Independent hotels can be nimble when it comes to employee training, and the plans and procedures hoteliers put in place can take them to the top when it comes to guest satisfaction.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Customer service standards can make or break any hotel, especially when it comes to online review sites such as TripAdvisor. Due to the nature of their business, independent hoteliers can be nimble when it comes to training employees to set them up for service success.
“Customer service is critical,” said Rick Verkler, GM of the 25-room Guesthouse Hotel, which is rated No. 1 out of 185 hotels in Chicago on TripAdvisor. “It doesn’t matter what level—everyone from housekeepers through to the managers.”
“Anyone can build a fantastic building, but at the end of the day, this is a live show,” said David Teich, GM of the 322-room Windsor Court Hotel, which is No. 3 out of 161 hotels in New Orleans on TripAdvisor. “When you go on stage, it takes every person working as a team putting on the best to exceed expectations.”
David Bodette, GM of the 165-room ART Hotel, agreed that great customer service is key to an independent hotel’s success.
“It’s critical to get repeat guests and to get consistency,” he said. His hotel, with 150 employees, is No. 3 out of 150 hotels in Denver on TripAdvisor. “You have to have everyone on the team rowing the boat in the same fashion. Variance creates inconsistency that disappoints guests.”
But it’s impossible to have great customer without first having a plan in place for great employee training. And, sources said there is opportunity for training during every step of the employee journey.
It starts during the interview
Great customer service starts before candidates even become employees, sources said.
“It all starts with the interview and selection of the team,” said Teich, whose hotel has about 285 associates. “Many jobs we can train people for the tasks at hand. We’re looking at their attitude, smile and how they carry themselves.”
Verkler agreed, adding that the hospitality “spark” has to be innate in employees and cannot be taught.
All of the GMs shared what questions they ask to make sure a potential hire has a hospitality personality:
- Bodette: “I want to know what they did when things went wrong. Tell me about the worst day you had at work and how you made it the best day.”
- Teich: “Tell me about a difficult customer that you dealt with and how did you deal with it. You can see by someone’s face how they will react here if there’s a problem.”
- Verkler: “I like to ask about a personal experience when people travel. If they don’t have any hospitality experience, ask: When you were on vacation last time, tell me about a specific situation that stands out in your mind, a hotel or customer service experience. I’m looking for what they felt was important in the traveler experience and personalize it.”
It’s all about the training
Teich said great customer service boils down to employees feeling great about themselves—and when employees are trained well, they feel as if the company cares.
Teich’s employees get five to 21 days of training before they are let loose in the field. Housekeepers, for instance, train with department heads for 14 days to learn how to properly clean a room to Windsor Court standards. On their first day, associates receive training manuals that outline step by step, day by day, who they will work and train with, listing out all tasks at hand.
For example, a bellman’s training manual would outline standards for escorting a guest to a room, explaining steps of service such as how many times the employee should use the guest’s name during the process.
During their first month, new employees attend a one-day orientation. Teich speaks about company culture for the first hour, and then employees watch videos about safety, loss prevention, team environment, etc. Teich said some of these videos come from the library of the hotel’s management company, Aimbridge Hospitality; some were purchased from other video libraries; and one was produced in-house.
Verkler said training at the Guesthouse with his small staff is very much a one-on-one process.
“Basically our mantra is to treat the guest how they want to be treated,” he said. “I encourage my team to be engaging. Even housekeepers say hello and ask guests how they are enjoying their stay.”
He said the combination of the hotel being small and boutique allows for the personal touch in training and staying on top of wins that might often get lost in larger hotels. For example, he shares TripAdvisor reviews with his entire team. When there is praise for rooms being spotless, simply knowing can empower teams.
It never ends
Training isn’t stagnant, however. It can’t just be about handing out a training manual on an employee’s first day; training needs to be an ongoing process, sources said.
And even employee manuals need to be updated as the business changes, Teich said.
“If there’s some new service standard that we need to change that’s working or not working, or if guests are asking for a new amenity, we add it to the training,” he said. “That’s the beauty of being independent. We can be nimble.”
Beyond updating manuals, Teich said he sits down with new associates after 90 days of employment to talk about their progress. Each department also holds pre-shift meetings to talk about service standards of the day.
He said a different standard is highlighted each week and is called the “phrase that pays.” On Monday, the standard could be “at every opportunity, inquire about a guest’s stay and finish all interactions by thanking the guest and asking if there’s any other service we can offer them.” On Friday, Teich walks around the hotel and randomly asks associates if they can name the phrase that pays. If they answer correctly, they receive $10 on the spot.
“What I’m trying to do is to get people to buy in to all the different standards of the week and to know them and make them part of their culture in how they work every day,” Teich said.
Bodette also makes sure he’s open to two-way discussions. Each month, every department holds a meeting to talk about what is going on at the hotel. Bodette encourages team members to tell him what they need and how they feel about their work.
“If there’s an issue, as a team, they can be part of the solution,” Bodette said.
Although Verkler holds regular staff meetings at his hotel, he said keeping training fresh is still a one-on-one process thanks to the small staff size. For instance, if he’s working at the front desk and a situation arises and he handles it in a certain way, he tells the front-desk employee why he handled it that way and then quizzes him or her.
“I can work directly with staff rather than going through department heads. It’s great for me,” Verkler said. “I can turn the tables and ask the front desk how they would have handled it to get a new point of view.
“I learn a lot from staff because I don’t have all the answers sometimes.”