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What To Do If There’s Nobody At Home

We all know what are right attitude and good service, but how does one bring them about in others?

The answer to that question should be worth your attention, if not $64,000.

The basic philosophy behind the answer is that presence precedes action both in terms of sequence and importance. Without the ability to be, one cannot do—an understanding that could have put Hamlet’s mind firmly to rest. It could likewise save many megawatts of energy on the part of trainers the world over, trying to inculcate(1) into their hopeful charges various mantras and set patterns of behavior in dealing with guests.

The point being missed is that the simple ability “to be there, in the moment” is the starting point for three vital skills, all of which add up to ability, and without which, actions invariably end up being inappropriate:

  1. Can you perceive what is there in front of you (as opposed to what you think is there)?
  2. Can you compute rationally?
  3. Can you act appropriately?

In order to perceive what is in front of you (such as a guest), you have to be in front of the person in front of you. No argument with such a truism(2), perhaps, until we ask for a definition of “You.” Who are you? We are back to philosophy. A question that is easy to answer, in this case, if we imagine your body standing in front of an irate guest who has various things to say, while you are daydreaming about the night before; or perhaps thinking furiously about your employees who messed up in so disagreeable a fashion; or zoning out in any number of ways.

The guest finally finishes talking and you do a quick replay of what you thought he said, and your response results in another ten minutes of invective. “You” in this case, does not refer to your body. While some people might guess it refers to your mind, the thing you are busy computing with—“Your mind was on something else”—this is not correct, either. “You” are the person who is aware of being aware, who is aware of the thoughts about your juniors, or the pictures of the night before, and busy looking at them instead of the guest.

If being in the moment is so important, why can’t or don’t more of us do it more often? How come our minds keep wandering, we become impatient or angry with the person in front of us, or bored, or any other attitude? These are all a departure from being there comfortably in front of another person and really tracking with what he or she is saying, doing, and needing.

Well, 20th Century pill-pushers have most of us convinced that these modern potions and elixirs will fix our wandering attention. Yet every single person I have seen on these legalized drugs or trying to shake their addiction is a mass of random thoughts and introversion that make it very difficult indeed to be in the moment, observing calmly, computing and acting rationally. With 80% of the US population on these drugs and the rest of us beginning to enjoy them in our water supply, I’d say we had one reason people’s attention is not always in the moment. Obviously, street drugs, some of which are as powerful as their psychiatric cousins, have the same effect, but we tend to try discourage street-drug-popping employees from remaining employed. So this may not be a factor, except in the case of employees who have indulged a bit too much in the past—drug residues remain locked in various parts of their anatomy and occasionally go into circulation and thus effect.

Another element that makes it hard to be in the moment is thinking we understand something while not actually doing so; or not understanding something at all. If this guest with a big issue uses words we do not understand, or mumbles something so we cannot hear it, or uses a word for which we understand the wrong definition, or has a limited ability to express himself, there is a subtle disconnect on our part from the guest, and if enough of these non-comprehensions occur, we start to feel frustrated or worse at the guest, compounding the problem that we are not understanding their problem and so are not going to be able to deal with it to their satisfaction.

Or maybe we have had an argument with a significant other. That’s an upset and a problem and maybe, if we have something we did to him or her that we haven’t come clean on, also a source of anger toward them (paradoxically): the end result is attention anywhere but on the guest.

Many more factors compel a person out of the moment, but rather than belaboring the point, suffice to say that trying to beat in SOPs over these distractions does not resolve them and so success remains ephemeral.(3) When employees walk around with an unfortunate attitude or serve salami in the soup instead of croutons, then one has to cut back and fix the “ability to be in the moment” before one can make any progress with “Well, this is what really goes in soup,” and “This is the kind of attitude guests tend to appreciate when servicing them.” The ability to be in the moment no matter what is going on in one’s own head (such as dislikes of certain types of guests), one’s private life (such as financial problems), or one’s body (such as pains, or drugs numbing or speeding up life), is the desired end goal. Handling the different elements that drive one out of the moment is of course the best long-term fix. But this lies outside the scope of a hotel executive’s purview.(4)

By definition and requirement, British butlers are a phlegmatic (5) group tasked with observing what is in front of them so as to anticipate and provide invisible service. That was my starting point as a butler, so meeting with shortfalls in those under my charge in terms of superior service, I realized the basic issue was this question of inability to be there in the moment and thence observe what is right in front of one’s face. Under-butler standing behind a guest who has just lit a cigar: does the under-butler observe that the room has no ashtray, thereby predicting an imminent need and so acting swiftly and discreetly?(6) No, he is off in the stratosphere about goodness knows what, reason unknown. So the inevitable happens: the guest has to ask for an ashtray, about which the under-butler may or may not have an attitude, and then the guest has to focus on calibrating the required angle of his cigar to accommodate a one-inch length of sagging ash while the cigar slowly extinguishes itself and the under-butler tracks down an ashtray in a flurry of coattails and perspiration.

