KarenwilliamssmallChautauqua Institution enters the 2014 season with a renewed emphasis on improving the customer experience on the grounds, led by a new customer experience manager who will devise and implement an overall, long-term roadmap.
“We do a great job as a staff in putting together top-notch programming, but it hasn’t been clear once that’s all in place whose responsibility it is to make sure the guest experience lives up to the programming,” said George Murphy, vice president and chief marketing officer. “This isn’t just ticketing or a marketing issue — this cuts to the heart of the overall experience. To put a process in place to drive this kind of institutional change, you need to have someone with the right background.”

Murphy found that background in Karen Williams, who began in April as CHQ’s customer experience manager and will lead efforts to standardize practices affecting the customer experience Institution-wide.

“Karen’s objective is to step back and look at Chautauqua Institution in total, including the Athenaeum Hotel and foodservice, and assess whether we are delivering the right experience for our guests,” Murphy said, “And if not, what do we need to do? We’re going to develop a three- to five-year plan that says how we should be treating our guests and the elements that should define their experience.”
Williams comes to the Institution from Alstar EMS, Chautauqua County’s private ambulance service, where she provided strategic and operational management to ensure positive customer experience. Prior to Alstar, she worked for nearly 14 years at FairPoint Communications Inc., rising from local to regional and then national positions directing marketing and customer-retention strategy.
“My background is very customer-oriented, customer-focused,” Williams said. “Whether in marketing, human resources work, planning community events, directing volunteers or business development, my focus has always been on the customer experience, and what I and others are doing to impact that experience.”
With Murphy, Williams will spend much of the next several months benchmarking the current CHQ customer experience to begin building a vision and roadmap, and to identify areas needing improvement.
Numerous changes in customer experience have been implemented over the past several years — rewriting the Institution’s website, overhauling the accommodations booking engine, improving Main Gate traffic flow, allowing hotel guests to drive straight there rather than through the Main Gate, establishing a Visitors Center, upgrading rooms at the Athenaeum, transitioning the Refectory into the Brick Walk Cafe — but they have lacked strategic direction.
“We’ve implemented all these what I would call ‘one-off’ fixes, which our hunch tells us are all leading us toward better customer service and satisfaction,” Murphy said, “but quite frankly we don’t know. They’re not tied to an overall plan.”
Williams’ charge is to develop that overall plan, with targets based on benchmarks established this season through observation and data from surveys and focus groups, making sure that input from leaders from all departments — from programming to grounds staff — is integral to the overall plan. She will also begin identifying required investments in facilities, systems, technology and employees to ensure Chautauquans receive the highest level of hospitality and customer service.
“The first step is to understand the customer’s journey — what ways they come onto the grounds, how they use various services, what works and what doesn’t,” Williams said. “The end goal is to provide a high-quality, seamless experience where employees’ pride in working here shows through, and our communications, accommodations booking and ticketing processes all meet industry best practices.”
The experience of first-time visitors — before and during their stay — is critically important, Murphy said, recalling conversations from the May meetings of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees.
“[The trustees] were asking, ‘Do we identify first-time visitors’ needs correctly?’ ” he said. “We need to make their experience as uncluttered as possible. We know from surveys that first-time visitors don’t understand the scope and complexity of what we offer. How do we make sure they have the information they need without overwhelming them?”
In consultation with the Institution’s senior leadership, Williams will work to roll out the roadmap in early 2015, including establishing a process for identifying, hiring, training and motivating seasonal staff across departments.
“There should be a line out the door of people wanting to work here, in any position,” Murphy said. “We’re seen as the premier institution in this county. We want to be an exciting, desirable place to work, especially in our most challenging frontline customer-service positions.”
In addition to her strategic tasks, Williams also assumes direct oversight of the Institution’s gate and ticketing operations and staff, areas where hiring is not yet finished and initial changes can have the most immediate impacact.
“The most important thing is that anyone interacting with our systems or here on the grounds feels like a Chautauquan, whether they have been coming for 70 years or are just here for a couple hours on a Friday night,” Williams said. “Making this investment in the customer experience is a statement by this organization. I’m excited for this opportunity.”