Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

By Steven Ferry Chairman, International Institute of Modern Butlers | October 28, 2008

How does one turn individuals from no matter what culture, country, familial and social background, who follow certain moral codes or not, into the epitome of a British butler and the quintessential service provider? Not a question most people ask, but it is one that has challenged trainers at the International Institute of Modern Butlers and which parallels the task facing trainers around the world trying to bring about some standardized level of high-quality service by employees in their hotels.

We look for those with a service heart, with service experience, with some starting point upon which to hang the service culture established by corporate. And the result is generally mixed, ranging from very good to passable, more often the latter. Perhaps nowhere is it more important to think globally and act locally than in the hospitality industry of a global economy.

Trying to enforce a global model, a same-brand identity in all corners of the world results in the kind of behavior that can rankle with guests: such as having butlers slip notes under guest-room doors at regular intervals reminding guests to use their butlers; or guests being told "It's my pleasure" by every employee in response to the slightest of acknowledgements by the guest. Sometimes, hotel-grading standards enforce this on hotel staff, such as the requirement that the guest's name be used at least three times by each employee. This sounds natural enough when a butler is with a guest for several minutes, but what about the valet, doorman, and bellhop? They have seconds to fit in the mandatory greeting in triplicate, and the guest hears his or her name nine times within the first minute of arrival.

What is happening here is a tendency to put a rule where an individual's judgment should be; to make a rule stand in for the evident lack of ability of individuals to exhibit basic social graces and service functions. But does this not boil down to a failure to bring about an understanding of the principles of social interaction and graces, and of service, and be able to apply them when called for? In other words, as trainers, we seem to have hit a brick wall on having employees think for themselves and act responsibly.

We seem to have fallen for the line that people have to be programmed in the same way that one programs computers or robots. This seems like the only option that works, but the problem is, it does not work beyond a certain level, just like robots. Take the task of training a couple from the Far East as butlers in a private residence in three days. It was not possible, beyond training in certain set actions and phrases, which the couple would then use from then on out, whether or not they were appropriate to the occasion.

Where understanding is lacking, employees will ask earnestly for set patterns to follow. Even though they make very poor robots and have the ability to think intelligently for themselves, they want some stable datum to fall back on in order to deal with the confusion of some situation or in servicing a guest.

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Guest Service: A Culture of YES

In a recent global consumers report, 97% of the participants said that customer service is a major factor in their loyalty to a brand, and 76% said they view customer service as the true test of how much a company values them. And since there is no industry more reliant on customer satisfaction than the hotel industry, managers must be unrelenting in their determination to hire, train and empower the very best people, and to create a culture of exceptional customer service within their organization. Of course, this begins with hiring the right people. There are people who are naturally service-oriented; people who are warm, empathetic, enthusiastic, pleasant, thoughtful and optimistic; people who take pride in their ability to solve problems for the hotel guests they are serving. Then, those same employees must be empowered to solve problems using their own judgment, without having to track down a manager to do it. This is how seamless problem solving and conflict resolution are achieved in guest service. This willingness to empower employees is part of creating a Culture of Yes within an organization.  The goal is to create an environment in which everyone is striving to say “Yes”, rather than figuring out ways to say, “No”. It is essential that this attitude be instilled in all frontline, customer-facing, employees. Finally, in order to ensure that the hotel can generate a consistent level of performance across a wide variety of situations, management must also put in place well-defined systems and standards, and then educate their employees about them. Every employee must be aware of and responsible for every standard that applies in their department. The April issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some leading hotels are doing to cultivate and manage guest satisfaction in their operations.