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Attendees of the Main Street Alabama Awards and Conference walk downtown in Opelika

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. — It can be difficult to shoulder the day-to-day responsibilities of business management. Often times the most difficult skill to learn and manage is customer service. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Hometown Hospitality program helps business owners hone customer service skills in a relaxed, engaging environment.

Training for Small Businesses

Wright and Ulmer received an award for the Hometown Hospitality program at the Alabama Main Street Awards ceremony in Opelika.

Ulmer (left) and Wright (right) were recognized at the Main Street Alabama awards ceremony and conference in Opelika, Alabama. Photo provided by Main Street Alabama.

Eric Wright, the county Extension coordinator in Etowah County, recently received recognition by Main Street Alabama for his contributions to downtown Gadsden through his work with the Hometown Hospitality program. Main Street Alabama is a non-profit that dedicates efforts to bringing jobs, dollars and people back to Alabama’s historic communities.

“Small business owners are entrepreneurs who have to wear many hats,” Wright said. “Training on customer service is not always readily available. But it is an important part of owning and running a successful business.”

Matt Ulmer, program creator and the team leader for Alabama Extension’s community development projects, said customer service is one of the most important aspects of keeping any business running successfully.

“Hometown Hospitality highlights core customer service skills while also weaving in elements of tourism promotion into the mix,” Ulmer said. “This helps prepare front-line service industry team members and their leaders for opportunities to connect customers with their products and services as well as tourism or other businesses in their communities.”

Ulmer said the Hometown Hospitality approach builds community by helping service industry professionals see the value in lifting up and promoting one another to locals, tourists and other visitors to their communities.

“It’s a win-win situation for all involved,” Ulmer said.

Wright said the program provides language to help business owners deal with difficult customers and difficult situations.

“Good experiences are common, but one bad experience can change someone’s opinion,” Wright said. “Not all customers are easy to please, but you can learn how to deal with them through scenario training.”

Participants

Wright said one of the most rewarding aspects of this program is interacting with and helping merchants find successful strategies.

“It was really neat to see the downtown district come together,” Wright said. “This included restaurant, retail and professional offices. There are a lot of tourism-based businesses in Gadsden, but they were hurt during and after COVID-19. This training was a great way to reinforce the value of tourism dollars and the resources that accompany that.”

One of the program participants in Gadsden owns a unique olive oil company. King’s Olive Oil Company opened in 2013 as a tasting shop. The storefront offers an interactive and educational tasting experience. Owner Tena King said the program was exactly what she needed for herself and her employees.

“As a business owner who focuses on customer service, I found this program to be excellent,” King said. “In turn, I brought the ideas back to my employees who have also implemented several of the concepts. Eric was excellent at presenting the information and engaging his audience.”

Partnerships

Wright has worked alongside the non-profit, Downtown Gadsden Incorporated (DGI), to provide support to individuals and families in the Gadsden area. DGI’s mission is to provide visitors, residents and workers with a unique and engaging experience that blurs the lines between shopping, art and entertainment.

Ulmer said people like to shop, dine and stay where they are treated with kindness, their concerns are addressed appropriately and they consistently have the same experience time and time again.

“Ensuring your staff understands how to practice excellent customer service—and the why behind it—is invaluable,” Ulmer said. “When people connect the importance of practicing excellent customer service to customer retention, and ultimately their bottom line, it’s easy to see why they need to place their focus here. If other area businesses are also providing strong customer service to their customers, you are creating a community culture and reputation that will only drive more locals and visitors to your area.”

Ulmer said simply put—the more people you can encourage to come to your community the more opportunities you will have to showcase your products and services to them.

Wright said this has been a perfect partnership with the Etowah County Extension office as they seek to provide training for a group that often doesn’t have time for training.

Kay Moore is the executive director of DGI. She said Hometown Hospitality was a great tool to educate retailers and restaurants, particularly on the importance of customer service.

“I know that we offer exceptional customer service in downtown Gadsden, but a reminder is always a great tool,” Moore said. “The program also focused on the tourism aspect that provides a great economic impact for us. We are grateful to Eric Wright for bringing this wonderful program to Gadsden and Etowah County.”

More Information

Find out more about the Hometown Hospitality program by visiting the Alabama Extension website, www.aces.edu. Alabama Extension equips each county to provide Hometown Hospitality training. Contact Ulmer to schedule a Hometown Hospitality program in your area.

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