Maybe it’s stating the obvious when I say that retaining an existing customer is vastly easier than trying to get a new one. Corroborating statistics aside, if consumers possessing established rapport with your brand are so valuable, then that means your guest relations activities must be paramount to your success. And indeed they are. Every hotel and hoteliers understands – on some level at least – the importance of continuing guest relations or appreciation.
So, if that’s the case, and everyone is in on the take, then how can you gain an advantage over your competition?
A key issue with guest relations, in my opinion, is that too few managers and staff members are elevating the rapport beyond small talk and sycophantic ‘thank you for your stay’ follow-ups. They ask where guests are from, what they do and where they went to school, but never dig down to learn about what motivates a specific guest and what their intrinsic desires are. Although I’d wager there will be a Big Data algorithm capable of accurately predicting these sorts of emotional characteristics in the near future, for now these traits aren’t exactly quantifiable. That is, they aren’t readily apparent on a guest’s personal dossier nor are they something a hotel staffer can fully suss out during a ten or fifteen minute conversation.
And so, by keeping the rapport on a surface level, it in turn keeps a distance between both parties. How many times have you stayed at a hotel only to receive a tepid mail merge letter or email as the sole afterthought? A neutered email like this will likely request your feedback while also neglect to declare anything specific as to who you are as an individual. Word for the wise: distance isn’t good for cementing relationships. It makes your property or brand ‘droppable’ – with no emotional investment on the part of the customer then they can switch providers without batting an eyelash.
But, like I just mentioned, it’s hard to drill down to any emotional issues in such a narrow timeframe like a one or two night stay. Moreover, it’s also difficult to translate any deep rapport-building onto the next employee via a central computerized guest dossier system – one that is probably oriented more towards precise attributes (for example, a guest that has requested a corner suite the last two times she’s stayed with you). What’s needed is a surgical method to elevate your guest relations efforts as quickly as possible, and for this I’d like to introduce the idea of guest mentorship.
Introducing Guest Mentorship
To open up the discussion of this concept, I’d first like to start by taking a closer look at ‘authentic local experiences’ and why incoming guests seek them out. There’s lots of factors at work here, foremost amongst them a traveler’s desire to maximize his or her time spent in a foreign city, region or country. Next comes the bragging rights amongst friends or what a psychologist might attribute to ‘social influence’ – we tell stories about our experiences to demonstrate our own personal worth within a group environment. In this way, posting vacation photos on Facebook is no different. Yes, even this is at partly a form of bragging. But don’t worry, everyone does it.
The link between authentic local experiences and mentorship comes when you consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for which I’ve written about in the past. Most hotels can adequately satisfy the lower tiers of this pyramid – physiological and safety needs – simply by offering a comfortable, clean room along with reasonable levels of guest service and quality F&B. It’s when you get to the higher levels – esteem and self-actualization – that the true connection bubbles to the surface.
Your guests, like every other person on this planet, crave meaning. We are all searching for an understanding as to who we are, where we belong and why we are here. In this way, experiencing a disparate point of view via an immersion in foreign customs, culture and cuisine may bring a person one step closer to reaching that goal. And if you can help nudge a guest in the right direction, they’ll undoubtedly appreciate your efforts.
Drilling deeper, what does it actually mean to be a mentor for your guests? For one, you genuinely care about your guests’ wellbeing beyond cordial pleasantries, tip prospects or the chance of capturing more money from your visitors by selling extra amenities or services. Even though you are being paid to be helpful and resourceful, you nonetheless have their best interests in mind and are willing to take the time to understand what they want in order to guide them towards what they need in both the short-term and the long-term well after they’ve left.
Think back to any mentors you may have had. The tutelage was most likely offered with no strings attached. Guest mentorship should be viewed in the same light. Whether the communication takes the form of face-to-face dialogue or an e-newsletter correspondence, it should never be only about getting the quick sale. It should be about attentiveness and appreciation first – what everyone is already doing – as well as education and challenge.
Why challenge? Think first about the difference between teachers and mentors. The former are – for the most part – strictly educators and instructors, working through a set curriculum towards a proscribed external goal in the form of testing and examination. But mentors are slightly different; they help an individual advance their internal goals. Oftentimes, mentors are sought by their mentees whereas teachers are imposed upon their pupils.
