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Auditing the Auditors, Part III of III

Steven FerryAuditing the Auditors, part III of III: A Quality Assurance Program for the 21st Century

by Steven Ferry

In the first two articles in this series, we looked at how independent Quality Assurance programs have fallen into a conventional wisdom and modus operandi that is out of touch with their clients’ and their guests’ needs and then examined the challenges and relevance of QA in helping their client’s assess their performance in a world increasingly guided by the megaphone of social-media reviews.

In this third and last article, we look at what an ideal QA program would look like, in the hope that third-party QA companies, and/or internal QA programs are listening and decide to upgrade their assessments and programs.
For hoteliers to understand more accurately their strengths and weaknesses, and work effectively toward achieving their goals of guest comfort, convenience, satisfaction, and enjoyment, while themselves enjoying high occupancy levels and RevPAR, the ideal Quality Assurance service would incorporate at least the following changes:

1) By way of clarification, the author’s background is the superior-service world of the British butler, adapted to modern 5* hotels and resorts. This does not mean that he is implying that QA programs should only be targeted at the 1,500-2,500 luxury hotels around the world (depending on one’s definition), nor that economy hotels should be made into 5* star properties. But solicitous and speedy service should be just as organic in a Motel 6 as in a luxury hotel, and indeed, anywhere where service is provided, whether in a hospitality venue, a corporation, or a government agency— the police, justice system, and tax department included!

In this way, a proper QA program would have fundamental and non-negotiable standards of service, but would recognize that when it comes to facilities, standards need to be tailor made and agreed upon with each property, in order to provide the property with an assessment that will be of use to them, rather than the irrational requirement that they be judged by, and fit themselves into, an average statement of the industry that is based on the preferences and habits of two generations of guests (Silent and Baby Boomer) that are no longer the predominant demographic customer segments.

When setting the ideal for each property, the following would be taken into account, at least: City or resort; the preferences and goals of the guests in the geographical and consumer markets to which the property reaches out: For instance, broadly, Westerners are not so interested in face value, prestige, and status symbols, but for many Asian guests, these considerations are paramount, as are opportunities for photo opportunities and selfies; the purpose of the property (as broadcast through its branding and marketing, and supported by its location, structures, decor, ambiance, facilities, activities for guests to engage in, and service style). This ideal for each property’s facilities would need to be updated as markets inevitably undergo transformation.

2) An effective QA program would provide accurate feedback and analysis, as well as recommendations, on the public perception of the client property in the rapidly changing, inaccurate, and insufficiently monitored-and-controlled social-media landscape. It would not, however, rely solely on the remote and largely anonymous feedback characteristic of social media, encouraging as it does little or large exaggerations from Chicken Littles; but would analyze GSSs and more particularly, survey in-house guests at the time of the audit for that face-to-face experience that is more likely to elicit responsible feedback, as well as an accurate assessment of the emotional level and thus veracity of the person speaking—for a person’s emotional level betrays the accuracy or inaccuracy of their statements.

Having an accurate assessment of the public perception expressed in social media would point to a proper strategy to regain control of the public perception of their property (or chain), and would allow hoteliers to climb down from the treadmill of constant fretting over image management and to focus more on simply delivering a good guest experience that is after all, fundamental to the social media perception. The current set-up with social media is a bit like a hostess who constantly asks her guests for their feedback at a dinner party and introverts into handling any negative comments, and so loses the thread and momentum of the evening.

Criticism can do that to people, especially when unwarranted, but in the end, it violates the key butler modus operandi: the maintaining of one’s dignity and thus presence/standing. Not to discount the social media, and certainly not to recommend doing what some poor souls do: Ignore it to their own detriment. But there is a happy medium and that is intelligent assessment of the actual perception, rather then responding piecemeal to negative reviews, frantically and subserviently much like Uriah Heep in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield (and no doubt Hollywood movies of the same name).

3) A good QA program would maintain its integrity for the guests by having no affiliation (as tempting a business model as it no doubt is) with a membership organization so that there is no impulse to lower standards in order to increase membership. The focus would be totally on accurate assessment in order to target areas for actual improvement.

4) For a QA service to bring about honest results that are accepted, rather than protested, by hoteliers, the auditors would have to be trained, and the system set up, to reflect accurately the guest experience. This means auditors who are trained to be a) consistent one with the other, and b) fair in the way they present problems and assess how the staff respond: unrealistic and complex scenarios posited that require more time to resolve, for instance, should not be held to the same standard of speed of resolution as everyday scenarios.

5) Similarly, beneficial QA results would provide more than just “Yes,” “No,” and N/A” feedback. This is the equivalent of Aristotle’s three-valued logic and not a very discerning way to assess anything in the days of infinity valued/fuzzy logic, which has been with us for well nigh a century. There has to be a balance between a system that has too much differentiation expressed, requiring the auditor enter opinions into the marks given, as they cannot realistically discern and justify, for instance, between a score of 72% and 75%—and too little differentiation. There is a happy medium that would provide enough information to reflect more accurately the status of each line item, and that would include text boxes to provide statements clarifying what occurred that resulted in a very good or bad judgment.

Giving marks without explanations is endemic in our school systems, and yet it is just as upsetting for a hotelier to receive a bad mark without knowing what happened, as it is for a child to receive an “F” in an exam or grade without knowing why, or being able to correct it. When one agrees to someone sitting in judgment, this kind of behavior is expected; but that does not make it right, and it certainly does not help right any errors noted. In essence, 100% should be a passing standard in any exam, because one loops back with the examinee to fix what they did not answer or execute correctly, and then the purpose of the exercise is achieved: not judgment and grading/pigeon-holing, but improvement.

