Service that Matters

 



Fun Fact: The first chocolate chip cookie was made by accident. Before cocoa powder became widely available, the standard way to make a chocolate cake or cookies was to melt a block of chocolate and mix it into the batter. One cook was making chocolate cookies and forgot to melt the chocolate. So, she mixed a few chunks of chocolate in the batter and hoped the chocolate would melt out in the oven. The chocolate did not mix in, but the recipient enjoyed the cookies even more than usual and asked for these new cookies repeatedly. Thus, we have the beginnings of the chocolate chip cookie.

In hospitality, the flexibility that enables staff to provide great service (and sometimes make mistakes) is removed; everything seems to be cookie-cutter perfect. Staff are encouraged to follow scripts and routines instead of being trained to adapt to situations and think proactively. Often the unique personalities of the team are ironed out and hidden behind a façade of professionalism. Instead of a warm chocolate chip cookie, it’s more like eating wood chips. 

My goal in hospitality - whether it’s a hotel stay, an attraction or an adventure - is to ensure that guests enjoy their experience. Through my experience, I have seen that staff with a warm, authentic approach to service develop more connections with guests, and those connections help create an enjoyable experience. Personal connections also help motivate the team, which improves the quality of service. 

If staff are stiff and formal, the experience feels fake and it’s impossible to enjoy. We might be impressed by the royal guard’s strict uniformity, but in service, we’re impacted by knowing others care for us. But when the staff are real, helpful and authentic, every act of service feels like a personal favour, and that is the service that makes an impact. 

Caring Service

For five years, I’ve wanted to attempt the Grouse Grind. It's a hike in British Columbia commonly called “Nature’s Stair-master”. It’s a brutal 3km hike with almost 1km of elevation change. After an hour of sweating my way to the top in November, I was really looking forward to a mug of hot chocolate and riding the gondola down the mountain to give my quivering legs a break. At the top, I was disappointed to find signs barring entry to the cafe, gift shop and gondola. 

After an extra hour scrambling down this icy trail I asked at the bottom about getting a souvenir. The staff didn’t really listen to me and just recommended I buy a ticket and take the gondola up to the upper gift shop. The guy running the cable car shared a few facts as we headed up the mountain. But it was the worst tour I’ve ever heard! I could tell it was a script with specific prompts because he only said anything as we were passing the towers and then would be really quiet for the rest. The presentation was jarring, monotone, insincere and boring. It didn’t add to the experience at all. In fact, I preferred he just stayed quiet so I could enjoy the view. 

After asking about the gift shop, I was surprised to find it still closed, in fact, it had been closed since March! The entire experience left me frustrated. 

The staff each did their jobs; the ticket lady sold tickets and the cable guy safely took me up the mountain. But none of the staff did their jobs. The ticket lady didn’t listen to my story enough to understand that I had already been to the top and was confused about why everything had closed. She didn’t offer me a discounted ticket for the trouble. The cable guy didn’t care about making the experience fun or enjoyable for us, he just followed a terrible script. Their service frustrated me because it didn’t actually serve my interests; they just didn’t care. 

At Legoland in Denmark, I had a very different experience. My face pressed against a gate, I was waiting (rather impatiently) for my turn on a ride. Then, the staff member operating the gate pinched my hat off my head and started playing with it. She was dressed as a pirate, so she put my hat on her sword then danced it out of my reach. Then she put the hat - my hat! - on top of her pirate hat and pretended to admire the new look. I don’t even remember what the ride was like, but I remember her playing with my hat. 

That fun little interaction kept me occupied while I waited. I am sure that those in line behind me got a chuckle out of the prank as well, so their wait seemed more enjoyable also. It wasn’t her job to make the wait enjoyable. Her job was to operate the ride safely and ensure she loaded guests quickly to cycle as many guests through as possible. But, because she went out of her way to make the experience fun, I still remember the experience fondly. 

If we can be our natural selves, we can provide better service because we aren’t spending energy trying to be something else. But it still takes work. It takes effort to step back and make potentially boring parts enjoyable for guests. It takes work to make guests feel valued and build conversations. It is much easier to just do our jobs, and forget about the guests. 

