At the Sanctuary Hotel in South Carolina’s Kiawah Island, a focus on the soft skills makes all the difference. It’s one of only 154 hotels in the world awarded Five-Stars by the Forbes Travel Guide. But, as I discovered on a business visit this summer, it stands out among the best of the best because of a unique employee training program.
The following customer service lessons are based on my personal experience at the hotel, conversations with staff, senior executives and trainers. Brand leaders who want to improve their customer service scores may wish to adopt the following seven communication techniques to stand out in a hyper-competitive global marketplace.
Get the customer’s name right.
“We believe everything is in a name. It personalizes the interaction,” says Teresa Keller, The Sanctuary’s training director. “They [customers] are not guests in room 528. It is Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and their 4-year-old daughter is Veronica.” The experience begins on the phone. The reservation system employees—who always try to answer the phone before the third ring— will get the proper pronunciation of a guest’s name. They will make a note in the system for the rest of the staff. If there are children in the party, the reservationist will make note of each of the children’s names, too. The hotel’s training program also includes memory techniques to help employees remember the names.
Beat the greet.
Based on my research with customer service champions like Apple, Virgin and others, I’ve learned that the first few seconds of a customer interaction sets the foundation for the rest of their experience . The Sanctuary staff are taught to take the greeting one step further, to beat the greet. According to Keller, “We’re going to be the first to say hello, the first to walk up to you, the first to start a conversation, the first to step out from behind a desk, the first to say, ‘Good afternoon.’ We are always going to be the first to make the first connection.”
Look for ‘Golden Nuggets.’
This is one of the most fascinating techniques I’ve learned in a long time. According to Sanctuary General Manager, Bill Lacey, a golden nugget is a clue that helps to create a memorable experience. For example, an employee sees a guest pull a tennis racket out of a car. The racket is a clue. The employee might say,
“Hopefully you can play some tennis at our award-winning tennis facility. Let me tell you a little about Roy Barth, our Director of Tennis. He was one of the top fifty players in the world…”
The nugget sets the tone for the experience. Nuggets are also passed along from one employee to the next so no two employees will ask a guest the same question. Instead, each employee builds on the previous conversation. For example, I was having lunch at one of the restaurants and a manager walked up to my table.
“Mr. Gallo, I understand you’re from California. We have a wonderful Russian River chardonnay, or I can offer you a sample of something different if you’d prefer.”
The manager knew my name and the fact that I was visiting from Northern California because the waiter had passed along those “nuggets.” I tested the manager and asked for a glass of Pinot Noir. The varietal tastes very different depending on where its grown. The manager brought two glasses from different regions and carefully explained each one. Why two? The staff is taught to provide “two solutions” or choices whenever possible.
I decided to run on the beach after a business meeting. As I walked out the door an employee handed me a cold bottle of water. “It’s humid today. You might want this.” It seemed as though everywhere I turned an employee knew what I might need before I did. Once again, this didn’t happen by accident. Employees are reminded to look for clues (nuggets) and anticipate a guests’ wishes. For example, if a family arrives, a front desk employee might anticipate needs based on the weather: “There’s rain in the forecast tomorrow. Here are some activities your kids might enjoy indoors.”
A business professional will have an entirely different set of needs than a family on vacation. An employee checking-in a business guest might inform that person of the following:
-Where the business center is located and how to get there.
-Wi-Fi instructions in the meeting rooms.
-The hours of the fitness center and when it’s likely to be the least crowded.
-Recommendations on what to wear outdoors, depending on the time of year.
-When the coffee and breakfast is available before the conference begins.
Commit to consistent training and feedback.
At The Sanctuary a rotating schedule of senior leaders stay in the hotel every weekend. Like inspectors, they test employees in every department and give managers an internal score. They use their smartphones to record interactions with employees and offer immediate feedback on what the employee did well or what could be improved.
“Companies may have regular inspections, but they will not do a lot of good if the feedback doesn’t get back to the frontline staff immediately,” says Lacey.
Reinforce the brand’s values in daily meetings.
Employees of every department gather for short meetings each day. The department managers receive a small packet with itineraries, arrivals, occupancy rates and departures, which they share with staff. But it’s also an opportunity to review the company’s mission, values, to recognize outstanding achievement, and to remind employees of what Five-Star service looks like. “These meetings are performed daily, regardless of how busy we are,” says Keller.
Most brands give employees guidelines or a handbook and might commit to once-a- month or once-a-quarter reviews/training. But many leaders neglect the crucial element of reinforcing the brands’ values and expectations each and every day, if only for 5 to 10 minutes.
Earn your stars every day.
“What do you tell your staff to motivate them?” I asked one of the managers.
“I tell my staff that every day we begin with zero stars, and I ask them, What did you do today to provide Five-Star service? How did you earn the stars today?”
Exceptional customer service begins with an attitude, a philosophy that says, ‘We are committed to delighting our customers each and every day.’ If that attitude is shared and communicated consistently by the company’s senior leaders, it can turn a brand into a world-class example of customer service. According to Lacey, “Creating experiences takes more work. But when it’s done right, you create incredible memories that your guests will not find anywhere else.”