5a) The standards would include assessment of all departments, including (excuse the brazen plug) the hundreds of butler departments around the world; and then there are other important areas that need assessing, and thus standards set—important because they are important to guests—yet for which there are no or very few standards set and assessed: Environmental standards; staff efficiency; and most vitally, assessing the emotional engagement by staffs with guests as well as with each other. As most managers know, without a finger on the pulse of, and ability to steer, the core issues that ultimately produce guest satisfaction—staff morale and emotional engagement or the caring that brings about solicitous service—they can work themselves ragged improving facilities and yet still fail utterly.

6) To be truly useful, a QA service would not just sit in judgment and then leave the property to its own devices for the next year: It would also provide an analysis with recommendations, and then work long-distance with the property, as a partner rather than an occasional judge, to improve the poor conditions found and to reinforce the strengths—whether facilitating training, consultation, or technical assistance through verified third parties. In order not to fall into the trap covered in #3 above, this full service would be part of the audit package purchased by the property up front, so there would be no question of test results being adjusted to increase revenue for the auditing company or any sister companies. In short, the QA service would help improve the conditions needed to keep guests returning based on their own experience, rather than the megaphoned words of fellow consumers they have never met, but whose words, accurate or not, reach far and wide on social media.

7) GMs generally find audits that include benchmarking against their local competitors to be of value in understanding how they are performing in their own market, but only a third felt benchmarking resulted in improved performance. So a good audit program would provide benchmarking, based on rigorous, tailor-made standards, and would place the emphasis not on besting the competition but on setting and implementing standards that actually improve the guest experience, and thus ultimately, the RevPAR, and their attractiveness to guests when compared with the local competition.

So a useful audit would combine

  1. a) an internal and professionally derived, comprehensive and confidential QA in the real world in order to maintain the standards that are designed to bring about a happy guest experience

with

  1. b) social-media monitoring in the virtual world and public domain, of guest reviews of the actual service received

into an actionable overview of performance and real standing to guide management at the operational, PR, and marketing levels.

For the final word on the ideal QA program, and the need, as expressed by the majority of GMs surveyed around the world, for the industry to up its game, it is probably best coming from the man who helped launch, and then run, LQA, the market leader in QA, for many years; for if anyone understands the challenges, successes, and shortfalls of the industry, it is Welf Ebeling, who has been intimately involved with the workings of the industry and then enjoyed the luxury of standing back far enough to see the big picture.

“There are fundamentals in service and guest handling that are timeless and applicable everywhere in the world. However, over the years, customer needs and expectations have changed. Quality Assurance can no longer be based solely on standards that were set at a time when middle-aged and retired Americans made up the main force of luxury travelers. When I joined the Leading Hotels of the World, some of the requirements at the time were that a hotel include a hamburger and a club sandwich on the menu, and a male guest wear jacket and tie in a fine-dining room. Asia was, by and large, an incoming destination that catered to Western tourists.

“All this has changed, and hotels have to gear up to meet the needs of today’s customer, who in the luxury sector, could very likely be a millennial billionaire arriving in T-shirt and jeans, or a group of affluent Chinese single ladies outspending by far Western travelers on average. A genuine desire to take care of a customer’s needs, even if it is not perfectly executed, is far more important than robotic, drilled standards lacking in warmth and compassion.”

Originally published by Hotel Business Review in November, 2018. Also published in HotelExecutive.com

 

 

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Auditing the Auditors, Part II of III

Steven FerryAuditing the Auditors, part II of III: The Art of Finding the Pulse

by Steven Ferry

Services that fail to change with the times, fall out of use: Robust, third-party QA programs are, surprisingly, one such otherwise valuable service that we may see disappearing as social media are increasingly used by guests and management alike, to determine the state of affairs and rankings of hotels and resorts. The replacement of professionals by amateurs, who are armed with a little knowledge and the full confidence of their own particular experience, is not necessarily an improvement; but it is certainly a reality. Part II of the three-part series on Quality Assurance looks at the pros and cons of each, and the best way to retain the professionalism of QA audits while maintaining the finger on the pulse, via social media, of the guests, who after all, are the subject of the conversation.

Gauging performance of one’s hotel or resort, guest sentiments, and presenting the right image to potential guests, used to be accomplished by professionals: internal audits, PR, and marketing departments, travel agencies as independent marketers; and later on, third-party audits, and for higher-end properties, membership in such as LHW or the Mobil/Forbes list to make a statement about what quality a guest might expect. There was some measure of control, and whether or not the audits and surveys were accurate portrayals of the existing reality, they were generally balanced and comprehensive.

The downside to this paradigm being that the ratings afforded were not transparent to the guests and perhaps tended toward the hyperbolic, losing some meaning for guests. Added to the failure of some hotel companies to maintain brand standards and the tendency for travel guides and PR pieces in magazines and media to paint too-rosy-a-picture, one driven by commerce rather than the quality of the actual guest experience, and consumers were too often led astray in their selection of a hotel or resort.

Enter the 21st Century and the ascendancy of the virtual world over the real one—and more particularly for hospitality, the replacement in the minds of those raised in the digital era, of thorough assessments and statements by hospitality professionals as a means for evaluation of hotels and resorts they were considering visiting, in favor of amateur and usually narrowly focused consumer feedback. Suddenly the guests, empowered by the social media, held sway over the hotels and resorts they frequented.

