By Gary Hernbroth

If you are a road warrior, things like this have happened to you.

I placed a $20 bill on top of the front desk at a major brand hotel, and asked the front desk agent if she would please break it up for me, for tips and such. She immediately extended her arm and… pointed me in the direction of the other side of the lobby.

“Sorry,” she said, not too apologetically, “they don’t give me a bank out here.” I must have looked quite perplexed to her, as she added, “You see that Starbucks over there, across the lobby? They’ll make change for you.”

It was the morning. We all know what the line at a Starbucks in the morning looks like. Forget that.

Well, well, well. The hotel front desk customer service approach sure has changed (in this case, not for the better) since my management training stint at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco after graduating from Michigan State several years ago.

Back then, we were given banks, with plenty of money in different denominations. Imagine the innovation of that (!). And all crisp new bills and washed coins, too. We were not only customer-service driven, but we did it with style and class, too.

Next trip for me it was another hotel, another city, and another moment for the customer service "Hall of Shame." It was a major brand “limited service” hotel. The pantry located next to the front desk had five shelves, which are typically stocked with candies, snacks, toiletries, and other such items that guests may need and want to purchase.

Old Mother Hubbard would be sad to find that this cupboard was virtually bare (see my photo above). I counted four small single-serve bags of potato chips, 12 mini-boxes of detergent, aspirin, and three Slim Jim snack sticks in a box that was lying on its side. A sadder scene I’d never seen in a hotel pantry.

I asked the front desk agent about getting some cookies or a snack other than potato chips. He shrugged and said to me, quite matter-of-factly, “Oh yeah. They usually just stock us once a month (keep in mind that this was a busy corporate travel hotel in a business section of town), and nobody has been able to go to Target in a while.”

“Oh? Where is Target?” I inquired.

“Right across the street,” was the answer.

Scenes like this, and many more, are being played out in hotels everywhere, every day. Sure, many wonderful, shining moments of customer care are also happening. But shouldn’t the industry pay better attention to what helps drive customers away?

I recently presented stories like these in my keynote address at the recent CH&LA and AAHOA Northern California Hotel & Lodging Conference held in South San Francisco, titled “All Hands On Deck.” There, I exposed my audience to my concept of the “Get ’ems” and the “Keep ems” as it relates to the service issue.

The concept is simple. The external sales team is really the “Get ’em” team – they are out in the marketplace pursuing customers and booking group, event, and travel contracts. They get ’em in, they book 'em. For the internal service team, I refer to them as the “Keep ems,” whose job it is to do what they can to keep the guests coming back and not running off to the competition. Their JOB ONE is to keep ’em coming back as customers.

It’s cliché to say “everyone in our organization is a member of the sales team.” I'm so tired of hearing hotel executives say that, when many times it's anything but the truth. They complicate the uncomplicated, saddle themselves with contradictory procedures, and hire and manage people in a way (usually without effective training) that make it difficult to deliver on that idea.

I asked my audience at CH&LA (mostly hotel operators, general managers, and owners) to think about what was REALLY happening to the guest back at their hotel in room 425. I pointed out that while hotel management and ownership groups are adept at understanding the STR Reports and RevPAR indexes, how in touch are they with the day-to-day happenings in the “foxholes” back at the hotel?

While we espouse to brag about our customer service on our websites and marketing materials, is that REALLY what is being delivered at the front desk, in housekeeping, in the restaurant, on the phone?

Often times, many guests can be put off by simply what comes out of the mouths of hotel staffers, as in my examples above. Oh, it isn’t that they intend to say dumb, illogical, or insulting things. They just do. I call those things “Bozo-isms” in reference to Bozo the Clown from my childhood years on Detroit area TV. Bozo-isms are rampant. They run the gamut from “That’s not my job” to “I don’t know why they sent you here,” “Everybody complains about that,” “It’s our hotel policy,” and so on. You've likely heard dozens yourself in your travels.

Immediately after my CH&LA address, one enthusiastic vendor attendee shared a Bozo-ism she herself encountered at a hotel recently. “I had asked a hotel staffer whether they could do something for me, and their response knocked me over,” she said. “‘That’s above my pay grade, ma’am’ was all they could say to me. What kind of service answer is that?”

Space limitations preclude me from laying out all of the actions hotels and hospitality organizations should be doing to insure that their internal service team REALLY IS a fully-functioning extension of their external sales team. So let’s just start with some fundamental X’s and O’s that can have a positive impact on your guests’ satisfaction, their loyalty to your hotel, and thus – ultimately – the bottom line:

  1. Let’s try to stay out of our own way – The service industry can be a grinder. Let’s not make it tougher on ourselves by saying the wrong things to guests. You might as well serve them soup in a dirty cup, leave spots on their bathroom mirror, and miss their wake-up call. Either way, it kills your business.
  2. Think like an owner – Everyone on the service team must understand their part of the bigger picture as a stakeholder, and be empowered to think and act as if they owned the place. It is the role of management to make this clear and set the rules of engagement.
  3. Accountability – Everyone owns a piece of this. No departments or individuals on the team can be excused from being held accountable for their deliverables to the guests, or each other.
  4. Communication – This is often the red-headed step-child of all things that go wrong. But why? Communication means a lot of things – Verbal, written, person-to-person. It must be clear and understandable both internally and externally. Some of my hotel clients are going to “no email Fridays” as a place to start, to get people talking to each other again. Easier said than done, but this battle to overcome poor communication is worth it.
  5. Collaboration – Everybody pitches in; if one of us is in trouble, we are all in trouble – All hands on deck to help fix an issue or make it happen for the guest. Working in silos is NOT welcomed here!
  6. Camaraderie – Your people have to want to care about each other, to give a darn enough to pitch in together. Problem-solving together and coming up with a home run for the guests or the internal team is in itself a terrific team-building moment.
  7. Having a sales/service mentality vs. a transaction mentality – When you are selling, you are providing a service, and when you are providing a service, you are in effect selling. There is a feeling of care for the guest, of a longer-term investment than just getting through the transaction of the moment. Think of the soup guy in the Seinfeld TV series, just yelling "Next!"

All hands on deck, sure. All hands on deck doing the right things, consistently, and together? That’s where the real gold lies. Don’t just claim to do it. That’s lip service. Really delivering at a high level of caring & excellence? Now THAT’s customer service.