The Customer Service Opportunity

It's no secret that the hospitality industry faces serious human resources challenges. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by the year 2010 the industry will need 1.6 million new workers. Hoteliers will face this shortfall just as efforts by unions to organize service workers will intensify. So far much of the heavy thinking has been devoted to figuring out ways the industry can protect itself, by better recruiting strategies and by making sure workers don't feel a need to unionize.

While understandable, this approach is probably shortsighted. I'd like to suggest that the entire issue be looked at in a special way, not as a problem to solve but as an opportunity to seize.

Hotels that prosper in coming years will be those that see their front-line workers — the same ones that must be recruited — as the key to customer service. That's easier said than done because it will require a top-down dedication on management's part to empower these workers in ways that may seem new and a little daunting. It will also require a level of commitment that must be taken seriously by executives and mid-level managers.

Let me explain. Training your front-line personnel to meet customers' needs is critical to any hotel's success, but it is unlikely to result in changed behaviors unless every level in the organization receives comparable training and reinforcement. By that I mean that your entire organization — supervisors, information systems, human resources, for example — must also be aligned to support your front-line people in their efforts.

Within reason, of course, front-line employees must be granted the authority to satisfy guests' needs, before and not after the “moment of truth.” At the very least, for example, employees should be able to provide a room in case of a lost reservation, without having to wait for a manager's approval. The front desk also needs the discretion to take charges off guests' bills when they are disputed or to compensate for a perceived problem, again without waiting for a manager.

Customer service at this level is possible only if everybody in the organization understands it. For that reason, this commitment must begin at the top, for only then can the entire organization be aligned behind it. Remember: As you treat your employees, so they will treat your customers.

A well-trained front desk will have a tough time keeping customers happy if, because the IT department is not organized to support it, a computer glitch means reservations get lost. Even then, front-desk personnel need find those guests a room and feel confident that they will not only be authorized to do so but rewarded for it.

Rewards: That's the other part of this customer-service challenge. Specific customer-service behaviors must be identified, taught, practiced and rewarded — not just for employees but for managers and executives as well. Mission statements are important, but vague goals cannot be left on noble-sounding documents merely to gather dust. Explicit values must be articulated and specific goals must be established, with employees at all levels evaluated on their willingness to meet them.

When an entire organization is aligned in this way, something happens, something remarkable — and completely predictable. Empowered as never before, employees feel a deeper level of emotional investment in the organization for which they work. Their enthusiasm is contagious. It's communicated in the way they deal with customers, so customer service improves dramatically. Employee retention also improves, and recruitment of new employees becomes easier.

For hoteliers, this means your guests check-in more frequently, stay longer and spend more, telling their friends and business associates about the hospitality you showed.

To me, that spells opportunity.

A business strategy consultant with more than 25 years of management experience, Samuel Davis III is managing principal of Service First, LLC, a consultancy that transforms organizations into valued-based, service-driven cultures that sustain superior performance. He can be reached at

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