Ms. Stark

Guest Service / Customer Experience Mgmt

Sustaining Service Culture That Drives Radical Change

By Naomi Stark, President, Stark Service Solutions, LLC

Of all the ways that customer service can be sliced and diced, the one fundamental that stands out the most significantly to me is: "Upper management must create a culture where customer service is valued and esteemed, taught and rewarded. Customer experience leaders who can drive this kind of cultural change will radically affect their companies' competitive position and business performance." There is nothing more important in the effort of driving customer service than driving a strong customer service culture. It's the foundation to everything else. Period.

To coin the Southwest slogan, "Without a heart, it's just a machine." Well, without a hospitality culture, it's just a hotel - not hospitality. Hospitality doesn't live in the beds, the breakfast, the Wi-Fi, or the flat screen TVs. Hospitality lives in the people. Culture is to the team, what the flame is to a match: fragile enough to quickly be extinguished, or powerful enough to ignite a wildfire of activity. However, even wildfires can be put out. Fire needs fuel to keep burning, culture is just the same, requiring continuous fuel to keep alive.

The starting point at Stark is based on what we refer to as "The Principle of Reflection":

  • If A=B: Guest Satisfaction ratings are the reflection of the guest's interactions with team members they encounter during their stay.
  • And B=C: Team member interactions with guests are a reflection of their interactions with management.
  • Therefore A=C: Guest satisfaction ratings are a reflection of management's interactions with team members.

So let's ask, "What are we reflecting? What am I reflecting? What is my management team reflecting?" Think about it, if we expect team members to welcome guests with a warm smile, we must first equip them with one by welcoming them with a genuine smile when they come into work. If we expect team members to consistently apply the 10-foot 5-foot rule, we must consistently practice it internally. If we expect team members to use our guests' names, we must first use their name when speaking with them. If we expect team members to communicate with guests professionally, courteously, and in a friendly manner, then we must first do this with them.

All very basic stuff of course, but show me a hotel that consistently practices these things and you'll see terrific scores. Conversely, show me a hotel with poor guest service ratings and note how these are not part of the internal culture. It's very simple, the guest experience is a reflection of the team member experience. This is the essence of the necessity for a strong hospitality culture.

Next, have it squarely in your mind that you have two separate, yet equally important, customers and identify which is your personal primary customer:

  • Customer 1: Internal Customer
  • Customer 2: External Customer

Managements' primary customers are team members. Team members' primary customers is the external customer, the guest.

By making the internal customer experience successful, the natural result is a successful guest experience. The flaw is when management strives to drive guest satisfaction directly, bypassing the team member experience. To get it right, Coach Skill training goes a very long way. (Often managers and supervisors have solid operational skills yet may have received minimal or no coaching skills training such as effective Communication, Accountability and Recognition skills - learning to drive the company's CAR is first and foremost in establishing a strong hospitality culture.)

Finally, technology systems need to be part of the process in order to establish property-wide consistency. Having a software system for what has been historically known as the "soft side" of managing is actually the "sustainability factor" of a guest centric hospitality culture. With today's technology it is possible to actually bridge HR, Training, and Operations as a cohesive front, backed by powerful hard core data and reporting which continuously fuels your culture.

What does that look like in "real life"? Let's ask JC Ayers, the Vice President of Human Resources for Seminole Hard Rock Tampa Hotel and Casino. This AAA Four-Diamond award winning property has 3,400 employees and 400 managers, its casino is one of the most successful casinos in the country.

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JC Ayers
JC describes what began in early 2014:"Our corporate leadership team identified that the number one priority was our guest service initiative. Each property was charged with developing a plan to execute the initiative locally, Our Executive Team recognized that service comes from within the organization, from highly engaged employees who have a clear understanding of our message. From our employee opinion surveys, we recognized that we had opportunities to improve on giving team members timely feedback, recognition, and a voice. We determined that we must focus on driving our team member engagement scores first, and by doing so, our guest service initiative would in turn follow.

