In today's climate, productive, well-channelled communication in any industry is very important, none more so than in greenkeeping. Keeping the customer informed is an integral part of any Course Manager's job. Having a good working relationship and open lines of communication with staff, customers, and certainly the group that represent the membership, 'the committee', is of paramount importance.
I try and keep our members informed as much as possible, to make sure that they are aware of the complexity and the high technicalities that working with nature presents. I make every effort not to do this with complaining and being negative. Instead I remain positive and enthusiastic. Negative comments should be avoided, as much as possible, by having well channelled, yet open, communication methods.
I try to converse in plain language using metaphors instead of technical jargon. I find these are a great way of bringing the image or idea alive and making it relevant. I will often use the human body as an example. People understand the body more than the complexities of greenkeeping. For example, I will describe 'thatch' as fat and 'aeration' as exercise. If we overfeed we get fat! If we don't exercise the fat builds up, then we become obese. Sometimes the greens need to diet and do more exercise to lose weight. If we don't diet and exercise well we will need liposuction (hollow coring). It may be over simplifying things but, in my experience, simple explanations get the message across better.
However, we are never going to please everyone. If we always try and appease the members by doing exactly what they want, or worse NOT doing certain operations because they are unpopular, then this is a recipe for failure. By the nature of our job we are open to unfair condemnation, criticism and misunderstandings.
Some essential greenkeeping operations are unpopular; some are very unpopular. But, without these operations, the course would not be able to continue, certainly not to any sort of standard anyway. Regular top-dressing, various aeration methods and overseeding are all contentious operations to some golfers. It doesn't matter how important and necessary we, the experts, perceive these operations, the customer will never fully understand. However, with good communication we can limit the complaints.
Essential, and often disturbing, maintenance work is necessary, so we have introduced a 'maintenance week' to the fixture book and all competitions are avoided during this time. We are restricted to that week but at least we can perform essential work, such as verti-draining, at a time of year when it is most beneficial. The members understand this and appreciate the notice.
In any business there is the 80/20 rule and this also applies to customer satisfaction. 80% of our customers are normally happy and content, but 20% are not. These 20% are, on the whole, misinformed or have a lack of understanding. With good communication techniques I can eradicate most complaints and concerns.
However, there is a hidden 5%. This lot are never happy unless, of course, they are complaining! It doesn't matter what we say or do they will find something to complain about. It's not personal it's just the way they are. Why should we make them unhappy by giving them nothing to complain about? Pleasing this minority is impossible and trying to please the unappeasable will ultimately have a detrimental affect on the course and the work we need to do in order to maintain the course. The skill is determining who is a compulsive moaner and who has a genuine complaint. If we get this wrong then we are wasting our time - time that ought to be spent on the genuine concerns.
Greenkeeping is a highly skilled and technical profession that requires many years of education and experience to gain a senior position. So why should we expect our members to understand our complex profession? But, I will always try and keep our customers as informed as possible.
Newsletters and reports are great ways to educate and inform members. I produce a monthly report that we display on the notice board. I also write a bi-monthly newsletter called 'Course Matters' which is sent to each member's home address and contains other club information, subscription fees and so on. We also post relevant information on the website.
I feel it is important to build a good relationship and a rapport with the committee. This can be difficult at times, especially when there is a lack of understanding of each others role. This can be improved with good, open lines of communication and education. For me, it is vital that I listen to the committee. Yes, I am the expert in greenkeeping, but they represent the members and have the best interest of our members at heart. They will also have a better perception of our members' views. In many ways the committee is the communication link between staff and customers. It may sound corny but I believe in teamwork and each member of the team has a role to play.
Course walks are a great way to interact with the committee. This gives the committee the opportunity to show me problem areas, give their ideas and suggestions and highlight the positives. This works both ways, and I find it easier when I can physically show them the problems, the successes and the evidence.
