“Sorry folks, the Park’s closed. The moose out front shoulda told ya.”

St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park Anyone who has seen National Lampoon’s Vacation probably remembers that line from John Candy’s security guard character as the family entered “Wally World” (the theme park, not the big box store). The “moose out front” was an animated moose placed outside the fun park. The robot cartoonish moose had a speaker that played a recorded message when you pushed the button.

This weekend, Glacier National Park’s “moose out front” didn’t do the job…but it’s bigger than that. It speaks to thinking like a customer and thinking about your customer, as we continue discussion of this weekend’s lessons from our trip to Shelby MT.

A little background for those who aren’t from around here: The opening of the Going to the Sun Road through Glacier National Park is effectively the first official day of summer around here. Businesses in the tourist trade know the minute the road opens, because their phones start ringing and don’t stop till August or September. The economic impact is massive – and the impact on the plans of 3 million or more tourists who have vacation plans arranged is also quite large. As such, the pressure is substantial to get the road open as early as possible, within their safety restrictions.

Winter 2006-2007 was pretty hard on Glacier National Park. We had 11+ inches of rain in less than 24 hours one early November day and it caused millions in damage to park roads, bridges and trails. Over 100 feet of the Going to the Sun Road disappeared on the east side, and many other places experienced substantial damage to the point where the road wasn’t passable.

Photos from the Glacier Park website showed major damage to the road, including one area where both lanes were simply gone. In other photos from the west side, roads were flooded and the McDonald horse bridge washed away. Repairs started almost immediately, resulting in west side’s less severely damaged roads being ready before the weather turned for the winter. Additional work took place this spring on the west side, and it was ready to go on time, as expected.The east side was a different story. The 100+ foot hole in the east side was going to require substantial supported earthen construction, and a temporary metal bridge over the hole. This would allow the road to reopen this year while reconstruction of the road continues below.

About a week ago, the Park started announcing that the Going to the Sun Road would be open July 1st. Good news for tourists and local businesses alike, but news that was apparently announced before the new bridge had been completed and tested. I suppose that happens, but somehow I think perhaps Park management forgot for a moment how much of an impact that has on people’s plans. When you’re a programmer, that “Why didn’t they test first?” question pops into your head more often than not.

Unfortunately, they had some problems with the road.

Of course, there are lessons…

The last press release on the Glacier web site is dated June 27. No release from yesterday or today indicated that the road DID indeed open, nor did one indicate that the opening was delayed. Even the Glacier website said that the road was open, when in fact, it was not. Next time, I’ll know to call 511 rather than checking the site, in hopes that it gets updated more often.

My son and I drove from Browning to Glacier, had to turn around and head to East Glacier then over Marias Pass to get back to Columbia Falls because of the closing. The weather was great and the views very nice, but somewhere, the chain of information just wasn’t working and it impacted some people’s plans far more than it did ours. Our Sunday drive just got a little longer, no biggie. However, the much ballyhooed road opening was being announced in Rotary meetings, in press releases and was all over the news. One thing that appeared to be overlooked was the flood of people who were depending, right or otherwise, on the announcement by the Park. That is bound to generate complaints by Park visitors, which takes me to …

Think like a customer and act.
When problems occur, sometimes you just have to think like a customer and not like a bureaucrat. I know, it’s tough and there are pressures everywhere.

What might have gone unnoticed was that it was open season on the Park Rangers at the entrance gates who had to explain to hundreds or thousands that the road wasn’t 100% open after all. I saw one poor guy being asked question after question by an upset Park visitor. He just couldn’t give an acceptable answer because someone, somewhere didn’t think hard enough about the impact at the customer-facing part of the “business”. If the ranger had been authorized to either add a day to a visitor’s pass or refund the week pass, much of the grief at the entrance stations could have been avoided – including that guy’s situation.

While it might seem costly, it isn’t going to cost the park a dime by adding a day to a pass or refunding a visitor who just arrived.

Here’s why: No one drives or flies from Indiana or California to see the park for a few day, then turns around and goes home because they couldn’t get across Logan Pass on Sunday and instead had to wait until Monday morning. Adding a day to their week pass costs nothing – they aren’t going to buy another one anyway. Refunding the week pass follows the same logic because they simply aren’t going to drive 36 hours back to Des Moines because the road was closed on one day. What it will do is eliminate most of the grief taken by line employees (Park Rangers) and reverse any bad feelings on the part of visitors. Government employees already take all the grief they need. Why not enable them to make their customers have a better experience? Give em their money back and take it again tomorrow. A Park superintendent might get a phone call from DC about it, but they should have the power to make something like that happen with a phone call to 4 park entrances.

So what about you?
Neither of these lessons are limited to parks or government. Businesses have unforeseen outages or supply issues. People know this. How you handle these situations is what gets/keeps customers or runs them off. You must communicate those issues and your resolution to them as quickly and efficiently as possible. Not sure if you need to say anything? Think like your customer. Ask yourself how your spouse or sibling would feel if they were forced to deal with the situation, like unexpectedly having to wait a week for a part. How would they react? What would they expect? Armed with that info, act or enable your staff to act. If those Rangers had been given a simple procedure for handling a refund or additional day, everyone would have come out ahead.

Just one more way to set yourself apart from your competition.

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