The search for a solution to this malaise led to a most unlikely place: A series of drills created almost six decades ago by the researcher, Mr. Hubbard, who was the first to recognize this issue of people not being in the moment and the various reasons they are not. He created drills that would enable the counselors he was training to be in the moment during counseling sessions that would sometimes last hours on end. The requirement being interested observation and concern that was completely invisible and natural to the other person. Nothing introduced by the counselor that could distract the other person, continual observation of the other person’s world, computing and anticipating futures, and taking appropriate action. It would be nice to think Hubbard was inspired by observing his Rhodesian butler in action a few years earlier, but that would not be the actual case.

Suffice to say, the drills work very well when done properly, because they give employees the ability to be present in the moment, and therefore observe, anticipate, and act. It does not matter how wild a situation or person may become, the employee has the ability to calmly and appropriately face the situation, weigh it up, and act to improve it. Where everybody has this skill, more often than not, situations do not spiral so far out of control that they need to be salvaged with great decibel- and fraught (7) emotional-levels.

If a person can be himself, accurate observation, intelligent computation, and effective action can then take place. Beyond this, however, is one other element that is singularly critical to anyone interested in serving another, whether a writer, actor, butler, or President: the ability to be that other person, to see life as he or she sees it.

What do my constituents really want that will make them vote for me again? What do my customers really want to buy? What does my guest like and want? Yes, we research, ask questions, build databases if we are smart. But beyond that, when all is said and done, are we sitting in our own space thinking, thinking, thinking? Or can we go out and look at another person and just see them for who and what they are? Can we assume their point of view, geographically speaking, literally look at the world through their eyes and listening through their ears and hearing their thoughts?

When we can, then we won’t have any trouble anticipating their next need and desire. When a butler long in experience, including with the British Royal family, told the author that mastering the art of butling is a life-long ambition, he was right on track, because this kind of skill is some of the magic that goes into being the quintessential butler, and therefore, the quintessential service professional.

And it all starts with being.

  1. Instill (an attitude, idea, or habit) by persistent instruction
  2. A statement that is obviously true while providing nothing new or interesting
  3. Lasting a very short time
  4. The extent of the concerns or influence of someone or something
  5. Having a dependable and calm disposition
  6. Intentionally unobtrusive
  7. Causing or affected by great anxiety or stress

Published in HotelExecutive.com in Summer 2007, Hotel News Resource in July 2007 and Airline News Resource in 2007.

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The Future Hospitality Professional

As adventurous as it may be to predict the future, there is no doubt in my mind that we stand today at the same point as Dick Tracy when he conversed through a two-way, walkie-talkie video wrist-watch to a remote caller six decades ago. In other words, the prediction that hospitality professionals of the future will read the minds of guests may sound a far-fetched fantasy and possibly even ludicrous, but it will come to be. Why? Because it has been done to some extent for centuries by that quintessential service provider, the British butler, when in top form; and because the technology to bring all service professionals to that pinnacle already exists.

Here, we are not talking some corporate formula for guest interaction that too often results in canned phrases and plastered-on smiles; or a consultant guru’s mantra for superior guest services that seeks to put a datum where intelligent observation and action should be. We are talking information relay followed by drilling on the «how to’s» resulting in an ability gained. It’s nothing mystic and has no relationship to any psychological mumbo-jumbo, but down-to-earth application of workable principles resulting in guests being properly assessed and treated in a way that they find pleasurable, which always leaves them feeling better than before the service was administered.

Such guest service employees of the future will be closer to Life Consultants than room service and will care as much about guests as their mothers. So says the crystal ball. Predicting the future can be fun. Take the «Future Holiday Forum» held in London, England recently for leaders in travel, technology and design. Their «2024: A Holiday Odyssey» according to a Forbes.com report predicted the future hotel for remote destinations as a foldable/ transportable, self-sustaining, low-environmental-impact pod on stilts in which guests could choose the images to be projected on the walls. The technology for such hotels already exists.

The line-up of future hotels that will similarly soon be with us includes underwater hotels and airship hotels that permit scenic views as one travels leisurely to one’s next destination. Resorts in space no doubt lie in the future, incorporating spinning rooms for all the comforts that we have come to expect from living with gravity.

As for space-age technology addressed at specific hospitality issues, we already have 3-D hologram teleconferencing for hotels specializing in conference services. We will soon see smart cards containing all information on a guest, including likes and dislikes, as well as credit card information that will no doubt make check-in and customized servicing of guests easy.