Attending seminars and industry shows with the committee is also a great way of educating and networking. These shows can be very impressive to a new committee member. I am always amazed how shiny new machines enthuse even the most pessimistic committee member. It's certainly an idea to take the treasurer along!
Formal Greens Meetings are set on a regular basis. This gives me the opportunity to detail our progress and problems, and vice versa, in a formal manner. The Greens Chairman and I will discuss the agenda before the meeting. This gives me plenty of time to prepare. We encourage open lines of communication; the outcome being that surprises at meetings are kept to a minimum. Receiving a bolt out of the blue is poor practice - we should never be put on the spot and neither should we put someone else on the spot. This only breeds discontent and communication breakdown. Good teamwork and open communication is a far more productive way of working.
When discussing anything with the members or committee, I try to talk in plain English and keep it as simple as possible. Blinding someone with science is not helpful - it only leaves him or her confused. I try to enlighten them so they can spread the message to others.
Q&A nights are a good way to have a one-to-one talk to the members; I normally do a twenty minute power point presentation then open the floor to questions. This has to be chaired well to avoid too much hostility and to keep the disruptive 5% under control! Letting negative members control the questions can be destructive but, when done correctly, it is very enjoyable for both the members and myself. Putting myself on the spot, and in the line of fire, is certainly nerve-racking. The anxiety, when channelled correctly, turns to adrenaline. Some will spend thousands to achieve an adrenaline rush, when all they need to do is stand in front of a room full of golfers! Hopefully, you are not left feeling like you want to jump out of an aeroplane. Seriously though, it can be rewarding and is a great way of interacting with the membership as well as raising our profile.
Networking with other Greenkeepers and Course Managers is of great benefit. The opportunity to exchange ideas, views and methods with like-minded experts helps enormously. We meet on a regular basis and talk on the phone. Everyone at some point needs support and encouragement, especially if going through transitional changes or carrying out unpopular operations.
We have been going through the transitional change from Poa annua to more desirable grasses. Calling on other greenkeepers expertise and experiences has helped convince our committee of the benefits. A real advantage is to be able to physically show a committee another course's achievements and show them the future fruits of our labour. Giving the opportunity for the committee to ask questions to other Course Managers is a great way of communicating and educating, whilst raising the whole profile within our industry.
Attending seminars, workshops and golf days are another great way of networking and keeping abreast of new developments in greenkeeping. I have found that the committee thoroughly enjoy these days out and benefit enormously from the seminars.
Having a good working relationship with the committee is important. It is imperative that both the greenkeeping team and the committee have respect for each other's role. The greenstaff should be informed as much as possible on the progress and direction we are heading. I feel it is also very important to pay attention to the ideas and suggestions from the staff and convey those ideas back to the committee, highlighting where these ideas originated. This helps raise the profile of the team as well as actually learning something.
One common communication problem is the readiness of members to express their concerns directly to the greenstaff. It is simply wrong for members of a golf club to approach employees and pass negative comments or judgment to staff members, no matter how frivolous. This sort of conduct is non productive. It not only encourages communication breakdown, but lowers morale and generates poor relations with the members. It also stops the staff from working!
Ultimately, the members pay our wages, but no more so than any shareholder of any organisation. Like any business, channelled communication procedures need to be in place to eradicate this sort of culture.
It saddens me to hear of this mentality at many clubs. In some cases this is tantamount to bullying and should not be tolerated. All clubs have a responsibility to protect the staff and have a duty of care.
In conclusion, we will always have disgruntled members, all we can do is communicate and educate as much as possible. We should discourage over zealous members from expressing their views to the staff, yet encourage a harmonious and respectful relationship. Teamwork and open lines of communication with the staff and the committee are productive ways of working. Working closely with other likeminded course managers, using their successes to help educate our committee will benefit us all.
Listening is the most important part to communication. if we are not listening then we are not communicating. If we are not communicating we are not managing. The key to the art of communication is to listen and digest the relevant information.