Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, May 2018, The Butlers Speak

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry

Dealing with Difficult Employers

Some very interesting responses to this topic. Thanks, as always, to those who cared to share. They have been kept anonymous, as we are discussing difficulties with prior employers.

“I work with an incredible family – no issues here!”

“In 35 years of service, I have had four clients I worked with who had high turn over, expected unrealistic work hours, and were unjustly rude or maybe just unhappy. My policy is that I do not stay in a position in which I have on-going difficulty with the employer: If anything cannot be resolved in the first three months, it usually just isn’t a good fit and there is always another opportunity to pursue. Luckily, I had one employer for 13 years, 3 employers for 5 years each, and then elderly clients who[m I served until their passing, who] totaled 7 years.”

“I had a doozy, once: She was a bully who yelled, screamed, and swore. I dealt with her for one-and-a-half years by avoiding confrontations. I never offered an opinion and understood that she was always right, although I never said so; instead I told her I “understood” her direction. When handled in this way, she would mellow somewhat. The funny thing is that during the interview, she asked what she should know about me, and my reply was that I did not like yelling. Naturally, I did resign.”

One butler responded emphatically in the affirmative on the question of ever having had to deal with difficult employers: “Many—I feel like I’m the butler always being sent in to manage clients that just can’t be made happy—those who yell, scream, have unrealistic expectations, and no concern whatsoever for the lives of their staff. What I find works best is never disagreeing with them, and working very hard to make them happy. Being smart, anticipating needs and listening to what they need and following through on it.”

Another butler reported that out of four past employers, two were difficult. “These two gentlemen had different beginnings, one being born and raised as a poor boy in the 20’s and 30’s in the Jewish Bronx of New York, while the other was born and raised in the same time period with the proverbial silver spoon protruding ever so noticeable from his mouth as a successful banker’s son in Indiana.

“The beginnings may have been totally different, but the endings were almost identical, unfortunately for me as well as for them, as the pain and misery finally won out in the end.  Watching these men advance so slowly and painfully towards their deaths was equally painful for me, but on the other hand very educational, because these experiences taught me what to avoid during my own life-ending transition.

“Both men had great wealth and over time discovered that their money really did buy them anything they wanted at any time—people were afraid to say ‘No!’ I believe money changed them into very hateful and untrusting individuals.  I soon discovered that these two men had no real friends! In their thinking, everyone only wanted their money, not their friendship or advice.  I have to agree, because I discovered this statement to be more fact than fiction.  I believe that their way of protecting themselves was to create a Scrooge-like personality that kept the beggars at bay, while unfortunately isolating the principals from everyone.

“I was successful in dealing with these men because I was able to use their protective devises against them, thereby exposing me to a warm caring person that was buried deeply under the almost un-penetrable exterior that was portrayed to practically everyone they knew, especially their family members.

«I was able to achieve this task by simply being easy going, soft spoken, and showing genuine care for their safety—while unfortunately and simultaneously, taking much insult and grief from them.  I found the insult stage was a mind-game technique that I have seen utilized by very bored people needing something to do—why not mess with the staff to make your own life more interesting?  This is wrong in so many ways, but I have seen it play out more than once while working for the über-wealthy.

“The discussion of personal income was another for-sure way to elevate the principal’s excitement level and should be avoided except during the annual review….if you are fortunate enough to have one, that is.  Because I was on a fixed income, money became a non-issue until an unexpected income increase became the topic of discussion…watch out, you would have thought the world was coming to an end!

“In time, about a year or so after working directly with my principal, I was no longer seen as a threat.  I had finally earned the trust that I deserved and our one-on-one time together grew into respectable give-and-take conversation.  The real trick was carefully maintaining that status quo and being aware that, in the public eye, you were usually still treated with visible disdain and disrespect. You have to understand that it’s all part of the game some rich play to avoid boredom. If you do not have the thick skin you need to put up with this nonsense, then you need to be employed somewhere else.”

Another butler has had quite some experience with extremely difficult employers: “In one situation, the Mrs. did not want a formal butler, but the Mr. did. I did my best to serve them both, hoping to eventually win her acceptance. Sadly, she showed such distain for my very presence in her home that even the children would grow tense when I walked into the room. She refused to allow me to do anything for her, even the simple act of opening a door. Mr. relished my valet work for him and appreciated my exceptional silver-service skills at dinner, but ultimately he realized that his wife would never be comfortable with a butler on staff, so I was dismissed.

“In a different situation, I found myself working for a couple who seemed to enjoy being mean for sport. I was often belittled or criticized in front of their guests. They would often watch me complete a task and then instruct me to repeat it because ‘It was below standard’ (rather than stopping me in the middle of the task to correct something). I was sometimes sent out into the snow or rain to collect an item which could easily have been delivered. Once I returned with the item, they would complain that I had been out of the house for an unreasonable amount of time and that I was a disgrace because my pant legs were now wet. During my tenure with them, they slowly dismissed other staff members and gave me their duties without discussion. But the meanest thing they would do was to hold me hostage in the evenings. I never knew what time I would be allowed to depart, often standing in the dark kitchen unable to start a project because I was anxiously waiting for a request to be barked over the intercom system. Eventually, I would find the courage to approach them to ask if there would be anything else before I left.  One or both of them would look up at me with disgust and growl ‘Leave if you must!’