And in order for the relationship to prosper, a mentor must, at times, force the mentee outside of his or her comfort zone. These sorts of gests will spark a sharp emotional response – far stronger than any congenial or flattering banter which people incessantly toss around – and because they are carried out with the guest’s best interests in mind, they will be perceived in a positive light. Above all, they’ll be remembered.
When applied to the hotel space, mentorship does not only involve spurring guests towards some grand, transformative adventure around your neighborhood, but it is also an opportunity to inform them on what makes your brand unique and significant. Nowadays, I find that one of the biggest obstacles hoteliers face is brand apathy. Customers just don’t know the essential differences from one property to the next, and thus they view them as interchangeable – a recipe for disaster.
Mentorship is your chance to make your brand shine and reinforce your loyalty compliance. But this doesn’t mean you should rattle off a list of brand features in some robotic trance. Rather, interject one, or at most two, specific features, elaborating on key details where your brand excels. Model your brand as a well-told story instead of a scientific journal. It’s a start wide, finish narrow approach, often opened via a “Did you know?” type of segue that slides effortlessly off of the previous conversation thread.
Putting It Into Practice
When thinking of brand mentorship, the outside-in approach might best be thought of as an enticing narrative that first explains what a hotel feature or amenity does to benefit a guest’s experience in a general sense, and then it ends with a clarification as to how your specific brand better fulfills this benefit over other operators. For instance, does your property do anything special with its bedding linens? You might open a dialogue, or elaborate over social media, by first describing how high thread count linens can help a guest get a better sleep by providing extra softness and warmth. Only once you bestowed some knowledge would you then continue with a passionate remark about how your fabrics are sourced from the finest haberdashers and have exceptionally high thread counts.
This might seem like a negligible example and perhaps it is, even though there are many who would deem that a quality night’s sleep is a particularly vital part of the hotel room experience. So instead, consider your lobby’s grand design. It’s important that a guest –wherever they are staying – feel an immediate sense of place upon arrival. But why is this important? How might this impact a visitor’s trip? Only when you’ve elucidated the benefits in general terms would you continue the story by specifically outlining what your property’s lobby does to meet this need. This funnel style of instruction could also be used for, say, in-room hygiene products, environmental programs, fitness facilities, spa packages or restaurant menus.
Leading off from the above mentioned examples, I always find that discussing a concept in abstract terms is only half the battle. The real learning, especially in a hospitality environment, comes from the application. For this, I stress that you can never place enough emphasis on hiring the right people. In order for guest mentorship to gel with the rest of your guest service operations, there is no escaping the fact that you need motivated, respectful, knowledgeable and hungry staffers both out on the frontline gabbing with guests and behind the scenes coordinating your digital communications.
But even with the right team, as a senior manager you’ll still have to mentor the mentors, so to speak. In many ways it’s a two street – becoming a good teacher will motivate you to be at your job. But nothing will replace field experience, so here are some phrases that can help tee a staffer up for a mentorship opportunity. These might be something as plain and clear as, “What are your plans today?” or “How were you planning to spend your time with us?” Listen to the responses and go from there. Others might take the form of a lead-off from something casually mentioned in the conversation such as “Have you considered…” or “That reminds me of…”
If most guest relations boil down to soft, wholly palatable conversations – ‘small talk’ being the going term – in addition to any ingratiating tendencies, acting as a mentor is a way to instantly distinguish yourself from your competitors. I could go on, but, to speak in theoretical terms yet again, what’s most crucial is that your staff members be bold enough to go beyond mere pleasantries and speak to guests with a certain air of confidence about the present story or whatever it is they are recommending.
Yes, you should always be polite and attentive, but you must also go the extra mile in order to have an impact. Any way you slice it, guest mentorship may be yet another tool to help you and your fellow managers jumpstart a guest relations revolution. As long as you always keep your guests’ self-discovery, thirst for knowledge and self-actualization on the forefront, it will lead to good things in due time.
(Published by Larry Mogelonsky in Hotel Executive March 24, 2013)