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Pulitzer Bar, Amsterdam

So far, in the service excellence section, one of the main messages that has come across is that creating and maintaining the right service culture within an organization, requires different actions, and can be done with diverse approaches.

When I think of how I can imprint the importance of a service culture in my team, I am convinced one of the initial steps is to build their awareness.

Awareness is a great word that I like to use often. What is it exactly? It’s the knowledge or the perception of a fact or situation. Why do I like using it? Because if you are not aware of your environment and of the events that are happening around you, you are definitely lacking a big part of the process.

Awareness is a very broad concept that can be applied to a big range of situations, but in this case, we are going to talk about service awareness.

We assume that hospitality workers already have it in them, but it’s not always the case. We all know what service is and what’s its value, but being aware of it at all times, perceiving it around us, and understanding it completely comes with a bit of experience, and with a good dose of mindfulness.

If we are not self-aware of the service we - and our team - are providing, how do we know if it’s aligned with the company culture? If we don’t know what we are doing right or wrong, how can we figure out how to make our guests satisfied? If we don’t really understand or accept the kind of service our company is envisioning, how can we embrace it and put it into action?

There are many simple ways to make our staff more aware: give them clarity on the vision, train them properly, provide them with constant feedback, teach them to work with their eyes and mind always open.

One of my favorite ways to build service awareness - and in my opinion one of the easiest - is to allow our people to experience the service themselves.

Only if they are able to live it from the guest’s perspective, they will realize if this is something that they appreciate or not. And appreciating the product or service you are trying to sell or provide, is crucial in any business. We don’t simply need to know our job very well, we need to believe in it. That for me is key not only to a successful business, but also to our personal happiness in the workplace.

Personally, when I relate to the company’s vision, when I recognize the worth of the work I am doing, and I take pride in my place and in my purpose, nothing can bring me down.

But I - like everyone else - cannot get to that point if I don’t fully understand the roots of the experience I am supposed to create.

So let’s let our employees stay at our property, let them live the experience as if they were the customers, and let them figure out for themselves what they really think about it.

Hotels do that: they gift their staff with a free night, a free breakfast, and access to the property’s outlets and facilities. No doubt most companies do so, but what do they really do with it? What is the ultimate goal when allowing this benefit?

To find out what the employees have noticed during their stay. To have another set of eyes on the product and on the service that tells us what can be improved. To allow the staff to learn about what they are selling.

All great and very useful points. However, I have discovered that there is so much more to this.

It’s not simply about the feedback the employee can provide and what we can learn about our property and our methods.

It’s very much about what we can learn about our employees, and what they can learn about themselves, and the company they work for.

Let me give you a couple of easy examples.

This story comes from a dear colleague of mine, who is a Director of Human Resources.

At some point in her career, while working at a luxury property, she assisted a Restaurant Manager who had a particularly challenging situation with a new server. The two of them kept getting into conflict to the point that she had to be involved. She sat with the server, and asked: “What is the issue between you two?”, the server responded: “He keeps picking at me for the smallest insignificant things, such as the spot for the salt and pepper on the table”.

So she began thinking about it, and she realized that maybe the server did not really understand the reason for that expectation, and the importance of those details. She took the server to the restaurant and asked her to set up a table according to standards, and to set up another one with items casually placed on it. Then she asked her to look at both, notice the difference, and observe how the two presentations made her feel. After taking a good look, the server said “Yes, I see the difference, but I don’t feel in any particular way about the one that’s properly set up”. So there was her answer: the server did not appreciate the small details that make a luxury product, she did not have that feeling or connection to it, and probably did not fit the expectations of the company’s vision. And vice versa.

This second story instead, comes from my first opening: a traditional luxury property whose owners and executive team were extremely adamant about formal verbiage and body language - more than any other luxury property I dealt with. We valued conventional and elegant expressions such as “It is my pleasure to do so”, or “Allow me to assist you”. Grooming expectations were extremely high. While standing around the property we always had to be aware of our posture. Certain words or sentences, such as addressing a group of guests with “You guys”, or answering a “Thank you” with a “Sure” - or the worst of all “No problem” - was an absolute deal breaker.