Where before hotels could be accused of putting their best foot forward at the expense of guest understanding of the true state of affairs, what has replaced it is not necessarily better: while many consumer posts are genuine, the anonymity made possible in the virtual world has opened the door to unreasonable venting, fake identities, bots and the like, generating inaccurate pictures and thus assessments that reach far and wide, forcing the industry to focus on image management over guest servicing.

The most telling example of “fake reviews” is probably The Shed at Dulwich, which was London’s top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor in 2017—until the truth emerged that it was actually a spoof by a freelance writer, who himself blew the whistle. The restaurant did not exist in the real world, but the web page and (burner) phone number (to take calls from frustrated Londoners wanting to book and finding it constantly overbooked) did exist, as did the photographs of the haute cuisine dishes (made from household products such as bleach tablets and shaving cream). The writer’s inspiration came from the writing he had been paid for previously: posting fake reviews for real restaurants in the capital city. So likewise, within five months of being accepted by TripAdvisor, the 104 fake reviews posted by friends and family, who rated their experience as 5* with a few 4*s, catapulted The Shed at Dulwich from dead last in London (18,149th) to #1. Toward the end of its virtual life, 89,000 people from around the world visited the web site for The Shed at Dulwich in just one day.

The upside of this C2C collaboration via social media platforms is that hotels and resorts exist to service their guests, so what could be wrong with keeping a very big finger on the pulse of guest satisfaction? That was how independent audits started in the Sixties in England, with a very big concern, as discussed in Part I of this series for emotional engagement and guest satisfaction. Somewhere along the line, however, the hospitality industry became short sighted and focused its QA standards on the objects of its trade—the buildings, the rooms and their servicing—not even including anything as basic as chatting with guests during an audit, to find out what they were experiencing.

So, is it any wonder that, thanks to the instant C2C communication lines of the many social platforms, the pendulum has swung over to the guests asserting themselves and doing their own assessments? If only they were accurate, focused more on balanced and factual information rather than emotional content and anecdotal accounts. The question is, does an agglomeration of anecdotes relayed by those in possession of a little knowledge, add up to a balanced and accurate account overall upon which guests can decide from the overwhelming amount of choices, which hotel to book? Or GMs can assess their hotel’s performance? Probably not, but consumers are running with it anyway.

Accurate or not, these assessments mean more to the upcoming generations of guests than a hotel’s hard-won membership in an exclusive club or QA ratings: According to one report, half of business travelers and almost as many of leisure travelers are influenced in their decision for hotel stays by user reviews. A second report claims 74% are swayed by peer reviews, and a third, 90%.

It’s no wonder, really, as generally people are swayed by family and friends when they make any purchases: by word of mouth from people they trust, more than by Sales, PR and Marketing people with their enticing images, mellifluous (sweet/musical) words, and trumpeted ratings. Apparently, guests trust social media six times more than traditional advertising, according to one study.

Whatever the numbers, there is no escaping the fact that consumers influence consumers in their hotel and resort choices far more than industry PR and marketing efforts, and so the hospitality game by necessity has turned to cossetting (caring for in an overindulgent way) and coddling (treating in an overprotective way) the consumer directly. Not a bad thing, obviously, as guest satisfaction is ultimately the name of the game, and what the consumers sees and hears when deciding on a purchase is extremely important—perception being a big part of reality.

So why do QA audits pay scant attention to this major shift and dynamic?

It could explain the growing disenchantment by some chains and GMs with current QA assessments, preferring instead to focus on GSSs and social media—often turning to software such as Review Pro, Revinate, or TrustYou to assess the public perception of their property. Yes, perception helps define reality, but reality even more so! Focusing on social media management and ignoring or downplaying QA, whether internal or through third parties, is to focus on the scoreboard rather than the game in progress.

According to Welf Ebeling, one of the original founders of LQA, and long-term COO of the Leading Hotels of the World (before casting off on his own in 2009), “From the perspective of some hotel proprietors and GM’s, QA assessments have become a surreal experience when they are judged by standards that do not necessarily apply to their property but that had been created as common denominators to fit a multitude of hotels regardless of cultural differences, size, and purpose, and were based on the preferences and habits of a generation of guests that is no longer the predominant demographic customer segment. Add to that the public perception created by once-a-year, publications-owned rating systems that only provide judgment without any detailed feedback, and you get that vaguely unsettling feeling of being asked to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic as it slides into oblivion. And so we have QA not moving with the times and letting down hoteliers with inadequately conceived audits that fail to focus on the core issues that ultimately produce guest satisfaction.”

It seems the halcyon (idyllic) days are over for hotels and resorts: no longer largely in control of public perception, and thus occupancy and revenue streams, instead grappling with the rapidly changing, inaccurate, and insufficiently monitored-and-controlled social-media landscape, home to something like 2.6 billion users worldwide this year who love to snap, chat, and stream on WeChat, SnapChat, WhatsApp, Vimeo, YouTube, Boomerang, and Hyperlapse, not to mention the giants Facebook and Instagram, and not to forget Twitter—although in this visual and not-so-literate age, videos are the preferred blogging tool. And then there is TripAdvisor, which in 2017 saw 200 million visitors a month on its US and UK sites.

Whether social media is good or bad, the genie is out of the bottle and is here to stay

Not being balanced/fair/accurate, social media puts hoteliers at the mercy of those with a little knowledge and so they propitiate (win favor and avoid pain by doing something to please another), comp’ing unnecessarily in the hope of retaining loyalty; fêting bloggers they hope are real influencers—rather than pretenders or bottom-feeding bots—for the target demographics for their property, and in the hope they will influence their hopefully numerous followers to visit; constantly looking to create photo ops for their guests; and always delivering experiences and services with a view to them growing social-media legs.

