How to Prevent Your Hotel Employees from Becoming Another Steven Slater

By John T. Bowen Dean & Barron Hilton Distinguished Chair at the Conrad N. Hilton College, University of Houston | July 24, 2011

Steven Slater bid farewell to the passengers on his flight, including an explicit message to the passenger who disobeyed his request to return to her seat. He then grabbed a couple of beers, activated the emergency slide, and escaped down it. And as if nothing had happened, he got in his car parked at the airport and drove home. The really incredible element of this story is that he was able to get to his car and drive home without being stopped. That does not speak well for airport security. The incident also has relevance for hotel executives.

This story ignited a national discussion about employees in the service industry. Bloggers were praising Steven Slater for what he did, whereas others claimed that he was not a hero, but rather a weak employee who could not cope with a rude customer. One blogger stated that if he could not handle a rude guest, he should not be working as a flight attendant. There did not seem to be a consensus on whether he was a hero or a jerk. There was, however, a lot of discussion on how employees should handle rude customers.

Stew Leonard became an icon for extraordinary customer service after opening Stew Leonard's supermarkets in Norwalk Connecticut in 1969. He had two rules: 1. The customer is always right. 2. If the customer is ever wrong, re-read rule #1. I do not believe the customer is always right. In fact, in some cases, we have to fire our customers. This certainly differs from Stew Leonard's message, and these two opposing opinions is one of the reasons why there is no consensus on Steven Slater's role as a hero. This article offers suggestions on how to prevent your lodging employees from becoming another Steven Slater.

First, a good employee selection process is critical. Finding employees who are good at creating a positive service experience is a vital goal and major hiring criterion of lodging organizations. Customer contact requires service employees to display more initiative, cope more effectively with stress, be more interpersonally flexible and sensitive, and be more cooperative than their colleagues who work in the manufacturing industry. This means that service firms place more emphasis on personality, energy, and attitude than on education, training, and experience in their recruitment, selection, and training strategies.

Finding employees who can create a positive service experience is a vital goal and major hiring criterion of service organizations. Careful selection can also have a positive effect on the employees who are hired because they feel special. Adam Hassan, a Ritz Carlton boiler operator, explains: "When people take so much time to select you, you really want to prove they made the right choice. So if I see anything unusual I take care of it."

Bell and Anderson, two service management experts, state:

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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.