Ms. Nedry

Guest Service / Customer Experience Mgmt

Go Hard on Soft Service Skills

By Roberta Nedry, President and Founder, Hospitality Excellence, Inc.

In today's world, a lot of times we think HARD is better. Work hard! Play hard! Drive a hard bargain! Hard may mean strength such as "hard as a rock" versus soft which may seam weak as in "Don't be a softy." Apples taste better hard and to many peoples' tastes, so does cheese. There may be lots of things that work or seem better when they are hard but when it comes to service, it's the soft skills that will enable the most memorable results, not the hard ones. Don't get me wrong…hard skills are essential and important and will get the job done. But, it's the soft skills that will make the emotional connection and inspire the lasting impact most hospitality leaders desire.

In service and even in hospitality curricula, hard skills are often the focus for training and education to deliver effective job performance. Hard service skills include efficiency, responsiveness and accuracy as examples. They include the technical and operational actions needed for any one job role or task. They include the procedures and responsibilities in job duties and descriptions. They consist of the established systems and processes to deliver services and amenities to guests. This includes things like the system used to take reservations, the procedures followed to check-in a guest, the processes followed to maintain the property, the workflow of preparing for a banquet, and the like. Hard skills focus on the systems, tools and methods used to deliver your products and services to guests.

For instance, front desk agents may have outstanding hard skills; they can manage check-ins and outs, obtain customer payment data and assign rooms. They may be able to multi-task phone calls and guest inquiries so there is not much wait time. They may have good job knowledge and be able to handle several job duties leading to smoother operations. But…if they seem rushed while doing those check-ins, if they seem more focused on getting the service done versus making a service connection while doing it, and if they seem indifferent or insincere, their excellent hard skills are diminished and may result in a less than excellent guest experience and/or a poor review.

Soft skills are the behaviors which directly impact guest impressions and feelings. These behaviors have the opportunity to cause positive, negative or indifferent reactions. These behaviors include communication styles, both verbal and non-verbal, attitudes, teamwork, awareness, authenticity, empathy and even leadership amongst others. Soft skills showcase the personal side of service and how team members use their attitudes, behaviors and verbal skills to interact with guests. The personal dimensions of service are the way employees greet guests, the manner in which they listen to their needs and requests, and the care they take in each Touchpoint. It's the emotional experience that they create for guests! It's how they make them feel!

Soft skills in service go directly to the right side of the brain and trigger the neurotransmitters, which produce reactive emotions to any one service touchpoint or service experience. Hard skills will get there too but they will take the indirect "logical "route via the "left brain" and not be as powerful for making the emotional connection. The right brain features abilities such as reading emotions, expressing emotions, intuition and creativity. Understanding how to tap into this side of guest and even employee brains presents strong opportunities for stronger experience connections.

Consider soft skills, the behaviors and personal side of service, as a train, headed for an emotional destination-the brain. The Heathrow Express in London can get you to London in 15 minutes, with no stops. Other forms of transportation such as buses, the tube, limousines and taxis will also get you there, but they will take longer with many stops and traffic. Soft skills take guests right to the brain's emotional reflex. They are the express train for service, especially exceptional service! Hard skills will get them there eventually but may be with less impact and possibly more aggravation. They will also not yield the rewards that the triggering of positive emotions will do via this direct route.

Recently, my newspaper was delivered with the following message on the outside of the bag. I had never had ANY message from my newspaper delivery person so this was a startling first message to receive.

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"if your water is on, I'm not going to walk through that"

The newspaper was delivered on time and to the right destination. The hard skill of efficiently and promptly delivering my newspaper was achieved. However, this abrupt, scolding message counteracted that and caused me to feel annoyed and displeased with this delivery person's attitude and communication. He did not understand a key behavior in communication style, even using only a few words. His intent may have been to inform and alert me to how he could be better with his service. Instead, he caused a negative reaction and in turn a poor reflection of the newspaper. He could have definitely learned more about the "soft touch" in both service and newspaper delivery by simply wording this message differently and communicating a positive message resulting in a win/win for both of us.

So, if soft skills have the power to penetrate and create memorable service experiences much more than hard skills, why are they neglected or less emphasized in hospitality training and accountability? It is the soft skills that will generate guest loyalty and positive reviews. How guests are treated will yield a greater impact than what they were treated with during their stay or their experience. How often do hoteliers spend time training their employees in HOW to treat guests and how various emotions are triggered and each touch point and contact opportunity? Do hospitality leaders understand those soft skills themselves and are they able to demonstrate those behaviors in their daily actions and management with employees? Employees need to be on the receiving end of those soft skills as well so they can "feel" what it's like in their own brains and be able to better relate to guests wanting the express train to positive emotions.

Soft skills are less tangible but more powerful so they should have constant, consistent and persistent emphasis and understanding. Hospitality leaders need to understand HOW to showcase those behaviors and hold both managers and employees accountable for integrating them into all their daily actions and responsibilities. Priorities and budgets need to be dedicated to professional "soft skill " training and applications so that they become fully part of and integral to any service culture. Employees need to understand what those skills are and why they will lead to great emotional benefits for both them and their guests. Science supports these outcomes with more and more evidence of how our brains are triggered to direct or respond to the multiple points of contact in our lives. When we understand what those triggers are and how we are impacted ourselves or how we impact others, we can then be proactive about how we handle those points of contact. This is what training in soft skills is all about and what will lead to exceptional service delivery and the most memorable guest experiences.

