the roles they play, regardless of their jobs. For example, airport travelers cite the top two issues as clean bathrooms and courteous employees.

“We tell them: ‘You’re not just shining shoes or selling hot dogs. You’re in the hospitality business,’ ” Davis says.

Miami International unveiled the new program in December, and Davis says secret shoppers and customer feedback tools will be used to gauge its success.

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