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 When is a Service False?
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by Barry Napier, April 2007

Ever stood by a shop counter waiting for several assistants to stop chatting to each other? I used to do that until I got wiser. Now, I walk away and shop somewhere else. Or, if I actually need to speak to someone – say, with a query about something I have bought, or with a problem, I just wade in with my query, disregarding the hostile looks! If necessary I will demand to speak with the highest manager there, not just a supervisor. If I am rattled enough I will write to the CEO of the company.

But, nothing those assistants do can be called a ‘service’. 

In the olden days when my hair was dark brown and my teeth didn’t need special toothpaste to make them whiter, I taught communications and customer service to trainee front of house personnel, in a faculty of catering. I got to wear a suit, looked smart, and had the bonus of eating with the dean in the catering block’s trainee restaurant. And because the departmental managers wanted everything to be perfect for the dean, I never got a bum steer!

Whatd’ya Want?

It was satisfying to hear “Yea, whatd’ya want?” change to “Good morning, sir, may I help you?” Many a loutish response slowly turned into professionalism. As the trainee became more proficient, so he or she began to take pride in simply doing an excellent job.

Even the offer of a cup of coffee became a work of art, as each trainee took a five day course in making coffee, taking in types of coffee beans, where they came from, how they were grown, how they should be roasted and ground, and how they ought to be served. Their prospective customers might only see a cup of coffee, but behind it was five days of intensive learning and practice, coupled with a professional manner.

At that time, front of house was king, followed by the kitchen, because food can ruin or make an hotel. There was plenty of ‘sir’, but the hint of Victorian-style servitude still prevailed. Now, I hope, things are better… or are they?

For myself, I do not require to be called ‘sir’. I am far from rich, and I have no real status in life to draw such a lofty title! Nor do I get a buzz from receiving an accolade I perceive to be deserved.  In Old Testament days, people greeted each other with ‘lord’ – but it was the accepted manner of the time. When linked with the custom of good hosting as a matter of personal honour, it really meant something. Because it was genuine it was okay. When it is feigned it is grubby.

I am certainly not a socialist, but I am in favour of people in the service industry being treated with respect. That goes for everyone, from the beautifully manicured concierge whose influence is king-making in its potential scope, right to the fellah with the open necked T shirt delivering the fruit at the back door.

I have asked around, in a kind of soft way. What do people expect from hotels? The answers are sometimes surprising, like those who say they like being pampered. Others say they like to be made to feel special. A few said they like to feel important.

Maybe this will step on a few toes – but I find these responses, well, an indication of something missing in their lives. One of the strings to my bow is psychology and I have taken part in a number of psychology tests to help out colleagues. The conclusion of each one was that I am well-balanced. The reason for this is that I know myself, including my failings and ‘best-bits’. So, I don’t need anyone else to fawn over me, or pretend to be my friend; I don’t need front of house to call me ‘sir’ (unless I get to be ruler of a country, of course, to maintain protocol), and I certainly do not need anyone to make me feel ‘important’.

As for ‘pampered’… yuk. What all of this implies is that people who usually work for peanuts are expected to treat customers like something superior. That doesn’t work for me. The only people it works for are those whose psychological make-up is deficient. I have known many rich folks, and most of them are genuine human beings. But some are above themselves. The only way they can feel important is to demean those who provide a service. They expect to be called ‘sir’, and love to have people run after them tending to their every need, even if those needs are excessive, crass and invented. That has nothing to do with service – it is cynical abuse of others.

Am I saying that good service is redundant? No, I am saying that good service is what you get when people are highly-trained and treated as equals, accepted for their skills and character, and not forced into being abject slaves, devoid of personality or feelings. For some years now I have devised and written a number of training courses for professionals, and this explains my simple services credo: “Professional, Professional, Professional”.

This is not just an hotel thing, it applies throughout all businesses. If ‘professional’ is behind everything a business does, then that business is likely to be successful. I have been to a number of hotels where personal foibles and a cavalier approach have prevented me revisiting. I don’t mind quirky. I don’t mind personalised. But I dislike any business being unprofessional! Perhaps this is a bad side-effect of being analytical, but I tend to always scrutinise and deduce. In an hotel, though I may not act it, my mind works like that of an hotel inspector!

If I see tired interiors, this does not bother me. But if the interior has flaws that could easily be remedied, then it shows me that the owner cannot be bothered. One might be due to lack of cash-flow, but the other is bad business – unprofessional. 

In a previous article I mentioned the three-star Cittar hotel in Novigrad, Istria. What prompted me to like the place was attention to detail. For example, the bathroom tiles were placed in such a way as to be a perfect match in corners and on edges. The bath-robes matched the colour. The environment of the room was rustic and well-presented, the wood used in the corridors was top quality and polished; the tall plant that ran right up through the stair-well was maintained and not allowed to look sad. Throughout, there was evidence of the owner’s pride in his establishment. And the owners were ordinary people who acted normally! Overall – professional.

Being Professional

The very first place I ever visited as a paying guest was about two years after getting married on a shoe-string. Not knowing what could be available, I saw an advertisement, responded, and did not ask any questions. Oh well, we were young and it was the 1960’s.

I hired a ‘chalet’ in the grounds of a mansion. The mansion itself was turned over to rooms. Inside were original ancient settings, some of it medieval. It even had a billiard-room used by one of the late kings. But, it was rather dank and the owners had done little to upgrade.

