Rick Sasso builds the MSC Cruises brand through top-notch customer service

Rick Sasso, president and CEO, MSC Cruises (USA)

Because it meant coming out of retirement to take the reins at MSC Cruises (USA) Inc., Richard Sasso did have some reservations when the company first asked him to lead its North American expansion in 2004. Yet with his track record in the industry — and having served as the president of his own cruise line, Celebrity Cruises, in the past — it didn’t take long for those reservations to give way to excitement. First of all, Sasso realized he already had a great product and brand to build on with the MSC parent company.

“We think that the product itself is the one thing that will always be your ally,” says Sasso, the president and CEO of MSC Cruises (USA). “So if you have a strong product, you not only can sell the product easier, but you can also have referrals and repeat guests.”

Yet to achieve fast success in a new market, the company needed to set itself apart from competitors with its service, as well. That’s why Sasso’s strategy for growing the brand began first and foremost with a foundation of customer service excellence.

“The cruise sector is very much a product, but it is about the customer and customer service. … At the end of the day, if we don’t have a customer and we don’t satisfy him, then they’ll be an end of the road for us,” he says.

“We want to have our best foot forward 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s much more important for an emerging brand to follow the customer and the experience of the customer than an established brand that may already have its own accolades or its own position in the market.”

Drawing from his long career in the cruising industry, Sasso focuses on this objective at the company by ensuring every one of his 70 corporate employees as well as thousands of offshore team members are aligned toward improving and enhancing the guest experience. Consequently, the 36-year cruising veteran is now heading up the fastest-growing cruise line in the world — in fact, the fastest-growing cruise line in the history of cruising. Last year, the Fort Lauderdale- based company sailed with more than one million passengers.

Hire the right people

No matter what the product or service you’re selling, the real predictor of a company’s success or failure begins and ends with your people. By making sure you hire people who have the tools to succeed in a customer-service-driven organization, you set the groundwork for a highly successful service culture.

“This is a professional business, and we need to find the right caliber of people,” Sasso says. “Age is never a factor. It’s if they have the right characteristics to be a good customer service representative. Those characteristics are a lot in the speaking skills, language skills and technology skills … and do they have a customer service mentality? So one is you find the candidate.

“We’ve been at 100 percent occupancy since day one, and with very few exceptions, we’ve been able to fill every ship we’ve brought out and increase our presence around the world at the same time. So it’s been a challenge, but one we’ve been able to manage because from the beginning, we’ve had the right people in the right seats.”

One way to find people with specific traits is through targeted recruiting. While experience is important for senior leadership positions, the recruiting process can help identify other intrinsic qualities people have, such as attitude, communication skills and friendliness.

“You always need to make sure you have the most talented, qualified, enthusiastic people running your company. The guy who is the CEO or the guy who’s the president, he may get all the accolades and all the awards for stellar performance, for a company’s growth and all of that, but at the end of the day, it’s the result of everybody in the organization and in our case, it’s support staff and shore-side staff. We have to have great customer service on both ends of that.”

To recruit team members that excel in specific roles, Sasso enlists the help of agencies all around the world to locate qualified people that fit MSC’s criteria for characteristics such as enthusiasm, professionalism and the ability to adapt and solve problems creatively.

“So you’re constantly looking for ways to improve and be the best you can or better than the competition in almost every area of your business,” he says. “We encourage our management on a strategic level to have those kinds of thought processes.

“We constantly have our executives in each area thinking outside of the box to figure out what is the best way for us to get our message out, what’s the most cost-efficient way, how would you do that and which technology would you use to do it.”

In addition to a strong skill set, Sasso looks to fill leadership positions with people who can demonstrate a history of effective leadership. To determine this in an interview, Sasso says the best question to ask is if the person can provide references of former employees rather than former bosses.

“I want to know more about what the employee who worked for him says about him than somebody he worked for,” Sasso says. “Think about that. If you ask John to give me references and he gives you his boss as a reference, well, of course, he was brownnosing the boss all the time and was there. But I want to know what Mary Lou says about John and how he was as a boss. That is one of the first questions I ask in an interview to help weed out the kind of people I want working in the organization.”

Be forward-thinking

The long-term test of a company’s customer service doesn’t come from just being able to meet the needs of today’s customers. You also have to meet the needs of future customers. When it comes to customer service, it’s important to make sure that your organization is positioned to anticipate customer needs and be able to adapt to meet them effectively. To keep MSC customers happy, Sasso knows he always needs to be thinking one step ahead.

“Change is so fast nowadays, you’ve got to keep on top of things,” he says. “Even though you don’t think it’s broken, look at it again and see if you can make it better. Some companies fail to do that, particularly when it comes to addressing the customer’s needs. If you’re not addressing the customer’s needs of what you think he’ll want from you tomorrow and not just today, you’re going to start losing some ground.”

