Is It Time to Break Up With Our Customers? with Holly Stiel

Holly Stiel, noted Hospitality Consultant and President of Thank You Very Much Inc., chats with Robin Trimingham, The Innovative Hotelier Podcast Host regarding strategies for handling the unprecedented numbers of customers who are taking out their frustration on service industry employees.

Stressing that there is a key distinction between annoying and abusive behavior, Stiel believes that hospitality employers need to pivot their staff training to better protect employees from abuse by equipping them with the communication skills required to understand what is really motivating a customer who is acting out and diffuse this behavior before it escalates.

Highlights from Today’s Episode

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Episode Transcript

Holly: Service is a feeling. I put that on a flip chart when I first started my business. And now I understand that that feeling is love. And if people can’t get behind it, go free up your future, save everybody a lot of aggravation, and do something else. Because this is a business that requires heart.

Robin: Welcome to “The Innovative Hotelier Podcast” by “HOTELS” magazine, with weekly thought-provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators.

I’m your host, Robin Trimingham, and my guest today is Holly Stiel, noted hospitality consultant and president of Thank You Very Much Inc. And today, we’re talking about, is it time to break up with our customers?

This podcast is presented to you by Franke Coffee Systems. At Franke, we think coffee is about more than beans and machines. It’s all about the moment when you create an amazing coffee experience for your customers.

Welcome, Holly.

Holly: Thank you for having me, Robin. I’m happy to be here.

Robin: Well, I have to say, you wrote an article, I guess it was about a year ago, with a very similar title. It spoke to me immediately when I saw it, so I thought we would invite you to have a chat today. If we’re talking about the realities of customer-facing jobs, in my mind, that’s a discussion about the nexus between industrial psychology and human development. So, my question to start off here is, if human beings as a whole are so stressed that they’re acting out, why do you suppose people are generally comfortable taking their frustration out on a stranger who’s clearly really just there to help them?

Holly: So powerful because I think that people are afraid now, so there’s a lot of fear that’s happening. And fear makes people act out in a variety of ways. And it’s easy. It’s like how it’s easy to say things on the internet because it’s anonymous. So, people who wear a nametag and a uniform are anonymous to a lot of people as well. When I worked on the front line, people would say, “I talked to you yesterday.” I’m like, “Well, okay, I wasn’t here yesterday, but okay.” So, you’re invisible a lot. So, because of that anonymity and invisibility, you can kind of let things out. And people are just so uncomfortable now and don’t feel safe, so that makes them act out more.

Robin: I think you’re making an excellent point about, you know, how much easier it seems when you feel like you’re anonymous. I don’t know what you’ll think of my statistics, but one study I read, by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, estimates that 80% of Americans are employed in the service industry in some aspect or other. They’re not all in hospitality, you know. There’s lots of civil servants and all of that. But if that’s the case, why do you think the general public persists in believing that, if you serve other people, you deserve what you get? Because it would seem to me that statistic is saying that a lot of people acting out are also people who are in service.

Holly: That’s so interesting, really. I don’t know if people believe that you deserve whatever you get. I think there’s a boundary. And that’s what I was getting at in that article, that there’s a very big difference between annoying customers and abusive customers and that we as the service provider and as the leader of any organization with people who serve in it have to protect their service providers from abuse. And the other piece of it is if it’s not abusive, but it’s annoying, and I think that’s more to the point because abuse is still a smaller percentage, but annoying has gotten larger. So, it’s up to the individual service provider and also for the manager to create an atmosphere where, again, their team member feels safe that they don’t have to take abuse. And if they’re thinking of themselves as a professional service provider, and we hope that more and more people will do that, then they can choose to serve through the annoyance. And that’s where the growth happens. And that’s where it’s exciting to be in businesses like the hotel business, and a lot of people have left our business. But the reason that it attracted people for so many years is that it’s exciting, and wonderful, and an amazing opportunity to make a difference. And it depends on how you are approaching what you’re doing. But you have to be supported by the culture of your company so that abuse is not okay. That is when you need to fire your customer.

Robin: I think that’s a very insightful distinction between the two things. And you’re right, when you make me stop and think about it, I think it’s quite possible that the whole thing has all been lumped together. So, obviously, if we’re going to train people to handle the annoying better and maybe defuse situations better before they escalate, how do you feel that the hospitality industry needs to pivot to address that?

Holly: Well, I love that you said training because, well, obviously, that’s my business. But the thing about training is to help people to have the skills that they need to be able to do this. And there is a communication skill that is more about curiosity than it is about judgment. And if you put curiosity first, and you pay attention to the other person, and you try to figure out, “Wow, why are they behaving like this? This is so interesting. This has nothing to do with me,” so you’re not personally reacting to this. What you’re doing, you’re not judging it, you’re not saying, “What a jerk. I’m not helping this jerk.” No, it’s not like that. You say, “Wow, how interesting.”

