A Sense of Purpose: The Key to inspiring Superior Customer Service Quality

By Steve Curtin Founder, Steve Curtin Customer Enthusiast! | April 01, 2018

After a 20-year career in the hotel industry, I’ve made some observations. Specifically, I’ve noticed that hotel reservations are routinely in order, linens are consistently changed, and meals are typically prepared to order, yet front desk agents don't always smile, housekeepers don’t always pay attention to detail, and servers don’t always display a sense of urgency. And for years I pondered the question: Why does customer service quality seem to hinge on the employee you happen to get, whether over the phone, online, or face-to-face?

In the following story, you will meet a hotel general manger named Brett who is grappling with some of the same questions. You will also meet his airplane seatmate, Evan, who provides fresh insights to inspire superior customer service quality by examining the totality of every employee’s job role and connecting their day-to-day job duties to organizational purpose.

The leadership conference had ended an hour earlier and Brett Sharp, newly-promoted hotel general manager, and his regional director, Meg Daniels, were the final two attendees remaining in the cavernous meeting room as event staff worked around them to clear the tables and reset the room for the next function.

Meg was well respected for her ability to interpret potential causes of fluctuations in results, whether operations reports, P&L statements, or guest satisfaction scores. Having received the guest satisfaction scores for Brett’s property during the conference, Meg seized the opportunity to discuss a recurring pattern she had detected: Although the incidents of hotel guests reporting a problem during their stay was down, so was guest satisfaction. In her experience, there was generally a correlation between a problem-free hotel stay and a satisfied hotel guest.

“Brett,” asked Meg, “have you been able to spend much time with this period’s guest satisfaction scores?”

“Oh, yes. Did you happen to notice all of us staking out our territory during lunch to pour over our numbers?”


“What did you think?” asked Meg, withholding her reaction.

Brett knew he had an inconsistent track record with Meg. He was an effective hotel operator, consistently controlling costs and delivering financial results, but had less success driving guest satisfaction. He folded his arms, leaned back in his chair and exhaled loudly. It was as if his previous efforts to improve service quality at his hotel were futile - like casting seeds on rock and expecting them to take root.

“Honestly,” he confided, “I’m not sure what else I can do to raise our OSAT score. I’ve tried every idea we’ve brainstormed since I took over but nothing’s changed.”

“I think it’s interesting that, even as your guests report fewer problems during their stay, your OSAT scores have plateaued,” observed Meg. “We both know you’re a terrific operator. The challenge is to consistently execute while, at the same time, creating space for employees to experiment and make lasting impressions on guests.”

“When you say ‘creating space’, what do you mean?” asked Brett.

“I mean, let the operation breathe,” clarified Meg, “Allow employees more license to do things differently – to paint outside the lines; to surprise and delight guests!”

Noting the event staff closing in on their table, Meg began to stack the spreadsheets that were spread out in front of her. “Look, we both have flights to catch. We can talk more on the way to the airport.”

The unease Brett felt about the optimism he had expressed to Meg on the way to the airport weighed on him as he settled into his window seat for the two-and-a-half hour flight home from Chicago. Meg was an amazing boss and had been a vocal champion for him during the interview process for his current GM role. He was aware that his inability to improve guest satisfaction scores not only reflected poorly on him, Meg was also implicated. While he felt supported and encouraged by her assurance during the cab ride to the airport, he still lacked a plan for exactly what steps to take when he returned to the hotel.

He was lost in his thoughts staring out the window across the tarmac when another passenger paused in the aisle, set his computer bag in the aisle seat, and removed his jacket before stowing it in the overhead bin. After he situated himself in his seat and placed his computer bag on the floor beneath the seat in front of him, he looked to his right, made eye contact with Brett, and nodded.

Soon after the preflight safety announcements ended, Brett chose to break the ice by asking his seatmate if the plane’s destination, Denver, was home.

“Yes,” he said, “I was just in Chicago for one night. Earlier today, I spoke to a group about improving its customer service quality.”

“So, are you some kind of customer service expert?” asked Brett.

Extending a handshake, the man introduced himself, saying, “My name’s Evan. I’m not really a customer service expert. I’m an organizational psychologist, so I’m more of a people expert.”

“I’m Brett. I work in hospitality, so customer service is always a focus. So, tell me, what’s the secret? How do you get people to deliver great customer service?”

“Well, for me, every conversation about improving customer service quality starts with clarifying the totality of every employee’s job role, which consists of both job functions – duties and tasks – as well as job essence – their highest priority at work.”

Brett shifted in his chair in order to face his seatmate. “I understand what you mean about job functions, but I’m less clear about job essence.”

