The Telephone: The Invisible Front Door of the Hotel.
By Hugo Mechelse
Saturday, 30th June 2007
In the hospitality the importance of the physical front door has been acknowledged all right -

This is why in many hotels you so often see staff polishing the, almost by standard, glass doors all day long. They should look perfect! And so does the doorman, or least he should. Luckily not very often do they look shabby. But once in a while before a 5-star hotel, there is this doorman in a wrinkled uniform. It tells you so much about the hotel.

I'm often amused about the way people handle telephone calls. Luckily my sense of humour exceeds annoyance here.

'Luckily', because if you take the whole burden of bad telephone behaviour on your shoulders I can tell you: you go mad. And this is such a vital area in the hospitality industry as it is in fact in every business, all over the world!

Wherever I am travelling or calling, be it the United States, Europe, Middle East or Asia, although I'm often amused and … happy that it is not my company or hotel that has such a bad performance at the invisible ‘door' called telephone, my hands also ‘itch' to get started on this hotel and enhance their performance. Most people know of course but, unfortunately, too often do not realise that a telephone is like your front door. And especially in my profession in the world of butlers, the door is important. It is the first impression, guests have of a house, a household, the family you're serving.

So what do I come across on a regular basis? Just a week ago a receptionist replied that she could not hear me clearly as it was "such a noise": well, not where I was calling from, my peaceful office. It sounded like a party going on at the other side, or was it just a busy lobby area? Is this my problem? I don't think so.

When I call a hotel it is obviously for some reason; booking a room, making reservations for the restaurant, whatever. Never have I called a hotel just for a chat. And even then. I would make sure that I concentrate on the person I'm chatting with: music down please. Does she expect me to shout on the top of my voice "I would like to make a booking for a dinner party for 1000 guests please !!". If the hotel does not make sure that the staff can focus on me as a guest, what guarantee do I have that my 1000 guests get all the attention they expect?

It is such an obvious part of the 4-C's: clarity, control, cheerfulness, and is this respect most vital, ‘care'. Care means that you care for the person who is calling you. Care means, you take ownership of his or her questions, request, problem. Care means that you focus: your approachability is 100%. On the phone? Yes, especially on the phone as the other person can not see you, can not see your open body language, can fortunately (!) not see that in the mean time you are checking in a guest.

But rest assured: they hear it! On the phone all your attention, all of the first impressions you give to the caller should be combined, be accumulated in those first few second that you pick up the phone. In those few seconds I, as a customer, potential guest or even as regular guest hear a lot of things: the cracking connection, all the background noises, the tone of your voice and what you say.

Your voice tells me a lot of things about you and about your hotel. Is cheerfulness lacking, your hotel might not be a cheerful place to work. Oh my! Will it be a cheerful place to stay? Will other members of staff be more cheerful than you or are they as dull and bored as you are. Question marks pop up above my head. Mind you: it could be a fabulous place to stay, but it might just not be ‘your day' today. It happens, thank God we're human. But I do question the very fact that you are on the phone when you do not feel well.

Service minded people step back and have the responsibility to state: I can not represent the hotel as the hotel should be represented, please let me do another job backstage today. Service minded management should acknowledge this and support this. In a well designed team, shifting around to get the best results should be possible.

There is another aspect of ‘care' I would like to mention. I'm from The Netherlands and, true enough my English is fairly good but it is not my native tongue. The person picking up the phone might also not be a native English speaker, so we have a double language challenge here. Calling around the world luckily sometimes gives you a good laugh here: (me) "Can you put me through to the person responsible for reservations, please?" (reply) "Restroom?".

Language really is a challenge sometimes; just acknowledge this. Take ‘care', there it is again, that at the telephone front door, it is dealt with properly. Make sure that a caller is not transferred because you ‘assume' what the guest wants without checking. Nine times out of ten, for the caller this is the start of a large number of transfers trying to bring him in contact with somebody who might be able to assist him.

And in such a situation, invariably it turns out that nobody is taking ownership of his call. He is like a hot plate being tossed around as nobody knows how to hold it correctly: with gloves! Making sure that the caller knows what is going on, making sure that ‘the hotel' as a team understands his or her request. There is another thing: never transfer a customer without telling him why you are transferring him and to whom. Do you recognise this reply: "..I'll pu….." and there you go, up to the next person.

Obviously it is busy and this lady does not want to waste her time on you. What does this mean for the care the hotel gives to his guests? When it is busy, are they not looked after? Makes me at least wonder whether I want to stay in a hotel where this is common practice.

And up till now I did not even talk about ‘clarity'. I do appreciate that those answering the phone have to do this many, many times a day: how tempting to just rush through the introduction and come to business. However please realise that this often leaves the caller at sea, whether he is connected to the right person, hotel or department in the first place. Take your time. Not many callers are in such a hurry.

It all comes together in that one simple word ‘care'. In my training courses all over the world I pay a lot of attention to this aspect. It is not always the big thing that makes the difference for the guests. Most often it is in the details, the small things, hardly noticed but with a huge impact. When you have the right mindset to care, you can pleasantly surprise every guest over and over again. Your invisible front door is where it all starts and where you make it all happen.

Hugo Mechelse is managing director and instructor at International Butlers. His company focuses on enhancing personalised luxury service in the hospitality industry and at private households all over the world, through training, consultancy (mystery visits) and placements. You can contact him at hugo@internationalbutlers.com.

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