It was a strict and uncompromising environment when it came to that, but I understood it and embraced it completely, and I tried my best to bring that vision to my team. It was hard, because formal luxury is not for everybody, some people - workers or customers - might perceive it as stiff or not genuine. It was not the case there, for us elegance and genuine politeness were pillars of our DNA.

But it is not easy to find people who fit in this type of culture. One of my front desk agents was having quite a hard time with that, and kept addressing guests pretty casually in spite of much training and multiple conversations. I understood he was not purposely doing so, it was just not in his DNA to be that formal. So I did a small exercise with him: I acted as the front desk agent, and he was the guest checking in. I played two scenarios: one where I performed a casual and friendly check-in, and one where I performed a check-in according to our standards. At the end of the exercise I sat with him and asked him how he felt. He said he understood my point, but he felt much more comfortable during the casual interaction. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that, but at that point I realized he would have been happier and more suited in a different hotel, perhaps a trendy property with a laid-back environment.

Stories of this nature, might help us understand when someone is not a fit, when they would be more suitable for a different culture which probably makes them happier, and this is beneficial for us, but also and most importantly for them.

Let me go back to Pulitzer Amsterdam one more time, and tell you about their "WWW program": Weet Waar u Werkt - Know Where you Work.

When you have been with the company for one whole year, you receive your WWW certificate. With that you can book a stay for yourself and a guest, and the stay includes access to the Pulitzer's Bar, a dinner at Jansz Restaurant, a night in a guest room, and breakfast the next morning. At the end of your stay you are required to fill a detailed questionnaire and provide answers and comments regarding your experience.

The program is fantastic and it’s a great perk and opportunity for the staff; however, if I might, there are some points of improvement.

There are definitely a couple of aspects that I really like about it: first of all, you can bring a guest, which makes the stay more enjoyable for the employee by being able to share it with someone they care for, and they can have fun with. The guest is also another set of eyes that can observe and notice things.

Secondly, feedback is genuinely welcome and appreciated, and it’s actually shared with the department heads, who will sincerely consider and possibly use the suggestions.

Last but not least, you are not treated as the hotel worker, but truly as the guest. For instance, even if it’s busy at the bar, your bartender will not keep you as last to be served just because you are a staff member, they will give you the same attention and importance as everyone else.

What are the points of improvement in my opinion? First of all: the feedback survey can be perceived as too long and too specific. Instead of asking them to be a mystery shopper, we could simply allow them to list in an open format what they have observed, what were the best moments, what could change or improve. Let them choose what they want to mention, because that’s what made an impression - good or bad. That’s how we are going to really boost the feedback moment.

Secondly: does one entire year really need to go by before we offer them this opportunity? Yes, I understand it’s a costly opportunity, and as a benefit it should be deserved, but on the other hand if we let that much time pass by we might be missing out: it’s during the early stages of employment that a person figures out if they fit in our environment, and if they believe in that vision, so why do we wait that long? Maybe because the real advantage of it is not yet fully understood.

The feedback session simply can't work one way, if we approach it from both sides we can really learn about our employees. We should take the time to go over their questionnaire, and make sure they really understood what they experienced, and that they actually took pleasure in it - not only for the free stay and for the free meal, but also for the little touches we gifted along the way. In other words, if they would have had to pay for it (assuming they could afford it) would they have stayed and would they have enjoyed it the same way?

Let’s ask ourselves the following questions: after they’ve experienced it first hand, do they comprehend our service culture? Do they appreciate it, do they believe in it?

Or do they not understand it? Do they not enjoy it, do they not see its value, do they not recognize its worth?

The big question we and they need to ask is: do they connect with the vision, or is this not for them?

If you and they know this is not the right place for them, don't waste your time and don't waste theirs. You can't force people to be who they are not, and you can't force people to believe in something they don't value. They will be happier somewhere else where they can really be themselves and where they can do what they do best every day.

However, with the same approach, we will also find the people that really belong to our culture.

If they've noticed the difference between our service and the others’, if they've understood our purpose, then they have become aware.

If they have appreciated and took pleasure in what they've seen and what we do differently, then they have become proud.

If they accept, trust and take it upon themselves to spread the company’s vision, then they have truly become an irreplaceable part of our service culture. They have become our ambassadors.

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