Other technologies to be introduced into the hospitality sector include robotics for cleaning and check-in; biometric security such as retina scans for entrance to rooms and access to safes. Then there is nanotechnology (manipulating and manufacturing at the molecular level). While we are close to imprinting electronic equipment onto our clothing and even skins, there is talk of using nanotechnology to reconfigure rooms per guest wishes, transmogrifying the furniture, fixtures and decorations at the push of a button (so to speak).

However, notice that the talk of the future is invariably in the realm of gadgetry and machinery. Whatever happened to the human element? Are we giving up on our fellow man? Are we just using him or her until some machine can replace him not just on the factory floor but also in the giving of service? Just as Astounding Science Fiction moved beyond machines to focus on the human element regarding things from outer space during the 1930s, so I believe we need to move into improving the human element, rather than always focusing on the mechanical and even trying to substitute machines for humans. And by improving the human element, I mean moving beyond formulas and mantras to increase employee intelligence and ability to act self-determinedly, rather than other-determinedly by rote.

Butler as Future Service Standard

Whether or not Mr. Horst Schulze, former chairman of Ritz-Carlton, was serious when he announced his plans to introduce a six-star hotel chain that was defined in part by private butlers, he was signaling a recognition of the value of a certain something that classic British butlers bring to the guest experience.

So what’s the connection between the British butler of the past and present, and the future hospitality professional? How does one move service employees from transient lower-paid wage earners to professional service providers acting with pride and knowledge, more akin to Life Consultants than room service and caring as much for guests as their own mothers?

Try the code and standards of the traditional butler: trustworthiness, loyalty, attentiveness to guests predicting what they want and attention to detail in providing it before they even know they want it. Always calmly smoothing events into a successful conclusion with a can-do attitude and real caring for the guest; social graces, treating each person with dignity; the soul of discretion; never crossing the invisible line between friendliness and familiarity, attitude free; a superb organizer who always achieves targets set; able to deal with the raw emotions of upset staff, imperious or discourteous guests, indignant bosses, shifty contractors and suppliers and the best-laid plans falling apart at the last moment-all the while maintaining his composure, his desire to provide the best possible service, and ensuring events turn out satisfactorily. Who finally has the energy and humility to ask, «Was there anything I could have improved about my service today?»

That’s the basic butler persona and mindset. But beyond that, we need something more to create the service provider of the 21st Century.

Current Best Practices in guest services result in an industry effort to have all guests greeted cheerfully or enthusiastically. That’s fine for employees who are naturally cheerful or enthusiastic. But how fake the result when they are not. And is it really appropriate when every guest is so greeted when they are neither cheerful nor enthusiastic at that particular moment nor even as a general rule. One size does not fit all.

What is needed is an understanding of the human mind and character, how their emotions dictate their attitudes, and what they will find acceptable to talk about, consequently, and at what emotional tone.

Anyone who thinks that «emotion» is the opposite of «rationality» won’t be tracking with the above. «Emotions» actually refer to the measurable wavelengths emitted by an individual as an expression of his or her like or dislike for various subjects. Some men are enthusiastic about football or conservative about receiving that promotion. Some women grieve over the loss of a relative or dissolve in raptures over a friend’s new hair-do. The exhilaration of an individual who has just won the Lotto can be contrasted rather handily with the apathy exhibited by an individual who has nowhere else to go for help and has given up. Or take the boredom a man might exhibit during a business conference as it enters its fourth hour, or the covert hostility (the equivalent of the phrase «passive aggressive») exhibited by a woman as she smiles crookedly while saying «What a lovely dress. I saw one just like it in the thrift store yesterday.»

There is more, though: being in the moment or now with guests. Presenting a guest with an attitude, or dealing with them while one’s attention is elsewhere, completely misses the boat when it comes to making them the most important element in a hospitality setting. So the question is: how does one anchor employees in the now? It’s easy. If you know how.

And when you have that licked, you will find employees will be there enough to observe what is right in front of their faces, compute intelligently, and then act effectively to predict and cater to guest needs, and more importantly, read their mind.

And that is why the future of hospitality lies with the ancient butler tradition, married to the latest in «mind-reading» technology to better read and serve guests. Fit that into the equation, and we will find those floating or space-based hotels, as well as the regular landlubber hotels of today, better serviced and continuing to attract guests who prefer the human touch. Robots for humans is about as satisfying as petting a Sony RoboDog instead of your loyal, lively and loving Lab.

This article also appeared in the Hotel Business Review section of Hotel Executive on-line (August 2005), the October 2005 issue of Hotel Online and in 4Hoteliers.com