When it comes to customer experience, there’s a lot of cross-over between the hospitality industry and the contact center industry. We’re both in the business of earning a customer’s repeat business through the quality of the experience we deliver. With that in mind, we reached out to Paul Jones, an award-winning hotel manager within the Best Western organization. Paul has earned acclaim for his exceptional management skills in the hospitality field — particularly his ability to generate loyalty with both staff and guests. We sat down with Paul to discuss his views on best practices for creating incredible customer service.
Do you have a “process” for consistently creating exceptional service experiences?
Paul: I believe there are really three parts to the process: active listening, great note-taking, and agent ownership.
It begins with training agents to pay active attention to what your customer is saying — not just the primary information like their name and address, but even the small comments, maybe something said in passing. Our employees are trained to listen for and include those small pieces of information in the guest’s file — so the next agent who interacts with that guest can reference the small details. In our world, maybe the guest mentions at check-in that they’re in town for a family member’s graduation — if the agent who checks out asks them about the graduation ceremony, that creates engagement for both the agent and the guest. And giving the agent the chance to really impress a guest when something goes wrong is even more powerful. For example, if a guest encounters an issue, it would be easy to simply give reward points to resolve the situation. But going the extra mile might be sending something special up to their room that the guest will enjoy — maybe they mentioned that the restaurant carries their favorite wine and the agent has access to that information. Or, for guests who mentioned they have to catch a plane before 6 am when our café opens, we can have something ready for them. Those are the “wow” moments that come from active listening and great note-taking.
But it goes deeper than that. Encouraging the act of effective listening requires effective management. We work hard to set expectations up front. Every front desk agent is challenged to write a “WOW statement” every day about an awesome customer interaction. They have ownership in delivering those experiences and being recognized for their success.
What are you looking for when hiring for agents in the hospitality industry?
Paul: When I’m hiring the right fit for an open position today, I do almost the opposite of what I did years ago. I used to rely heavily on someone’s résumé and previous experience to decide if they’d be good for the role. If hospitality wasn’t in their existing repertoire, I wouldn’t look twice at them.
Today, what matters most is the cultural fit. We can easily train someone to be successful in hospitality — but only if they have the personality fit and values first. Empathy is key. So is the ability to listen and maintain a positive attitude. Everything else we can teach.
So, I go into an interview and talk much less about what’s required, and instead I explain what we do, where we’re at in the market, and what our vision is for the company. I look for how engaged a candidate is in this conversation. Are they listening? Does it excite them? Do they feel they can make a contribution?
How do metrics and standards play a role in customer service?
Paul: Metrics and standards lay a solid foundation for measuring the success of your employees, but you have to be aware of how those standards impact the customer experience. That’s true in hospitality, and I am sure it is true in the customer service industry overall.
Let me give you a specific example. The industry standard in hospitality is for room attendants to clean 15 rooms per shift. In the hotel I currently manage, we provide suite accommodations. Each room has a kitchenette including a dishwasher and, on average, the rooms tend to be larger than industry standard. So when I came on board at this property, I could see the effect that the “industry standard” was having on the cleaning operations for a hotel with non-standard rooms. Our attendants were stressed and quality was suffering.
I proposed dropping our requirement to 14 rooms per shift. Not surprisingly, the hotel owners said anything less than 15 rooms would negatively impact the bottom line, but I argued that the level of room cleanliness would also inevitably hit the bottom line. In an industry where TripAdvisor reviews have real-world revenue impacts, there was a business case to be made for lowering the rooms per shift requirement. So, we reduced the number of rooms to 14. It showed our team that we were going to bat for them, earning their trust and loyalty, and we created a better experience both for them and for our guests. Those results showed in our customer satisfaction scores and the ranking of our property relative to others in the Best Western group.
What does a “rooms per shift ratio” have to do with contact center operations, you might ask? Well, I can envision the same scenario in any industry where customer service agents are measured on hard and fast metrics. In the contact center, Average Handle Time is an important metric, but if an agent feels rushed to finish a call, the quality of the customer experience could be negatively impacted. Finding the right balance is key. You want to look at handle times (in our world, time to service a room) versus customer satisfaction for the team overall and for the agent individually.
How do you address customer complaints or customer service interactions that go wrong?
Paul: It comes down to empowerment and decision-making. My agents know I expect them to make a decision. Bottom line: make a decision that you think will resolve the problem and it’s okay if it’s not the same decision I personally would make. When a guest makes a complaint, I want them to decide how to handle that situation rather than dismissing the issue or escalating it to someone else.
Following the situation, I’ll sit them down and express that I’m proud of what they did to resolve the issue. Then I explain how I may have made a different decision and why. It starts a conversation rather than about being right or wrong. It’s an approach that teaches them how to improve while simultaneously empowering them to make their own decisions and hold themselves accountable for a customer’s experience.
No matter how high we strive to deliver exceptional customer experience, someone will always complain about something. I tell people that handling those customers is about having empathy. Put yourself in their shoes. The customer’s experience most likely started well before they got to the hotel — whether it be delayed flights, missed connections, or whatever — and it’s not necessarily the employee who did something wrong. But it is the employee who can turn the situation around, lower a customer’s stress level, and make their day better. In the end, I just want my employees to make a decision based on that knowledge, whether or not it’s the decision I myself would have made — that part can be addressed after the fact.
Once again, this is the same in any industry that revolves around the customer experience. Your training and coaching programs may be stellar, but you must stress that the number one thing, the real pivot point to providing exceptional experience, is the ability to make an autonomous decision.
What role do employee engagement and incentives play in your success?
Because social media plays such a big role in the hospitality business, we reward our agents every time a guest names them in an online review. If an agent has created a “wow” experience that gets public recognition from a guest, that’s pretty much the definition of a job well done, and we need to recognize and value that.
We also track customer responses — both through surveys and reviews — to help us follow up and go back to training if necessary. We share our satisfaction scores and third-party reviews with every employee at the hotel, not just among the management team. There is no siloed information. This is how everyone gets to understand the impact of their interactions.
And management needs to understand that listening to their employees is just as important as listening to their customers. That can be as simple as making sure employees have the right tools to do their jobs efficiently and effectively or it can be as complex as challenging industry standards as we talked about earlier.
And finally, we understand the importance of ensuring our employees have fun. They don’t need to be laughing all the time, but things like small perks and treats will show you care. When your employees have a good experience, that’s when you can guarantee consistent and exceptional customer experience.
The Secrets to Successful Customer Service
At the heart of the matter, great customer service in any setting starts with listening. Listening to your customers and to your employees — and then taking what you heard and acting on it. Paul’s experience and his insights about the role that note-taking plays in creating “wow” experiences in the hospitality industry translates well into the contact center industry.
If you’re looking for an outsourcing partner, ensure you’re working with someone who understands the dynamic between customer service agents and the customer experience. That partnership will be essential to improved customer satisfaction and loyalty.
We want to hear from you. What are you looking for in a contact center partner? Let us know today.