And if you… See, part of it is understanding that people are paying for a service or a product, so partially because they’re paying for something, they feel that they’re entitled, so that goes back to your last question. And if they are behaving in ways that are unattractive, not abusive, we can stop and really ask ourselves, “What does this customer really need? How can I provide that? What’s going on underneath the business need?” That’s where service jobs are actually exciting because they’re psychology, they’re sociology, they’re interaction. This is all human interaction. And what’s happening right now is that people are desperate to feel that they are connected, that they belong, that they matter.

So, if you look at the three most important needs of humans, they’re to feel safe, to feel like they belong, and to feel like they matter. Those three things, if you did everything in your business that focused on those three things, how are you making people feel like they’re safe and that they’re comfortable? Even if it’s an illusion of safety with COVID, how are you making them feel like you care about them, that they matter to you, that they’re important, that they belong in your business? You know, even like in a Hampton Inn, you walk into a Hampton Inn, and there is the floormats say, “We’re happy you’re here.” And so if everybody just understood our message, that we’re happy that you’re here, we value you. And if we can be comfortable in our own selves, we can understand that we feel bad that they’re behaving like that and that it’s not personal. That is a high level of self-awareness.

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When I listen to you, I can see that there’s a lot of wisdom in what you’re recommending. And I can’t really see anybody having a choice except to go down that path. I have an odd question for you. I remember years ago seeing a documentary in how color affected behavior. And they had people who were known to be aggressive as the subjects. And in one study, they put the people first into a room that was entirely painted sort of a shade of…I’m gonna call it institutional green, and they stayed aggressive. However, they later put them in a room that was painted baby pink, a very soft shade of pink, and they calmed down having been left there. So, it sort of begs the question, if we know that ambiance environment affects behavior, do you think that hotels can do anything to create an ambiance that supports civility, supports comfort, this need to feel that they belong, that they matter?

Holly: Well, I think that’s a science. I think that’s really fantastic. And there are some businesses… Especially the spa industry has embraced this. Restaurants do too, although they have it in a little bit of a different sensibility. Restaurants are booming and a lot of bass and a lot of hard surfaces because I think they want people to move very fast. So, they have created the environment to facilitate that. In a spa, you want people to relax. They speak about the vibe. They understand the vibe. These industries, this is not some woo-woo weird thing, they get it. So, in hotels, certainly, to embrace these sorts of things, anything that we can do to support our team in creating an environment that helps to create the memories and helps for people to love where they are and tell their friends and wanna come back. I mean, that’s the whole industry, right? But it’s also the culture of the company. If you have pink walls and nice music, and your manager treats you horrible, it’s not gonna help. You have to feel, the team member has to feel supported and loved and appreciated and valued. And it’s like this three-pronged thing. This is a relationship. So, the customer has a piece of the relationship. And we can’t exactly teach them how to behave. We can train teams, and we can have leaders that understand these things. But it’s a three-pronged communication and relationship. That’s really all together and very important to understand.

Robin: Yeah. I think it’s interesting to be involved in a service industry in a time when humans themselves are in such a radical transition. And you and I were talking before we started the podcast about the impact of COVID on all of this. There are some people out there who would say that the solution to all of this is we’re just going to introduce more technology, things like remote check-in or kiosks and sort of limit staff interactions with a multitude of people in a crowded area where people have a tendency to get impatient in the first place. Do you think that’s the answer?

Holly: Well, I think it is a hybrid model that really needs to happen today. Because the digital isn’t going away. We need it. And people use it. And we need to use it. But the wonderful word phygital so that you combine the physical with the digital, especially in places like luxury. There’s a lot of services in luxury where let’s say there’s butler services or concierge services at resorts, and they have these apps, and they communicate with the guests through the apps a lot. Well, how they communicate with the app is part of the connection. So, it can’t be robotic. Also, even with that, they have to go and see these people and say hello to them and have a relationship. So, it’s the combination of the physical and the digital that is the future. We place one with the other, we combine them, and we make it work for us.

Robin: I have to tell you, I haven’t come across the word phygital before. I love that because it says it all so perfectly. We got a minute or two left here. What’s your key piece of advice to any hospitality leader who listens to this podcast?

Holly: In the almost 40 years that I’ve been doing this, I have come to know that, in the end, the answer is love and that we love the business, that we love our teams, that we bring our love to work with us, that we love our clients, that we actually talk about love in the workplace. I have just started a new business with a friend of mine, a colleague, her name is Mary Steadman, and we call it Stiel and Steadman Service Solutions, teaching service love. And that is what we believe is the most important thing to talk about, to bring to your day, and to create the frequency of love and gratitude in your lobbies, in your locker rooms, in your cafeteria, in your restaurants. That’s what people feel. In the end, it’s really all about the feelings because that’s what service really is. Service is a feeling. I put that on a flip chart when I first started my business in 1992. And now I understand that that feeling is love. And if people can’t get behind it, go free up your future, save everybody a lot of aggravation, and do something else. Because this is a business that requires heart.

Robin: You know, I think that could be said of just about any business that’s going to thrive going forward whether it’s technically a service business or not. Holly, I think you’ve given us all a great deal to think about today. Thank you so much for your time.

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