“Hospitality is about being a chameleon”

Part Five of Six

This year, in partnership with Penshee, EP have been hosting a series of round tables with industry leaders to define What is Great Service and to reach a consensus on what must be done to achieve it.

The fifth session took place in late September with another stellar group offering their time and experiences in an stimulating series.

  • Amanda Baber, Director of Operations, Portico
  • Bill Brogan, Catering and Conference Manager at St John’s College, Cambridge University
  • Inga Hjartardottir, Hospitality Finance Consultant
  • Richard Thompson, Palace Foreman, Master of the Household’s Department, Buckingham Palace      
  • Bruce Isaacs, Founder, Hospitality Management Solutions LLP

Once more, industry leaders gathered at the Goring Hotel to discuss two questions fundamental to our industry:

What is great service?
How do we achieve this across our industry?

As will each of the preceding debates this year, the energy was high and the tone was optimistic. Today, perhaps more than ever, it felt as though there was a central binding theme. Truly great service involves a celebration of the individual – the guest, and the employee. We were reminded of the vital importance of nurturing a culture where employees understand what great service feels like, and are trusted to think and be adaptable.

Beginning with the first question, our minds were immediately jarred open when there was a difference of opinion in the room. For Bill, food was of greater importance to an experience than the service. Whilst the chair joked that he’d try to ‘convert’ him, it was of course accepted and appreciated that this was not only Bill’s rightful feeling, but one shared with many consumers from across the hospitality spectrum.

Take Macdonalds as an extreme example, does one visit for the service, or a quick fix? Clearly for the most part, it’s the latter. This is reflected in their self-ordering screens, reducing the element of ‘service’ to the over-counter handing of a happy meal. However, as the type of outlet and their position on the ‘quality’ scale changes, the generalised expectations become less clear.

What did you expect?

In our fifth debate, it now feels safe to predict that our friend ‘expectation’ will raise its head in some capacity. It’s hard, and possibly foolish, to contest that striving to exceed expectations is not worthwhile. What we can’t seem to agree on is what expectations are, and if we’ve managed to exceed them, whether it’s possible and indeed fair to ask staff to continue to do so with the newly raised bar. Richard knows that despite high expectations of visitors to Buckingham Palace, they are invariably exceeded. Scrupulous service standards play a part (missing a three-course service by two minutes is considered a significant failure), but the sheer awe and majesty (if ever there was a more fitting time for that phrase) of the place is what does the trick time and time again.

What’s interesting in this case is that it is not a specific act of service, but an evocation of feeling that has created the positive association – should this not be the goal then, to make the guest feel special? At the very least, guests’ feelings should be considered, and sometimes this kind of focus might lead to a change of standards. It was this emotionally driven thinking that was the genesis behind The Bagel Factory’s goal to greet guests at the back of the queue as a priority.

Adapt or… be like everyone else

“Hospitality is about being a chameleon” is how Bruce puts it to his teams (although alarmingly, we initially heard ‘comedian’, which was probably a riskier approach). There is no ‘one size fits all’ service – the individual and the situation must be viewed with fresh eyes every time, and the employee must be willing, able and permitted to adapt. Of course, there need to be some boundaries and a foundation of standards, but never should these become more important than providing the right service for the right guest.

Adaptability versus Standardisation

So what are we asking our front-line staff to achieve? In so many cases, it seems to be adherence to standards, and no more. What better way to supress personality, create fear and inhibit truly great service, argued Inga. In her experience, the fear of quality assurance (inspectors/mystery shoppers etc) can have quite crippling effects on teams. This was anecdotally captured in the story of a chambermaid forced by standards (and their supervisor) to turn down the right side of a guest’s bed – despite her knowledge that for the past three nights, that particular guest has preferred the left.

We are all different, even from one day to the next

Bill reminded us of the importance of drawing on our own experiences. In his case, a family experience to which he was greatly looking forward was scuppered by factors outside of his, and the establishment’s control (a family member required to fly separately). This extreme situation is one where reducing the negative emotional impact of the experience could not be achieved by simple adherence to standards. Instead, begin with the simple understanding that ‘real life’ happens sometimes and we simply never know what’s gone before in a guest’s day.

Occasionally, we are fortunate enough to know a little about guest before they arrive, but even then the impact can be negative with an overly standardised approach and a lack of humanity. The analogy of a recent anniversary was apt here – A ‘Happy Anniversary’ message scribed in chocolate onto the side of the pudding plate, after an evening of perfunctory and borderline rude service. It felt like the group were converging on a consensus that great service lies in celebrating the individual; Not just the guest, but the employee too. Then we should look at ways to create the conditions where this level of understanding and flexibility can thrive.

And how do we achieve all this?

Nature versus Nurture

It’s a conversation that woven its way in and out of this year’s debates – can you learn to be ‘good’ at service? One contested that stars of our industry clearly possess something innately hospitable and that others (perhaps 20% or so) at the other end of the scale are almost untrainable. Within the spectrum though, of course it is possible to raise the standard and to develop and reinforce service instincts, but the culture and leadership has to be right. Reassuringly, as Amanda appealed, the much-valued subject of Emotional intelligence consists of a learnable set of competencies, and organisations should look to understand how each of these can be measured and developed.

Do we have a thinking culture?

Another danger of over-standardising service is the impact on thinking. Richard referenced “Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind” by Nancy Kline. Her work reminds us of the vital importance of creating a thinking environment; A model of human interaction which dramatically improves the way that we think, and therefore work and live. Imperative for an industry where far too often, executive thinking is held in highest esteem, at the expense of trusting front line teams to do so. As Nancy Kline suggests:

“If a few at the top do all the thinking, the rest will stop”.

We were given food for thought on this topic through Inga’s case study from a well-known upscale hotel brand. The chain underwent rebranding from a safe, corporate operation to a contemporary and trendy one – where grey suits were subbed out for jeans and t-shirts with a twist of personality. Some may think this would be welcomed but in the first six months after reopening, 50% of the existing workforce left the business. Reasons for this exodus could be many fold but what seems clear is that the decision making was made at the top, without consideration of the thoughts of those most affected.

Are your teams enlightened?

Inga added that it can be difficult for employees to deliver services that they have not experienced themselves, and Bill agreed. Bringing in experts to train on this is one part of their solution at Cambridge, but it’s the second part that’s challenged long held systems. Bill’s proposal to the colleges that the catering teams should be able to visit and experience the service of fellow colleges was met with comments the like of “not in 500 years has this been suggested”. A few months later, the initiative is in full flow at three colleges and it’s been well received by the teams, who are not only getting the ‘feel’ of the service, but being allowed to think and reflect on their own service delivery.

Diversity versus clones

Of course finding the right folks is a significant part of the service equation and Richard reminded us of the perils of being closed minded recruiters. Many of us default to employing ‘mini-mes’, which precludes potential stars from the job and takes us on a clear path away from the individuality of service, which we seem to be now agreeing, is crucial. Instead we should adopt the thinking of sports teams – celebrating the team, and the unique skills that each individual can bring.

So there we have it for another enlightening debate, some unique perspectives from a room of individuals – but with some common agreements on what lies behind truly great service.

We’ll be hosting a final event at the end of the year, and please watch out for us at the Independent Hotel Show – we’ll be on stage in the Business Theatre at 13:30 on the 16th October to reveal the collective outputs of the debates so far.