When I’m checking into a hotel, I appreciate it when staff ask about my day so I’m going to do the same. I appreciate it when staff drop the script and give me insider tips or answer my questions. I appreciate it when they think about my personal situation and give me a bottle of water if I need to wait for the bus. I like a good challenge and pushing myself to make connections with guests is a great stretch. When I’m empowered to be myself and serve in my style, it’s my reputation on the line, so I go out of my way to connect with guests and enhance their experience. 

Making Connections

When I went to Australia, I only had a few days after my school ended to go travelling before I needed to fly back. I was determined to make the most of it and created a tight schedule. On one day, I had booked a hop-on/hop-off tour. My plan was to get on the first available bus, ride the full loop once, then get off at the best places, do a little hiking and finish the day at the amusement park along the way. 

As we drove towards the amusement park (that I was planning on doing later) the driver encouraged us to get off now and do it early in the morning. Apparently, the park didn’t open for another half hour (the very reason I was going to do it later) but our tour could enter early and have the park to ourselves. I quickly rearranged my plans.

I never would have known that we could enter early unless he had told me. Once the crowds started coming, I was so thankful to have had the park practically to myself for the first bit. Not only did the driver take time to engage but he seemed to view all of us as personal friends, friends he wanted to give the best insider tips to. That approach is real service. 

Many hotels have removed that personal connection and focus on efficiency. When you arrive, you might not get a greeting and are just asked “Are you here to check in?” or “What is your reservation number?”. It is tough to build connections when all personalities (even names) are removed from the conversation and interactions are kept as short as possible. How can companies make staff wear name tags, yet create a system to replace the guest’s name with a string of meaningless numbers? 

At any hotel, most staff hate tour groups. When 50 -100 guests arrive simultaneously, it is very stressful. Usually, there is a discrepancy between what the guests thought they were getting and what the tour provider booked, so the front-line staff get caught explaining this to angry guests. But sales teams work hard to score tour contracts because they provide consistent cash flow. 

At one hotel I worked in, we had a large Asian tour company bring a different group twice a week. The tour guides remained the same, but the guests were an endless stream of people who didn’t speak any English. Because of the language barrier, there was no potential to engage with these guests. I basically wrote them off in my mind. I really didn’t care if the wifi was working or if they wanted slippers. I could just pretend I didn’t understand what they wanted. Who would they complain to?

In the middle of the year though, as I watched the group snake through the lobby, I realized something. They looked just like the lemmings from Zootopia; they all just followed each other everywhere. As soon as I realized I had stopped viewing these guests as people, I knew I needed to work on my mindset. 

Staying distant during interaction is easy, everything becomes an act. It’s being vulnerable that’s hard.  When I worked as a tour guide, I learned this very quickly. Even if you’re just getting to know the guests, you’re putting a part of yourself out into the world and waiting for others to respond and judge you. Every day was exhausting. Every day I had to be vulnerable and offer parts of myself to the guests.

I find it interesting that the cook who made the first chocolate chip cookie was a black cook who was a slave. At the time, she wasn’t considered a person, yet she showed more vulnerability and authentic service than many professionals today. 

When staff are willing to connect with guests, it makes the guests feel valued and more likely to return. Getting to know guests is filled with a thousand moments of potential rejection. To keep myself focused on connection, I try to imagine how I would act if my friends came to visit. My natural response might be “Welcome! I am so glad you’re here.” When guests are viewed as friends, it helps keep the goal of authentic service present. 

I love making people happy. In the travel industry, I put up with the crappy pay, frustrating hours and stressful work because it’s a great environment to serve people. When I am being natural, I can focus on guests as people instead of customers and even begin seeing guests as friends, which helps improve service

Going the Extra Mile

Approaching service naturally reduces the amount of energy that staff spend “acting” and the natural approach will help foster connections. But even better, those connections become the motivation to provide better service for guests.

If a friend mentions that their favourite candy bar is Snickers and you’re at the grocery store the next day, would you grab a Snickers bar? They just gave you the information you need to show how much you value their friendship. 

