By Benoît Meyronin, Professor at the Grenoble School of Management and Associate Director of the Service Academy© – June 2013
Improving reception quality is undoubtedly a major concern. At conferences, I am often struck by the fact that this aspect of hospitality seems to just go without saying, as if it was not worthy of discussion, much less of definition and description. In this post, I will attempt to look beyond the obvious, especially examining the dimensions of reception.
The issue of reception is now the central focus in the services industry. Is this a paradox?
In job sectors as diverse as banking, in which relations are deemed to be of high strategic importance, from retail to public hospitals, the question of reception is now a major working point. Why? It’s a cornerstone in service relations, a key role involving good manners, à la Erving Goffman; because customers, visitors and patients are sensitive to the way they are received at a place they don’t necessarily know.
Then, what’s the paradox? When we play host at home to friends, family and even acquaintances on a Saturday night, we never wonder about the meaning of the word “reception”: we open the door with a gracious smile, we take their coats, invite them to come in and sit down, we offer drinks etc. These various rituals are all signs of attention, signals we are sending out that basically let them know that they are welcome and that we will try to make their time with us pleasant. This is part of a time-honored culture of hospitality which is to be found in various ways, all over the world.
Is this really the simplest possible experience that concerns greatly professional businesses? There’s the paradox. So let’s try to explore the underlying reasons.
The field of hospitality is not a highly-regarded profession
Hospitality professionals are rarely acknowledged at their rightful place in the organization: what an understatement! Who’s at the counter greeting the public in the local branch of the bank? The youngest and the least skilled branch employees, who are still in training. These youngsters’ aim is to get away from that counter and retire to their own office, where they enjoy the safety they need to impose on their customers, rather than be imposed upon. Is that a caricature (cartoon)? Not really. In fine, these youngsters are pushed to the front desk, to handle situations ranging from tough to conflictual, despite being ill-equipped to deal with them.
None of those, whose work involves receiving the public, ever get the recognition they deserve. Hospitality work is tough, demanding and exhausting. All too often it’s considered to be a transitional occupation, after which you can be promoted to a “real” job, that of consultant for example in the banking services.
Underpaid and undervalued, hospitality workers are nevertheless a crucial link in the chain of services they represent to the customer. Engineers working behind the scenes on the fittings or the IT system benefit from plenty of consideration and prestige, while those who have to deal with the consequences of ‘bugs’ and other technical incidents get none.
Hospitality is often ‘regarded’ as a poor professional field.
Playing host can take on various dimensions. And yet I often get the impression that people react the same way, uttering: “humph, anyone can greet a client! Just stand there, greet people when you see them, and ask what they want. It’s as simple as that!” Well actually, it isn’t. On the contrary. Because reaching out to someone we don’t know from Adam, or more often, letting them come to you, makes you feel exposed, to danger. You run the risk of “losing face” as Erving Goffman explained so well!
In order to look beyond these clichés, I realized the importance of a more in-depth look at what the word “receive” may mean in terms of service mission. Defining a professional’s service mission means clarifying their raison d’être, why they do what they do every day. The table below sets forth details of this mission’s various aspects. We have taken the example of a traveler (in the case of an airport for instance), although the table can just as easily be applied to a retail bank and many other businesses in the services sector.
Directing a dubious customer, or empowering them by walking them through an interactive device are just two facets of reception with different end purposes, requiring completely different skills. Filtering and ensuring security (checking ID prior to enabling access to the premises and to bank accounts) is another dimension of this mission, which is every bit as important.
Standardized processes need to be implemented, yet with personal warmth.
This tension is to ensure that all customers receive the same level of service (whichever terminal you travel through at an airport, for instance) and relieve staff via indispensable operational excellence (providing the right information at the right time; controlling the service chain). This why complying with standards (I prefer the terms rituals and indices) is now compulsory.
It’s also a matter of providing staff with support in the form of emphatic guidelines: “This is the way we do it here”. They speak of a brand’s behavioral signature, but you can also emphasize the importance of the meaning behind the process: it is clear that the player’s intentions and the process applied are as important as the result. It’s a good idea to accompany your customer back out; doing so with pleasure brings another dimension of the mission into play. Thus the process does not simply boil down to a script, it “engages” workers and their capacity to implement it sincerely and with pleasure.
