Breaking Down Guest Satisfaction Into Individual Interactions

Best practices in customer service will forever be theorized upon and debated, and it’s a potent soup de jour for hoteliers come 2013 and beyond. Consider guest services as the only true immutable pillar of any hotel. Strip away the technology, the perks, the amenities, the décor and the picturesque location, and what you have are people helping other people – the foundation for guest satisfaction.

Indeed, guest service and our fair hospitality industry go hand-in-hand – a strong grasp of the former critical for the any semblance of success in the latter. It would be foolhardy, however, to view great guest service as any sort of grandiose machination or elusive phenomenon. In practice, the concept of guest satisfaction boils down to the moments between the monumental; a little smile here, a helping hand there, all of it culminating into something ebullient, tepid or even appalling depending on each interaction.

In this day and age when even a minor, fickle grievance can precipitate into a far more damaging online torment, there’s simply no room for errors when it comes to guest services. Everyone now has the potential to soapbox a sob story and drive away future bookings. Moreover, consumers just don’t follow the rigorous standards for stars and diamonds that were once the emblems of competence in our industry. Travelers are sensitive to their own variable and emotionally-driven agendas for satisfaction.

Add to that the near-universally heightened level of competition and there’s all the more reason to dissect your interactions as meticulously as a brain surgeon. Nowadays, anything adequate is simply mediocre, and unworthy of dignified word of mouth or word of mouse. Achieving greatness requires superb guest services that are adaptable to a multitude of personalities.

What I advocate is a return to the idea of guest satisfaction as an exercise in addition rather than division. The responsibility for delivering the highest quality of customer service should not be segmented and isolated within departments – for instance, F&B operating separately from housekeeping – but treated as the binding reagent for overall success. Compile all the small and seemingly insignificant encounters, and this forms the overall impression of your property.

One Interaction at a Time

Start by thinking of each member of your visible staff as a point of interaction with the chance to promote positive or negative changes in a customer’s state of mind. I bring this up because, as humans, we are libel to make mistakes, whether owner, manager or line staff. As trite as it is to state, put yourself in a guest’s shoes and look at all the instances where errors might arise.

Imagine yourself arriving from the airport. Who might you encounter?

  • Doorman greeting and ceremonial door opening
  • Valet offering to park car
  • Bell staff unloading and carrying luggage
  • Front desk clerk confirming reservation and credit card
  • Concierge for additional assistance
  • Manager with a personal introduction

Imagine yourself dining at the hotel’s restaurant one evening. Who might you see then?

  • Host to escort you to your table
  • Server to take orders and offer recommendations
  • Associates to fill water glasses, offer bread selection
  • Bus staff to place orders and clear the table
  • Sommelier with wine suggestions and tasting
  • Manager or chef with a personal introduction

It’s important to note that these are potential encounters; some may happen, some may not. But for each that does, the opportunity to alter a guest’s mood abounds. There’s always a chance for one staff member or another to induce a change, subtle or drastic. And this only entails our fictitious customer arriving, relaxing in the room and heading down for a meal. No doubt there’d be dozens more over the course of a few days.

What should also be evident from these manifold points of contact is that we are discussing a cascade of events. If any one of the earlier interactions, like that with the valet or front desk, is found to be irksome on the part of the guest, then it will set a challenging precedent for all subsequent communications.

This concept extends far beyond guest-staff encounters. There are so many factors beyond your control, making it all the more vital to have those in your control running immaculately. Guests have their own lives and their own stresses, and they may inadvertently redirect any glowering energy onto the hotel. Maybe they arrive as happy as a clam, but then bad news strikes and they turn caustic. Like a powder keg, one little wrong move could set them off.

Am I advocating that telepathy be mandatory teaching for hospitality students? Hardly, although that’d solve a lot of problems. Rather, I subscribe to the belief that sheer, unwavering positivity can surmount all other dispositions. A smile trumps a frown and a sour guest should never embitter a nearby staff member – empathy, respect and attentiveness at all times, no matter what.

In reality, this is a difficult credence to actualize as an effective means to sway guest satisfaction in your favor. Negative experiences have a way of entrenching themselves in the mind and outlasting their positive counterparts. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to compensate for a supposed wrongdoing, a guest may never come around.

Psychology at Play

Why do negative emotions linger, even when we try to erase them? Basic, instinctual survival. When we fall as a child and hurt ourselves, we learn both consciously and subconsciously to take special caution on uneven surfaces and atop lofty perches. When a particular food causes illness, it takes great willpower to overcome the trepidation of taking that next first bite for precisely this reason. We hardwire our bad experiences into our memory circuits in order to avoid similar circumstances in the future; this is the same as any other evolved vertebrate.

Our brains have programmed us to ardently avoid dangerous environments. As it pertains to guest services, if a stimulus causes a traveler to feel this way, their own mental conditioning will act out in self-preservation. No longer trapped in caveman circumstances, the modern forms of this ‘acting out’ may include disdainful word to mouth to friends, bad online reviews or a complete refusal to ever revisit your brand.