Some hoteliers try to win at the social media game by using them for marketing or by having staff post approved content on platforms. They seek to nuance their ads and marketing into stories that reinforce their unique brand. Others use software like HootSuite to monitor guest comments across multiple social-media platforms, performing damage control or seizing opportunities to win brownie points. Some respond by inflating guest reviews to raise their property’s rank: instructing staff to hand out “Trip Advisor” cards and/or encouraging guests to post on social media before leaving the premises, or emailing links after the guests have departed.

This card has been cropped to protect those “guilty” of not much.

And why should they not? Too often, those who post are motivated by ire at some real or perceived shortfall (or are deliberately looking for a freebie by posting before or during their stay), while those who are happy, often do not post at all.

Yet, this influence-the-metrics game does present an inflated picture (most easily spotted by the volume of reviews by first-and-only-time reviewers).

The metrics do validate this pro-active approach to social media: According to Peter O’Connor’s The Four Crucial Steps in Managing Your Hotel’s Online Reviews “Online reputation management system vendor TrustYou claims that a 1% increase in their TrustScore (generated from crawling through user reviews on dozens of relevant user review sites) typically results in an ADR increase of 4.6%, which translates into nearly half a million dollars’ worth of additional revenue for a typical U.S. hotel. Similarly, a recent Harvard Business Review study showed that a one-star difference in rating on user review sites can lead to nearly a 6% difference in revenues, a gap that should act as a significant motivator for managing reputation and improving overall scores.”

So we have these two paths to understanding how a hotel or resort is performing—confidential QA in the real world and public social media monitoring and influencing in the virtual world—one internal and professionally derived to maintain the standards that are designed to bring about a happy guest experience; and the other consumer driven and in the public domain, based on the actual service received.
What would happen if these were combined into a comprehensive overview of performance and standing to guide management at the operational, as well as PR and marketing, levels?

In Part III of this series, scheduled for mid-November, we will look at what QA could be doing to give hotels and resorts the full and accurate story on how they are performing in the 21st Century; and furthermore, to add value to each property by improving the conditions needed to keep guests returning based on their own experience, rather than the megaphoned words of fellow consumers they have generally never met, but whose words, accurate or not, reach far and wide on social media.
First published in
Hotel Business Review in Summer 2018 and reprinted in

https://www.hotelnewsresource.com/article101430.html

http://www.people.now.pl/news/Auditing-the-Auditors-Part-II-The-Art-of-Finding-the-Pulse-By-Steven-Ferry,1485158.html

https://www.htrends.com/trends-detail-sid-101430.html

https://www.hsyndicate.org/network/4089784.html

https://www.hotel-online.com/press_releases/release/auditing-the-auditors-part-ii-of-iii-the-art-of-finding-the-pulse

 

 

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Auditing the Auditors, Part I of III

Steven FerryAuditing the Auditors, part I of III: A Report Card on Independent Quality Assurance

by Steven Ferry

Don Quixote tilted his lance at windmills: we tilt ours at service standards that do not meet expectations, which is why I am spending a perfectly beautiful Florida spring Sunday inside, banging away on the keyboard when sensible people are beaching, sailing, golfing, etc.

Why?

We tried unsuccessfully on several occasions over the years to give independent QA providers, standards for the butler service being offered by (463) luxury hotels around the world so they could incorporate those standards into their own and help raise butler-service levels in the hospitality industry in a way that our small organization could not, on its own, achieve.

All to no avail, but we learned as the years rolled on: Many five-star properties asked us to conduct mystery guest assessments of their butlers, and some even of their whole properties. In doing so, we were asked to assess against internal hotel/chain standards, as well as those of other QA providers. Finding they fell short in various aspects, we were compelled to create our own standards:

1) For the two glaring omissions in QA standards: the world of the butler, as mentioned above, and EQ (emotional engagement)—of which more later;

and

2) Adjusting standards to move away from requirements that forced hotels into actions and behaviours that were robotic and inappropriate for the property. Imagine, while rooming a guest, having to point to a hairdryer in plain sight and say, “This is your hairdryer!” Yet that was just one required standard that hotels were being penalized for overlooking.

This quixotic effort to reform QA bumbled along for several years until I met a kindred spirit: Jochen Ehrhardt of TRUE 5 STARS, who single handedly has been engaged in a similar but more fruitful path: assessing the top 3,000 luxury hotels in the world, 1,200 of which he has visited personally, and only 1,500 of which qualify for featuring on his web site.

“TRUE 5 STARS is completely independent and unbiased,” Jochen pointed out once, “Its Quality Assurance Audit standards are the most detailed and demanding in the industry, while reflecting reality better because we constantly adapt to the latest market developments. Hotels typically score 15% lower compared to the feel-good QA audits of the larger QA providers, because standards cannot be raised if they are not set higher, as befits true five-star properties and the expectations of their guests.”

Even though only a small percentage of hotels around the world provide butler service of one stripe or another, Jochen immediately saw the need for standards for butlers, too, and happily incorporated ours into TRUE 5 STARS’. One small victory!