To plan for what customers are going to want, you need to stay attuned to how their needs and interests are changing. Utilizing feedback forms that measure and track consumer trends over time can help your organization make knowledgeable decisions on how to adjust and grow. MSC relies heavily on its comprehensive customer comment forms — passed out by ship management — to identify where its services can be improved in the future. Sasso then uses a two- or three-year cycle of strategic planning to evaluate improvements in areas such as entertainment, ship remodels and adding new destinations or services.

“We really dissect the experience through the comment form,” Sasso says.

“Then we take those forms within one week of the cruise being finished — we analyze all of those forms and look for trends. We look for positive trends and we look for negative trends. If there’s something that looks like it’s producing some negative comments, we look to fix it immediately. So we’re able within a week to measure everything that’s happened on board with our ships in terms of the quality experience.”

By taking swift action to analyze and categorize the feedback, the company is able to head off smaller issues as they arise while staying abreast of larger trends.

“In order to keep ahead of the curve you always have to be looking out,” Sasso says. “You’ve got to be thinking about what might be the next phenomenon or the next type of on-board service people are expecting. Twenty-five years ago, spas on cruise ships were just small rooms with some dumbbells and a couple of bicycles. Today, those ships that we’re building have 20,000-square-foot spas. And why did that happen? [It’s] because we started to forecast the consumer’s appetite was starting to be a little bit more pampering, a little bit more spa driven, and we started to make sure that our ships could now accommodate that desire.

“We have some of the finest spas in the world on our cruise ships, but that would have been too late to think about it today. You needed to think about it three to five years in advance of that. So that’s how we plan the future.”

Reinforce accountability

Helping employees succeed as ambassadors of MSC customer service is the overarching goal for Sasso. Yet even when you hire and train the best people as quality representatives for your brand, there is always room for improvement. It’s important to provide clear goals and feedback for employees about their performance.

Leading a culture of accountability from the top down is an important aspect of that. Sasso makes himself and his senior leadership team available and open to assist and mentor employees. In addition, there are several levels of managers whose job on board the ships is in large part to oversee the execution of customer service.

“Their job is to witness the process and to try and intervene in the process if it’s not working,” Sasso says. “They also do reports that will tell management what’s going on on board and what we may want to think about to improve the guest experience.”

On the ships, MSC also uses its customer comment forms to keep tabs on its service execution. Because they take time and effort, Sasso encourages the ship staff and management try to give the forms out to guests at times where they are most engaged, including during on-board entertainment and surprise events. When you approach people in these appealing environments, they are often in a better mood and may be more uninhibited in offering their opinions. Once guests receive the comment form, they are able to assess everything from employee performance, housekeeping, food entertainment, quality, management and cleanliness to the overall cruise experience.

“If we look at something that’s producing some very high-level positive comments, we look to improve on that and to do more of it,” Sasso says. “That goes down to every skill set. If it’s about a crew member, we might even look in detail if this crew member is getting a few complaints about not serving properly or the housekeeper wasn’t attending to the cabin as sufficiently as we have in our protocol. We’re able to pinpoint it right down to an employee.”

Once on the ship, the feedback is customer-driven, but on shore, Sasso utilizes technology-driven metrics to monitor individual performance.

“On the shore side, we are able to monitor every phone call,” Sasso says. “We have supervisors and manager-trained people who do a lot of phone interviewing where we can listen to the caliber of conversation. We can listen to the techniques. We have performance skill metrics that are technology-driven. We know how long they were on the call, what the benchmark is for the time they should have been on that call, so are they being efficient? How many sales they convert on a call is benchmarked through technology.”

The goal of performance metrics isn’t to police employees, but rather, give everyone tangible goals by highlighting areas where they can enhance skills or improve through training. Having ongoing feedback about how your service culture is performing keeps everyone accountable to its continued success.

“You can never think you’ve done it all,” Sasso says. “I’ve had phrase in my vocabulary for many, many years, and it’s a takeoff on that phrase that says, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. My phrase is, if it’s not broken, make it better. I think some companies become complacent if they are doing well and not getting complaints and they’re just kind of rolling along. That’s complacency that doesn’t fit today.”

How to reach: MSC Cruises (USA), www.msccruisesusa.com

The Sasso File

Rick Sasso
president and CEO
MSC Cruises (USA)

Born: Bronx, New York

Education: Miami Dade College

Residence: Delray Beach, Fla.

First job: During college, I was the special service representative for British Airways in Miami Airport. At the time, it was called British Overseas Airways Corporation.

What are the characteristics of good leadership?
I have been in this business for 39 years. I’ve been the president of two cruise lines and been a senior manager running an office since 1979, 30 years actually running an office and being a leader. The characteristic that I have always deployed and one I will never not deploy is you need to make sure that all of your employees realize that they can make a mistake. They will make a mistake. Just be honest about it and let us know so we can fix it together.

I always have that conversation with anybody that works for me. And the other is that I’m always there to be with them. The CEO should not be behind a closed door. He should answer his own phone. … He should never exclude himself from anything in the office and he needs to be part of the process with the open door. Answer the phone when somebody calls.