Our ‘chalet’ was a shed. Literally. All made of wood planks, painted green inside and out. One room had a very small ‘kitchen’, with a kettle, a few pots and a table-top cooker. This was next to the ‘other room’, containing a bunkbed and small table. Our one year old son had the bottom bunk. My wife and I shared the top bunk. Precariously! 

If I knew then what I know now, I would have condemned the whole place. But I didn’t know. We only saw the owners once, to get the keys. After that, no contact! Looking back, that wasn’t service at all, but exploitation and money-taking.

I don’t want a businessman telling me he is in business just to make me happy, because that would be a lie. He is in business to make money. But, along the way, if he is providing a ‘service’ he must make at least an effort to provide what he promises. And if his choice of business arises from a real interest, then it will be a matter of pride to offer the very best, within his ability.

I hire an hotel room for one reason – I need accommodation. If I need a place to sleep (which is what most of us hire an hotel room for) then I don’t need fancy stuff and people running after me. A motel will be fine. In and out without fuss! If I want something more, then I can pay more. I have no problem with that, so long as the place I stay is professional.

I recently stayed in a motel in England. Sadly, when I left my room and walked to my car, all the staff were standing around at the entrance, smoking and throwing their cigarettes on the floor. Such a sight is not good for the business.  As a non-smoker I found the sight distasteful and very unprofessional, and I said so. That the motel chain should provide a smoking room is arguable. The fact was, it looked and was unprofessional. It is my view that a person should work to the very best of his ability at all times. To be, or to look, unprofessional, is a reflection on the employer, after all.

What do I expect from an hotel employer… and I mean every single one of them, including those I might never even see? I expect – professionalism. Whenever I go abroad to countries where pay is meagre, I always make a point of tipping the room cleaners, etc., of my room, if they have done a good job. I don’t make it a servant thing by stuffing it in their pocket and walking away. Instead, I offer the money openly and tell them why I would like them to accept. In this way they know that their professionalism is appreciated. 

One has to be very careful about tipping, because it must never look like the act of a superior towards an inferior. It should be a gesture of thanks made on an equal basis.

Staff should be employed for their ability to work hard, a responsible attitude, and good responses to other staff and to customers if they meet.  I have been in a position where we had very lean times finding the right staff, but I refused point blank to employ the wrong person just to fill a position. It can be disastrous. 

Once you have the right staff, they must always be well-trained, from day one. If you just employ someone and leave them to their own devices, they will be indirectly trained by their colleagues, often with many bad faults. The training programme should be ongoing and monitored. Training itself is useless if there is no check on progress and skills, which must always increase. And training should result in some kind of reward.

Training must be relevant to the task, but must, of necessity, include public relations and customer care. This is because customers pay the bills! The biggest task a trainer has, is to try to add heartfelt desire to act properly, to the skills being taught. Without it, training is futile.

The one doing the training, and the entire management, must display the same attitude towards customers as the attitudes they are teaching to the trainees. And those attitudes must be genuine, not superficially adopted whenever a customer walks through the door. In this way, it will be true and not put on for show – something most people recognise anyway.

Staff should not be told to say and do things they are not comfortable with. As you might guess, I have never been comfortable referring to anyone as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. On rare occasions I have used ‘sir’, but only because of the very high regard I had for the person, earned and not demanded. That’s fine, because it is from the heart and not imposed. Otherwise, just use the person’s normal title – Mr, Dr, etc.

The staff member who does his job efficiently, promptly and professionally, will be appreciated by the customer. If he fawns and pretends, but is not professional, he just seems insincere – because he is. This means the professional will do a good job, but will not accept garbage from a customer. He is not working to be insulted and abused, by either employer or customer.

As for customers, they ought to remember that those who work in hotels might be highly qualified. Many have university degrees. Many work in hotels because they like it. Some may have fallen on hard times and need the job. 

Whatever takes them to the service industry, does not matter. What matters is their professionalism. They are not lackeys. They are simply working for a living and trying their best. And if they are skilled professionals, they deserve far more than a curt wave of the hand, or a grunt. “Please” and “thankyou” are always welcome. They are also indicative of the customer’s character.

So, if you wish to feel important, look for satisfaction in your own sphere of work! If you want to be pampered, appreciate the skills and professionalism of those who provide the service. Don’t just sit there smugly and snap your fingers. And if you come across someone who has had a bad day, remember that you, too, have the same kind of days at times.

Holistic – Not Partial

Obviously, I have pottered around the subject very generally, but I hope I have given the gist of my argument. The point about a service industry is that you pay someone else for providing what you cannot provide for yourself. 

Do you really want to be made to feel ‘important’ by someone who is being superficial? Or would you prefer to be liked for yourself, for being a warm and genuine human being? Remember – respect has to be earned by both service provider and customer.

Training in the service industry has to holistic, covering every aspect of what is offered. It must apply to everything, from the advertisement to booking, concierge to waiter, secretary to kitchen hand. And when it all comes together, you get business harmony, professionalism… and a great income.

© Barry Napier

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Contact:

Barry Napier
barry.napier@ntlworld.com

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Also See: What is the Difference Between a Five-star and a Six or Seven-star Hotel? / Barry Napier / April 2007
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