What I've Learned Training the Top Hotel Brands in Customer Service Secrets of customer service as practiced by the greatest Five Star hotels in the world — from the trainer who teaches them.
- Learn these seven secrets from the hospitality industry, and you'll be able to apply them to nearly any business.
- Iconic, loyalty-building customer service occurs when you seek out and care for desires, needs and questions that a customer has left unexpressed.
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I'm very grateful that some of the greatest hotels and resorts in the hospitality industry call on me for customer service training ("guest service training" in their world) and customer service consulting. These include some of the only hotels and resorts ever to earn not multiple Forbes Five Star rankings, which is very hard to achieve. (I also assist in customer service to other industries, from automotive retail to B2B to pharmaceuticals to healthcare.)
The greats of the hospitality industry have learned what so many other businesses have been slow to pick up: That in a rapidly commoditizing marketplace, one of the only reliable, sustainable, spreadable competitive advantages is providing extraordinary customer service, customer service so impressive that it drives true customer service loyalty.
This is how they do it.
1. Anticipatory customer service is their secret sauce
One of the most powerful elements of great hospitality is what I call "anticipatory customer service." Anticipatory customer service means getting to where the hockey puck is headed before the puck gets there.
It's giving the customer what they want:
- before they ask for it,
- before they even know they want it,
- even if they never get around to asking for it.
The baseline customer service equation is when a customer asks for something, and you provide it to them. This has value, of course, but it's not enough to give rise to special feelings in a customer and to linger in their memory.
But iconic, loyalty-building customer service occurs when you seek out and care for desires, needs, and questions that a customer has left unexpressed.
Anticipatory customer service involves hearing more than what a customer says out loud. Uncovering and taking care of unspoken needs and wishes and answering unasked questions is a master principle of hospitality that will bring any company that embraces it into a new reality: a destination populated with delighted customers who provide you with the kind of loyalty and enthusiastic referrals that will help your company grow and prosper for the long term.
2. They strive to provide guests with "wow experiences"
It is a given in great hotels that satisfactory customer service isn't enough. Although it's essential to consistently offer competent, reliable customer service and to invest in the standards, systems and training it takes to pull this off, great hotels don't sell themselves short by stopping there.
They understand that if you want to create the kind of passionate customer engagement that will turn your company into a legend of service and win you customers for life, you need to take your efforts one step further. You need to pursue "wow."
A wow experience is when service goes beyond fulfilling basic customer expectations and does so creatively and unexpectedly. By creating a wow experience, you give rise to a story in your customer's mind. Since humans tend to think and remember in terms of stories, the wow approach is one of the most effective ways to build lasting connections with customers. These wow stories have a good likelihood of d living on in memory, encouraging customers not only to return but to share their memories of the experience with friends, family and coworkers — and, through social media, the world.
3. "Not my job" does not exist
There's an understanding within great hospitality organizations that every employee will pitch in wherever needed, regardless of an employee's particular job description and level in the organization. This can manifest itself daily, as it does at Disney parks, where employees ("cast members") from every level of the organization can be found interrupting whatever else they may be doing to pick up stray trash wherever they encounter it.
Or this pitching in outside of an employee's daily functions can come up primarily on special occasions, the days or peak hours when help is needed to handle additional volume. At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, when there's a time-sensitive need to convert a meeting room setup into a banquet room arrangement or vice versa, it's "all hands on deck" until accomplished.
4. They cleverly keep technology below eye level
If you want to use technology to bolster your customer service while keeping it from interfering with the human relationships you have with your customers, here's a secret to learn from the greats of hospitality: Strive to keep technology below eye level.
For example, all technology is kept strictly below the customer's line of sight at the registration counter. This arrangement allows hotel employees to maintain eye contact with arriving guests, who never need to know the technological backbone informing employee responses. The result appears to be, and in a sense is, magic, at least in the hands of well-trained, personable front desk employees. That's because the terminal with all the good stuff — individual guest preferences, quoted rate, housekeeping status of every room, and the like — is kept below and completely out of view of the customer.
5. They are experts at service recovery (working with unhappy, disappointed, or upset guests)
Every great hospitality organization has a framework for service recovery that it turns to when it needs to turn around unhappy guests. The framework that I offer in training spells out M-A-M-A:
M: Make time to listen
- Immediately stop whatever you're doing.
- Don't interrupt the customer with questions or explanations.
- Only then, strive to learn more about the situation by probing for what the customer is specifically upset about.
A: Acknowledge and, if appropriate, apologize. Acknowledge the situation and apologize sincerely if you sense the customer feels it is called for.
M: (have a) Meeting of minds. Strive to marry what the customer wants and what you realistically can accomplish for them, considering your organizational constraints and realities.
A: Act! And follow up. Get busy taking care of the issue as promised in the prior "Meeting of Minds" stage. If you end up delegating any part of the service resolution, follow up with those you've handed it off to ensure it was handled appropriately and completely.
A vital alert and disclaimer: This service recovery sequence and approach are not intended to guide you if you're confronted by an individual who is armed or threatening violence. Handling that situation is a different discipline, typically called "de-escalation training," with principles that may differ in significant ways from the above.
6. Employee empowerment makes all of this possible
Great hotels can only function with a very high level of employee empowerment. In a luxury hospitality experience, employees never (or nearly never) force guests to reach out to a manager when something goes wrong; they address the issue right away. The Ritz-Carlton famously offers every employee the leeway to spend up to $2,000 to immediately solve any guest-related challenge. (I know this sounds crazy, but don't worry: the people at Ritz-Carlton are trained, creative professionals and have never needed to use that $2,000 even though it's there.)
If a company's leadership doesn't let employees be empowered — if it rules with excessive rigidity — these unyielding ways will, over time, blight an organization in the eyes of its customers. An employee cannot fully contribute to an organization and the service of its customers without being empowered.
7. It can't be "Yes" for guests and "No" for employees
The Five Star Pierre Hotel, a landmark in New York, has an employee cafeteria operating 24 hours a day.
Many other Five Star hotels similarly provide for their employees behind the scenes—"backstage," as it's often called.
Why? As one general manager told me, "The message has to be the same everywhere." Now this doesn't mean that internal customer service is exactly the same as external. It can be less formal, and it is subject to your overall organizational goals and standards of conduct (which, of course, guests can be a bit, shall we say, lax in adhering to).
But when you're doing a world-class job serving your guests, your spirits will flag, perhaps to the point of no return, if you're not treated well yourself.