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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 08-Mar-18


Sunday 08-April-18

Slipping quality of service at Celebrity cruises

Sorry about this. Long blog. Bit of a moan, bit of a plea. Briefly, we found a cruise line (Celebrity) to have seriously slipped in service quality, which in these hyper-competitive times is not good for their prospects.

In more detail...

I'm a keen photographer and find cruising a convenient and economic way to visit lots of places, so when an attractive Far East trip came up we jumped at the chance, especially as it was with Celebrity, with whom we had had high quality experience in the past.

Overall, we had a great time. The crew, the food and general accommodation were good. Yet somehow the company seemed to have lost its sparkle. It was best summarised by another passenger who had traveled with Celebrity many times and was now going on other cruise lines. She noted sadly that they had been slipping for a number of years and were now merely average. I also earwigged several other formerly loyal customers moaning about various issues.

I worked in and around service quality for a number of years in major organizations and am now on the board of the UK's professional institute (the CQI), so I think I can speak with some authority about issues I encountered and actions that could help Celebrity recover some of its special place in the cruising world.

So here are a few cases, taken from a single, 14 day cruise around the China seas.

Selling the drinks package

Our first surprise was immediately on getting on board, where we were met with a glass of bubbly and a hard sell on drinks (spot the reciprocity tactic here). 'Have you got your drinks package yet?? (note the 'yet') asked the tall young man. 'No' I said. 'Step into my office' he said with a smile as he cornered us off the corridor. He then played the 'recommendation game', saying the expensive package was probably too much for us (though of course it was superior), the cheap package was too limited, but the middle package was just right for us. Perhaps it should be called the 'Goldilocks' method. Of course he was selling on benefits, but didn't really connect with me, which would need more hard data on cost per average drink and how many I would have to consume per day to break even (I estimated an alcoholic seven). He also failed to mention until asked that the price was per person. So we declined and squeezed past.

We got it again at dinner, where a waiter tried the conspiratorial whisper approach, complete with cupped hand. After a further attempt the following night, we were thankfully left alone to our normal modest consumption. Other passengers we knew were not so lucky and were badgered throughout the voyage.

More vulnerable people could well have succumbed to this hard sell. I was just appalled at the pressure tactics.

What could have been different?

First, never take advantage of customers during transitional periods such as on-boarding. You may sell more now, but customers may feel duped and betrayed later, killing any trust and loyalty.

Also, do not incentivize staff to sell in a way that motivates selling over service. Sure, money changes how people behave, but it also destroys empathy.

Finally, and this is a persistent theme, constantly train staff to be superb in delivering a total experience that is consistent with Celebrity brand values.

The 'muster drill'

Then there was the muster drill. You know, the bit where they tell you how to survive an 'abandon ship'. We have always experienced this as going to muster stations on deck, being checked off and receiving a lecture on what to do in an emergency. Instead, we were directed to the theatre, where an odd 'wash your hands' looping cartoon was shown around a quick talk and lifejacket demo. We went to find the muster station ourselves and imagined the chaos of a real situation.

What to do? Just run it like all the other cruise lines we've experienced. Realistic practice. Subtly, this also establishes the authority of crew members. I was once a school teacher, where I learned the crucial importance of building discipline up-front rather then trying to impose it when it is first really needed.

Dining complaint

Here's another story. At dinner one night, a fellow diner moaned a bit at the waiter about the lack of variety and fading food quality. So the waiter got a chef, which surprised and flustered the diner as both stood there while the chef enquired about the problem. There was embarrassed shuffling around the table as the diner hesitantly stated her case again. The chef tried his best to be positive, but came over as awkward and defensive.

What to do differently?

Again, it is mostly about training. The staff wanted to do the right thing, but lacked the skills to do it well. In particular, those who deal with customer dissatisfaction should be trained to a higher level. It would have been a good idea, for example, for the waiter to first ask the passenger if he could call in the chef. This in itself can be tricky as passengers may feel they are being put in an awkward situation, so needs sensitive handling. A good method is to crouch down level with the person rather than literally to talk down at them. Then explain the desire to help and ask permission for the chef to come in.

Likewise, the chef should get down, perhaps pulling up a chair, and listen respectfully before speaking. He could make specific proposals and listen to the response. With a tableful of other passengers, this is a test that can boost or break loyalty.

And of course, if the passenger has useful, actionable ideas, then the chef should be able to use them. In any case, he should get back to her to say what had been decided and done. There is also, of course, opportunity to surprise and delight her here. This need not be big -- just nice.

Another food question, about menus, not service, was the vegetarian option. This often seemed to be based on Indian recipes. My wife is a veggie and likes occasional Indian food, but became rather fed up with its regularity. With only one main course choice, she became rather frustrated. Towards the end of the cruise she discovered there was a separate vegetarian menu available, but you have to ask for it. Understandably, this just frustrated her further.

A simple action here, of course, is to ensure a wider, changing cuisine (we heard complaints about monotony from passengers who were spending longer on the ship).

Also, staff should have information about dietary needs and be proactive in helping. When customers ask for the vegetarian option on the main menu, waiters should ask if they would like to see the vegetarian menu. It is also not beyond the realms of technology to track passengers and proactively address their needs.

Malfunctioning cards

A smaller, but still indicative, one along the way: our room cards stopped working on the safe, so we couldn't get things out. We went to the front desk and they promised to send someone up to unlock it. This didn't happen. So next day (fortunately a sea day) we asked again. They replaced the cards which then worked fine.

What to do? Log passenger requests and promises, then log actions completed. Also inform passengers of actions and check that their issue is resolved.

