Northern Trail at Woodland Park Zoo. One of many award-winning environments that immerse and inspire guests.

Most organizations depend on customer loyalty. They know it lends itself toward long-term profitability. But zoos are a unique creature in and of themselves. It isn’t just about getting people to come back, or even becoming a donor. It’s about getting people on board to protecting our world, and all that nature nourishes. It’s about caring. The customer experience itself is more than seeing animals and finding a clean restroom. It’s about creating an impression that lives long after they’ve exited the zoo’s gates.

And all of this is made more complicated because of two factors: First, zoos are largely seasonal venues, requiring a large hirings of temporary employees that only stay a handful of months and then go away. Second, most long-term zoological staff are usually over-committed to the work and research of their field, not to mention the daily welfare of their animals. Thinking about customer service can be burdening to those whose plates are already full.

As a consultant I’ve worked for countless organizations in the public, private and non-profit sector. And I’m well-known as the leader in best-in-business practices with Disney. But zoos are still very unique. And so has been my journey with them. Here are the lessons I’ve learned in that sojourn.

Chicago Brookfield Zoo

My engagement with the Chicago Zoological Society–Brookfield Zoo was the first opportunity I had to work directly with the zoo, although informally, I had associated with Disney’s Animal Kingdom even before it had opened. Brookfield had a strategic goal to improve its guest experience and generate strong customer loyalty. In supporting the organization in moving in that direction, key leaders from Brookfield came to Orlando for a weeklong retreat that I held with them. From there, a customer loyalty strategy was crafted that included a number of strategies, including developing a service theme, service standards, service behaviors, and employee recognition designed to reinforce excellent service. Next, leaders were trained to lead the customer-focused initiative. Zoo facilitators were selected and trained to deliver customer service programming. The trainers facilitated sessions for approximately 1,500 Crew Members and collectively spent over 900 hours on this effort.  Leadership tool kits were implemented so that daily conversations could occur with staff around service excellence.

Teaching an early class to management on Leading the Customer Experience. After an initial roll out, we trained Brookfield’s staff to deliver the programs.

Moreover, they made improvements not just to the staff-guest interaction, but in making the zoo itself a better experience.  They revamped food & beverage facilities, added more color, more exhibits, and more events, among other improvements. They’ve made the experience of going through the zoo more customer-friendly, focusing on crowd management, queues, and service recovery processes. I expected results to improve over time. But I was astonished how quickly they grew in just the first year:

  • Non-member ratings for overall zoo visit – those who were “extremely satisfied”–increased 18% in one year’s time.
  • Non-member ratings of overall value for cost – those who said the visit was an “excellent value”– increased nearly 12% over a year.
  • Non-member ratings of the helpfulness of zoo staff – those who thought we “exceeded expectations”– increased nearly 8%.
  • Non-member ratings of “definitely will visit the Zoo again next year”–improved nearly 7% in the space of one season.

Since starting this effort, the number of non-member guests rating the staff courtesy as “Excellent” has made double-digit gains across the board over the last five years.  The biggest change was that nearly 65% of non-members listened to or interacted with zoo staff or volunteers regarding animals during their visit, compared to only 9% the year previous to starting this initiative.  This is an enormous behavioral change among staff. It’s also important, because their data show that when guests hear staff talk about animals their intent to encourage others to visit was much higher–46.6% than those who did not hear staff talk about animals–which was 16.4%.

The zoo is especially beautiful in the warmer months with flowers, fountains, and colorful banners waving in the wind.

They have continued being a great benchmark in what to do to improve customer service. In fact, last year we actually brought executive HR leaders attending SHRM’s strategic conference through to witness firsthand the great things Brookfield Zoo is doing. It’s an amazing thing when people from hospitals, banks, colleges and municipalities are meticulously taking note of what they can learn from a zoo.

Management walks the zoo grounds with these pocket-size cards, hoping to recognize exemplary employees providing great service. Other pocket cards help to provide in-the-moment service recovery when needed.