When guests tell me they are celebrating an anniversary, birthday or honeymoon, it’s like I’m being told exactly what my friend’s favourite candy is. I have everything I need to provide over the top service.

And I always have fun. Have you ever tried to plan a surprise party? Isn’t it a ton of fun planning how everything will work together, imagining the reaction and working to keep it a secret? The thrill when the recipient almost finds out and you bluff your way through is so exhilarating. Now, try planning a surprise in under ten minutes, while the recipient is in the room. At one hotel we even had special hand signals to let each other know about celebrations. It’s a riot!

Once, while I was leading a tour of the glacier, one of the men on my tour seemed very distant. It was odd; everyone loves the tour. It’s impossible not to get excited about seeing this massive piece of ice! Once we reached a safe spot, he pulled me aside and said he planned to propose to his girlfriend. Suddenly everything made sense. The odd vibes I was getting was because he was so nervous! So, I got my camera ready and helped them capture the moment. Then, I raced off and used the radio to tell the base camp the exciting news. When we got back, the front desk had arranged a card, wine and even decorated the room. The restaurant had a special cheesecake ready with little chocolate hearts. A few days later, my boss got a heartfelt card from the couple, thanking us for making their stay extra special. It is those kinds of experiences that push me to continue providing over the top service. I really enjoy this kind of service. 

At another hotel I worked at, we did many of the same things to celebrate anniversaries, we put rose petals on the bed, we did towel art and more. But there was one small change. The guests had to pay for this. At this hotel, instead of being excited to serve the guests, getting asked to decorate a room was an extra chore added to our day. And not once did a guest thank us for the effort. Being authentic and going above what the guests pay for, is the key to great service. 

I am the first to admit that not every guest will get the royal treatment. In fact, sometimes we drop the ball and guests don’t even get standard service. When things go wrong in hospitality, it is easy to pass the blame around. If your food is late, it’s probably “the kitchen’s fault”. Never mind that the server forgot to send the order through to the kitchen. But, studies have shown that when staff take responsibility for mistakes, the guests are more understanding. I think being honest takes vulnerability, which fosters connection. If the guests connect with you as a person, they’ll understand the mistake. When I am present in the moment and really connecting with the guest, I feel enabled to  and explain “I made this error, sorry, here is how I am working to fix it.” 

I’ve heard guest recovery training that says to listen to guests, sometimes they just want to be hard or to vent. For a long time, I didn’t believe this. And then I started really listening. I learned there is a difference between hearing the complaint and listening to the guest. Often, if the guest feels heard and that you care about their issue, that’s all they need. 

If your friend was concerned about the bill, would you brush them off or give them jargon about dynamic rates? Or would you look into it, fix any errors and explain the issue to them? If your friend was staying and found hair in the tub, how would you react? When you are serving because you love it and want to welcome all guests as special friends, all excuses are stripped away. We can’t just view guests as nobodies anymore, they are now friends we want to ensure have a great stay. We want to ensure they have a great stay, not because they may leave a bad review, but because they deserve a great stay. This deep motivation for excellence that comes through authentic service is what helps make this style of service great.

When your actions are fueled by connections and a healthy view of your guests as valued friends, it makes it easier to provide great service. It helps cut any excuses you may have about why something can or can’t be done. But most of all, when you are putting that much work into service guests, it makes it real service. That level of service, with such a personal touch, will impact the guests.

Providing True Service

Providing hospitality is a demanding job. It’s even more demanding when staff are forced to remove personality or follow strict scripts. I find authentic service creates a helpful cycle. When I am open to guests, I build more connections with them. When I have the connection, I am motivated to provide better service. When I provide great service, those connections get deeper and I’m even more invested in ensuring their experience is great. Being real, present and thinking about how my service comes across, takes a lot of work. But it is much more fulfilling because of the engagement I get back from guests and the way I am able to provide service that exceeds expectations. Guests also enjoy it because they feel valued and it makes the experience a little bit more like real life, but special enough to be memorable. Service shouldn’t be about training staff to remain separate from guests and remain aloof. The best service is about really serving the guests, as one friend to another.  


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