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Blog Archive > 08-Mar-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
So here are a few cases, taken from a single, 14 day cruise around the China
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What to do? Log passenger requests and promises, then log actions completed.
Also inform passengers of actions and check that their issue is resolved.
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
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.
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 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.