In second year, Williams sees payoff from customer experience initiatives

SAALIK KHAN | Staff Photographer
Customer Experience Manager Karen Williams, newly hired last year, has concentrated her energy on hiring and training seasonal staff.

Last year, Chautauqua Institution put teeth into the marketing department’s efforts to enhance visitor experiences at Chautauqua: Karen Williams was hired.

Williams, the Institution’s customer experience manager,  keeps a “playbook” at her desk at the Main Gate Ticket Office — pages of detailed instructions for ticket agents and other staff who are often the first people visitors will encounter at the Institution.

“We get all sorts of questions at the Main Gate,” Williams said. “Some issues are complicated. Customers are often tired, sometimes cranky when we see them. They want quick, efficient service and we are much better equipped this summer to provide it.”

Williams, who presented her initiatives at the November 2014 meeting of Chautauqua’s board of trustees, had a mandate for change from Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer George Murphy. The leadership’s feeling was that the customer service component of visitor experience lagged behind the programmatic content.

“We’re still after the ‘big wow’ from visitors,” Williams said. “In my experience, a lot of detailed planning and preparation can lead to the ‘big wow.’ When a visitor is impressed with the efficiency and manner of a member of the Institution’s staff, that’s one great moment. Training and orientation lead to that.”

Williams brought to the Institution a wealth of prior experience in management, human resources and customer service at private firms and nonprofits. Her previous employers include the Westfield Memorial Hospital, where among other things she helped to set up the hospital’s satellite clinic near the Amphitheater.

“We’ve been able to establish a much more professional environment here,” she said.

At the Octagon, the multi-sided ticket hub within the Main Gate, visitors and Chautauquans will see agents with headsets, much wider-screen computer monitors and relevant supplies within easy reach. Williams said she is pleased with new signage that clarifies the sometimes baffling amount of differentiated Institution ticket prices.

Williams hopes Chautauquans have already noticed that preseason ticket packages were mailed out much earlier than previous years. She pointed out measures her staff has taken to streamline the mundane chore of aligning address slips and season passes. Special envelopes did the trick.

“We’ve reduced the backlog in sending out season tickets from a week or more, to two days,” she said.

Returning seasonal employees will find their pictures on file, eliminating a bottleneck from previous years in processing their passes. Will call filing has been simplified.

“I suppose there is some efficiency expert in me,” Williams said. “I really like to look at the details in the process of how we do our jobs to see how we could do them better and eliminate confusion and guesswork.”

An early objective was to establish stronger ties with local colleges and universities to create a pipeline for employees. Williams said she has developed such a relationship with SUNY Fredonia, furthering development of the foundation for a long-term staffing source. She continues to seek other opportunities.

Key elements in any successful personnel program are recruitment, training and retention. Williams said that over the course of her multi-year mandate, depth of staff experience will help support service delivery when unanticipated staff gaps occur, an approach that is already paying off.

This season, she was able to elevate Peter Cohen to ticketing lead supervisor following an unexpected absence. During the off-season, Danica Olson-Walter, a veteran of five part-time seasons at the Institution, was elevated to a year-round slot as customer experience and marketing assistant, splitting time between Williams’ and Murphy’s offices.

Williams said she is pleased with changes she has introduced in the Institution’s company-wide orientation program, and looks forward to encouraging and enabling more coaching and mentoring by supervisors in all aspects of Chautauqua operations.

“It’s a multi-year process,” she said. “Each small detail leads to the ‘big wow.’ ”