Creating Service Athletes: The Golden Rewards of Cross-Training

As the year 2004 approaches and the historic return of the Olympic games to their ancient birthplace in Greece gears up, athletes will take center stage as we all watch their journey to be the best in the world. Competition will inspire each athlete to excel in each of their endeavors and those that do will wear the gold, silver and bronze while enjoying the world’s applause.

What motivates these athletes to be the best in their sports and how do they prepare for each increasingly competitive challenge? How can the hospitality world relate to their example and create “service athletes” within their own employee ranks? Athletes are needed in today’s world of employee lay offs and belt tightening which lead to strained employee roles and job pressures. Guests feel the impact with harried staff. Employees feel frustrated because they cannot meet guest and management expectations. Employees need to know how to deal with these pressures and move beyond them to excel and enjoy their roles. Management needs to recognize these pressures as well and prepare their teams for old, new and even unrecognized challenges. Winning opportunities await those who rally around the sport of service, focused coaching and cross training.

When the going gets tough, the tough should get more service going! Last summer, while staying in a top line hotel in Los Angeles, California, service seemed to come to a standstill. As we stood in line, one very harried front desk clerk struggled with at least five guests, including us, waiting to check in. She was doing her best to accommodate everyone at once, as this hotel promised immediate and gracious service. Meanwhile, several other employees, bellmen, concierge and lobby staff all stood around with no task at hand and almost seemed bored. The lobby was empty as the crowd centered on the registration desk. The front desk had obviously been understaffed for this time of day however no one on the staff, behind the scenes or on the frontline seemed to notice, or really care. I was amazed as some simple cross training of the registration/check-in function would have allowed the five plus employees with nothing to do…. to DO SOMETHING! Their initiative and ability to jump in as they saw this crowded situation develop would have been a huge win for everyone. The harried employee could do her job less harried and with the graciousness desired, the lobby employees would feel more valued and less bored and the guests would have been elated with the prompt service.

On the other hand, when arriving at a major hotel chain’s premier property in San Antonio, Texas the exact opposite occurred. As we walked in, after a long journey of delays and false starts, we encountered a huge line to check in and took a deep breath, anticipating another delay. Suddenly, a bellman enthusiastically greeted us and asked if we would like assistance checking in as well as with our bags. He took us right over to the bellmen’s desk instead of the crowded front desk, found our reservation, noted our preferences, and whisked us up immediately to our room. He then briefed us on the area, helped us with our initial needs for meals and transportation and got us some ice. One stop shopping and surpassed expectations. This service athlete and his management deserved the GOLD in concluding our tiresome travel marathon.

How often are employees prepared to “help out” in roles that are not specifically part of their job responsibilities yet most definitely part of an overall philosophy to provide excellent service to guests? Cross training, defined from an athletics point of view as participating in any fitness activity other than the primary sport, can be an effective solution. Cross training is used to improve fitness, or in this case service level and stay active without over doing it. Engaging in different activities can help strengthen an employee’s overall service awareness and commitment to the guest as well as team commitment to each other. Consider it building service “muscle.”

While many hotels do have the capability to check in guests at the concierge desk or bellmen’s station, many employees are not trained to take the proactive steps to lead guests to these alternatives. Management needs to create the understanding, instill the expectation, provide the steps on how to do it and motivate each member of the staff to be prepared for roles beyond their own. Today’s guests are usually in a hurry to get to a place that they don’t have to hurry…their hotel room…a sanctuary away from the demands of travel, a private place to relax, to unwind, to unpack and to get ready for the next hurried moment. Hotels have a tremendous opportunity to make each moment of the arrival a pleasant transition to this sanctuary. Making sure that all employees in or around the lobby are trained to assist the arriving guest, even if it is only leading them to an alternative check in or alerting management that guest demand is high and others may need to jump in can really elevate the service scores.

Cross training applies to numerous other functions within the hospitality arena. Housekeepers, engineers and security personnel could assist with room service when delivery employees are behind schedule and their own responsibilities are less busy. I have been amazed many times by room service which takes one hour or more due to one harried employee who is trying to cover the dining room and room service deliveries. They arrive at the door filled with apologies and explanations of short staff and high demand. Sounds more like short sightedness and demanding expectations without management’s concern of the impact on the employee AND the guest. Again, simply prepping other employees for the room service delivery role in cases of high demand would yield golden opportunities for guest satisfaction (and increased sales!).

Sensitizing all employees to be guest focused and cross training them to back up other roles which may have extraordinary guest demand leads to winning results. Make sure employees understand that they are expected to be service athletes and then provide them with the proper training. Instill an attitude of “jumping in” from the moment they are hired and make sure their supervisors understand and DO the same. Employees are especially motivated when they see their own managers stepping in to help a guest at an unexpected moment. Having the ability, incentive and knowledge to stretch out for the extra guest mile will absolutely yield winning guest smiles and the repeat and referral business that goes with that happy disposition. Capture the Olympic spirit of going for the gold and recognize that gold goes to the bottom line. No matter what sport, no matter what job, no matter what area of service, crosstraining, building service muscle and creating service athletes is what makes hospitality superstars. Build teams that can relay each other’s strengths and cross the finish line of service excellence.