Thereafter, many late nights were spent discussing standards in hospitality and what to do about them. Being German and English, albeit from different generations, we approached the whole subject logically. We assumed as a starting point, that standards were necessary to…maintain standards! Some individuals will say ‘Throw all rules away, be spontaneous and do whatever makes you feel good, etc.,” and we end up with people who cannot do the actions for which they are being trained and paid for, or which are expected by their customers/clients/patients/fellow citizens. Think Concordia, Pizzagate or any number of the real or imagined, large or small departures from what we would consider to be viable behaviours and outcomes. With standards, we know we will not have melamine in our chocolate and baby formula, Roundup in our stomachs, and that when we stay at a hotel or resort, we will enjoy that stay.

So then the question was, were owners and hospitality management companies happy with the standards being set and managed by leading, independent QA companies? The fact that quite a few chains run their own QA programs would indicate that they feel they can do a better job internally in some way. A survey of GMs in luxury hotels around the world told the story where the rubber meets the road, or perhaps more germanely, where the guests meet the beds.

Responses varied on perceived pros and cons, but one GM nailed the issue with, “Independent QA audits are good but a big revamp needs to be done because staff attitude is changing, as well guest expectations.”

And there is the crux of the matter—coming up with standards is no easy feat: As many standards can exist as there are people to dream them, and the difficulty becomes settling, generally via a committee of interested parties, on those standards by which guests will feel well-served. This varies by evolving culture and sub-cultures, generations and gender, so how does one put order into such a confusion or series of moving targets?

The answer is simple, actually: each property has a purpose or mission statement that is trumpeted by its branding and marketing, and supported by its location, structures, décor, ambiance, facilities, activities for guests to engage in, and service style—and key geographical and consumer markets to which it reaches out.

This is not new news.

So why is it such a brain twister to come up with standards that reflect that individual property’s or chain’s manifestation of these elements that should add up to that purpose or goal being achieved—and thus happy guests—and furthermore, to update the standards from time to time?

Herein lies the contradiction with one-size-fits-all standards: the expectation that everyone fit into a 40-inch/100 cm waistband pair of trousers/pants/jeans.

For instance, what the Silent Generation expected from their hotel experience would bore the hind legs off a millennial; and yet many of the standards offered currently suit the mentality and standards of the Silent Generation and perhaps the Baby Boomers, too. As a Baby Boomer myself, who espoused environmental responsibility decades before it was fashionable, for instance, I am disconcerted by the ubiquitous and health-damaging EMF pollution existing in the very best of hotels and resorts worldwide today, even those in pristine locations.

Why?

Our bodies rely on very delicate electrical systems to run properly, and these are blasted to kingdom come by wifi and cell phone reception, much in demand by green-conscious millennials. Not to sidetrack down this road of contention, but it does serve to illustrate that the setting of standards that reflect current needs is more-than tricky: for while a millennial would be happy as an iPad in wifi exploring the virtual world, older codgers like myself would prefer to be in a tranquil setting enjoying the wealth of the moment afforded by the beauty of the real world consciously and proudly created by each hotel and resort.

This lack of customized standards that fit the purpose and markets of each property is the source of the frustration felt by more than a few GMs with the results of QA audits; and any failure to really satisfy or wow guests. It is not all bad, by any means, as the pros obviously outweigh the cons—or QA programs would be a footnote in the history books—but it seems QA could use some QC!

Other issues raised by GMs include concerns about cross purposes or compromised interests: one company providing audits which, when passed, permit hotels and resorts to become paying members of its sister company—the problem being that the incentive exists to lower standards so as to increase membership.

Another issue that comes up is the constant effort to identify the guests who may be auditors—one hotel chain even posting in their staff areas, a rogue’s gallery of known-inspector mug-shots. This “spot the inspector” game is a distraction from the real game of servicing guests, and an effort to paint a false picture for any auditor who has been outed. But who can blame the staff, from the GM on down, when bonuses, accolades, and promotion are pegged to the results of randomly executed and too-brief/not-comprehensive snapshot audits; which sometimes suffer from a lack of consistency between inspectors and a lack of fairness in presenting scenarios; and invariably lack clarifying information where boxes are ticked as either “Satisfy” or “Insufficient” judgments.

The GMs found benchmarking against their (local) competitors to be of most value with outside audits, but only one-in-three felt benchmarking actually resulted in improved performance. Placing the focus on besting the competition and improving the bottom line is like having ones attention riveted on the scoreboard instead of the game in progress—the better approach being to focus on setting and implementing standards that actually improve the guest experience. Otherwise, one risks becoming irrelevant, especially if the standards are off-base to start with; and furthermore, if they are lowered in order to increase membership, or in the case of luxury hotels, if the standards are written as lowest common denominators of service that can encompass three-star-and-up facilities.

Equally important as an issue is the fact that most QA auditors and their organizations simply act as judges (and even jury and executioner, for some GMs); perhaps they provide some follow-on training which is apparently not held in much regard for its focus on hitting audit points and not addressing underlying issues that will actually change conditions. The relationship is not that of partner, therefore, but of judge (and marketer), neither of which quite provide the help that would prove of greatest benefit. Action programs, proper analysis and addressing of basic issues in training, resources, etc., and staying the course to guide improvement are how a partner might deliver value.

EQ—One Big Missed Opportunity

 And finally, we come to the question of EQ, emotional engagement: All those GMs canvassed considered EQ to be the most important element in QA, expecting maybe 50-50 consideration with facilities/hardware. This harks back to the early days of QA, when Egon Roney, who published his first restaurant guide in the 1950’s, subsequently carried on a thriving business rating hotels. His guide was probably the first to recognize that increasing facilities and services offered didn’t necessarily equate to guest satisfaction. Roney’s star rating was color-coded: Red stars for excellent service, black for acceptable, and white for below par service. A 5-star grand hotel in London might have black or even white stars, while a small country hotel with limited facilities was classified as a 2-star hotel, but because of the high level of personal service and consistent guest satisfaction, those two stars were red. Somewhere along the line, that focus on service quality was lost in QA programs—and as one ends up with what one pushes, hotels were nudged into focusing on material elements at the expense of live and solicitous service.