Seattle Woodland Park Zoo

The year after I started work with Brookfield I was contacted by Woodland Park Zoo to do the same thing. We went to work immediately, and provided a solid customer service training program to all employees throughout the organization. The one challenge was that we didn’t bring senior staff out to Orlando first to really get them on board to the notion of customer service. And while we did set aside time to initially talk with those leaders, my contact was largely concentrated with a customer service manager–leaving little opportunity to get involved with any other part of the organization, namely the HR division. I worked with them for a couple of years but then heard nothing more. They were a great zoo, but I wasn’t sure we had gotten the traction we had gotten with Brookfield. It really isn’t just about a strong customer service brand, but it’s about creating a culture that supports that brand.

Volunteer staff members like Susan facilitated portions of the customer service training program out in the zoo where they could walk in the shoes of the guests.

Houston Zoo

My connection with Houston Zoo came through social media connections with a former Walt Disney World alumni. He knew that a strong customer service focus was needed, and in time I was invited to work with them. They too didn’t have the time to go to Orlando. Instead we had a very intense two-day retreat in a hotel nearby making very strategic and tactical decisions. The resolve of that meeting in May of 2011 was that they wanted to wait until the off season in the Fall to start things up. I was a little concerned–how far was this really going to go?

But I had clearly underestimated the will and power of the Houston Zoo! When the Houston Zoo says they are going to do thing–they do it! A full fledged push to not only create customer service training but to provide tools and resources to do the job adequately came into play. We had a great kickoff that Fall and there was a renewed commitment to the customer service experience. They even sent their customer service manager to our Lead With Your Customer Program in Orlando so that he could better do his job.

This idea came about in the strategic retreat where I shared a best practice of Disney in directing guests in the heat of the summer to cooler attractions. Houston Zoo took it to a whole new level, partnering with the local utility to not only create cards and signs, but to promote it on billboards. The results were a blessing–given that they unexpectedly ended up with one of their hottest summers ever!

Then the Houston Zoo took the experience even further. They determined that the customer experience would only go so far if the leadership wasn’t in a place to support that. Before this year’s season got underway, we provided an intense series of workshops and tools that provided managers the necessary skills to create a strong service-focused culture. We covered topics like setting goals, dealing with difficult employees, and better collaborating between departments.

Part of our effort in all three zoos has been to create as many memorable moments for guests visiting. This certificate at the Houston Zoo helps to leave a tangible memory of their experience.

I’m excited to see the work move forward at the Houston Zoo. They are determined to create a great guest experience.

Woodland Park Zoo–Take Two!

As I was working with the Houston Zoo last year, I was surprised to get a call from the Woodland Park Zoo again. There had been leadership changes and with that came a renewed determination to do something more around customer service. I was reluctant at first–not certain that they would make the efforts that I had seen with the other two zoos. I asked that they send a couple of their HR leaders to my Perfecting the Customer Experience program in Anaheim. They came! And the exciting thing was that by the end of that experience, they had a renewed vision and were excited to move forward in a way they hadn’t before.

They sent everyone back through their customer service program–even their third party food & beverage vendor, something Houston had also done. We created some wonderful tools and resources. My favorite are the Service Recovery kits–loaded with stickers, tchotchkes, carousel tokens and more. They are located throughout the zoo and available for all employees to create a great zoo experience. We got everyone up to speed just in time for the summer season, and so far, the effect is positive.

I look forward to seeing the quantitative data from Houston and Woodland Park Zoos in the years to follow. But what is really exciting are the stories. Stories come in all the time–help when a child was lost or a family was locked out of their car. Better yet–tales of staff sharing their love of animals and conservation. My favorite of all of them was written up in the Seattle Times as one of the best raves of 2012:

“To Woodland Park Zoo, who found our 4-year-old son’s missing stuffed gorilla, “Oooh Oooh,” amid the pile of stuffed animals inside the Zoomazium, and returned him to us along with a photo essay of his “adventures” during his month spent at the zoo. Your creativity, compassion and kindness stunned us, and we are so thankful that our son, who declared, “this will never stop hurting until I am dead” has his special guy back. Thanks for setting an example for our kids of what it means to go the extra mile in caring for others.”

Caring for others–and for the world around us. That’s what we’re really doing here. I walk through these zoos–all three beautiful in their own way. I pause to see the kids running toward a waddle of penguins or a family of red pandas.  These are the leaders of our world tomorrow. Their trip to the zoo today will shape their love of animals and nature tomorrow. As leaders today, it’s our privilege to shape that experience–one where we build a world that cares. Simple, but not simplistic. Still, the quest of any great zoo.

And I know of three of them.

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