“You’re not alone. Most of the clients I work with are in the same boat. And it’s also true of the organization’s frontline employees: they’re quite familiar with their day-to-day job responsibilities but, when asked, are less clear about their purpose at work.”

Evan shifted in his seat to more easily face Brett and said, “Whenever I ask employees, one-on-one, to describe for me, from their perspective, their job role – what their jobs entail – what do you think I hear?”

Brett thought about it and replied, “They probably tell you what it is they do all day. I’m a hotel general manager, so my employees would say things like: check-in guests, answer phones, store luggage, change linens, vacuum…that sort of thing.”

“And what do you suppose I hear when I follow up by asking them to state the essence of their job role: the most critical aspect, their highest priority at work?”

“I dunno, “ Brett said shrugging his shoulders, “What do they say?”

“They often ask for clarification about the meaning of ‘essence.’ I try not to bias their responses, so I just repeat the question. Usually, after they’ve had some time to think about it, they’ll say things like: safety, productivity, profit, quality, or customer service. And while all those responses are important, they may or may not reflect their single highest priority at work.”

By now the plane was in the air, gliding smoothly toward Denver and Evan lowered the tray table in front of the empty middle seat between them. He removed a notepad from his computer bag and placed it on the tray table, saying, “Here, let me illustrate what I’m talking about with this Venn diagram.”

He drew two slightly overlapping circles near the bottom of the pad, explaining, “These two circles represent job function. The circle on the left is job knowledge and contains things like frequently asked questions, policies, procedures…that sort of thing. Employees must possess adequate job knowledge in order to show that they know WHAT they are doing.”

“Makes sense,” Brett agreed.

“And the circle on the right represents job skills. This includes characteristics like quality, efficiency, accuracy, and so on. Employees must display sufficient job skills in order to demonstrate that they know HOW to do their jobs.”

Evan then drew a horizontal line near the top of the two circles, labeling it: “Job Function (TRANSACTIONAL)”

“What I’ve found is that most employees possess adequate job knowledge and demonstrate sufficient job skills. In other words, they are deemed competent to consistently execute the assigned transactions for which they were hired, trained, and are paid.”

Confused, Brett asked, “Isn’t that the goal? To successfully onboard and train employees so that they’re capable of performing their job role?”

“Well, if your goal is to provide transactional customer service, then yes. Have you ever noticed that, while employees consistently execute the mandatory job functions for which they are paid, they inconsistently demonstrate voluntary customer service behaviors for which there is little or no additional cost to their employers?”

Brett nodded.

“For example, in a hotel setting,” Evan continued, “although I routinely receive the room I reserved at the price I expected, I don’t always encounter employees who express genuine interest in me, or who convey authentic enthusiasm for serving others, or who demonstrate a willingness to expend discretionary effort in order to elevate a routine transaction to a refreshing experience.”

“So, what you’re saying is that it’s not enough to have competent employees. Is that right?” asked Brett.

“That’s exactly right. Being capable is important, but it’s not enough if your goal is to raise the guest experience from ordinary to extraordinary,” said Evan as he drew a third circle above the other two, completing the Venn diagram.

“The third circle represents job essence: the most critical aspect of an employee’s job role, the employee’s highest priority at work – which, for most hospitality industry employees, is to create a Promoter: a customer who’s less price resistant, has higher repurchase rates, and is responsible for 80-90 percent of the positive word-of-mouth about a company or brand.”

Brett leaned in toward the diagram and pointed toward the two bottom circles, asking, “If this circle (pointing to job knowledge) refers to WHAT an employee does and this circle (pointing to job skills) refers to HOW they do it, what does the top circle signify?”

“Good question. The top circle addresses job purpose: WHY an employee does WHAT she does, HOW she does it at work. Job purpose is reflected in behaviors such as smiling, making eye contact, adding energy to your voice, displaying a sense of urgency, remembering names and preferences, following up, taking initiative…the list is endless. Essentially, it’s not being content to simply go through the motions at work, processing each new customer like the previous customer until the end of another boring and monotonous shift.”

Evan then labeled the area above the line: “Job Essence (RELATIONAL)” and he filled in the small area that overlapped between all three circles, noting, “This is the sweet spot. If your goal is to equip a competent staff with the knowledge and skills required to consistently execute assigned transactions, meet customer expectations, and create satisfied customers, focus all of your time and attention below the line.”

Brett nodded, recognizing that he had, in the name of efficiency and consistency, been focused below the line.

“But if your goal is to inspire a committed team that will consistently exceed customer expectations and create Promoters,” Evan continued, “then you must be deliberate about clarifying and actively communicating job purpose: WHY employees do WHAT they do HOW they do it at work. You must champion the totality of every employee’s job role, which includes dimensions that are both above and below the line, and repeatedly connect employees’ job responsibilities to the organization’s purpose.”

