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Fortifying Alpena’s Front Line

Posted on June 6th, 2013

This Inspiring A-Town column from Mary Beth Stutzman first appeared in The Alpena News on August 8, 2011.

I have held many interesting jobs since I started working at age 14: farm hand, sprinkler system technician, janitor, reporter, brownie cutter, public relations specialist, and marketing executive. The most prominent position won’t be listed on my resume. I am proud to say I spent three years working as a director of first impressions for Alpena. No, I wasn’t employed by any local organization or government agency. Yes, it’s a title I manufactured for myself. Officially, I was a waitress.

A more accurate description is that I worked at a local restaurant. I really wasn’t that fantastic of a waitress. You had about a 25 percent chance of getting food before I remembered to bring you drinks (I apologize if that happened to you). I worked full-time at the hospital during the day and part-time at night waiting tables to help pay for renovations to my home. I spent much of the time floating back and forth in a sleep-deprived haze.

Even though by normal metrics my baseline waitressing skill set was lackluster, I still made great tips because I loved connecting with customers in meaningful conversation and helping solve their problems. Their problems weren’t the psychological or emotional type (bartenders where better able to handle those types of problems); these types of problems were fun to solve. “What is there to do in this town?,” “Is there a horseback riding stable?,” “Where can I get cold medicine?” You name it, I have answered it! I also have drawn hundreds of maps on paper napkins and given driving directions to our community’s treasured attractions to both out-of-town visitors and local folks.

Unofficially, I was an official ambassador for the community. Some of it was just my people-loving personality, but a lot of it was because the restaurant I worked for fortified their front-line. At pre-shift meetings we all talked about what was going on in the community and it was just as important as the daily menu specials. It was understood that if you went beyond the typical transaction of money and services to the realm of relationship engagement  your customer would be happier and be more likely to return.

Front line employees of any town are the spokespeople for that community. It’s a very important responsibility many employers and employees overlook and almost never train for.

Consider the number of people who live in Northeast Michigan and the number of people who visit or pass through during the year. They all need to eat, either at a restaurant or get food from a grocery store, a majority of them need to stop and gas up their vehicles. Do you see where I’m going with this? Anyone who holds a position that has a first point of contact with a customer or guest is responsible for shaping the public image and personality of the business and our community. Being pleasant and nice is a great start (frankly, there are some places that could use a booster shot in the customer service department), but in the larger scope, the front line is our best opportunity to create a positive impact and build a welcoming community where people want to live and visit.

To be fair, many on Alpena’s front-line does a great job at creating a customer-centric experience. But it’s an ongoing process and often in the hustle and bustle of day-to-day business we can forgot the power we hold to guide this opportunity. Our community has so much to offer. Where do I begin? How do I incorporate promoting the community with my daily routine? What do I say? Where will I find the time?

Truth is, we always find time for the important things and this is one of those things. Regardless of what a person is doing in your place of business, at the end of the day we are all still people. We’re people who have hobbies, get hungry, pay bills, watch sports and look forward to three-day weekends. If you are an employee you can share information about upcoming current events or even talk about what you are looking forward to next weekend. Sure, some anti-social individuals will prefer that you mind your own business but don’t let that stop you from engaging others and being an ambassador.

Employers, go down to the CVB and chamber of commerce and get a stash of brochures and maps so your employees can share information about the great things this community has to offer. Every business is different so there isn’t a one-size fits all answer but if you make this a part of your value as an organization, your customers will be pleased. Fortify your front line; empower them to be community ambassadors. A more fulfilling customer experience means an increased likelihood of repeat business both for you and for our community.

You can transform our community and inspire people to appreciate the assets Northeast Michigan has to offer. You can inspire people to become life-long visitors bringing vitality and dearly needed dollars into the local economy. You can encourage people to relocate to this warm and friendly town. This is our chance to become closer as a community. It only takes a moment to connect with the people we meet and it doesn’t cost a dime. It’s your turn – start connecting.

See the column on The Alpena News website here.