For example, according to new research, empathy, a powerful soft skill, is a habit we can cultivate, especially once we understand what it is all about. Empathy is a critical soft skill for service excellence. Empathy is about being able to relate to someone else, to step into their shoes, to understand why they might be feeing the way they do or to anticipate why they might feel a certain way. Empathy is about discovering other people's tastes and assembling the personal ingredients for service success. Getting better at service delivery and inspiring memorable guest experiences, even in the most simple, brief and ordinary moments, is directly connected to better understanding human nature. Scientists are producing more evidence that we are "homo empathicus" which means we are wired for empathy, social cooperation and helping others. We just have to trigger that side of others and us and recognize that we are naturally evolving to care for each other or that we have the ability to care. Caring is a key component and a key soft skill in service delivery. There are many ways to show we care, even with complete strangers and guests with whom we may interact for only a few moments. Smiling is one of the soft skills that can instantly show interest. Smiling with both eyes and voice add even more impact.

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Chef Concierge, Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal, Budapest, Hungary

Tamas Ungar, Les Clefs d'Or Chef Concierge of the Corinthia Hotel, In Budapest, Hungary, applies the soft skill of smiling with his eyes , mouth and tone and consistently makes guests, fellow employees and colleagues feel genuinely welcome

Showing empathy and that genuine interest and caring is in play happens with a greeting, a gesture, body language or the tone of voice. It happens through teamwork, through service recovery, through social media , through written documents-through every touchpoint. It can even happen through a coffee mug.

At a local French bakery, two guests ordered medium cafe lattes. They were served in regular white coffee mugs. As the guests sat down to drink their lattes, one guest noticed a beautiful blue mug on another table that had been vacated. She asked the owner why that cup was different and the owner explained it is for guests who order a large latte or coffee drink. The guest noted how much pleasure she got in drinking from a beautiful cup like that and wished she had ordered the large. The owner recognized an opportunity to care and make a simple moment special and quickly retrieved a clean blue mug into which she poured the guest's medium coffee amount. She understood the personal connection she could make through such a simple gesture. She cared and took that guest on the express train to pleasure by simply understanding what would make a difference in that short service experience.

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The beautiful blue coffee cup, which enhanced a simple caffe latte

Much has been written about improving the procedural side of the business: the operations, the flow of efficiency, and accuracy in accomplishing any one task or several actions. Organizations spend an enormous amount of time and effort to improve the procedural side of service, the hard skills, through new computer systems, refining processes and procedures, training and supervising staff. And all of this is important. However, it is the personal dimension of the business, those soft skills that turn a good, or even a great, procedure, task or activity into an exceptional guest experience. An uncompromising commitment to mastering the procedural dimensions of responsibilities is critical for success. However, that train only brings you part way. If the personal dimensions and soft skills of service are not met, guests will be left emotionally disconnected with what was just done for them; Opportunities to relate to guests and even employees, and determine if they are satisfied or dissatisfied will be missed. Don't confuse guests with procedural prowess; and deliver an incomplete guest experience.

Do a quick soft skills inspection at your property. Look for some of these telltale signs that's it's time for some immediate soft skills training:

  1. Take a comprehensive walk around your property or organization and count how many smiles you see in one day.
  2. Check in with your management team and see if they can provide a soft skills checklist of behaviors most important to your organization.
  3. Evaluate how well each department scores in empathy with each other as well as guests. If you don't know or don't know how to gage this, consider an employee perception study.
  4. Determine when, not if, guest service training, which focuses on both the procedural and personal sides of service, is taking place. Make sure it is a regular part of hotel operations and planning.
  5. Make sure service standards , a behavior code of ethics, specific to your environment are in place and if they are not, develop and design them right away to ensure an effective framework for service excellence is in place.
  6. Take a look at recent reviews on Trip Advisor or other guest satisfaction sources. Define what soft skills or behaviors are in each and whether they were positive, negative or indifferent and how they could be improved or enhanced.

Recognize that everyone needs practice. Hoteliers need to constantly be inspiring their teams in how to make these caring connections. Employees need to see and experience examples and applications for all types of touchpoints. They need to understand the multiple ways in which they can take guests on that express train to the brain and trigger those positive emotions that yield the most loyal guests, the best reviews and more referrals. Employees need training and orienting on all the soft skills and areas where they can accelerate in their own personal styles of delivery and impact. It needs to be part of hiring, orientation, job training and performance reviews. It needs to be part of daily operations and permeate each level of an organization, both on the frontline and in the back. All roles need to learn more about the variety of behaviors that will impact those with whom they interact, both internally and externally. Hospitality leaders also need to design the framework and foundation for service behaviors that are most desired and how they fit into that particular organization. Exceptional service and great guest experiences start to happen on a consistent basis when this comprehensive understanding of blending soft and hard skills takes place. Research in sociology, psychology and even history support the power of this strategy. Making an emotional connection about how to make emotional connections will be the soft sell that leads to hard profits.

Roberta Nedry is President and Founder of Hospitality Excellence, Inc. and has spent over 32 years exploring, delivering and managing guest and customer experiences and service training. She helps organizations to reach levels of exceptional service and regularly consults with executives and managers on transforming customer experiences. Her Hospitality Excellence Team is internationally recognized for its expertise in creating customer experience strategies that zero in on and inspire the DNA of each client yielding enhanced internal employee experiences and external customer and brand value. Ms. Nedry’s diverse background with both public and private companies allows clients to draw on her extensive career experience for business solutions. Ms. Nedry can be contacted at 877-436-3307 or roberta@hospitalityexcellence.com Extended Bio...

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