Regarding the guest experience, we identified that a gap existed. We were great in transaction, not in transition. We did what we were asked to do, but not so great on the anticipatory and recovery details. This would take a multi angled approach. We revisited SOPs, ramped up communication with town hall meetings, fresh training, which we partnered with Stark on. This program began with our complete management team, and then our employee team."

Thus far readers may be thinking: 'this is all HR 101 for creating a culture, but creating and sustaining are two entirely different mountains to scale.' When your vision is to have thousands of individuals act with precision of a unified team, culture can't simply be created, it must be sustained. So JC, what else have you done to establish and sustain your guest centric culture and with what results, have they actually experienced 'radical change'?

"Spoiler alert! What we've done is raise our net promoter scores SIGNIFICANTLY. We're continually increasing our guest emotion ratings month over month, and are very proud to be setting a higher standard each day within our company. Our culture has seen a tremendous impact. We've pulled all team members into the conversation. Appreciation and celebration, recognizing and celebrating the positive while holding everyone - management and team members at every level to a higher standard of accountability - is now our day-to- day reality. We are connected across departments, no more silos, at all service intersections team members are experiencing recognition, horizontally and vertically. Everyone can feel the momentum." Wow! What's different? How is it being sustained?

"I've rolled out many initiatives over my career so I know, sustainability, really changing the culture takes more than just training. Think about it, it takes 5 weeks to form a habit and yet we think we can throw someone into a training class and expect a lasting change? Add to that turnover, and culture is eroding away before it gets going. In past experiences I've seen the typical spike that occurs following training. Then after six months, scores reverted to where they were originally. In another experience, we had a manual system for keeping the initiative going, it helped, but it wasn't efficient.

With this experience we've integrated the Touch Systemô in the process. Every team, manager and supervisor can communicate, hold team members accountable, and recognize team members on the floor, from their phone or tablet. Now that we have a mobile software tool, everything is more effective and efficient. It has made things sooo much easier. We are completely confident that we are just beginning to realize our successes and that within the next nine months, we will achieve our goal of leading the industry in terms of exceptional guest experiences. The trend is solid, we are consistently moving in the same direction."

The hurdles facing the Hard Rock's aggressive goals aren't uncommon in the industry. However, their sustained and ever increasing results are what everyone is striving after and well worth the introduction of a process change. Net promoter ratings and guest emotion scores reflect a healthy guest experience, an experience that drives loyalty. Loyalty is everything in the Hospitality business. Without it, we don't exist, at least not for very long. All the best amenities, reward programs, and marketing can only take a property so far. More than ever, as we live in a hyper-competitive, hyper-connected global marketplace, success is predicated on how team members make guests feel - and team members are reflecting how their manager make them feel.

The Bottom Line, Remember the "Principle of Reflection"

Ultimately, Guest satisfaction ratings are a reflection of management's interactions with team members. Team members need their leaders to drive the C.A.R.: Communication, Accountability, and Recognition. It's vital that the team C.A.R. is properly balanced, this also requires that it be consistently driven throughout the property, front and heart of the house. Then, and only then, can a guest-centric hospitality culture be cultivated.

  • Guest satisfaction is as healthy as employee satisfaction
  • Guest loyalty is as strong as employee engagement

A guest centric culture that is sustained is the difference between an annual plant that lasts for but a season, and a rooted tree that grows bigger, stronger, and more beautiful with time.

Many work hard to create a culture, but fall short when it comes to being able to sustain it. Bridging HR, Training and Operations with technology is the sustaining power that drives the kind of cultural change that radically affect companies' competitive position and business performance, it's the key business differentiator. Period.

Stark Service Solutions, LLC was founded in 2001, by Naomi Stark, current Chair of the AH&LA Technology & E-Business Committee, an expert in guest satisfaction and loyalty and employee development. Stark Service Solutions, LLC is known for developing smart training and software platforms such as the Touch System. The Touch System is the only software tool of its kind, bridging HR, Training and Operations to sustain a culture of highly personalized guest experiences. This program brings a unique approach to customer satisfaction management, which consistently assists clients in all sectors of the industry. Ms. Stark can be contacted at 480.614.1009 or nstark@starkservicesolutions.com Please visit http://www.starkservicesolutions.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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