One QA organization recently added a few token EQ standards to their facilities-centric assessment; these EQ standards have the same technical understanding, accuracy, and efficacy in improving EQ application in hospitality, as doctors had of how the body worked until the 17th Century. Following the theories of the ancient Egyptians and espoused by Galen, a Greek surgeon from the 2nd Century, they claimed for centuries that blood was produced by the liver and was one of the four liquids in the body, the balance of which determined an individual’s mood and health. From which they came up with practices such as blood letting to cure pathologies. Dr. Harvey, a doctor in London during the 16th Century, confirmed that blood was pumped around the body by the heart and had nothing to do with one’s “humors.” It took a while for Dr. Harvey’s observations to be viewed and accepted, the cry from the medical community being, “I would rather err (be mistaken) with Galen than proclaim the truth with Harvey.”

There is no reason that understanding and adopting the proper use of emotions should take so long: all it takes is acknowledging that maybe not everything there is to be known about emotions and emotional engagement, is already known! That just maybe, a Harvey-like breakthrough has already been made.

A sadly misnamed “Emotional Quotient” might be better named “Emotional Quality,” but it does little to define what is meant by this all-important skill of emotional engagement. Current more-advanced concepts of EQ include: the demonstration of genuine individual care & recognition; the delivery of “wow” moments and stepping above and beyond the expected to create unique moments that make a lasting impression; smiling; proper verbiage; anticipatory service—all of which only obliquely hint at emotions, and instead only reflecting the style of service for which superior service providers, such as butlers, are famous. As a result, the power of emotional engagement is not being harnessed in hospitality, even though its use is greatly desired.

More advanced hoteliers see that Western-focused QA-concentration on facilities as opposed to solicitous service does not work in the East, but this is more of the same error: that emotional engagement is simply solicitous and genuine service, as opposed to being a whole new subject that puts hospitality into a whole new ball park of service excellence. One should be able to use emotions to make guests happier, a basic goal of hospitality.

In Part II of this series, scheduled for August, we will examine the difficulties faced by hoteliers in evaluating quality/gauging how they are doing and therefore coming up with workable strategies to move forward—including assessing the value to management and guests alike, of report cards generated by QA audits for management versus the report cards being published broadly to potential guests on social media.

First published in Hotel Business Review in February 2018 and reprinted in Hotel News Resource, Hotel On-line, Hospitality NetHSyndicate, and Pineapple Search.

 

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Emotional Engagement—A Mantra in Search of a Technology

Emotional Engagement—A Mantra in Search of a Technology

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Emotional engagement is one of those hot subjects that most have heard of but very few can actually define. What is it exactly? As with any subject, a keen observation of life in action followed by a logical analysis can shine light on the dark corners of our knowledge to bring clarity to our understanding, and, in order to be useful, a workable procedure for action that brings about desirable results. In the case of emotional engagement, it would be guests who are thrilled at the renewal or reinforcement of life and energy they experience when interacting with hotel staff. Of course, that would presuppose and require that the staff be passionate and full-of-life themselves, rather than uninspired and going through the motions.

And this is the challenge.

We seek and cherish the few “good hospitality people” who are full of life and place them on the front lines. And then judge the staff with high-sounding emotional engagement (EQ) audits, without actually defining what is emotional engagement or how to do so. An earlier article,  Love and the New Age of Service discussing the book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, makes exactly this point. The Secret is a brilliant analysis of the abilities and characteristics held in common by some successful people and exhorts people to emulate these actions by the expedient of mantras: a slogan repeated often in order to change one’s mind and thus behavior. It works up to a point, but because it fails to ask one key question—how come people fall away from these mantras in the first place—it hits a brick wall. There is a reason people are not successful, and it is not just because they do not believe they can be. They do run into failures and these do accumulate and push people down to the point where they lose their steam—no matter what The Little Engine that Could might say (the beloved 1930’s children’s story of the Little Blue (Steam) Engine who wasn’t afraid to try, saying, “I think I can! I think I can!”).

I saw its 21st Century sequel, The Secret, in the possession of a colleague while training together at a private residence at The Hamptons on Long Island this summer. She was exactly this kind of person, full of life, energy, and enthusiasm, but with no time for, no understanding of, nor ability to interact with and handle, those less driven, less emotionally engaged. In a way, she was suffering from the same issue as they—lack of emotional fluidity—stuck in the fast lane in fourth gear, whizzing past lesser mortals who are similarly stuck, but in lower gears and expectations. I experienced the same frustrating problem for years, until the subject of emotional engagement (and a few other relevant aspects of life) finally came into focus.

Hence my contention that we have a mantra (emotional engagement) in search of a definition and true understanding, and with no technology for achieving it.

Without realizing it, a recent article by another struggles with this issue, reaffirming the spiritual element of service as a counterbalance to the relentless drive to harness electronics, robotics, and technology to reach the Holy Grail of the superior guest experience: for as the author says, “providing genuine hospitality is by nature energetic and based in love and compassion for fellow human beings.” For what is emotional engagement but a reflection of the spiritual side of mankind, a fact most readily seen when we contrast humans with any of the so-called robot butlers being churned out by science and manufacturing to provide superior service—no matter how hard they might try, how sincere they may make their robots sound, their emotions will always be programmed by someone else to sound sincere, but never ever actually be “heartfelt,” never actually be convincing. See the article, Would you like your service Today Live or Programmed, Madam?  In other words, if you were a film director and saw a couple of robots acting in the year 2042, you would yell, “Cut, reshoot,” and wonder where all the really good human actors of old had gone, who could really draw in the audience with their powerful (heartfelt) acting.

