Customer Service Escapes Princess Cruise – But Not Completely

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When one thinks of going on a cruise, the expectation of customer service naturally follows. This puts cruise lines under a bit of a microscope, and because of the heightened expectations, they really do have to be significantly better than everyone else. This is particularly true with cruise lines like Princess, who hang their hats on customer experience. Their slogan is “Escape Completely.” We have just spent the past 16 days sailing aboard the Ocean Princess to see just how well they do. Here is the summary:

About the Cruise

The Ocean Princess is one of the company’s “Small Ships,” carrying a little over 600 passengers. It sounds like a large number, but it is indeed small in comparison to the Emerald Princess (3,200 passengers) that we sailed on just five years earlier. (See the bottom of this post for links to that cruise experience). The itinerary included 8 at-sea days and 8 ports in the South Pacific, beginning in Papeete, Tahiti and concluding in Sydney, Australia.

The Good Stuff

One can’t help but be impressed with the magnificent processes that are in place on a cruise ship to enhance customer experience. Here are just a few:

The Onboarding Process
You drop your bags off when you show up to the ship, then head off to explore, find a restaurant, or whatever. Shortly afterward, your bags are magically in your cabin. They accomplish this with over 600 passengers in just a few short hours.

Food Service
2 sitting times in one restaurant. Imagine what has to happen to cook and serve over 600 individually prepared meals in just 3 hours – every single day. The food, and presentation is outstanding. It doesn’t compare to high-end restaurants, but it comes as close as one could reasonably expect it to. Add to this the other food stations that serve pizza, sausages, hamburgers, etc, and the omnipresent buffet with a dazzling assortment of choices. Cruise lines have this process down to a fine science.

Embarking/Disembarking
Whether you are getting on and off the ship via land bridge or tender, they process people effectively and efficiently.

Events & Entertainment
The Ocean Princess had a great assortment of entertainment – from comedians to zoomba classes to needlepoint workshops. Their entertainment group – 6 dancers and two singers, were truly world-class. What made the customer experience even better was the opportunity to meet the entertainers, as they would also be involved in other ship activities. Shoutouts to young dancers Simon and Bonnie.

Room Servicing
You meet the person looking after your cabin immediately, and see him often throughout the voyage. His role ( I never saw a female in this role), was to ensure your comfort, as well as the security of your room. He never sleeps, and always has a smile on his face. Our attendant was Franco, from India. A truly delightful young man.

Overall Environment
The ship is kept scrupulously clean, and the amenities, (with the bizarre exception of the horrendous golf facility), are kept immaculate and very ‘classy.’ (Can’t think of a better word here).

Stuff That Needs To Be Better

The Coffee
Really?? Why are you getting this wrong?

The Omnipresent Nickel and Diming and Sales Pitches
It is pretty hard to ‘Escape Completely’, when at every turn someone is trying to sell you something. Things like spa treatments and photography aren’t so bad – one might expect to pay extra for them – but the other stuff is just silly. The ship actually has good coffee, but if you want it, you have to spring for an extra +/-$30 at the beginning of the cruise to get a ‘coffee card.’ Same goes for soft drinks. Really guys? Just add an extra flippin’ $50 to the price of the cruise and stop annoying people.

Gratuities Upon Gratuities
None of the pricing that is advertised is the actual pricing. Fees (they call them ‘gratuities’) are attached to everything. Dear Princess: Here’s what you should do: Pay your people enough so that they don’t have to rely on ‘extra’ revenue. Then permit customers the opportunity to reward people for exceptional service. Don’t impose fees. it comes across as cheap, and diminishes the customer experience

Front Desk Staff
The Ocean Princess has a ‘front desk,’ much like a hotel. In a premium hotel, however, the front desk staff are typically very well trained for customer service. Glitches in customer service in these hotels most often happen in the housekeeping or maintenance departments.

It was quite the opposite with the Ocean Princess. Where the room attendants and all of the other personnel were consistently friendly and outgoing, the front desk staff were perfunctory and, at best, cool. There was none of the warmth that one would expect. This was a consistent observation among many in the ship. This lack of warmth, and customer service skills, extended to the person working in the excursion area.

Retail Staff
There were two stores on board. One was a ‘Duty Free’ shop with high end stuff, and the other was a gift shop. Neither of them was remotely properly staffed, and none of the staff that were there had nearly the skills to be doing the job well. Here are legitimate revenue producers (instead of the chintzy things mentioned above), that would easily have doubled their value to Princess and passengers if run properly.

Service Recovery Skills
This is the same thing I noted 5 years ago when experiencing the Emerald Princess. Once things go sideways, and fall outside of the finely-tuned cruise-ship processes, the customer experience takes a nosedive.

I had more than one conversation with passengers who talked about situations where they had to deal with illness, or had to make some changes. In each case it was a Problem (capital “P”.). What Princess doesn’t seem to grasp yet, is that it is the manner in which they deal with exceptions that creates the Wow! experiences that people will talk about. I still remember being quarantined aboard the Emerald Princess. While I fully understood the reasoning behind it, we were treated as unwanted guests, more than people who were missing out on a big part of their cruise.

The Verdict?

Overall, Princess delivers a pretty impressive customer experience. The size of the Ocean Princess gives them the ability to provide a more personal customer experience than the giant ships, which is a good thing. They rely heavily on their processes, however, as well as their hiring practices. Their people are, overall, pretty good, but I sense that they are not as empowered as they could be. Their processes are powerful, and, I suspect, strictly enforced. This is a good thing, but can also backfire on them when things go awry.

In the more fluid and reactive areas – front desk, retail, etc – they need work. My experience is that, when one sees such consistent customer service underperformance, that it is a management and a training issue. Somehow customer experience is not a priority for these people. Or, if it is, they haven’t been adequately trained

Finally, it is too bad that the bean counters at head office can’t see the significant negative impact their quest for secondary revenue has on customer experience. They really need to address this, if they want customers to Escape Completely. The standing joke amongst the passengers was how to ‘escape’ from the constant gouging.

We finish this round of Customer Service Around the World with three days in Sydney, Australia. Stay tuned, so I can share with you one of my best restaurant experiences ever!

To see some of the commentary on the 2007 Princess experience, visit the following posts:

Republished with author's permission from original post.

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