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  • Giles Gordon-Smith

You lost me at hello – Are you falling at the first hurdle of the guest journey?

Yesterday, I walked out of a very posh restaurant in St James’s, London, eleven seconds after having walked in with the intention of booking their chef’s table for our dining club.

So many hospitality organisations aspire to admirable outcomes for their guests; be it ‘exceeding expectations’, ‘creating wow moments’, or perhaps ‘building lasting memories’, only to frequently fall at the first hurdle; first impressions.

To deliver on any of the above promises, a lot must take place, yet the means of getting there is often misguided. Creating aspirational statements and principles is one thing. Providing the conditions and systems to achieve them, is something entirely different.

Back to St. James’s for a moment; For whatever reason, the hostess made a decision to continue looking down at her lectern, despite knowing that I had entered and was standing directly in front of her. Nine seconds felt like an awfully long time as I stood feeling my temperature rise and my patience levels fall. It was on the tenth second that I chose to turn and take my reservation elsewhere. This seemed to surprise the host, who finally broke her defiant stance and attempted eye contact, but all too late. I thanked her and departed. Now other diners might not be so service obsessed and principled on this matter as I am, but regardless, what sort of message is this sending to a potential customer?

You had me at ‘Hello’

I’ve long been a fan of John D. Rockefeller’s tenet: “the key to success is to do the common things uncommonly well”. I can assure you, that if you made every greeting that takes place in your hotel a proactive (the guest should never make the first move), warm, natural, welcoming and empathetic one, you would already be accelerating away from your competition in terms of guest experience. Not only are you consistently delivering positive first impressions, you’re building a keystone habit.

A keystone habit?

In his influential book ‘The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business’, Charles Duhigg talks about the compound effect of creating keystone habits. Getting eight hours of sleep a night, for example, will make you more productive in the day, positively impact your food choices, allow more time and energy to exercise and improve your personal and workplace communication.

A greeting that is delivered with warmth, empathy and compassion will not only enrich that particular interaction, it will start to make other things happen. For one, you are priming your guests for an empathetic and caring experience and immediately sedating the part of their brain that might seek confrontation or complaint. Once the intention behind a greeting becomes habitual (between 18 and 66 days, depending on which scientist you ask), the impact will be felt in all other interactions as communicating with empathy and curiosity becomes intrinsic. Individual employees will begin to feel the significant effects of ‘mudita’, a Sanskrit term that roughly translates into ‘sympathetic joy’ – the joy we feel when we perceive the happiness of others. Once that part of our brain starts to light up, we want more.

But we already greet our guests positively

I’ll have to take your word for it, but in turn, please take mine – a truly hospitable greeting is one of the most under-utilised activities in hospitality, even in the world’s finest hotels. Such greetings should be happening by rote already, but there are barriers to this being commonplace: the individual is having a bad day, they’re exhausted, they are in auto-pilot or delivering a script, they don’t like the look of the guest, perhaps a colleague (or worse, manager) doesn’t do it, or maybe they simply haven’t practiced it.

This is key. Excellence is not an act, but a habit – we are what we repeatedly do (Aristotle). So what can we do to create such habits?

The best tip you’ll get this year

If you’re struggling to find a catalyst to change your organisations’ habit of greeting, borrow (okay, steal) this one. Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s ‘jolly good fellow’, former official celebrity greeter at Google’s campus and all-round practitioner of compassion and loving kindness, used to do a simple thing to prepare him for rich human interactions. Before entering a room, and using the touch of a door handle as his cue, he would say the following to himself: “May everyone in this room be as happy and healthy as it’s possible for them to be.”

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that cue and those words exactly, you can choose to tailor them according to your environment. If you work on a reception desk, your cue might be accessing the check in screen and the words “I wish for this guest to have the most fulfilling and happiest of stays in our hotel”. If you’re serving tables, the cue could be opening the menu to the first page and the thought could be “May these guests be delighted by our intuitive and caring service”.

It’s a simple as pie, but as powerful as Bajan rum punch. Once the intention behind service is right, the positive emotional impact of your hospitality will be felt by all those fortunate enough to encounter it. Only now can your organisation consistently achieve the levels of customer experience to which you rightly aspire.

The secret to success is to do the common things uncommonly well. – John D. Rockefeller

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