Unfortunately, the premise of the article that explored the spiritual side of service leads readers straight off a cliff from the outset, targeting SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] as the bête noir/bad hat/problem: “It is obvious from the proliferation of new brands and the desperation to find new technology to improve the guest experience that there is a growing feeling that the SOP approach to custom satisfaction has become unsatisfactory, and that now the big hotel groups are searching for a solution.”

I understand the principal that SOPs might result in rote learning, and the desire to be free of restrictions, but every road needs edges if it is to be useful and functional. Without SOPs, anything goes, starting with any idea of standards. Just as drugged, insane, and/or criminal people, not guns, kill people—while law-abiding citizens do not—so, too, do uninspired writers of SOPs churn out deathly and rote SOPs that bring about uninspired levels of service in the uninspired— whereas well-written SOPs emerge from the computers of inspired managers and provide the framework for intelligent and passionate service by staff who are alive and alert. The tool, in other words, is not the culprit, and we are back to the actual challenge of how to instill life and passion into people who lack it (and for guns, how to identify and actually help people on drugs, criminals, and the insane to get over their conditions so they do not go through life half-cocked).

“The hotel industry,” continues the same author, “creates a mechanical, largely emotionless experience.” This generalized statement may be truer in the more mechanistic and conservative Western world, but it does not reflect accurately the effort by many hotels and resorts in many regions to connect emotionally with guests.

The author seeks to resolve this mechanistic level of service by recommending high-energy, emotional experiences for guests: “Our thoughts, feelings, and emotions affect our DNA either positively or negatively depending on the nature (vibration or energy) of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions.” He looks forward to the day “when the first hotel group emerges from the Rut of Tradition and creates a high-energy frequency guest experience.”

So far, so good, but even this laudable goal is misconceived when considering a “low-frequency” guest’s comfort level at receiving high-frequency waves—how able and willing “slow-laners” might be to keep up with those in the fast lane.

The majority of his article refers to the religious and spiritual as bodies of relevant knowledge, yet looks inexplicably to the field of science to verify the existence of spiritual phenomenon. The operating sphere of science is and always has been the material; its path has given us the means to regrow tissue, swap organs, pollute the planet with tens of thousands of chemicals, spy on each other, and fry every man, woman and child on the planet many times over, not to mention replace the entire workforce (and one might say ultimately, the human race) with robots—but zero understanding of the spirit, who, what, where and why it is, how it functions, and how to increase its abilities; nor of the mind (what it is made of, where it is located, how it works: For instance, the idea extent for the last 137 years that the mind is the brain, is like saying hardware is the same as software).

Traditionally in religions and spirituality, mankind is conceived to have three parts: spirit, mind, and body.

In looking to scientists for the answers, the author of the article has inadvertently bought into their worldview that all is material, explaining the spiritual or mental in terms of the physical body. Psychiatrists have fallen into the same mindset. Despite their subject meaning the “healing of the soul,” they claim there is no such thing, and indeed, there is no mind either, because “the mind is the brain” (which nobody can argue, is part of the physical body). As a result, their technology focuses on cutting out or shocking the brain; and more commonly, introducing chemicals into the brain to resolve perceived mental deficiencies. The results are as one might expect of a “science” at odds with itself, but propelled onward by the twin prospects of profit and power.

And so the article author, following the conclusions of his scientist sources, wants us to believe that DNA and the heart are the sources of our energy and influence over others. Yet, again, DNA and the heart are unequivocally part of the physical body. Talking of left and right brain—again, the physical—is a commonly accepted understanding that is actually highly illogical: why does it have to be one or the other? Surely a logical solution or approach can also be creative? Surely any situation requires both applied in order to bring about an optimal solution?

When one considers the body to be the source of the mind and spirit, one tends to come up with strange ideas and unworkable theories. If one were to develop a workable theory or technology on this question of higher wavelengths, of making people passionate and alive in their service, one would have to ask why people emit low-frequency wavelengths; how they might, en masse, be persuaded to emit higher wavelengths; why people have fallen from their natural affinity for their fellows into the current materialism; why they lack passion and energy in the first place. In a way, the author of the article is blindsided by the same issue as the author of The Secret.

If these questions remain unanswered, then all exhortations for hoteliers to study complex subjects (the energy sciences, quantum science, and heart-energy research); to change hotel training methods and paradigms so as to train staff on esoteric and difficult actions (such as generating a high-frequency vibration at a distance to fill guest rooms and facilities; to teach staff “heart-coherence” exercises, “how to send love energy,” and Tonglen meditation in order to “create an ever-growing, inner desire to show compassion and loving kindness”) will result only in bemusement and a disappointing lack of change.

Such complex theories and solutions arise only because the basic truths on the subject have yet to be isolated. Truth be told, anything that is complex is so only because it has not been viewed fully and so not really understood—all truths are basically simple and obvious, once seen. Predictably, complex solutions implemented do not resolve the problem they were designed to address and instead, become the next problem to solve.

The author of the article that at least addressed the issue of life and emotional engagement is entirely correct to tilt his spiritual lance at the windmill of rote service and formulaic SOPs and I wish there were more voices like his in the wilderness; so the intent of this article is not to criticize his brave start but to move beyond a quixotic (impractical) call-to-arms into an effective crusade that can actually realize the author’s goals.

