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Soft Skills Training for Front Line Hotel Associates - Ramiah Daniels, Director, Hospitality Paradigm

Thursday, July 19, 2012, 16:12 Hrs  [IST]


When one travels internationally, it amazes us how levels of service are not at par in most cases. While parts of the western world have honed the art of ‘processed’ service, parts of the eastern world have endorsed the art of the ‘warm human element’ in their services.

Scenario in India
Currently, India as a developing nation does not have the strength of great efficiency and infrastructure, but its warm culture sets it apart from the west. This is what hotels must realise and capitalise on, as this is our real differentiator.

In spite of salaries climbing the scales, hotels also realise that money is no longer the sole motivator to retain good talent. Self-development and learning along with achievement motivation, has climbed up the Gen Y employee need charts this century, and this has to be addressed by the learning and development cells in hospitality organisations.

There is no doubt that guest contact is a special art, and the hotel industry has recognised this. With falling ‘staff to room’ ratios over the years, one would suppose that guest contact would reduce alongside. However, the staff has become more receptive and sensitive to guest needs.

One of the issues that bother hoteliers is reaping benefits from brand ambassadors. It is now an accepted fact that associates at the shop floor are the actual experience enhancers. The majority of wow factors from a hotel would stem from superlative guest experiences with these front-line staff, hence looking at creating brand ambassadors out of them is the way to go.

Exceptional customer service can be achieved via training through a combination of two ways, procedural and convivial training. Broadly, procedural training covers the policies and procedures of the organisation while convivial training cover the soft skills required to enhance the guest experience.

Thus, procedural training would cover the technical aspects of grooming, guest preferences, telephone handling, sequence of service, modes of service, recipes, standard procedures, etc. while convivial training would cover the gentler nuances like body language, teamwork, flexibility, caring, empathy, motivation, a positive attitude, telephone etiquette, etc.

There was a time when ‘repeat guest’ recognition was a supreme form of guest delight - now it is simply a necessary tool for guest satisfaction. The ‘wow’ factor has reduced, as most hospitality organisations embrace this nowadays as the guest has already had multiple experiences in being recognised in various hotels. Thus, what was initially an experience enhancer is now simply a regular experience for the guest. Nowadays, the guest looks for those special ‘moments of truth’, which buy his unending loyalty. Hence, what worked procedurally in creating guest delight until a few years ago now requires a convivial supplement.

Wow Factor
To illustrate this, a general manager of a deluxe five-star hotel recently shared an interesting story with me where a guest who had service issues on previous stays was wowed by a steward from in-room dining, who met the guest while his fruit basket was being replenished and apologised for the lack of pomegranates, due to its non-availability in the hotel. The guest was quietly impressed that the steward remembered his ‘likes’ from an earlier stay.

However, what surprised the guest more was the fact that the next day the same steward bought pomegranates from the market for him. Thus, while a procedure of checking on guest preferences on the opera software produced an impressed guest, the conviviality of the steward to please the guest made a superlative ‘wow’ impression on this guest who will definitely be a repeat guest for the future.

To understand the importance of both types of training being done alongside, try to imagine a session on telephone handling(pitch, promptness, standard phrases, technically correct answers) without telephone etiquettes (voice intonation, empathy, a patient hearing, caring to resolve). This training session would end up with a call-centre like result, viz. robotic telephonic addressals / redressals. Hence, it is important to understand the need for both types of trainings to be done jointly.

Behavioural Training
The Oberoi group was the foremost to recognise the importance of behavioural training for front-end staff and they have been followed by most chains and stand-alone hotels in the country. International chains have only enhanced this process and in order to keep their associates motivated, hotels are attaching great importance to enhancing the training managers role by supplementing them with a modernistic cognitive approach to communication, personal development and psychotherapy. NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) - a connection between the neurological processes, language and behavioural patterns that have been learned through experience and which can be organised to achieve specific goals in life is one such example. The training manager needs to understand these approaches as they are dealing with employees.

