Today I am pleased to present another guest post by Sarah Simon.

After a restful night’s stay at the TownePlace Suites in Plano Texas, I headed downstairs to drop my key and have a quick breakfast.  At the end of the hallway by the lobby stood a smiling, laughing man, cheerfully engaging customers.  “Good morning, how was your stay?” he inquired.  “Please, we’ll take your bag to the front desk and watch it while you enjoy breakfast!”  I felt like road warrior royalty!  My suitcase and laptop bag were promptly whisked away while the man introduced himself.  I recognized his name at once – Pablo Villarroel – from the friendly and welcoming letter tacked visibly on the in-room refrigerator wishing me a pleasant stay.

As manager, this man could have spent the morning hiding behind his desk, avoiding the “messy” business of dealing with customers, as staff tended to the hurried business travelers rushing to check out.  Instead, he placed himself where he knew many of us would end up – at the breakfast area near the lobby – and greeted us each with a warm welcome, a bright smile, and a handshake.  Not only does this man obviously enjoy his job but he also shares his passion for customer delight with everyone he sees!  His cheerfulness is infectious; every staff member I encountered smiled and greeted me warmly, like a friend.  The desk staff made eye contact and seemed eager to help.  The effect is to make each and every customer feel valued.

Up until my interaction with Mr. Villarroel, this had been just another very nice stay at a business hotel: clean, spacious room, friendly and helpful staff, nice landscaping, comfortable bed, etc.  So what went so right here?  Managers like Mr. Villarroel don’t grow on trees and cannot be cloned, but what about this experience could a hotel chain replicate elsewhere?   How can your hospitality company facilitate customer-focused behavior among your general managers?

1. Rethink Hiring/Promotion:  Hire and promote the right people who care about your hotel guests.  Hotel managers need a wide array of skills, and liking people and caring about their happiness and comfort should be higher on the list than I suspect many hotels place this because it’s a “soft skill.”  Guess what?  Your customers remember a manager’s smile and handshake, not his accounting or ability to process forms.

2. Sincerity through Empowerment:  The last thing Marriott or any hotel chain should try to do is issue an edict to their property general managers telling them to copy Mr. Villarroel’s behavior.  Customers can tell a lousy acting job a mile away.  You hire smart people for a reason: so you can tell them “here’s where I want you to go” and trust them to get themselves there.  Help managers set customer experience goals without dictating their behavior for sincere results.

3. Incentive Customer-Centric Behaviors:  Do your expectations of your property managers over-emphasize behaviors that have little direct impact on the customer?  If your KPIs scream “back-office busy work” and not “customer engagement,” be careful what you ask for – your managers just might deliver!  Your job description should include “customer engagement” right next to budgets, staff management, and operations skills.  Failure to make room for customer interactions means even well-intentioned managers will opt to hide at their desks doing “busy work” instead of wading into the corridors to greet hotel guests.

4. Train for Empathy:  Even for the most-seasoned road warriors, travel can be tiring and stressful.  Interrogating TSA agents, eye-rolling front-desk clerks, exhausted waitresses, and heartless hotel registration clerks can all be part of the travel game…but they don’t have to be.  Your hotel can be a sanctuary to the road-weary traveler.  When hotel managers travel for business, require them to keep a journal of particularly good and bad experiences. Ask them to put themselves in the shoes of a tired, confused, worn-out hotel guest with a lost reservation.  Maybe even arrange a “mystery shopper” experience at sister-hotels where the manager stays an evening and reports on the highs and the lows of their customer experience.  By putting the shoe on the other foot and encouraging hotel managers to see the hotel experience from the guest’s perspective, you can encourage empathy in their interaction with visitors.

5. Recognize Excellence:  Go ahead and make a case study out of your top performers!  Recognize the superb customer centricity and inspire colleagues to excel by building a case study around your rock stars, maybe having them present to colleagues or write posts to the company intranet.  Strong performers thrive on recognition for a job well done, and sharing customer success stories helps to further sow seeds toward a customer-centric atmosphere at your company.

Top-notch, customer-focused hotel general managers don’t grow on trees.  But by promoting and rewarding customer-centric behavior among your management, you can optimize the experience your guests have when staying at your properties.  Guests don’t see what happens in the back office, and nuts and bolts like “clean, spacious rooms” are easily commoditized.  But providing hotel visitors with a peaceful, friendly sanctuary where they feel right at home leaves a lasting impression.  This sanctuary isn’t built on management “hard skills” alone but requires a customer-focused gentle touch from a manager willing to leave his or her desk to extend sincere hospitality to each and every guest to make them feel at home.

Sarah Simon is a career insights professional with 16 years of experience in the feedback industry. Specialties include VoC architecture, journey mapping, developing linkages to business performance, reduction of customer defection, results analysis and communication, with expert survey design skills.  She is the survivor of a botched early-generation “big data mining” operation and is happy to live to tell about it.