What a little ‘southern hospitality’ can teach us about customer service

Char Coburn is the director of Human Resources for the Bonanza Casino in Reno, Nev. She has been at the casino for the past 20 years and is a human resources generalist who wears many hats. She can be reached at char@bonanzacasino.com.

Through the years, I remember hearing a song by Phil Harris - something regarding what he liked about the South. There were several references to southern-style food, if I remember right: turnip greens; cornbread; black-eyed peas and the like. Southern drawls. New Orleans. He really liked it down below that Mason-Dixon line, I think. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to visit states from North Carolina and Alabama, all the way down to the tip of Florida, and I agree with old Phil.

I’ve tried deep-fried ‘gator and boiled peanuts while traveling with my husband. We walked around in Charleston and Savannah. We discovered Cracker Barrel restaurants. We saw some incredible historical sights, from Civil War battle grounds in Tennessee to covered bridges in Georgia. We have enjoyed nearly every minute on every trip. My fondest memories, however, are of the people we met. In order to enjoy all of the activities on our trips, we needed to interact with employees along the way. Surprisingly, I don’t have a complaint about any of them. Why a surprise? Being in HR, and always aware of guest service by employees, I tend to be somewhat critical. Down south, I found nothing to complain about.

Well, that isn’t exactly true - I complained bitterly about the humidity. On the coast of South Carolina, having driven a couple of hundred miles that day, we stopped to visit a light house. I can still feel the moist, hot blanket that enveloped me when I opened the door of our air-conditioned rental car. I guess that was one of the minutes of the trips that I didn’t enjoy.

Manners go a long way

Once again, though, employees were unfailingly polite, eager, friendly, enthusiastic and took very good care of us. At the time, I wondered what was up. I would like to bottle that attitude and present it to some of the employees I’ve met elsewhere in the country.

Paula Deen, from the Food Network, calls that attitude “southern hospitality.” It goes with the softness of the vowels and consonants when clerks say please and thank you. It works hand-in-hand with the food server who suggests a particular barbeque sauce to go with the entrée that was pointed to as being the best on the menu. It reflects on the souvenir shop cashier who quickly directs you to the aisle where the shirts for little girls reside. It is even evident in the guy working along the highway, where your car is stopped for a draw-bridge opening, who drawls that he’s “right sorry” you had to stop. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

On the other hand, trips to states that shall remain unnamed, were quite different. Trips to stores and restaurants right around home quite often send my blood pressure soaring. I just don’t get it. When your livelihood depends on providing good service, why doesn’t it happen? We work on that concept at my property constantly. Right now, I’m focusing on leadership, leading by example, and how our management team’s actions directly affect guest service.

Leading by example

I’m a firm believer in positive reinforcement. If you provide a justly deserved pat-on-the-back, it carries considerably more weight and will stay in an employee’s mind much longer than a written warning. I’ve heard it said that what gets rewarded, gets repeated. Empty praise, such as a “nice job” comment thrown over a shoulder at the end of the day, as a supervisor is leaving, is meaningless. On the other hand, a “thank you for making sure that Joe Guest got his steak done just the way he likes it. You saved a bad situation from becoming worse. Nice job!” said, right after the incident, is worth its weight in gold.

Leading by example is invaluable, as well. Our marketing department distributes buttons with slogans on them to draw attention to current promotions. We ask our employees to wear them, prompting guests to ask questions. It is also a reminder and an opening line for an employee to talk about with guests. A simple, symbolic gesture is demonstrated when all of the directors, managers and supervisors wear them, too. The impact is much greater than the effort.

We have yet to make it all the way to the Gulf Coast and have the opportunity to visit the casinos. That is on our list. So, I wonder if employees there have the same attitude as all of the other employees we’ve met. I wonder if some of the ideas I’ve expressed about leadership are used throughout the area. Is this why southern hospitality is so prevalent? I am anxious to make that connection because that atmosphere is certainly one of the things I like about the South. Is that what Phil Harris was trying to communicate?