Great Customer Service Training
My very first serious hotel job was as a "Guest Service Agent" at a huge convention hotel right on Disneyworld property. While not a Disney Resort, I still had to go to a half day Disney training seminar where I learned the names of the Seven Dwarfs. I still know them: Sleepy, Droopy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Sarcastic, Chubby---ok maybe not. I do remember that the ONE thing that HAD to happen anywhere on Disney property was "good service". My first day on the job was exciting. Another one day new hire orientation where I got to see a video of the hotel general manager telling us all about his vision and that the hotel meant nothing without us, the staff. I am not sure why he didn't actually speak to us in person, the new hire orientations were only once a month and his office was just a few steps away from the meeting room. I know he was there because shortly after the orientation started he pulled the human resources director out of the room for some sort of emergency. Oh well, he looked and sounded good on the video tape and I walked away from the orientation all pumped up and ready to go. Seven Dwarves and all.
The second day on the job was a bit different. My manager paired me up with a seasoned Guest Service Agent named TJ. I am not sure what "TJ" stood for, but that was it....not even a last name. She showed me around the guest service desk, the various work areas and then put me on the phones. The phones at this particular 1028 room hotel rang a lot. Everything from "how do you turn off the clock radio alarm" to "I need a foursome reservation at the new award winning golf course in 15 minutes". After 4 hours of, as TJ put it "diving right in" I was awarded the honor of being taken to lunch by my new manager, Joe. Joe was the "Guest Service Manager" and was in charge of as he explained, "everything that mattered" at the hotel. By the second re-fill of our iced teas he had gotten to the part about his hotel background and his hotel future. If I played my cards right I could move up quickly, as long as I stayed close and followed his lead. For a bit I was impressed. Young and somewhat awe struck that I was working at a huge hotel, a hotel where my family could never afford to stay and on Disney property for that matter. Then Joe started talking numbers. The numbers that surround the sale of show tickets, tours, golf course reservations and limo rides. The numbers he was talking about had to do specifically with the fact that many of these tour operators showed their appreciation for sales by handing over sealed white envelopes each week. Sometimes they even mailed these right to your home, just to streamline the process I suppose.
Lunch went on for two hours, after which I was fully aware that a large percentage of the contents of these envelopes was to be handed over to Joe. Of course this was not an official hotel arrangement, but one that was "understood" by management and fully expected by the various tour operators.
In a few weeks I had things down. As a Guest Service Agent I was primarily responsible for suggesting various tours and activities to our guests. Of course we had to hand out park information, give directions and such, but the primary role was that of selling tour and show tickets. Now I had lived in the area for about a year. My wife was a dancer at one of the local shows and I was becoming very familiar with the "good the bad and the ugly" of attractions. I started to notice a trend. TJ, whom I was still scheduled with was getting some pretty thick white envelopes. My envelopes were pretty thin and came with a substantial amount of indigestion. As I watched TJ recommend tours and shows I noticed that she was suggesting activities that were, to say the least "not on par" with the expectations of our guests. The great shows right around the corner, produced by Disneyworld themselves were never even mentioned or suggested! I remember once when I suggested that a group of guests make reservations at the "Diamond Horseshoe Review" in Disneyworld, TJ interrupted and said "oh, you probably will have trouble getting in, even if you have reservations they can still bump you, can I make another suggestion?" She then went on to recommend another cowboy themed dinner show about 45 minutes away. She also recommended "her personal friend" who had a great van to take them there, all at a bargain! Well the van pulled up, a twenty year old conversion van with bald tires and a driver who looked like he had just stepped of the set of Swamp Thing. Dripping with sweat, Swamp Thing driver greeted the guests and then walked in the lobby, where he handed TJ an envelope and me his card. "Give me a call, we have an arrangement" he said. As the van chugged away, taking the now captive guests to what was without a doubt the worst dinner show in Florida, TJ looked right at me and said "that's how it is done, follow my lead and you will do really well".
