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The cataclysm of guest service

I have been in customer/guest service/management most of my working life.  I have observed the changes that have unfolded, essentially from the position of on-property management at various hotel and restaurant locations primarily in the mid-western United States and have had exposure to the internal processes since the mid-nineties.

When I ventured into the customer service arena as a teen, I recall a robust training experience.  It was interesting to note that not only was there a dedicated training coordinator present, but also that stores were given actual “training hours” to ensure that on-site management would not have to ‘cut short’ any training in order to meet any required standard operational labor matrix set forth.

Evaluations and raises based on the results of that evaluation were distributed every 90 days.  Let me see if I can help translate that a little better for those who only know today’s business practice by offering a kind of definition for what the word “raise” is – since it is nearly an archaic term nowadays.

Raise: (n), an increase in wages earned through the labor of providing a good or service based on job performance and tenure.

For those who are hearing of this for the first time, you would almost have to admit it is a fascination concept. I will explain its effect on a team to those who are intrigued by this (versus the owners, investors, and management company execs who stopped reading as soon as they saw where this was going).

The impact of knowing that a “performance increase” could happen as much as every ninety days invoked a passion to succeed.  It invoked not only a reason to join in a push for brand success, it also invoked a passion for one’s own personal success – and the upholding of one’s personal standard of business as if the place of operation were our own!

We became fiercely competitive by nature.  We competed with each other, with ourselves, with other units, and even other districts within a corporate structure.  Even the most entry-level and uneducated employee took interest in things like sales goals, cost savings, efficient operations and the elimination of costs that come with sub-par operations.  Even issues such as theft were virtually nil since employee paychecks actually helped pay the bills.

(For you younger entry level employees reading this, I will re-iterate:  Yes, paychecks were once capable of providing a way to pay for things in full, like rent, electricity, medication, and often even food!)  Being successfully armed with the knowledge and training necessary to complete the tasks before us meant there were no obstacles.  Our passion and drive to succeed were unbridled.  Business was successful on all ends.  Owners struck big as did investors.  Positions in entry and mid-level management were plentiful, well-paying, and hosted a variety of choice benefits and discounts.

But time has changed all of that

To best explain where things are today, it would serve best to first briefly explain my own job description today – as I have come to understand it.  As Operations Manager, the ideal schedule set forth to me by corporate includes working a kind of swing shift that includes spending literally half of my time working various crew positions myself so as to decrease hourly labor dollars spent and offsetting it with my own salary pay.

During the remaining half of my time, I am in charge of all guest relations within a 120+ room hotel, management of the front desk of the hotel, management over housekeeping and cleanliness, management over the food/beverage department, management over the facility maintenance department, low-level accounting, post-stay guest relations, being on-call to fill in ANY position in a moments need should it come to pass that the original slated worker becomes unable to make it to work, fill in for my boss and their responsibilities during their absence, and as of most recently, participation in assisting the sales department (pre-stay guest relations and guest recruitment).

In addition to the above duties, I am also the training coordinator for every position in the building.

Despite my above-and-beyond performance (which is evidenced by four different companies who have approached me with increased offers if I pulled back my respective notices of resignation. In each instance I accepted the offer, extending my tenure.) I am no where near able to complete the tasks set before me – as ‘my plate overfloweth’.  The previous statement does not even factor in the possibility of setting aside time for training.

For this performance, my team and I will all gain the same 3% annually distributed increase in pay regardless of our performance or even attendance.  The only other ‘normal’ increase that I have observed is the ‘across-the-board’ increase that occurs when the state and federal minimum wage is increasing faster than our 3%, and added compensation must be given lest we end up only paying the minimum wage (or something less).

While the ‘across-the-board’ increase is pleasant for the team and is highly appreciated, the tendency is for higher management to declare that such increases will “reset” the annual raise date given to the employees.  This means that if you are due for your annual increase in two-months, you will get instead (as will all employees) an across the board increase (unless your pay is already over the new resulting starting pay in which case you do not get to be a part of that increase).  You will then not be eligible for an annual increase for 12 months of that date.

For the employees as well as low and mid-level management, this act is the metaphorical equivalent of a person shaking your hand with one of their hands while they are “flipping the bird” with the other.  We become appreciative but resentful at the same time in such instances.  To add salt to that wound, employees as mentioned above who already make above the new starting pay grade will not receive any increase. This allows for real situations, like this actual example:  I have an employee with 3 years tenure who is presentable, dependable, knowledgeable, cordial, and who has demonstrated successful supervisory roles making exactly 12 cents more than a new hire from two weeks ago with no experience at all.

Approaches to my own superiors on behalf of that employee are side-stepped. Why? Because at the mere mention of performance increases, higher management looks the other way and buries their heads in the sand, so-to-speak, and simply hopes the problem of employee pay will go away on it’s own.

