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  • Natalie Richardson

What can the hospitality sector teach brands about customer service?

70% of the buying experience is influenced by how the customer feels they are being treated according to McKinsey research, and so loyalty ultimately depends on a positive experience. Providing a great service is paramount for attracting and retaining loyal customers, a focus that establishments and employees in the hospitality industry know more than most.

We decided to look into how the mentality of providing “great customer service” from the hospitality sector can translate into a business environment.

What exactly makes great customer service?

Perhaps it might be following the mantra that “the customer is always right”, handling issues or complaints quickly and appropriately, or simply building relationship with your customers. We asked brand representatives, business experts and people with practical experience in the sector for their “tips for tips”, any advice they could offer on what and how businesses can learn from the hospitality industry about customer service. These six points came up again and again:

The customer might not always be right, but the “customer is king”

Selina Hanley, a waitress who has worked in the hospitality industry for three years, both in the United States and Germany: “I think the major and most obvious rules are to be approachable, always smile and to remember that the customer is always king. Having previously worked at major country clubs, I learnt that ‘no’ was no longer part of my vocabulary, and whatever our customers wanted, we did our very best to make sure that they got it. Overall, I think you just have to enjoy your job, have fun with what you do, and not let rude customers get to you. When dealing with difficult customers, I always try to ‘kill them with kindness’ – they might not always be right, but I will do my best to provide the best service to keep their custom.”

Dale Crawford, an independent consultant specialising in hospitality management, and a 15-year veteran in the industry: “Problem solving is always cheaper than losing a customer. The ‘customer’s always right’ is a common idiom that we’ve all heard a million times. It’s not true, but it’s close. Empathy is a skill needed in the service industry. When addressing an issue, remember to B.L.A.S.T – Believe, Listen, Apologise, Solve, and Thank. This will help your employees become solution-oriented problem solvers, and the sense of empathy from the ‘Believe’ stage can change the stance of an aggressive customer into a collaborative one.”

By dealing with difficult customers or issues in a quick and professional manner, the next time that the customer needs something that you sell, they will come back to you. Focusing on the end result to handle and resolve any issues, and turning a negative experience into a positive one, will ensure that your customers stay loyal.

Make a great first impression

A great first impression is key to starting the customer-business relationship off on the right foot. By making a negative first impression, customers may already plant seeds of doubt in their mind, which can cloud their overall judgement of your company from the offset.

Selina Hanley: “You learn in hospitality very quickly that when you’re at the front of the house you are putting on a ‘show’ for all customers.”

Be attentive and available, prompt and proactive

Being proactive about customer issues can reduce the likelihood of a bad experience (and, consequently, a bad customer review). The best waiters are always on the lookout for customer needs. They are excellent observers and check in with customers as soon as they notice a potential problem.

Sian, brand activation manager for a well-known liqueur brand: “For customer service in other areas, a particular pet peeve of mine is being ignored. For example, often when being served at a till, the cashier is speaking with another member of staff whilst scanning through my items. Focusing solely on the person you are serving makes a huge difference!”

Dale Crawford: “In general, great service is about two complementary concepts: empathy and anticipation… Anticipating a customer’s needs keeps you and your firm agile when unforeseeable circumstances require you to divert resources to address them.”

In hospitality, anticipating customers’ needs and being attentive, available, prompt and proactive to dealing with requests or any potential issues will make customers feel valued and important. Businesses can do the same if they see that a customer needs help with a product, or if someone shares a question or complaint on social media. However, a word of caution is advised: there’s a fine line between being helpful and making a customer feel smothered, so be sure not to overstep your boundaries.

Have a genuine interest in the customer

In hospitality, situational selling is becoming a focus, rather than suggestive selling, with waiting staff ‘reading’ their tables to gauge the service they might require. Being attuned to customers’ needs and moods develops more genuine relationships with the customers. As well as this, if an employee knows customers’ preferences, and can communicate with them in real-time, it will maximise engagement throughout the entire customer lifecycle.

Go above and beyond

Excelling at something comes from a genuine desire to be really good, and a willingness to put in extra effort. In some situations, companies need to have a level of flexibility in their rules and procedures to ensure that employees are at liberty to make their customers as happy as possible.

Dale Crawford: “Don’t let ‘procedure’ tie your hands when it comes to solving a problem. In hospitality, I would argue, there are no rules when it comes to delivering ‘great service’. When at their best in the early and late 1990s, Outback Steakhouse used its ‘No Rules, Just Right’ advertising slogan as a mantra to mold staffs’ attitude towards customer service. I worked for OBS during this time and in every role since, I have always reverted to that idea that anyone in the service industry should not place artificial constraints on their ability to get service ‘right’. Make sure your team knows the long-term value of repeat business and structure incentives with this in mind.”

Incentives increase performance

In hospitality, if an establishment has a flat service charge, it can remove the incentive for employees to perform. If you’re getting paid no matter what, your output is going to suffer.

Selina Hanley: “Obviously, the potential for tips can incentivise wait staff to work harder, to go the extra mile and to provide really great service.”

So, what can businesses learn from this?

Unlike in hospitality, business’s customer services are rarely face-to face these days, with mobile and computer use on the rise. However, it is still as important to be able to read the customer’s current emotional state, reading the situation to make your response more personal. In essence, the customers pay the wages – without their custom, a business could not last. In customer service, listening is crucial.

If a customer has reached out to a customer service team, they are most likely to be complaining about a recent bad experience. Business leaders should ensure that their customer service team are mindful of any feedback at large – regular disgruntled customers could provide insight of a larger problem.

Dealing with the issue at hand, avoiding small talk and getting to the problem at hand will reassure the customer that their issue is being handled quickly and effectively. Customer service representatives should try to keep language simple, and leave nothing to doubt or misinterpretation. Using positive language creates happy customers – don’t focus on what you can’t do, and focus on what you can. Being solution-oriented and having a level of flexibility in procedures will assure customers that you have their best interests at heart when dealing with a problem.

Introducing incentives for employees to reach and exceed targets, or having specified goals as a team, will motivate staff to work to their highest level. What is your advice for better customer service? Or your ‘top tips for tips’? Let us know on Twitter using the hashtag #TipsforTips.

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