Workable Technology based on Simple Truths

To bring emotional skills and engagement for hoteliers (or indeed any profession) into the realm of the practical and executable, I would like to offer the following simplicities concerning emotional engagement, because we have found they generate the most interest in our students around the world and greatly improve employee emotional engagement and the guest experience.

Identifying EQ skills as important has been a vital first step for the hospitality industry over the last decade or so. But the current state of understanding of EQ skills is adrift: LQA standards, for instance, ask about the guest’s emotional experience, but offers no definition for emotional engagement, nor path for employee’s to engage emotionally. The assumption seems to be that humans have a de facto ability to emote effectively and so should be able to do so once told to do so. It is similar to education, where the assumption is made that if someone can read, then they can study effectively; whereas collapsing academic standards in the US, at least, show that there is a wide gap that needs to be bridged between reading a text and comprehending it—and further, being able to put it into practice.

EQ or Emotional Quotient is a fledgling subject that explores “emotional intelligence:” Like its cousin IQ, Intelligence Quotient, it is sometimes represented as a score on a standardized test (which is why the word quotient is included in both subject titles). Intelligence refers to a person’s reasoning ability, as in the following example: “When we arrived at an automobile dealership to pick up our new car, we found a mechanic working feverishly to unlock the driver’s side door so they could retrieve the keys that had been locked in the car. As I watched from the passenger side, I instinctively tried the door handle and discovered that it was unlocked. ‘Hey,’ I announced to the technician, ‘It’s open!’ To which he replied, ‘I know—I already got that side.’”

Emotional skills, on the other hand, are not a form of intelligence, but reflect a person’s empathy. Empathy is a quality that people either have or do not. In hiring front lines personnel for hospitality, we seek people who are by nature empathetic; yet if they have no understanding of emotions, they too can fail frustratingly when engaging with others. And where we try to improve emotional engagement in staff, training on the subject turns out to be frustratingly nebulous and short on actual results.

So What ARE Emotions?

Technically, emotions show reaction to, tolerance of, & ability of an individual or group to handle motion. They are the mechanism or path by which our mindset toward a subject is translated into action with the body. Simply put, emotions show how much we like or dislike a subject, how we feel about a subject, and therefore react to it.

Some people think women are emotional while men are rational. No more irrational a statement could be made, for the opposite of rational is irrational, not emotional. This worldview comes from the observation that women tend to cry—but so do men, even if they do not tear up, thanks to the admonishment that “big boys are tough and do not cry.”

The truth is that everyone has different emotions all the time toward different subjects: enthusiasm, anger, boredom, as well as grief, to name a few common ones. Some people have “no emotion” because they have sunk below the ability to express an emotion towards a subject. They tend to be wooden and unresponsive—the most obvious examples being people who are drugged and showing no emotional engagement whatsoever; behaving like robots, one might say.

Emotions are an integral part of communication: every communication comes at a particular emotional tone, and these, in addition to the meaning of the words used in the communication, need to be managed skillfully in order to reach and “touch” the other person.

The big breakthrough on the subject of EQ actually occurred 65 years ago and is woefully unknown in hospitality today: that emotions are not random and dis-related, but can be plotted according to how much or little happiness, success, and survival a person is experiencing. The higher the emotional level, the happier, more logical, responsive to communications, pleasant etc. the person proves to be—and vice versa.

It is vital to know and use this scale in order to

a) communicate effectively with guests, principals, colleagues, vendors, and anyone else breathing;

and

b) always leave them feeling better;

and

c) pick partners and maintain one’s own happiness.

Emotional engagement requires recognizing the energy wavelength of the guest and raising it to a higher level. It is not about the staff always being at a high energy level, but at the right level for each guest at the moment of interaction, and then—and this is where the magic comes in—raising that guest’s level to an even higher wavelength. Or if the guest is already at a high energy level, the service provider at least matching it, and not raining on their parade by unwittingly emitting a lower-energy level/emotion.

One might wonder where these emotional wavelengths come from.

Not from a battery pack and transmitter in one’s pocket or handbag. Not from the heart, nor DNA strands, nor one’s brain. One has to go back to the traditional understanding man has had for millennia: that there are a physical/corporal, a mental, and a spiritual component to his identity. To make a lot of research short, these wavelengths of energy are generated by the spirit—you—in response to a specific subject. When you become angry, for instance, you automatically generate the wavelength of anger. This means that, once understood and mastered, any employee can engage emotionally with any guest, and in so doing, greatly improve the guest experience and, on the way, the bottom line. Mission accomplished!

For instance, with 6% of hospitality profits disappearing into the black hole of comp’ing, it might be edifying to know that most “service recovery” can be accomplished just by communicating effectively—using the usual verbiage to handle upset guests and flanking it with the correct emotion—but this is a subject for another article.

My view is that the next major evolution in hospitality is not finding more exotic and innovative locations, activities, and experiences to attract guests, but is less costly to develop, more fundamental to our persona and mission, and closer to home—breathing new life into the people/emotional skills of staff at a time when robots and pre-programmed service are threatening to deluge us with their mechanical perfections and complete absence of life or emotional wavelengths, high or low—and thus, absence of (human) guest satisfaction.

We will win this battle by being practical in providing definitions and effective techniques for engaging emotionally with guests (and each other).

First published in Hotel Business Review, August 2016, and thereafter in 4Hoteliers, Hotel News Resource, Hotel Online, Hospitality Trends,