So there it was. The Guest Service Desk was actually the guest fleecing desk. The entire guest service team was "in", right there with our fearless leader Joe. Months went by, I stopped taking any white envelopes and kept sending guests where they wanted to go, not to shows where I would get any sort of kickback. Joe and the team became very unhappy with me. I often ate lunch with staff from other departments. Then one day the assistant general manager walked right up to the guest service desk and asked me to name a few of the different tours and attractions I was recommending to guests. I gave him my list, all of which to my knowledge offered no white envelopes but did give us very happy guests. He seemed pleased and thanked me. The next day there was a meeting with the general manager, the director of human resources and the entire guest service team. He told us that an investigation had been ongoing into the staff's acceptance of taking kickbacks from shady tour operators, unlicensed taxi drivers and less than palatable dinner theaters.
As he spoke I noticed that about half the team was not at the meeting. Joe was missing, so was TJ. Then he called my name. I froze. I know that I had taken a few envelopes early on, but I had stopped! I knew this was wrong! I walked up to the front of the meeting room fully expecting a public execution, setting an example for the rest of the staff. The general manager put his hand on my shoulder and explained to all of us that the guest service team members who were not in attendance were no longer with the company, they had all been fired and can no longer work at any Disneyworld property. Then he announced that I was going to be the interim manager until a permanent manager was found for the department. He thanked us all for our integrity and sent us on our way. So I was now a manager, interim as it was I was a manager! Excited, I called home and gave my wife the good news. "Did they give you a raise?" she asked. As I explained to her the significance of my new responsibilities and the honor it was just to be selected I began to think about what had just happened. Was this a good thing? What was I in for?
Fast forward 17 years and I find myself sitting at a desk at the back of my house in the Southern California Desert running my new hotel consulting company. The journey to this point has taken me all over the map, specifically when it comes to my exposure to the many different approaches to Guest Service. I recently became involved with a major university in California and have been working with an MBA class on the realities of service in the business world. The deeper I get into conversations with the professors and students, the more I am noticing a massive hole in the curriculum within the hotel educational system---where are the classes on Guest Service? As a hotel school student you learn a lot about the business of hotels, but very little on actually how to be a provider of service. Maybe the college restaurant or on the campus hotel. But really, how much time is spent on one on one coaching on the art of service? In most cases the service approach training is left to the future employer or worse yet, a summer internship program! So here comes your new management trainee, right out of a major university and they have no real "schooling" in how to provide great service, or how to be a servant in the hotel business. They might think that they understand how to be a servant, but how can you if all you know is what you have picked up along the way? Imagine applying this to another industry, lets say the space industry--astronauts to be specific. Imagine hiring a top-notch aeronautical engineer who has 9 years of study in the field of advanced aeronautics and space exploration, but no practical experience actually flying a plane.
They can tell you all about it, but until they actually sit behind the joy stick of that mach 3 super jet there is no way you are going to put them in the commanders seat of a billion dollar space craft! Or would you? We do it every day. We take new graduates and put them right in the drivers seat, right in front of our customers. Most of the time I think we luck out. Most who make the hotel industry a career already have a desire and what I call the "servant gene". So they respond well to the few days of on the job service / customer service training you might provide. But what about those who do not have this intrinsic idea of what service is? Will they "tolerate" your challenging customers? Will the "put up with" a difficult staff member? How will they teach service approach to the line level staff? I will bet that many managers "learn up" about service from their own star employees!
I believe that the culture of true service is on the decline in America. Declining expectations along with a related decline in the attitude of those in the hotel industry is wreaking havoc within our industry. Service is what should define us, whether a limited service or multi star high-end luxury hotel it still all comes down to service. We cant leave management service training to an on the job seminar. It has to start earlier and with much more aggression. I wont be the one to change the way major universities design their hospitality curriculums, but I can suggest to the industry not to think that just because you are hiring the brightest college grad that you are automatically getting someone who is truly engaged in a culture of service. Hotels must design very challenging service culture training classes with a very high level of expectation. Managers need to be challenged on their current idea of service and drill down to the fact that the hotel industry is really all about being a servant to your customer.
Think about the "Joe" I described earlier in this article. Can you imagine him being the person responsible for providing customer service training to your line level staff? Probably not, but I bet you do.