Complying with reception standards thus necessarily, requires service workers to demonstrate a degree of sincerity. This is where managerial involvement, a manager’s capacity to set an example, tapping into the meaning behind what they do, is of prime importance: this is what we call the Employee Customer Profit Chain.
The Employee Customer Profit Chain is very meaningful here
It is important for managers to set an example, in Customer Relations and with their staff to ensure that everyone complies with reception standards. One simple question needs to be asked: what does it mean when you talk about being a “welcoming” manager (for staff)? This is a matter of managerial positioning, rooted in the corporate managerial culture. Managers are all the better convinced and engaged with respect to reception, when they have provided hospitality themselves, as a member of staff, making sure that the entity remains hospitable at all times and in all circumstances.
Clarifying the meaning of hospitality may mean what a manager needs to implement for the content to be perceptible for customers AND staff employees. This is all part of developing a culture of hospitality. Organizations which fail to do this will wear themselves out setting up training courses for receptionists and drafting procedures which will only have impact for as long as the stakeholders are concentrating on it. And they have plenty of other things to focus on. Fostering a culture of hospitality requires more effort and a higher sense of commitment, yet it is the only way to ensure sustainable hospitality.
Hospitality is not a FUNCTION, it is a MISSION within the organization and beyond
Knowing how to receive a customer, traveler or patient is a specific line of business, indeed an entire chain of services and in-house operators, as well as an increasing number of external operators. Having some stakeholders specialize in this, may prove tricky for some organizations, because in fact hospitality should be part of the collective service mission, whether you work in an agency, a boutique or hotel.
Getting everybody involved in this mission basically means playing a supporting role vis-à-vis those for whom it is the main mission when the flow is too great. This means that the manager must also contribute to the mission, helping his staff out when necessary. Setting an example
This is far-embracing, since, as we said before, several employees need to shoulder responsibility when it comes to hospitality to ensure its proper functionality.
Reception is about BEHAVIOR but also INDICES, i.e. tangible proof for customers
Being a receptionist is not simply about flashing a pretty smile. Strangely enough, the French often seem to consider it to be a mere human component. While it remains central, this component is not the only one to be implemented by a truly welcoming business.
Clean, well-designed ATMs, clearly presented information and signs, all contribute to the quality of reception and customer care. This gives them the impression that the firm is mindful of their well-being, that things have been thought through to make them feel at home. Receiving people properly is a matter of putting out signs that engage all the components involved in service and attraction. That welcome text message you get when you arrive in a new country is automated, but it is a welcoming ritual.
Briefly, the managerial role is central to fostering a culture of hospitality
To sum up, we might say:
- That they must set an example of the “sense of hospitality” the brand wishes to project. Standards need to be drafted and managers must show that there is meaning to it: it must not only be strictly applied to the letter, the spirit must also prevail. Travelers at an airport often feel frazzled, they are far from home, they need to be reassured and helped along their way. When passing through CDG, they are sort of in Paris, and it has a specific meaning. In short, welcoming travelers to an airport is not the same as welcoming a customer to the bank, a casino or high-speed train. The basics are the same, of course, but the raison d’être, and the emotional side need to be fully factored in order to lend significance to the line of business and the details of the premises.
- They play the dual role of setting an example and supporting staff working in reception (that Employee Customer Profit Chain).
- They need a handle on the brand reference and be in a position to ensure compliance with standards, by making them explicit.
- They need to inspire their staff or at least ensure that everyone is comfortable with implementing this component as part of their service mission.
- They need also to practice what they preach and foster a culture of ongoing improvement among staff, especially rooted in regular feedback, active observation and a sense for detail.
To wrap up
We have briefly described some of the key elements to fostering a culture of hospitality that exceeds mere greeting. There’s a minor cultural revolution behind all this! This is the price we have to pay, no doubt, for leaving incantation and deceptive evidence behind.
Talking about “hospitality engineering”equal to “service engineering” may translate the importance given to the chain of stakeholders and lines of business which all contribute to making customers feel at home. So that those who deal in hospitality to feel less isolated, better supported and respected in a world of services that puts them on the front line even though they (rarely?) have all the information they need at their fingertips.
The origin and meaning of the terms “hotel”, “hostel” and even “hospitality”, cf. Hôtellerie & hébergement: the enjeux humains de l’hospitalité, Brice Duthion and Frédéric Dimanche, published by De Boeck in 2012.