Continuous Training: The Key to Service Excellence

By Simon Hudson Endowed Chair in Tourism & Hospitality, University of South Carolina | March 11, 2018

For hundreds of years, the Japanese have understood the importance of creating a culture of continuous improvement. Their philosophy called Kaizen was introduced to the West by Masaaki Imai in his book Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success in 1986. Kaizen is a long-term approach to work that systematically seeks to achieve small, incremental changes in processes in order to improve efficiency and quality. Kaizen is best known for being used in manufacturing but can easily be applied to customer service, and one things I have noticed over the years, is that top-notch service providers in the tourism and hospitality sector have a philosophy of continuous improvement – and this means continuous training of employees.

I spent some time recently in Aspen and Telluride (both in Colorado), and Northstar California, and was very impressed with the level of customer service I experienced in nearly every staff/guest interaction at all three resorts. After speaking to management and those involved 'behind the scenes', I realized that what all three resorts had in common was a dedication to the continuous training of employees.

In Telluride, everything seemed to revolve around the customer.  "Our focus is on the customer experience, and I believe in a culture of 'yes'", says Bill Jensen, CEO of Telluride Ski & Golf Resort. "When I arrived, there was already a strong culture of service in Telluride, as it has been a popular destination in winter and summer for decades. We have a visitor economy, and everyone who works in Telluride – whether they are in the hotel or restaurant sector, or hosting weddings - recognizes that serving the customer is how they make their living for a good seven to eight months of the year."

"Recruitment of course is very important," says Rudy Sharp, Vice President of Hospitality for Telluride Ski & Golf Resort. "But then training has to be ongoing, too. Even with those employees that return after two months off between seasons, it requires constant training in order to maintain the culture." Sharp orchestrates all this training internally, and has just hired a full-time year-round trainer for food and beverage and hotel operations: "I was talking to my executive team yesterday, reminding them to have their managers send their employees to our ongoing training sessions." Sharp acknowledges that the ski industry has been guilty in the past of training employees for four days before Thanksgiving and then turning them loose for the rest of the season. "But you don't create a true service culture with that," he says. "So, our training occurs throughout the season. Just this week, for example, we have four-hour training sessions every day (staff are paid to attend) reminding employees about things like the sequence of service but also introducing new ideas and policies. And our trainer rotates throughout the restaurants during the week, reminding employees of the skills they were taught at the beginning of the season."

Sharp says that some might question the logic of spending so much money on staff that may leave at the end of the season. But, he says, if they don't spend that money on training, the customers are going to leave: "So it's worth the investment in the individual employee, who will hopefully look back and say 'that's where I got my start' and take away tangible skills in addition to a pay-check."

It is not just the hospitality staff in Telluride that receive ongoing training. Ski and snowboard instructors also spend time in the classroom. Deb Willits is a ski instructor in Telluride, but is also supervisor for training at Telluride's ski school, a school that employs 280 instructors, 60 of which are full time. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the school pays each instructor to train for three days. "But we then follow up with them as new terrain opens," says Willits. "And for the rest of the season we offer certifications – so now five to six days a week we have some sort of certification going on. And we have elective programs, how to be a good bumps teacher, etc." As well as technical training, the ski school also covers interaction with clients. "People and listening skills are just as critical," Willits concludes.

A winter wedding in Telluride. Photo courtesy of Merrick Chase.
Employee training event at Aspen Snowmass. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Swanson.
The author enjoying top-notch hospitality at Töst, Northstar. Photo courtesy of Simon Hudson.
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