Against the backdrop of relentlessly evolving consumer demands and technological disruption, what does service quality mean today? What is required to maintain the prerequisite momentum? And how can hoteliers reconcile brand standards with the varying needs and expectations of guests from around the world? Helping us find the answers to these questions and more, Richard Leuenberger, Managing Director of Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz, joins us on a journey of discovery through service excellence.
Service excellence credentials
The success of Leuenberger’s approach to service quality speaks for itself. Under his stewardship, Badrutt’s Palace ranked first in TripAdvisor’s 2019 Travelers’ Choice Awards in the category “Top 25 Hotels for Service – Switzerland”. Not to mention topping the charts for Swiss hotels overall.
Before assuming his role at the helm of this historical establishment – “family owned since 1896” – Leuenberger held leadership posts at the prestigious Shangri-La and Ritz-Carlton in Asia among others. He also happens to be an alumnus of our very own EHL, having graduated with honors in 2002.
Service quality as a differentiator
When asked what the words “service quality” mean to him, Leuenberger explains that service quality is what sets luxury hotel operators apart from others. With guest expectations at the center of this endeavor, it may be tempting to define how this should look in practice by means of standards.
Leuenberger, however, adopts a more holistic approach, defining service quality by its outcome: customer satisfaction. When a hotel’s staff’s day-to-day actions are oriented toward this outcome, service quality ensues as a matter of course.
Steadfast tradition in changing times
It goes without saying that consumer demands are ever evolving and technology has the odd disruption up its sleeve. A challenging set of circumstances for the hospitality industry. How does the GM work with this? He sees technology developments both as a shift to keep pace with and as an enabling factor. A tool with which to connect to staff and facilitate their work, leveraging the potential of Instagram or Facebook, for example, and using the hotel’s own apps. This backdrop provides the hotelier with a strategic opportunity to refocus on where service quality should be felt and where it has changed.
While Leuenberger recognizes that guests expect fast Wi-Fi, for instance, he consciously chooses not to overload his guests with technology, emphasizing that the hotel’s traditional charm is one of the key factors that attracts guests in the first place. As a vivid example, he explains how guests will come into the lobby for the pure pleasure of hot chocolate that is still made the way it always used to be. Hot chocolate done right. That’s the kind of quality people are looking for.
Being a standalone hotel gives Badrutt’s Palace a certain nimble agility to react to the times and continue to meet these quality expectations. So when his staff identify a way to improve the customer journey or enhance a guest’s stay, they can execute it without getting tied up in hierarchical approval processes. And they do so using technology to its best advantage.
Maintaining a broad perspective
Leuenberger explains that suitable benchmarks are essential in successfully balancing tradition with innovation. He recommends comparing one’s own establishment with other players in the industry, always ensuring you set your benchmark high, and being careful not to succumb to the temptation of comparing your current hotel to one you’ve helped shape before.
Employee engagement is half the battle
Alongside the undeniable draw of working at a hotel that was the world’s first winter resort, where service excellence is simply part of the DNA, Leuenberger credits this constructive approach to technology with keeping employee engagement high. He believes that acknowledging that people have changed and that smartphones are omnipresent is key. The way we go through our days has changed. So, too, a hotel must change the way it communicates, the kinds of events it organizes for its staff, and what it focusses on in its daily briefings.
Building on employee engagement, nurturing a culture of excellence sets the tone for service quality, ensuring the required momentum is maintained throughout operations:
“If you have a culture of excellence, a lot of the service quality issues become redundant. It’s just basics, right?”
How, then, to instill a “culture” of excellence across cultures? Across national borders? Leuenberger encourages us to focus on universal truths, such as: “When it comes to providing a luxury level of service, people are very sensitive to what’s worth the most to them, and it’s their time.” He evaluates service provision from the guest perspective, asking himself whether that level is being reached.
Leuenberger considers the prevalent importance of the Three Steps of Service as formulated by the Ritz-Carlton to be another universal truth:
- “A warm and sincere greeting.
- Use the guest’s name. Anticipation and fulfillment of each guest’s needs.
- Fond farewell. Give a warm good-bye and use the guest’s name.”
Let culture do the talking
When looking to run a hotel abroad, naturally, our interviewee recommends understanding what is relevant to the respective country and its citizens. He also believes, however, that hiring the right people, people who embody your corporate culture of excellence, will solve this issue for you, as they will want to achieve that excellence, automatically incorporating local relevance.
And at the end of the day, who knows? Perhaps the challenges of opening up shop on new continents will be overshadowed in the future by the dawn of space tourism? With experimentation being a sign of our times, we’d be well advised to heed Leuenberger’s wisdom.