Calling Bluff.

Cold weather inspires me.

A couple of weeks ago, I walked out of the cinema a little past 12 midnight after watching The Hobbit (Desolution of Smaug) and into the post-rain Orchard Road with the chilly breeze making me shiver while I walked to the taxi stand. The awe I felt from the very epic movie hadn’t left me yet, and the rather empty street left me very pensive. Moments like this make me want to write.

This is an edited version of my initial draft from that night.

Well fret not, for this is not one of those lengthy movie review posts. This was me at home being slightly refreshed after a shower but feeling like my brain was foggy and ready to slip into a coma, yet my thoughts were still running like clockwork and my fingers found their places on the keyboard quite naturally as they spewed the stuff going in my head.

I’d like to address something that’s been on my mind recently. There was one evening not too long ago when I met with a friend who said that someone very experienced in the hotel industry told him that the GM of a hotel should take all the s**t so that everyone else is happy. Well, I’m calling bluff on that statement because it perpetuates the culture of “the customer is always right” and does not take into account the evolution of humankind and society in general. Also, it undermines the level of respect & professionalism people in hospitality so deserve acknowledgement of.

Just a little disclaimer here, I’m discussing a trend that I personally observe through personal experience in the business so far and my reflections are confined to what I see in my work in Singapore and also from what I read in all industry commentaries, blogs, publications etc. I may or may not be accurate in trying to apply the same trend across the entire industry regionally and you are free to point out areas that do not apply in your area.

First, a little background…

When travel exploded and the lodging business became an enormous industry complete with standard rooms and mini bars, finding qualified service professionals became a challenge due to the rapid growth of hotel companies and therefore, just like a factory line, jobs were simplified and it became easier to fill positions that required little or no formal training. Taking the restaurant maître d’ position, these days in most fine dining places I would call them, at most, host or hostesses because they just lack the finesse one would expect of the person who has the power to fill a restaurant properly (and therefore is responsible for how profitable each business day turns out) or not. Instead, we have table management systems that robotically classify and record the customer. Anyone who knows how to operate a PC or tablet can stand in the hostess position. Or maybe some better ones who know what they’re doing will show discretion when doing table planning according to confirmed reservations.

Some places are bit conscientious with customer relationship management (CRM) and make better use of guest history data, and there are some great examples of how digital marketing has helped making personalized communication with individual customers more easily executed. However, when it comes to face to face customer interactions, the service level has become either obligatory with a sense of entitlement in the form of tips, or non-existent where the tipping culture is not common and worst, when service charges are not duly shared with the service team (as seen in many restaurants and hotels in Singapore). But I digress.

Back to the hospitality career, the truth is you won’t need to rise through the ranks over years of training starting from busing tables to earn that position anymore. So, due to the lack in skill and therefore empowerment for people who are supposed to have that skill to make certain decisions, hospitality “professionals” are now more often than not merely a unit in a hierarchy that guests know if they step on to talk to the “higher ups” they might get away with something as long as they make a big enough fuss (or threaten to – my personal favourite – “write to the press”) on something they are unsatisfied about. I don’t blame them for thinking that because they have been getting their way. Hospitality professionals are not being fair to themselves and should give their profession a lot more credibility, to be honest.

I’m especially calling bluff on the mentality that working in hospitality means pleasing the customer by all means. Hospitality these days is so different from before. Taking an example of the luxury hotel industry from the classical origins stemming from primarily providing butler service or stewardship to guests who usually came from privileged backgrounds and therefore expected a certain level of decorum and treatment to what it means now to provide good service, I see now a shift from servitude to transactional exchange in the way service is being provided.

In the past, service means taking care of the guest’s every need in a discrete, professional manner. Now, even though the expectations from both sides are quite different and unpredictable due to the guest being anyone from anywhere who is able to pay and therefore expect different levels of attention and fussing about, the general expectation of hospitality service is still stuck in the old school of thought.

What is lacking though, in my humble opinion, is the respect for people working in hospitality – both coming from the customer who is under the impression that he/she is always right and therefore can and should demand for rules to be bent and favours to be given – as well as front line hospitality professionals who relent (by giving complimentary things or making exceptions) in the face of abuse and spoil the customer. I loved it when one of the hotel managers I used to work for issued an official ban on a club member for being abusive to staff. It sends the right message that customers should learn to be civil if they want to be treated right. Even as I deal with cases of complaints from customers in my work that require more attention, I always address the specific complaint and respond in a polite but fair manner. Sometimes a complaint is not about getting freebies but about sorting out issues that hospitality professionals should very well thank their customers for highlighting them too.

One would normally expect an experienced hospitality professional to be unfazed by amazingly relentless customers who make a mountain out of a molehill in order to get their way, but these days, I find it hard to find someone who truly understands service professionalism to handle these situations adequately.

But of course, service satisfaction goes both ways – the modern customer is more well-travelled, more savvy, more educated and much more well-connected when you consider the developments of affordable travel, technology & social media. A good thing came out of this too – suddenly Asians understood what western / European restaurant is supposed to be like because they travel to Europe or America or Australia for a foodie adventure. And they understand too, that sometimes if service is genuine and sincere, a bit of a mishap is very forgivable indeed. Asian hospitality has also evolved to emulate that kind of international standard of service, while adding their own touch of personal service, with excellent examples, generally speaking, like Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental hotel chains.

What is sorely lacking too, is the (no, not common sense) awareness & acknowledgement that The Customer Is Not Stupid. It’s a simple lesson in communication – address what the customer is sore about and provide a solution. If the customer is trying to be unreasonable, stand your ground and offer the best alternative. That’s all there is to it, really. But I’m time and again amazed at how badly complaints are managed. I’ve seen people try to lie without blinking an eye on what they can or cannot do for the customer. Well it might have worked in the past, but not anymore.

In conclusion, I just want to say, what drove me to complete this post was the pretty lively response I got on my Facebook post that read as following:

“I have this urge to set up a customer service etiquette school especially for the hospitality industry. A bit fed up of how inadequate people in the industry are to handle basic customer complaints. 

Hope to finally bring up the service level in this part of SEA. Will also need English lessons to complement the customer service communication training. Will also need people / trainers from Ritz / Four Seasons / Peninsula / Mandarin Oriental background. Anybody interested to set up shop with me?”

It’s been about over an hour and comments and PMs are still coming in. I say maybe I should start doing something about this! Educate the customer to be civil and reasonable, and train the hospitality professionals to be authentic and sincere. 🙂

One thought on “Calling Bluff.

  1. Your love and passion for the industry really shows through your writing. I would love to see your innate thoughts become a reality.

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