Ms. Gioia

Human Resources, Recruitment & Training

"Help Me Please?" Making Your Switchboard Work for You

By Joyce Gioia, CEO, Employer of Choice, Inc

Your switchboard people are very important associates. It's not that all team members are not important, it's just that your telephone answerers are your first impression―to guests, to prospective guests, and the world. Their tone of voice, volume, and general demeanor set the tone for future interactions with your other employees in your hotel and even indirectly influence your occupancy rates. More times than I can count, I have given up waiting for the switchboard to respond to my calls to hotels to arrange reservations.

Hire the right person for this important job

Too many hoteliers mistakenly believe that they can hire anybody to answer their phones; after all, most of us have experience picking up a phone receiver when the phone rings and saying, "Hello." Unfortunately, for all concerned, this easy-going attitude results in many mis-hires and a lot of employee turnover. The switchboard is a very high stress position. Perhaps even more stressful than a position on the Front Desk, because workers on your reception desk often have more time to speak with guests to handle their check-in, check-out, or issues. Others waiting in line can see what is going on; on the telephone, the guest is just impatiently waiting on hold, listening to your recorded messages over and over and over. So be sure to hire someone who can handle the stress.

However, even behavioral interviewing (asking people to tell you how they handled particular situations in their previous positions) doesn't get to the personality construct. You must use some kind of assessment to find out what really makes the person tick. Our favorite is a product called PeopleClues (peopleclues.com) that gives you feedback on the "Big Five" psychometric parameters, extroversion, neuroticism, openness to new experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

With an investment of only 40 minutes on the part of the applicant, PeopleClues will generate a series of behavioral interviewing questions, specific to that individual, as well as reports on cognitive ability, integrity, engagement, and onboarding. It also provides a percentage of "fit" for the job. Besides all of this valuable information about the candidate, the best part for the employer is that s/he may generate an unlimited reports on the person for the same low-dollar investment.

The switchboard is often one of the most difficult departments to keep at full capacity. If you calculate the cost of replacing one of these valuable employees, you will soon understand why we are so enthusiastic about careful hiring.

Training your people well pays off

When you train your people very well, they are able to respond automatically. Giving the correct answers becomes second nature. Once formal training is complete, they will still need some time to ramp up for your highest stress times, so make that knowledge a part of your scheduling process, when your new switchboard operator is first available for work. If you are in a city where multiple languages are spoken, make sure that your new person is thoroughly trained in all of the languages that s/he might be expected to know when a guest calls.

Walt Disney had the well-deserved reputation for being a relentless perfectionist. Following his principle, "Always exceed customers' expectations," years ago, the Walt Disney Company established the program "Put a Smile in your Voice". To this day, part of the initial training for any job with the company that involves being on the telephone, it is considered especially important for people who are interacting with their guests.

"That's what makes Disney, Disney," said Dave Jarrett, hospitality consultant and former Disney Executive. Jarrett, who spent a couple of years of his career as Front Office Manager for a major hotel brand believes strongly in training. "If you're not taking the time and effort to train, you're not going to get the performance. We at Disney spent a lot of time and money to train our people before they were asked to take these positions." And that's how we raised the bar in guest services for the world," he added. Anyone who has experienced a Disney property will agree that a high level of guest service is part of their culture.

Help your people handle the high stress

You can help your people deal with the pressures associated with these demanding positions in many ways. First, recognize that people's tolerance for this level of stress is not infinite. Reset the burnout clock, at least every 3 months. Take people off the switchboard and give them another job to do for a week or more. Perhaps you have a special project of some sort? Or maybe have the operator substitute for another team member on vacation? However you work it, just make sure you give each of your switchboard people a break from the high stress job they have been handling for you. Resetting the burnout clock will support employee retention in a way that few other tactics can.

Another strategy that will work to reduce your people's stress is to cross-train others from different departments to fill in during your busiest times. The other department's team members will appreciate the break from their routines and your people on your phones will definitely appreciate the additional help. This strategy is another win-win for sure.

Advice from another industry

The woman who juggles the telephones at my doctor's office is amazing. No one in the office would dispute that Yvonne has the most difficult job in this multiple physician practice. She can literally be on four lines simultaneously, remember what each person wanted, and give it to them, as she finishes with one call and adds others in succession. I had to ask her for her secrets to share with you. Yvonne shared that when she can, which is not often, she takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. Just focusing on her breathing allows her to relax, in-between the high activity times that take up most of her day. She also keeps a positive (and professional) attitude by reacting physically with her eyes and her hands (never with her voice) to the amusing and sometimes annoying questions patients ask. Watching her, I'm sure you would agree, Yvonne has the patience of a saint.

Take care of your people and they will take care of your guests

Once you have hired the right people and trained them well, you won't want to risk losing them. So be sure to support them in coping with the stress and reset their burnout clocks regularly. Teach them how to reduce their own stress and you will have happy voices on your switchboard that will stay.

As one who spent a good deal of my own early career in telemarketing, I can tell you that when you smile while you're talking on the phone, you feel better and your positive attitude is communicated to others. That positive attitude resulted in more sales and better relationships. Put a smile in your voice and everybody wins.

Joyce Gioia is a workforce futurist concentrating on relationship aspects of the future. This arena includes workforce and workplace trends, as well as consumer, education, and business-to-business trends. Ms. Gioia is also CEO of Employer of Choice, Inc, a distinction earned only by companies whose leadership, culture, and best practices attract, optimize, and hold top talent. Employers of Choice® enjoy "a higher level of performance, greater workforce stability, and the level of continuity that assures preservation of the knowledge base, customer loyalty, employee satisfaction, and stronger profits". Ms. Gioia can be contacted at 336-210-3548 or joyce@hermangroup.com Extended Bio...

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