This means that a plus does not necessary cancel out a minus. Often, it takes many-a-plus to balance one grievance, and sadly, some minuses are irremediable. Not only do negative emotions linger, but they are also powerful interlopers. Fear makes us tense, which makes us angry. When moods are heated, what might otherwise be considered ‘water under the bridge’ (for instance, exorbitant charges for local telephone calls) can easily morph into yet another subsidiary cause for scorn. This is all in the eye of the beholder to a degree, but, at the very least, once a guest’s guard is up, it’s not coming down anytime soon. The universal lesson that our biology informs is that guests’ emotional states require extra precaution.

Defeating the Undefeatable Fear Factor

On an interaction-by-interaction basis, ameliorating this subconscious fear complex and its vitriolic manifestation requires a tactful combination of training and on-the-spot negotiation. Whichever staff member happens to be on the receiving end must first be taught to empathize with an irritated guest’s distressed state where emotion trumps logic. Understand that this isn’t how the person normally acts and that arguing back would only serve to exacerbate the situation. Instead, stay calm, apologetic and proactive with an immediate solution.

Often having a guest talk through his or her concerns can not only elucidate the underlying emotional triggers but also quell the present ire to let cooler heads prevail. Team members don’t have to be expert negotiators or psychologists, but they must be people persons, able to read social cues and respond accordingly. I emphasize again the importance of training, with those positions more likely to encounter guests necessitating more frequent instruction.

Harkening back to the point about guest service permeating through all departments, another grievous error occurs when a staff member is approached by a concerned guest only to respond with a fleeting, “That’s not my department.” Such demoralizing interactions can easily be avoided through educating your team on proper protocols for these ordinary scenarios. In this instance, a good response would be, “Let me see if I can help. Normally, this issue isn’t handled by my department, so it may take a bit longer to resolve.”

All these scenarios are reactionary, however. The disgruntled guest must first find the courage to lodge a complaint directly with the hotel in order for the staff to actually notice what’s wrong. Excluding the budding role of social media as an intermediary option for real-time protest, often guests will only give you the silent treatment.

Telepathy would be great for these unspoken moments, but we’ll just have to make due with the next best thing. With a warm, friendly smile, address your visitors with a, “Hi!” and, if time permits, a, “How are you today?” or a, “Is there anything I can help you with?” Perform this whenever a guest passes by and eventually your cheerful spirit will rub off. These routine questions present affronted guests with a chance to speak their minds as well as provide you with an opportunity to improve a satisfied guest’s already pleasurable experience. It really can be that simple. You need only look at various online reviews to notice the cases where extraverted staff transformed an experience for the better.

Double Deviations

If the ideal goal is to never mess up, then the backup plan is to never mess up twice with the same guest. Yes, guests are capable of laying on some heavy fire and brimstone when incensed, but the average person is willing to forgo one mistake. They’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. But by doubly deviating from the expectation, it’s a confirmation in the guest’s mind that your property isn’t deserving of their praise.

Think about this from the inner brain’s fear factor point of view. Suppose a property’s first grievance falls in that special zone of irascibility. The snubbed traveler can then choose to lash out in one of several emotionally-charged ways or the guest can exert self-discipline to allow logical thought patterns to prevail. However, a subsequent offense is inexcusable and can excite many, “What was I thinking?” forms of guilty, angered deliberations. Further, as guests will have their proverbial guards after the first blunder, the second one need not be as severe in order to elicit discomfort.

It goes without saying that a large part of the solution for these types of situations is to not make a mistake in the first place. But, as with seemingly everything in hospitality, a calamity of events occurs beyond our control. Double deviations can be mitigated via a flagging system and employee empowerment.

If a guest is noticeably grumpy and verbalizes an error on the hotel’s part, flag this person as you would a VIP. Inform staff, offer complimentary gifts and do everything within reason to ensure that a second mishap doesn’t transpire. Empowerment thus serves to expedite any remedial actions. If a patron ardently complains about a dessert, does a waiter need permission from the restaurant manager to offer a replacement confection? Mandating the involvement of higher authorities would take too long in this case. Front line staff members must know what’s in their power to help buffer an emerging problem before it imprints.

Congruent Guest-Hotel Interactions

Notice the wording was not guest-staff interactions. Onsite guest-staff interactions are at the core of guest satisfaction, but not the only factor. Social media is a demonstrative platform of this. To the casual viewer, your online forays will give future travelers a flavor of what to expect. As well, such networks are an excellent tool to keep in touch with past visitors. But the elegant nuances for these communication mediums are a topic for a whole other article.

What’s most crucial for guest-hotel interactions is to ensure that every encounter with your brand, from the print advertisements to the onsite staff and décor, conforms to a prescribed tone. In the opening I said to strip away all these additives and consider only the guest and the staff. Now, bring everything else back into the equation, but treat each and every object as a point of interaction subject to the same scrutiny as your team members. Is the artwork in the hallways evocative? How would a well-placed sculpture add to the ambiance? You can discern any commonalities amongst your unhappy restaurant critiques?

I consider these inanimate objects as subsidiary to the interactive human touch your hotel provides, but they are nonetheless important. Focus first on perfecting your guest-staff interactions then build out from there. With this as your paradigm, attaining high percentages of guest satisfaction should be a breeze whether you operate at budget or five-star levels.

(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky on Hotel Executive on April 1, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyBreaking Down Guest Satisfaction Into Individual Interactions