Front end associates comprising reception, valet, concierge, bell desk, restaurants, bars and banquets, housekeeping, spa, etc., all need to be trained on their organisational processes perfectly, without which, crisp and efficient service can not be possible. However, the heart of the training must really be about reaching to the gut-strings of the guest and helping create an emotional connect between the guest and the hotel. The training manager must encourage training to yield results that will help the organisation to eventually connect with the guest at a subliminal level.

Personal Experience
I had an interesting experience as a guest in a hotel a few years ago, when I walked into a glass door without realising its presence. As I stood stunned, not knowing what had happened to me, a front desk staff member who had heard the noise came running up to me, immediately got me some ice and attended to my pain. He offered to call in a doctor and when I refused, he got me a lime juice and made me sit down. All this while there was a group checked-in and many guests to be attended to. No amount of training can really make associates perform in such ways; it has to stem from empathy and feelings of caring for the guest.

Skills Required for Butlers
The closest contact with a guest may possibly be with his butler who is expected to provide a very personal, detailed and seamless service, taking care of the guest’s needs in a highly professional manner. The butler is required to possess attention to detail and the ability to anticipate the needs of guest’s, using verbal and non-verbal communication skills, successfully understanding and interpreting body language.

Inter-personal skills such as conversing with people, explaining systems, understanding and carrying out guests’ requests, dealing with guests’ complaints and coping with challenging situations are pre-requisites of an ideal butler. Hotel butler training encompasses technical skills along with broader skills involving general knowledge, common sense, empathy, passion and a great presence of mind. At the end of the day, if the butler’s personality is not endearing enough, the guest will never be vowed, in spite of all the professional moments he has experienced. The same applies in varying degrees for all the above mentioned front-line associates.

Skills Required by Front Hotel Employees

One of my favourite behavioural trainings for the front-end employees is ‘body language’, a part of non-verbal communication. If the steward in a restaurant for example could only be made to realise that his every move and posture is public and speaks volumes of his attitude towards guest service, it would imply successful soft-skill training in itself.

In another case, the body language of a front-desk associate while dealing with a guest complaint could possibly define the outcome. Whatever the complaint, sometimes simply giving the guest a patient empathetic hearing is more than half the battle won. The body language by the employee during such interactions is crucial.

A guest once called for me at midnight to complain about a security issue. Interestingly, he wanted to complain that his car was let through the gate without being adequately checked. Unfortunately, the security associate was extremely casual when the guest complained to him in this regard. The casual body language of the security manager angered the guest further, as a result of which he insisted on meeting with me. Thus, a simple complaint was escalated to higher level thanks to poor non-verbal communication by a front-end associate.

Why do guests ask for a particular butler or housekeeping staff whenever they return to a hotel? I had an interesting chat with a Croatian couple who used to regularly stay at my hotel. They would always insist on a particular boy doing up their room while they stayed with us. Of course, we would oblige and the room attendant was always willing to change his shift for these guests. It was not that this boy did the rooms absolutely perfectly. The wife would supervise and correct him whenever it was not to her satisfaction. However, what endeared him to them was his cheerful smile, his attitude to please them, his willingness to learn and adjust to their idiosyncrasies along with his empathetic caring for their needs.

Brand ambassadors can be created by identifying potential from within and then implementing a structured program to hone their technical skills along with an ongoing behavioural training programme. It is these brand ambassadors who will ultimately offer those experience enhancers, which eventually build brand loyalty for guests.

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Hemant Ghatay Jul 26, 2012 2:38 PM
I would agree completely as I am handling butler operations in Maldives. Its always about making SPECIAL EMOTIONAL CONNECTION with the guest to make WOW experience.
Rajan Parulekar Jul 24, 2012 6:49 PM
The article is quite infirmative and interesting. The anecdotes about guest delight shows the changing expectations of guests.
Your observations on Procedural and Convivial training reminds me about the hygienic and the motivational factors as proposed by Herzberg.

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