To those of you with your heads in the sand, here is the results of today’s pay-increase schedule:  Apathetic and often sub-par employees show up to work because they have to if they want a paycheck. Standards are upheld to the point of ‘acceptable’ at best and even then, only while management is observing. Beyond that, the employee has no reason to care.  It is a paycheck only, and it does not cover rent, electricity, medication, and the possibility of food. The training coordinator (myself) is too busy working positions for the countless call-outs and job-abandonments as they happen.  Subsequently the worker has sub-par training and coaching if that. Confusion and eventually lack-of-confidence sets in, staying in place until one day when they wake convinced that work simply is not working, and so they simply stop coming to work – because why bother?

Hotel positions and the like have become ‘disposable jobs’

Meanwhile, the culture for service standards have turned the common customer/guest into a spoiled impossible-to-please monster.  Reward systems were put in place for the customer/guest and bonus awards were given for loyalty. Unfortunately, with just a little time, such awards become viewed as entitlements, and in themselves offer no real incentive to continue loyalty. At that point, general bonuses are now simply expected; and to not receive them is grounds for severe complaints of lack-of-service. So companies have increased the rewards as well as the general amenities offered to loyal members. This cycle is still continuing, and with the passage of time, nothing is actually enough to make guests feel special.

To add arsenic to the salty wound, in the process of paying for all these added amenities, and the countless refunds for every time we cannot achieve the sky-high standards, the allowable labor-matrix is cut to the point of only being able to support an absolute skeleton crew. This not only puts immense pressure on all team-members, but also makes it so that if even one person ‘calls out’ and is unable to come to work, operations as a whole become noticeably compromised. The expectation is that we ‘mask’ this personnel deficit (though it is obvious through guest feedback that such deficiencies ARE readily seen by the guest and management is held generally responsible by the guest in such cases).

Today I cannot even get applicants for some positions, let alone interviews, or actual new employees capable of an acceptable performance.

What does this mean for the future?

It is only a matter of time before the monsters we have created will not be served by anyone because they are no longer worth trying to please.Employees are disappearing in droves now, and no one is coming in the door to replace them.I foresee in the near future, a time when the hotels are no longer able to uphold even basic promises like having a room at all available for a guest who reserved one (due to lack of housekeepers who are vastly underpaid and overworked).  Too many nights have we closed out the hotel with 30, 40, even 50+ rooms which are still dirty from the prior guest because there simply wasn’t a human available to clean them. We have already been ‘capped’ more than once –  having to refuse walk-in arrivals and having to cap reservations allowed due to the rooms simply not being cleaned. What happens when there simply isn’t enough human being to clean the rooms for guests with guaranteed reservations?

Evidence of a great cataclysm in customer/guest service can be seen everywhere

I was in a drive-thru line in an extremely well-known fast food location one recent Thursday evening.  I was in my car in between the pay window, and the window from which food/drinks etc. are received.  My car was shut off to conserve fuel as I was in that position for roughly 20 minutes.  Fortunately I am aware of what is going on, and as such, I am extraordinarily patient in such instances – making it a point to shower the clerks with praise for even showing up to work. Turns out the unit which should have been operating with at least 6 to 10 employees was being operated by 2 (who, in all fairness, were doing the very best they could with the given circumstances).

Car after car pulled out of the line from behind me, giving up on their orders entirely due to wait time involved. One angry woman even screamed at the employee at the window who was handing me my food from her SUV parked parallel to the passenger side of my own vehicle. She screamed “This is ridiculous! Hire some damn workers! I will never come back here!”  For each car that pulled out of line, sales were lost.

Companies used to spend their energy increasing sales. Today they seem more interested in simply ‘trimming the fat’ from within in order to reflect a positive fiscal quarter for investors. This new paradigm, quite simply, is failing.

I have been keenly observing the trends and changes in the customer service and hospitality industry for over a quarter of a century, and I have this to say:  A great cataclysm is about to unfold.  Hotels, restaurants, and other direct service outlets will become unable to provide the services promised (or anything even close to it).

This staffing crisis will exponentially increase and insanely spoiled customers will no longer have the service available to even complain about. Increasing numbers of administrative staff will find themselves running all crew positions in addition to their own. This in turn will result in a turnover of management – which higher management and ownership is and will remain unprepared to cope with. A decision will eventually be made to close the doors of the business entirely in order to preserve remaining ownership funds.  Properties and businesses for sale will increase rapidly in a market where no demand exists due to fear of loss. The customer will be left without, as will management companies. Owners will have no choice but to reinvest elsewhere.

Small businesses and already sub-par businesses may benefit from this, but investors and corporates will suffer catastrophic loss.

We are at the precipice – the point of no return.  If management/ownership does not invest more into staffing and in PAY for staffing (yes, including raises) right now, the onset of what is to come will be irreversible. Many, such as myself, are already looking into alternatives for what to do when this unfolds (I did not say ‘if’ because I am quite convinced that those who have the power to turn this around will continue to plant their heads in the sand hoping this will somehow go away on its own).

Pay will continue to become marginalized, while leaders continue to delude themselves with imbalanced ideas, such as achieving goals through increased marketing.  It actually hurts a business when a customer is recruited and then given a substandard experience at best.

We are at the point of no return. I urge companies to, for once, put your team first.  Employees are tired of falling on their own; they are quite prepared to see ownership and higher management falling with them.

For many of you owners/management companies out there, it is already too late.

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