Careerfile: Gill Heighington, training manager, Tourism Soth East Training and Skills

It’s no surprise that Gill Heighington can’t abide sloppy customer service – she encourages tourism organisations to train staff in how to put the customer first.

What particular challenges does your job pose?

Encouraging organisations of all sizes to invest in training their staff. Tourism is a very seasonal – and sometimes volatile – sector with many peaks and troughs and it can be difficult for businesses to look beyond the next weekend.

One of your aims is to raise service standards in the tourism industry – what are the particular challenges ?

Trying to develop a customer-focused culture is a big challenge for small and medium-sized companies and large multi-site businesses, who often have a transient workforce. Another is persuading businesses already operating to tight margins that improving their service standards delivers a massive return on a small investment.

You delivered training in tourist related skills in St Helena (in the south Atlantic) – what did that involve and what made it memorable?

The basic training I delivered was training people in core principles and skills of customer service through our Welcome to Excellence courses. It was memorable for the 10-day round trip by boat, the beauty and peacefulness of the islands, and friendliness of the people.

What’s the best or most memorable training event you’ve attended?

I have enjoyed many. Training taxi drivers in Portsmouth stands out as we got them out of their cabs for a walking tour of the city, finishing up at a pub for curry and a quiz on Portsmouth’s history!

And the worst?

Probably delivering training in Moscow with a simultaneous translator. It wasn’t the subject they expected and it was a while before we realised that.

What’s the key to putting on a successful course?

Ensuring, as a trainer, that you understand as much as possible about the client’s business: its challenges, competitive pressures, what its customers want, plus the triggers that will make participants really engage with the course.

Where do you see yourself, career-wise, in five years’ time?

I would like to have helped make the London 2012 Olympics a customer service success and be building on that in the tourism industry.

When you were a youngster, what did you want to be?

I always enjoyed working with people. Coming from a holiday destination in Dorset, I liked the tourism industry and especially the idea of working for an airline.

What, in life generally, really annoys you?

Unsurprisingly, bad customer service. For example, when you are treated without consideration or given no information about delays.

What was the first record you bought?

The Seeker by The Who.

What book are you currently reading?

House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Who’s your hero?

I have always admired Kate Adie for being cool and courteous. Such a good communicator – informing the audience what is going on and letting them have their own reactions

What’s the best piece of training/L&D advice you’ve been given?

Always prepare plenty of materials in advance to be able to adapt the course and always listen to your learners.

How do you relax?

Travelling, reading, painting, walking, skiing and horse riding when I get the chance.

How did you get into training?

I worked as a ground hostess for an airline, then a travel consultant, and I had an opportunity to deliver a one-off training programme within a college. I enjoyed the day and decided that this was how I wanted to progress in my career. I first worked and trained in an further education college before taking this job.

Gill Heighington is training manager at Tourism South East Training and Skills.

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