“In both situations, I knew the difficulty was with them, not me. Co-workers, vendors, dinner guests, colleagues, friends of the employers and even the dog walker commended me for my professionalism, excellent skills and strong gentleness. In both situations, I simply kept calm and carried on to the best of my abilities. I would not become a «victim» nor would I compromise standards. To do so would have been to fail as a butler and to dishonour my profession. I was employed to provide exceptional formal butler service and I did so, despite finding myself with difficult employers.”

«And one late-entry response who has «had the pleasure of working for a difficult employer» because of «the total lack of communication between him and the staff, including me. There was no communication about expectations, wishes, likes, or dislikes. The only information we received was when something was not according to his wishes. Very often without telling us what exactly he would like instead. The lack of respect for the staff resulted also in aggression towards the staff. Threats, shouting, and physical maltreatment were used to correct the staff.  Although this concerned only the lower staff, mostly from Asia, I still use the expression ‘Modern Slavery’ when talking about this household.

«For all the other clients I have worked with during my career; there will always be some that are more demanding than others. Some that are nicer to us as staff than others. And some that are easier to communicate with than others. And although it is sometimes easier and nicer to have an “easy one”, if a “difficult one” is leaving the property with a happy face, I find it more fulfilling from a professional point of view.

«What worked well in managing the worst one….there was no other option than to leave the household. For all others, I believe the magic word is communication. It just takes the right approach. Find out how to communicate with the specific employer. One of the most important things is to be very clear to him/her from your side as well. I very often see that staff is afraid to tell the truth, or say ‘No, unfortunately that is not possible’ to an employer.
My best experience from my time as a hotel/cruise butler was to work with different employers every couple of days. It taught me how to “read” the guest and adapt to them within a very short time. I still use these skills when we receive guests, and would recommend every butler fresh out of Butler school to do a year at least in the hotel industry.»

The Institute is dedicated to raising service standards by broadly disseminating the mindset and superior service expertise of that time-honored, quintessential service provider, the British Butler, updated with modern people skills, and adapted to the needs of modern employers and guests in staffed homes, luxury hotels, resorts, spas, retirement communities, jets, yachts & cruise ships around the world.


Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, April 2018, The Butlers Speak

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry

Dealing with Day and Overnight Guests

All butlers surveyed stated that they look after day and overnight guests, although 25% said they rarely were required to do so.

For day guests, duties include answering the call from the main gate, alerting the principals via text message of the imminent arrival, meeting the visitors at the front door, escorting them to the room where the principals wish to meet them. Each provide the standard butler function of asking guests if they want refreshments, or presenting them with refreshments, depending on principal dictates. Refreshments offerred depended upon the time of day, who the visitor was, and what their interaction was with the employer. In one household, the butler offers everyone a beverage of their choice and almost always fresh-baked cookies/biscuits and grapes, and on some occasions, even snacks. Apart from fetching drinks and nibbles, duties include hanging up coats, accepting any gifts on behalf of the principal and relaying them for opening later.

As for any interesting experiences/challenges with day visitors, one butler reported having a “No Shoes” policy for the interior of the home, making the asking of guests to allow him to clean the bottom of their shoes somewhat awkward when they had not been forewarned of the policy. One butler found she had to finesse the question of interruptions—when to clear items or to offer something else to the visitor or principal. She solved this by asking the employer ahead of time and sometimes receiving texted instructions on when to come; she never opened a closed door or approached a business meeting unless so instructed.

One butler found it interesting to see how grateful guests are when he remembers what they like or do not care for. “I still love to see their faces when I hand them something I know they enjoy, yet it has been months since they last visited.”

In terms of advice for handling day guests, the butlers agree on the value of building and consulting a database of the visitor’s name, the room in which the principal met them, refreshments offered or taken, and any other pertinent information, such as gifts brought for the principal. The building (of the database) could come from observing and noting each visit, or information provided by the principals; or from the PA or secretary of the visitor – asking them to be as specific as possible, rather than accepting, “Oh, they eat and drink anything.” Some people are shy and don’t want to be a nuisance, yet often they are somewhat picky when the time comes. The reward for pushing for this information at the front end includes less scrambling and legwork to remedy the lack of preferred items being presented or in stock when the guests arrive. This advance work includes ensuring that the outdoor crew prepares any facilities (pool, volleyball net, horses) the guests are expected to enjoy. And what does it all boil down to? In the immortal words of the housekeeper, played by Helen Mirren, in Gosford Park, “It [the most valuable skill an employee has] is the gift of anticipation: I know when they are hungry and the food is ready. I know when they are tired and the bed is made; sometimes, I know it before they know it themselves.”

One butler mentioned the soft skills needed: “Listen, follow instructions, and try to be involved or invisible, depending on the principal’s earlier instructions. No matter how long you have known a guest, keep it professional: It is not your guest, so no personal information about yourself needs to be discussed, and if asked a question, answer it briefly with a smile and continue with your chores or obligations.”

