The hospitality industry places emphasis on instructing employees how to consistently interact with customers in a way that reflects the brand of an establishment. Sometimes the background for this can come from vision or mission statements, such as that of Hilton Worldwide, which is “To fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality.” No less than that.
More down to earth is one of the “guiding principles” of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group: “We will strive to understand our client and guest needs by listening to their requirements and responding in a competent, accurate and timely fashion.” Then there’s the Ritz-Carton, which has a detailed mission statement in which you’ll find among its 20 Basics the rather unusual, “Our Motto is ‘We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.’ As service professionals, we treat our guests and each other with respect and dignity.”
And the same thing holds true in more modest establishments, whether codified in some kind of formal manner or not: there’s an expected way of being with customers and fellow employees.
Here’s a simple example of what I mean by that. In some establishments, everyone works and interacts briskly and meticulously, while in others everything is done in a relaxed, effortlessly efficient way.
Employee behavior is typically observed by owners or managers and methodically adjusted over time to create a consistent experience for customers that’s a match for the brand values of the establishment.
It’s easy to tell when an employee has been instructed to behave in a particular way that’s new for them and which they are trying to perfect — they have a lack of assurance and authenticity that can easily make the customer feel ill at ease. In such a case it is obvious that the employee is adapting to the requirements of the hotel or restaurant, based on the standards that management perceives are appropriate for its clientele and its image.
In the hospitality industry, as in other industries I have worked with, communication competences vary wildly: some employees are excellent communicators, others are simply average and some are not as competent as they could be. Few know how to adapt how they communicate to new contexts. Instead, they rely on their unique communication style, which they have evolved over a lifetime.
How do you assess an employee’s level of communication competence and whether or not their unique communication style is a fit for their current context? And once you assess it, what specifically can you do to improve it? Even more importantly, how do you make it coherent across the spectrum of employees for all customer interactions within your hotel or restaurant? Because if an ability to adapt to each client that the employee communicates with is not built in, then interactions will inevitably fall short of reinforcing the brand. It can even damage it.
That is especially true when staff have to speak English as a foreign language to people from a variety of cultures. Some fluency in English, coupled with an attitude of being welcoming and polite, is what many establishments believe is enough intercultural communication competence for such situations. They believe it is enough because for the most part we can’t see speaking and listening in the way we see behavior. As I always say, you can’t change what you can’t see.
It is important not only to teach employees how to communicate in a coherent way, but also to teach them to adapt how they communicate to each client — successful communication can’t be mechanical. While many establishments pride themselves on being open to all cultures and being accommodating to them by adapting to their customs or particular tastes, is that really enough? This is not about the level of the service provider. We’ve all experienced luxury establishments with a woefully lacking coherent communication style, as well as modest hotels or restaurants in which the communication coherence was impeccable.
As I have written elsewhere, how we perceive ourselves is linked to our native language. When we use other languages our perceptions change and we need new skills to authentically interact in a variety of new ways. I have also seen that once my clients learn how to do this when using English as a foreign language, they can apply the same principles when communicating in their native language or any language they speak. It is a transferable skill that is easy to learn and increases exponentially with practice.
I know that it is a skill that can be learned like any other because I have been training people how to be better communicators for over twenty-five years. The last ten of which I have focused on showing non-native English speakers how to be more insightful and effective intercultural communicators. I am absolutely convinced that these days that is one of the most important skills to have. If you agree, I invite you to find out more about my seminar Intercultural Communication for the Hospitality Industry seminar and my intercultural communication audit service.