I recently had a conversation with a colleague who was talking about his experience at a respected hotel in Beverly Hills. He was there for an auction and upon arrival, wasn’t able to check in even though he had a reservation and it was well after 3:00. The hotel management was appropriately apologetic and was offering drinks, dinner, etc., but that wasn’t what he needed. He was experiencing a service failure. What he needed was the room. My colleague expressed this to them and explained the reasons why and after a time, eventually got into his room. That was all he wanted. Not a huge crisis, but still.
There is a mentality today in our culture that when there is a service failure, be it a hair in your salad or your room not ready, that management will throw freebies at the problem. This started out as a kindness that was offered a customer, a way of saying “I’m sorry.” I respect the sentiment behind these hospitable gestures. What has evolved, however, is an unintended cultural consequence in which consumers now feel entitled to something free every time a mistake occurs. Now, I understand that compensation for a serious problem is a way of proving that you recognize an error, but I think it should be used more judiciously than it is, and customers shouldn’t be “working” the system just because they ordered their steak wrong.
So what constitutes true hospitality?
I have been thinking about this a lot over the course of my career. Restaurants and hotels and other service providers teach it, and they often teach it in a way that can miss the mark. In my opinion, hospitality must be individualized to be authentic, but if there is one common denominator it would be to truly LISTEN to what your customer is saying with their words, their tone, and their body language and find the solution that best suits them. You can hear it when you ask a customer how they like their food, and they say “fine” in a way that makes you probe a little more because the verbal response doesn’t match the tone or physical statement. You can feel the unsaid “but” when you present an idea to co-workers that they don’t respond to. It is harder to uncover the nuances with those you don’t know, but I find that that people who are tuned into to the social cues AND truly want to be hospitable are able to discern the less obvious dissatisfaction, and can then identify a problem and find a solution. So hospitality…requires the willingness to read and respond to social cues in addition to understanding what solutions are possible; a graceful temerity in the face of potential conflict, and a true and authentic desire to help.
I have often hesitated at a restaurant in telling a server or manager about a problem because I know they are going to try to “fix” it by giving me something free. It can be so difficult to make a profit at a restaurant, and most people working in restaurants are hard workers in an often unrewarding environment. I don’t want or need free. What I really want is to let them know of the problem so that they can fix it and tell the chef, clean the restroom, take the chipped glass. I don’t need a free dessert or drink. I am not trying to get anything and what concerns me the most is that often, “hospitality” training gets in the way of true hospitality. So, when this happens next time, I have vowed to try to lead by quietly explaining this and not shying away from expressing what it is I really want. I know these are small issues in the grand scope of things, but we live in this world, and can contribute to more kindness, quiet leadership, and authentic hospitality.