Thursday, December 4, 2008

Lenore Lyle, A Customer Service Phenomenon

Lenore Lyle, the other half of the Ron and Lenore management team, left a mark on the Ski Masters Ski School and European Trips that will be long remembered by those fortunate to have worked and traveled with her. She brought an energy and passion to the business that left her students and fellow travelers coming back for more, year after year.

Lenore has been a fixture in Northwest skiing since the first lifts began grinding up the Snoqualmie slopes. She tells stories of arriving at the mountain early and volunteering to work with the volunteers, side stepping fresh snow on the runs in exchange for a lift ticket. That effort was called “grooming the slope” in the early days.

I first met Lenore back in the 1980’s. My wife, a Thursday ski school bus rider, suggested we sign up for the December “clinics” at Snoqualmie to polish our skills. Little did we realize that the clinics were a farm team for Lenore’s instructor pool. When we finished the clinics it was suggested that we return in January to serve as teaching assistants. That seemed harmless enough and, while we didn’t get paid, I believe we may have scored a modest lift ticket discount. But, by week two, to fill unexpected vacancies we were both elevated to “instructor” status for beginning elementary age kids and were part of the Ski Masters team.

From that “insider” perspective I began to appreciate how Lenore masterfully managed the operation. Lenore applied a “mallard” style of management. When you see a duck on a calm pond they seem to be gliding along with little effort. But, if you could see underwater, you would see lots of action as its busy feet paddle furiously along.

In Lenore’s case, the customer never saw beneath the water. The lesson operation ran with apparent ease as she moved from place to place, addressing questions and issues. During the day she would appear all over the mountain to see how things were going, staying in constant contact with her supervisors by radio. As a novice instructor I confess it made me nervous at first. I had the feeling that, no matter where I took my class, she was watching!

While the customer might be soothed by this calm demeanor, at the same time she would be sorting through the ever present complications of herding classes from place to place while keeping the parents of the smaller kids happy and relaxed. Missing instructors, missing students, broken down buses, lost lift tickets and dozens of other mishaps, some serious and some not, marked each day of lessons. But through it all the customer met a calm Lenore, was given a class A experience and was treated like they were the most important customer of all.

During that era every management consultant was pitching “total quality management,” a customer focused management philosophy made famous by such firms as Toyota, Sony and Honda. Listen to your customer; listen to your staff; constantly look for ways to improve your product was the mantra.

As I looked at Lenore I recall thinking, she could teach this stuff better than any consultant. Whether she took a course or just did it by second nature she had the whole “total quality” thing under control and the quality of her programs spoke to that success.

Then, in 1988, we signed up for our first trip to Europe with Ski Masters and were able to experience the best of Lenore, 24/7. Herding 48 adults to Europe is different from teaching kids but no less challenging. Is everyone at the airport? What did you forget? What, you say, your passport is expired? And so on.

Once again, her mallard management style—calm exterior, busy interior—was at play. Busses would arrive like clockwork, rooms would be assigned, lost luggage recovered all in a way that would put the guests at ease.

Does that mean she is a pussycat? Not on your life. Once the pick-up bus arrived on “Italian” time. Both the driver and bus company management will not forget Lenore. Once a hotel tried to stuff some of her guests in shabby rooms over a nearby barn (yes, there were animals downstairs). That hotel manager will not forget Lenore. One matri’d insisted that the guests dine at the same table each night of our stay. That was their way. It wasn’t ours. That matri’d will not forget Lenore.

As the week progressed Lenore found time to ski with everyone on the trip. Every guest was important and she made them feel that way. While she may have preferred to point her skies downhill and fly, she never forgot that she was in charge and everyone on the trip was one of her customers and guests. And yet, it never seemed contrived. She always expressed a genuine interest in each guest that was reciprocated by the number of repeat travelers. 2009 will be our tenth Ski Masters Trip!

Now the customer service mantel has been passed to the able hands of daughter Claudeen. Lenore is still the most beautiful AARP member on skis and occasionally joins Claudeen on the trips to Europe; now as a guest, not a leader. The current trips often return to places Lenore introduced to many of us years ago. Her legacy lives on in the memory of the hundreds who traveled with her and Ron in the past and were the beneficiaries of her “high touch” approach to guest management. She has clearly left her mark on Pacific Northwest skiing and the thousands that passed through her lesson programs at our Cascade ski areas.

Kathy and I both feel blessed to have known her these many years as an instructor, boss, tour director and, most importantly, friend.