Duties relating to overnight guests start with briefing by the principals and coordinating with the chef and the rest of the staff; greeting guests on arrival, including taking them and their luggage to their room and orienting them to the key features of the property and their room, giving them their wi-fi password, and even providing photographs and contact information for staff, the house phone number and address; offering to unpack and press any items that may need touch up. And once they have settled in, offering drinks, snacks depending on the time of day, or serving meals, and overall helping to make their stay comfortable, making sure they have everything they need, etc., the goal being to create a home-away-from-home. One butler checks with the guests if they mind her entering their room again, so as to service it at turndown when they are at dinner (straightening the bathroom and bedroom, exchanging linens, turning on the lights, drawing the curtains/ shades, replacing water bottles and managing any other requests that the guest may have had, such as returning or processing laundry or ironing).

Interesting experiences/challenges include servicing random guests the principals may have met in town. And for a female butler, handling weekend guests during golf outings at a second home, where, the more frequently the men were invited, the more some of them would become flirty when drinking. Handling? Keep the response brief and formal, such as “Can I get you another drink, Dr. _____?” It’s best to excuse yourself with these touchy-feely types, saying you need to check on the dog or something, remaining cordial and professional, especially for those who may be chronic in their pursuits.

Advice for overnight guests include having a clear list of guidelines in each guest room of family/house rules and expectations. Another butler, noticing that some of the principal’s visitors were in need of help while ambling from the dining room table to their car, for instance, took a Nursing Assistant course (4 weeks of nights and weekends). The same butler took a bartending course so as to be able to provide guests with a greater variety of specialty beverages—it does not take long to know how the principals like their favorite tipples, but guests bring a wide range of requests that it would be better to be able to accommodate smoothly, instead of fumbling with a cocktail menu book and wondering how one frosts a glass and what kind of salt one uses for a Marguarita.

Lastly, the butlers were asked if they had noticed any changes over the years in the expectations of visitors or guests, and we quote some of their responses:

“Entertaining has become much more relaxed, and less structured (which is a shame) than in years past; and guests expect the best because they are a guest, and yet their attitude and actions sometimes reflect that of a spoiled child” RC

“Because we offer housekeeping, some guests make no effort to keep their bedroom/bathrooms tidy; yet they are a house guest, not a hotel guest. It never seems to amaze me how many people have zero manners these days: They don’t know how to eat and what flatware to eat with. I have made the mistake in the past of laying my table with a couple of courses of flatware already down and then have to stop mid-service to re-set a course. People also can’t serve themselves (during Butler Service). And then there is the constant leaving the table during a six-course dinner to take a call or visit the bathroom, which makes it tough for the chef, too. In what universe does a house guest think it’s okay to manscape (remove bodily hair below the beltline) in the bath tub and not clean up after himself? Or have his shoes polished and not thank anyone? Don’t get me started on not tipping my poor hard-working housekeepers. I don’t care for myself, but for goodness sakes, tip the poor lady for all the extra work she has done for you and your family! The messes she has cleaned up; the clothing she has laundered and pressed so you leave with everything you arrived with, clean and ready to put away when you arrive home. The dozens of pool towels you have messed up throughout your stay. Some guests seem to think we do not notice the once-white now-grey underwear—my floor cloths are whiter, for goodness sakes. It’s all very sad. But they don’t care or have any shame it would seem.” PB

“It seems the younger generations, those in their 20’s and 30’s, show me a more entitled attitude during a visit. I expect teenagers to be sloppy and lazy, but I am sorry to say this attitude is continuing into later years.” LW

“Over the last four decades, people have become less judgmental of the service providers inside the home, more respectful—or maybe I just look at it differently now: For instance, I work hard and an occasional reprimand is expected, but I do not choose my principals anymore, as I have developed a thick skin—life is too short. A chef in a different household was asked by an overnight guest to provide lunch; whereas the household policy calls for breakfast, snacks, and dinner to be served in the home, lunch to be enjoyed out with the hosts. The lady guest berated the chef, saying she never had been a guest anywhere where lunch was not offered. The homeowner stepped in and asked her not to talk to the chef like that, he was just following the house rules. Truthfully, I try not to compare guests’ behavior, but I think the newly rich pile on expectations that are sometimes impossible to meet. I also find they want to tip me, which I kindly refuse. I am already being paid, and tipped for that matter (end-of-year bonus) for the services I provide.” DS

In short, we can say with some truthfulness, that some guests misbehave—maybe more so than in the past, as social graces wilt under the onslaught of the anonymous, virtual world in which most younger people spend the majority of their waking hours. A good reason for butlers to continue to maintain the high ground on manners as role models that are markedly missing in the media to which people are so exposed.


The Institute is dedicated to raising service standards by broadly disseminating the mindset and superior service expertise of that time-honored, quintessential service provider, the British Butler, updated with modern people skills, and adapted to the needs of modern employers and guests in staffed homes, luxury hotels, resorts, spas, retirement communities, jets, yachts & cruise ships around the world.