The Great Service Debate Winter Edition – Give us your presence

Part Six of Six

Last year Penshee and EP have hosted a series of round tables with leaders from across the hospitality industry. In December, another diverse group took their seats at the Goring’s Silver Room to tackle the same two core questions:

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

As we look to reach a consensus on what must be done to achieve great service, this last session of the inaugural year included input from

  • Nick Clarke – Director, Hop Training
  • Julia Sibley MBE – Chief Executive, The Savoy Educational Trust
  • Simone Moretti – General Manager
  • Dina Soliman – Head of Marketing, Point A Hotels.

1. What is great service?

Three key components?

Simone opened up and speaking passionately yet pragmatically, he attributed great service experiences to the successful offering of three components: Aesthetic, Technical and Human. Unquestionably important, and logical enough to require little elaboration, other than to iterate Simone’s caveat that if one part of this equation is not present, the customer’s experience will suffer.

Show us your worst!

Julia went on to express the importance of looking at the ‘weakest’ members of staff and their service delivery. She drew on Disney’s handling of this, in arming every person on the front line with the knowledge to handle any enquiry or situation. Nick bolstered the point, adding that if an employee has any hint of stress then the customer will (whether knowingly or not) pick up on this.

“We are all humans – employees need to have the confidence to use their own voice.”

Authenticity is bred outside the box

Dina agreed and reflected that, where a sense of pride and ownership are present, the service will shine as employees can be themselves. She went on to add that over-reliance on box-ticking can certainly inhibit pride to an extent, but certainly ownership. In rhetorical summary, she asked:

“Why call someone a host but treat them like a robot?”

Let’s reframe things a little…

We invariably talk about the employees’ role in service but Nick added a comment to make us all reflect, stating that service is of course two way, and we must therefore bear the customer in mind at every stage of the experience. It sounds obvious, but how often is this actually happening in the millions of interactions that take place daily in the UK alone?

It’s right to focus on what’s wrong

An equally interesting take on service from Julia immediately proved its merit through the provocation of healthy debate – to define something as subjective as ‘great service’ it can be helpful to agree on the opposite (what is bad service). One of many points to stem from this line of debate was the negative impact of distracted service, and its beautiful opposite – the art of being fully present. This is a drum that Nick (humbly) bangs at HOP, as by being present in an interaction; understanding, empathy and a human connection become effortless.

Know what you are, and who you’re for 

Dina reminded us of the gulf between the styles and offerings of organisations, but also in the expectations and behaviours of consumer groups. In terms of style and crowd the Hoxton, for example is very different to The Four Seasons. Julia continued by stressing the value of having clarity about target audience and even changes in generational preferences; “My generation is (generally) used to chatting seamlessly, human to human.” To excel in service here is to create the illusion of having all the time in the world. She added, “Younger generations prioritise fast Wi-Fi” a notable difference, but a stark reminder of the differences in expectations, particularly when you consider the myriad preferences in between.

And know when to drop the script

Giles reflected on a service encounter he’d observed that very morning. A businessman whose demeanour, dress, words and tone of voice shouted certainty and habit. When asked for his breakfast order, he expressly stated “I would just like two slices of whole-wheat toast, some butter and strawberry jam”. Witnessing him decline consequent offers of eggs, cereals, croissant or “perhaps some bircher muesli” was bordering on frustration and amusement, but the question begs, “how has this happened?” – is it over-programming, fear of non-compliance, or insufficient focus on the individual and their cues? Perhaps this was a good time to move onto question two…

2. How do we achieve ‘good service’ across our industry?

Retention and Recruitment – chicken or egg?

Julia began with an impassioned suggestion that in terms of challenges, it is retention, not the generally blamed recruitment that should be top of the agenda. If employees are receiving good internal service and treatment, they are more likely to stay. Lip service won’t cut it either, operators must take a serious look at how their employees feel, and the contributory factors.

Dina added that of course, finding the right person for the job in the first place helps – and employers should be brave enough to employ candidates who show up with a clear passion for engaging with people, even in the face of ‘technical’ omissions on their CVs.

In training, specificity is paramount

Nick couldn’t agree more; with the right technical training and support, any employee can quickly reach a baseline of technical competence, upon which personality can then thrive and emotional connections can take place. Importantly on this front, we must stop generalising (‘we exceed expectations’ etc) and get very specific about what we’re asking of our teams.

He added that there is a general lack of understanding and some unhealthy misconceptions when it comes to achieving great service; too much focus on the ‘wow’ moments and tricks of the trade, and not enough on high quality human interactions. The problem is further compounded by a lack of great quality, impactful training on these essentials.

The bigger picture – in HD?

On the matter of learning, Dina suggested that whilst people learn by example, perhaps we could benefit from high quality and highly specific industry videos. Julia made a compelling case for constant L&D and good quality leaders with the ability to nurture their people. She also saw the value in hospitality adopting a TED Talk type model. Whatever the format however, all agreed that steering employees towards lengthy online manuals and SOPs will seldom do the job and all will be forgotten without leaders who ‘walk the talk?’.   

Leaders must do what’s right

Another thing they must do, is get important decisions right and arguably, abandon the somewhat tired and redundant adage of “the customer is always right”. Clearly they are not, as one debater (this story is an anonymous one) illustrated. They spoke of a loyal advocate with deep pockets but whose tendency to over-imbibe often pushed the needle backwards on his moral compass. The team felt uncomfortable and dreaded him being around on their shift, let-alone having to serve him. Once the manager became aware, they took the immediate decision to permanently uninvite the patron from attendance. Not just this, but they also made sure that the team received training on how to, in no uncertain terms, deal with this type of behaviour in future. The positive impact on team spirit was immeasurable.

Breaking down boundaries

There are numerous known merits of open plan kitchens, such as the sense of theatre and transparency. As Julia reminds us, one lesser appreciated benefit is the resulting improvement in bond between front and back of house teams – a notoriously thorny issue in so many an operation. The more that front of house teams and brigades get to see each other’s challenges, the greater the sense of understanding. Where understanding improves, so does camaraderie, team work and empathy – all of which then transfer to the customer experience. Any steps that can be taken to break down barriers, however large or small, should be embraced.

So in the final debate of the year, humans were central once more – on both sides of the service equation. Through the journey from conception to delivery, among the various hurdles of design, recruitment, retention and training, we must know in very specific detail what it is that we want to achieve, and who for. We must then create environments in which employees thrive, leaders lead by example and all continue to learn and serve with authenticity and purpose.

In 2019, The Great Service Debate continues – albeit with one key difference. This year we are inviting the folks from the coal face to join the table. After all, it’s they who hold the ultimate key to the guest experience. To register interest, please get in touch with us here.