“What you’re saying makes a lot of sense,” Brett agreed, “but I’m struggling to see how an employee knowing her WHY at work is necessarily advantageous, whether to her or to her employer.”

Anticipating the question, Evan put down his pen and said, “Imagine that you’re leading the door-to-door efforts of a group of volunteers to collect donations for an important cause. While preparing group members for their assignments, you’re allowed to explain to them WHAT to do – for instance, share the name of the charity or cause it supports - and HOW to do it - canvas the neighborhood, knock on doors, introduce yourself and the cause, provide a pamphlet, accept donations, issue receipts - but you are not allowed to explain WHY the charity exists or share its purpose. You instruct your volunteers that if a person asks them, ‘Why does the charity exist?’ or ‘Why are you volunteering your time in support of this cause?’ their answer must be ‘I don’t know’.”

Brett smiled knowingly.

“How much money do you think you would collect?” asked Evan. “Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? It’s no different than - often unwittingly - withholding the WHY of an employee’s job role.”

After deplaning in Denver and saying their goodbyes, Brett headed to baggage claim with a renewed enthusiasm for addressing his hotel’s guest satisfaction dilemma. While waiting for his suitcase at the baggage carousel, he studied the piece of paper containing the Venn diagram that Evan had drawn on the flight and began to crystalize his employees’ job purpose: WHY they do WHAT they do, HOW they do it at work. And he started to make connections between his employees’ daily responsibilities and their highest priority at work: creating Promoters of the hotel.

Brett knew that in order to, as Meg had suggested, “create space” for his employees to shine and his operation to “breathe”, he must emphasize job essence in addition to the focus he already placed on the consistent execution of job functions.

The next morning, Brett was champing at the bit to return to work and arrived at the hotel an hour earlier than usual. Once inside the hotel, he walked briskly down the back aisle toward the main kitchen. He understood that there were no magic bullets and that he would have to commit to many informal, one-on-one conversations with his employees to impart the lessons he had learned and reveal both dimensions of every employee’s job role. And he would clarify his employees’ purpose at work: to create Promoters of the hotel.

Just then, Brett saw a member of the event staff, Keith, approaching.

“Good morning, Keith! Do you have a minute? I have a couple of quick questions for you.”

“Sure,” Keith answered.

Thus began a process whereby Brett, armed with the Venn diagram illustration, engaged his staff in a series of meaningful conversations that revealed the totality of every employee’s job role. Brett encouraged his employees to spread their wings and capitalize on opportunities to surprise and delight guests. In addition to executing their job functions (which is critical, and also expected by guests), Brett suggested they reflect job essence, their purpose at work, by expressing genuine interest in guests, conveying authentic enthusiasm, providing pleasant surprises, and a dozen other ways.

Two months to the day of his chance encounter with Evan, Brett was working in his office and awaiting his hotel’s latest guest satisfaction scores, which were due to arrive via email at any time. Just then, his cell phone rang. It was Meg.

Brett answered. Before the phone reached his ear, he could hear Meg exclaiming, “You did it!”

“Did what?” Brett asked.

“I got an early peek at your guest satisfaction scores and they’re AMAZING! What did you do?”

Reaching for the well-worn Venn diagram illustration on his desk, Brett smiled and answered, “I stopped just giving employees assignments to work on, and started giving them a purpose to work toward.”

In order to immediately improve customer service quality in your operation, start by clarifying your team’s purpose at work: WHY you do WHAT you do, HOW you do it. Next, communicate this purpose in words and deeds to your entire staff. An effective way to do this is to use the Socratic method of asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to elicit others’ ideas and underlying assumptions. Use the Venn diagram to demystify the anatomy of a job role. Pose the questions introduced by Evan during the story to engage employees in seeing for themselves, perhaps for the very first time, the totality of their job roles, which include both job functions and job essence.

Mr. Curtin Steve Curtin has 20 years of experience in hotel operations, sales and marketing, training and development, and customer service roles working for Marriott International. As Area Director of Training for the New York City market, Mr. Curtin coordinated corporate-wide training initiatives. While at the NY Marriott Marquis, Mr. Curtin worked with a team of executives to implement training that resulted in dramatic increases in employee and customer satisfaction. One initiative entitled "The Basics" was branded by Marriott as a company-wide initiative involving more than 3,000 hotels. Mr. Curtin can be contacted at 303-325-1375 or steve@stevecurtin.com Please visit http://www.stevecurtin.com for more information. Extended Biography

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