CUSTOMER SERVICE LESSONS FOR THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY

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The hospitality industry which generally lumps together all services involved in food and beverage as well as lodging and recreation, is generally very hard put when it comes to customer experience excellence. This is because the bar in the gymnastics at play here, is set so high owing to the very name that belies the need to deliver excellence. The dictionary defines hospitality as ‘the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers, and goes on to provide synonyms for it including – friendliness, hospitableness, warm reception, welcome, helpfulness, neighbourliness, warmth, kindness, congeniality, geniality, cordiality, courtesy, amenability and generosity. Taking a look at this formidable list, should be enough to inspire any organization involved in this sector to at the very least, endeavour to live up to its ‘reputation’.
Service excellence that generates customer delight is vitally important in all sectors because customers are the driver of all business; but for the hospitality industry, this vitality takes on an urgent twist. This then requires a renewed focus on the four main lessons that every institution playing in this space needs to pay special attention to, to ensure that customer service reigns:
The hospitality industry needs to hire for disposition
The very nature of the business requires individuals and naturally therefore teams that have an attitude of service. Providing service to customers is the order of the day, and ensuring that service runs smoothly is at the core of businesses in this space. It then follows that those naturally inclined towards people and to making sure that the people they interact with feel better, should be a first hit.
And whereas indeed the rigorous training applied in this field to ensure that everything goes right, right from reception to exit, be it at a restaurant, hotel or recreation centre is important; nothing is more important than making the customer feel good.
Service standards executed to a tee and in a manner that would make a finishing school bow down in pride, count for nothing if they are executed with disdain and a chip on the shoulder. The customer would prefer a fork in the wrong place, but hospitable service delivered with genuine interest and concern, to an impeccably laid out table, accompanied by surly service any day. A recent study on “The Psychology of Tipping” indicates that the three main variables that influence tipping in the hospitality industry include: ensuring that the service provided is very friendly, warm, helpful and positive throughout the entire interaction;responsiveness to customer needs including delivery of requests, anticipation of needs and response to queries, that influence the customers mood; as well as reciprocity, where the customer feels obliged to give back to the act of kindness and generosity that good service is signified to be, especially when unsolicited or perceived thereof.
Delivery of this expected high level of service requires team members and leaders who are hard wired for service success. It is incumbent of every human resources manager, to have this as a non-negotiable during the hiring process, for persons with key customer facing roles in the hospitality sector.
Customer experience in the Hospitality industry is EVERYBODY’S business
And yes indeed this mantra still remains the same for all organizations which purport to care for their customers. So much so, that there’s a beautiful quote whose author remains anonymous – despite the desperate efforts by customer experience professionals to discover the source – that indicates “Customer Service is not a department, it is everyone’s job”. The standard to which the hospitality industry is held to account by customers however, is so stringent, that it is imperative for anyone in leadership in this space to pay keen attention to ensuring everybody – and by that everybody, is literally every single human being in the organization – is aligned to the fact.
The hospitality industry draws an audience that is generally running on the high expectation that ‘a feel good factor’ will be at the centre of their experience. Customers patronizing ‘hospitality’ facilities are on the lookout to: either get away for a holiday in search of fun, happiness and relaxation; deliver powerful conferencing that will bring together meaningful discussions with fruitful outcomes to create change; celebrate special occasions at either a personal or professional level that will bring about heady euphoria; or sharing a meal together with company that will leave the participants happier at the end.
With this in place as the customer expectation, and in tandem with the golden rule of anticipating, meeting and exceeding customer expectations, the hospitality industry has no choice but to be very deliberate from a strategic and operational view, to create experiences that will leave customers satisfied.
The objective being to have them not only willing to re-patronize the facility, but also share the joy of their knowledge with others. Bearing this in mind, every single person that the customer interacts with at every single touchpoint, must ensure that the customer gets what they are looking for.
There is no role more significant than the other in this seamless chain to create pleasure points all round, for the warm welcome at the reception, and smooth check in process at the guest relations desk, may very well be erased in an instant by a mop wielding steward who knocks a customer’s foot and apologizes not.
The customer experience chain of success is only as strong as the weakest link in it. It therefore behooves the entire team to pull their weight literally. The weight required to deliver customer experience greatness.
The hospitality industry needs to quickly make good on service failure
Indeed every service failure incident irrespective of economic sector or professional dispensation needs to follow the service failure guide and acknowledge having fallen short of the expectation with a determined seriousness to take action; provide a sincere apology for the situation and feelings, and indicate the immediate next steps; institute corrective and preventive action to handle the failure situation; as well as compensation where possible to create goodwill.
All good yes, and all in perfect order when put on paper as the go-to guide when things swing in that direction. However, there is quite the difference between replacing a hard tangible product and trying to ‘recreate’ an experience gone bad.
Hospitality products are pretty much experiences, and when customer expectations are damned in the process, turnaround takes quite an effort to achieve. It is important therefore that the system in place to allow for quick decision making to possibly upgrade a customer’s room, provide a replacement meal, change a sitting arrangement, or completely discount a bill, should be created for swift action. Whereas a facility may not be in a position to make good on an experience gone bad, the efforts to turn around the situation and to show commitment to compensate, need to be appreciated by the customer. Solution orientation and the desire to take responsibility for any mess, need to be ingrained in the customer experience strategy of the organization.
Nothing pleases a customer more, than to take note that they are being acknowledged as important, and that the things that matter to them however small are not only of interest to the facility they patronize, but also significant enough to warrant quick attention.
Making good when things go bad is serious business, to the extent that it should have its own standard operating procedure that is applied across all levels of the organization. Sir. Collin Marshall, responsible for the re-birth and rejuvenation of British Airways in the 1980s, was known to consistently preach to his teams that ‘The customer does not expect that everything will go right all the time; the big test is what you do when things go wrong’. This lesson remains so relevant in business today that it should be framed on the walls and engrained in the hearts of every customer centric practitioner. Every player in the hospitality industry needs to be switched on to this as a way of being, to ensure customer hospitality reigns.

Marriage
The biggest overall lesson though, is that hospitality and customer experience excellence are married. Evert single customer across all the demographic strata from the traditionalists to the centennials, expect and continue to very vocally demand authentic customer service, that is personalized to their needs. The personal touch is an aspect so revered in the hospitality circles that institutions are going out of their way to investigate and study customer preferences to ensure that they appeal to their personal quirks and eccentricities.
That this needs to run right through the pre – engagement stage, actual live interaction stage and post- exit stage for every customer, should be what the research and innovation teams are charged with, to create and recreate solutions that will not only have customers in the hospitality sector experience real hospitality, but also have them miss and pine for the next time they will be back to experience the same delight.

Carolyne Gathuru is the founder and director of strategy at Lifeskills Consulting. She has over 17 years experience in customer service strategy development and training. Email: cgathuru@life-skills.co.ke

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