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Service always boils down to your front-line staff

A recent weekend getaway to Miami with my wife gave me some time to ponder the concept of service and what it means at its core. After more than 30 years of extensive travel, I’ve probably experienced 4,000 to 5,000 nights in various hotel rooms. This translates to tens of thousands of employee-to-guest transactions of various dimensions. Service has been on the back of my mind throughout my tenure in the industry, and it was while relaxing on the beach that I had my true “eureka” moment. 

Let me first reflect on some of the interactions I had in South Beach. The flight was a breeze, and after a short taxi ride, we arrived at our Floridian accommodations. We checked in and went to lunch, as our room was not quite ready. So from the beginning, here is what I experienced in rapid succession:

  • Doorman greeting
  • Bellman taking bags and providing bag tags
  • Front desk confirming reservation and credit card
  • Concierge providing restaurant options
  • Restaurant reception
  • Server (multiple times)
  • Bus staff (multiple times)
  • Uninterested and somewhat disgruntled front desk receptionist to pick up room keys
  • Bell captain to request bags
  • Another member of the bell staff who brought our bags to the room
  • Room service staff who dropped off a welcome amenity
  • Telephone call from guest services to see if everything was in order

Notice that among all those human contacts, I attributed no explicitly positive adjectives.  Friendliness was my expectation from the hotel staff. It was only when I returned to the front desk after lunch that I came across a surly fellow, someone who was rather apathetic about his work. The weekend excursion is still fresh in my mind, pleasant as it was with all the palm trees and brilliant sunshine. Yet, this one brusque encounter is what I remember the most about the otherwise outstanding service received.

All egos aside, I pride myself as being a fairly humble traveler. If that one front desk staff member had not been so indifferent, my vacation would have been flawless. With nothing to complain about, the hotel would have received a perfect score. (Note, I overlooked this one individual and wrote an excellent review on TripAdvisor. Others, however, might not have been as generous.)

Reflecting upon my South Beach mini-vacation, I have made three powerful inferences. First, congeniality from hotel employees is not a bonus, but rather the assumed standard of service at a luxury property. Moreover, as a second deduction, it is only when this standard is broken that guests really take notice, for good or for bad. Third and last, the attitude of staff was more important to my experience than the quality of the facilities.

And this is something I notice when I read through TripAdvisor reviews. One guest might boast about how great the property is, but they still feel at a loss due to a few less than agreeable staff encounters. On the flip side, a critic who is willing to admit that the room or spa accommodations were a few notches below the penultimate of class might nonetheless be wooed to write a jaunty review solely from the effervescence of the employees. My conclusion is that regardless of room price or amenities, the innermost kernel of guest services is the compassion of your front-line staff.

Quantifying service

The proliferation of the revenue manager (RM) offers a good illustration for one large shortcoming in the industry. RMs are able to justify their actions and successes because they have direct metrics to prove their worth in fueling revenue. They have been instrumental in modernizing some of the financial aspects of hospitality operations.

But how do you quantify guest service? Just as every human is unique, so too is every human experience. As such, direct oversight is very difficult to achieve. Even with online rating aggregates and customer feedback forms, you’ll never get the concrete numbers that an RM can generate. And without these intricate statistics, how can you determine with precision where you need to improve?

A quick exercise should help clarify this problem. Look at your property’s “big picture” with its diverse operations, daily tasks and all the other pizzazz. Then remove the front desk, restaurant, spa and all other amenities from your mind and think only about the individuals — people talking to other people. At its core, customer service is about being respectful, helpful, courteous and welcoming — all the qualities you’d look for in another human being. If your staff can embody this, then everything else becomes second nature.

So to figure out how to quantify service, perhaps what each property needs is a new management position dedicated to educating all employees about the fundamental importance of treating guests right at all times. Call it the director of guest services or the manager of guest satisfaction. Maybe it is the duty of human resources or the training manager to uphold this policy.

True, this still doesn’t directly equate to a numerical methodology, but rather, it lends itself towards cleansing your hotel of negative experiences. The quantification will come through with happier guests, better reviews and more return visits. With such ravenous competition among hotels these days, the last thing you can afford is to neglect your guests in any capacity. A roaming arbitrator on the lookout for possible ways to improve the friendliness of your staff will subsequently work to heighten your customer loyalty and brand reputation — it’s all linked to this basic human practice!

This is perhaps the simplest concept, and yet it is the hardest to master. Staff oversight and continual training in this area will do wonders for everything else it affects down the road. Treat every customer like your best friend, and you can’t go wrong. And if you want to know the name of the Miami Beach hotel I stayed at, email me — it’s a great place!

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