Immigration queues

Another example of exacerbated passenger frustration occurred in Nagasaki, where we all got given group numbers and told disembarkation would start at 10am. We were in group 11 and it all seemed to start quickly enough. But then announcements stopped, queues turned into throngs and crew were few and far between. After an hour, we were let through the red barrier, only to join another queue, where the only communication was to form a single file (which was generally ignored as this would have tripled the queue length). Finally, after Japanese immigration, we got through after over two hours of queuing.

So what to do here?

While the bottleneck was clearly immigration, there is more that Celebrity could do. When you are the customer-facing part of a distributed process, you will be seen to own the whole process and need to manage this clearly.

First, there should have been a clear warning of delays and explanation of what we would experience. When people know what hassle to expect, they get far less frustrated by it. Ongoing updates would likewise help.

Secondly, better management of queues would have made the wait easier. Chairs for the infirm (people with walking aids stood for a long time). Water for the thirsty. Friendly chat to help calm frustration.

And underpinning all this, again, is skilled, knowledgeable staff, trained in handling this predictable situation.

Selling future cruises

Bizarrely, on another day when we went to a presentation on possible future cruising with Celebrity, a video promoting the cruise line was regularly interrupted by a workman using a power drill in the same lounge. How could such idiocy be allowed, conditioning tentative customers to pair thoughts of the line with feelings of irritation? When the drilling stopped, a bunch of loud, chattering passengers took over. Another passenger went to speak with them -- something that should have been addressed by staff. The measure was only temporarily effective and the passenger clearly continued to be irritated, as were others, again pairing unhappiness with the Celebrity brand. Notably, people within earshot of the chatterers (who were paying no attention to the presentation) gradually left.

The presentation itself was pretty flat. This was a place for an infectiously enthusiastic presenter. The chap did his best and improved with time but by then he had lost us.

What could have been different?

Address background noise quickly and diplomatically.

Pick presenters who enthuse and engage, drawing people in, actively helping them feel good, first about themselves and them about the idea of joining Celebrity in amazing voyages around the world.

Practice, practice, with helpful feedback and coaching. Video practice and real runs, watch back and address improvement opportunities.

Add breaks in the talking for questions, prize giving, videos, etc. Get people involved and they will mentally and emotionally engage.


Even on the last day, where we were fog-bound again and held offshore, there was more disorganisation.

Good news was that we would get in that day and free internet was announced, but not how to log on. We eventually found someone to help, though it was very slow and then crashed.

We eventually got to port about 2pm (instead of 7am), whence chaos ensued. Announcements largely stopped and none were about where to go. For the original leaving we were supposed to go the theatre. We went there and found lots of people hanging around uncertaintly at the entrance, waiting for the mad dash off, while loads of seats down the front remained empty. A person in a wheelchair was stopped in a main gangway with people squeezing past. By the time someone from Celebrity tried to take charge (without a microphone) and get people to sit down, nobody was in the mood to obey. Anyway, by now we had all learned two things: (a) Celebrity could not manage a disciplined process, and (b) there were no consequences for disobeying crew commands.

There was a 'group 1 please come forward' announcement and, unsurprisingly, everyone made a mad dash for the door as the crew members stood impotently by. We were in group 3 and just tagged along behind. As we left the ship amidst further jostling, we heard an announcement requesting people to go down to the theatre.

What to do differently? More frequent, accurate information. Practice drills for staff. Careful channelling of passengers. More staff directing movements. Uniformed senior staff visible and active in assembly areas. And careful consequences for unruly passengers.

False information

We now thought we were done, but Celebrity had one more gift. We were in a private tour and met our guide in the port. However one couple was missing. So we waited, and waited. After more than two hours, we went to an early dinner, our Shanghai tour spoiled. Later we discovered that the other couple had actually got onshore early, where they had been advised by a Celebrity employee that there was nowhere to wait (there was) and that they should take a taxi to their hotel. Thank you Celebrity. Not. It was literally the final straw. Our final, frustrating Celebrity experience was of a needlessly ruined day.

Again, this is about staff training. The couple were confused on arrival and the Celebrity employee fobbed them off with false information and poor advice, rather than owning their issue and doing something useful, like asking a port official to help them.

As per the 'recency effect' Celebrity should work to make the last day a fabulous one, working extra hard to ensure passengers leave with good feelings about the brand. Instead, we got a clear message: They've got our money and want more. We were treated like past customers who no longer mattered, rather than loved current customers who they delight in giving outstanding service, even after we leave the ship, or just valued future customers who will return and give them more money in future.

And yet...

And yet we still enjoyed ourselves overall. We felt incredibly lucky to be able to go on such a far flung voyage, seeing people and places we had only seen on TV and in books. The ship was nice, the food was just fine and the staff were pleasant. Though there was a strained quality, like they were just about coping and were afraid of complaint. We found ourselves reassuring them more than once that we were ok. Sadly, though, we have mentally downgraded Celebrity from the top of the pile of quality cruises to near the bottom.

In great service, staff handle issues with calm aplomb. They are authoritative without seeming threatening. They proactively seek and address issues before they become passenger issues. They are relaxed, which relaxed you. This is not free. It requires integrated, continual education and improvement. Most of all, it requires a strong, effective culture.

I have experienced such a culture first hand, working for HP in the 80s and 90s, including in customer service. They had a careful selection process then made you highly employable through constant education and coaching. They also had sky-high expectations for what you would achieve. Yet their pay was average at best. So why did I stay, like most others? Because they made it such a great place to work.

So come on, Celebrity. Find your former glory. Focus on culture and creating competent crews who are passionate first about people and service (rather than avoiding criticism and making money). Give them skills above those of other cruise lines and develop staff loyalty that will keep them with you through the years. From this will flow first rate service and consequent customer loyalty that brings constant profit, stability and growth.

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