Training Tips in the Era of Social Networking.
By Doug Kennedy
Thursday, 3rd December 2009
Remember in 'the good old days' when all we had to worry about from a negative guest was that they would tell their family, friends, and co-workers?

Most seasoned hoteliers will recall being told in training classes that "a happy guest tells five others; an unhappy guest tells 9-10 others."

It seems like not that long ago I was facilitating workshops where, based on these numbers, we tried to quantify the cost of future business that was lost through negative word-of-month advertising, and even then it easily justified an investment in hospitality training and development.

In today's world, a guest's potential to share negative feedback is almost unimaginable, and seems to be gaining momentum. For example, in 2002 a now-famous Powerpoint presentation was created by two disgruntled business travelers who were members of a brand's loyalty program, but who according to their slides were treated extremely rudely by a hotel in Dallas.

The presentation, which was complete with graphics, charts and visuals, was sent to their contacts via e-mail with a cover note encouraging them to share it with friends, and encourage their friends to pass it on. It eventually was sent to hundreds of thousands of others and is now a media legend having been mentioned in the USA Today, NBC, and elsewhere.

In checking online today under key words "Yours Is A Very Bad Hotel," there is still extensive publicity out there about this now-famous presentation. Interestingly, the authors have since expressed they have accepted the apologies of both the hotel and the brand, are turning down interview requests, and have even expressed both empathy and a little sympathy for the night clerk who they claim treated them so rudely that night. "Way back then" then it was considered shocking that one complaint could be blasted to tens of thousands of people via e-mail networking.

Yet the potential damage from a negative guest experience today is far more extensive. Take for example a music video, which was posted on YouTube by a man claiming to be a traveling musician who, after being alerted by another passenger, personally witnessed his treasured guitar being tossed around the tarmac by baggage handlers on a United Airlines flight.

According to the story told in his song and accompanying music video, his complaints were rejected by everyone from the flight crew to the baggage office and eventually to the United customer service office. Apparently out of frustration and at the end of the line, he wrote a song, created a music video, and posted it on YouTube under the title "United Breaks Guitars" which as of this writing has so far been viewed more than 5,000,000 times in just 45 days since being posted.

In fact the song is now available for purchase at iTunes. Here is a link to the video clip on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo

As a former rock band member who still drags out my prized ole' Alvarez-Yari now than then, I can certainly empathize with the songwriter who's treasured favorite guitar was destroyed. I assume most any viewer would have to admit tells his story with humor and wit. Then again as a frequent traveler I also empathize United Airlines too, especially since my personal experiences with them have been positive and I can think of more than once when they provided above and beyond service when I was caught in a quandary.

Regardless, the point is this is a very recent example of the potential "cost" of an extremely negative guest experience. Of course most day-to-day guest interactions don't result in this much negative publicity. Instead, an experience which is perceived to be extremely negative more typically results in a negative review on websites such as TripAdvisor, Travel Post, FlipKey, or at online travel agencies most of which now offer guest reviews. Even a single negative online guest review can cause significant damage be scaring-off future potential guests.

Besides such guest review websites, the feedback about your hotel on social networking websites is going to become even more critical in coming months and years, as meta-search engines such as Hotelicopter.com have now been announced which will scan your social networking websites to direct you to postings from your network regarding the lodging facility you are considering.

Fortunately, there is also really good news in this trend as it can work both ways. If you as a manager or leader have the right vision and commitment, you can make this trend work to the advantage of your hotel. As in days of old where people made it a point to tell a story about a positive guest experience to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, today' guests who have an extremely positive experience do often motivated to post their positive feedback on websites such as TripAdvisor, FlipKey and Travel Post, which are but a few of the many guest review options available to today's travel planners.

It is interesting to watch this unfold. Recently, my family and I went on a summer beach vacation with two other families at a wonderful resort where we had a terrific time. Throughout our week's stay, it was not only the 17 year old girl who was making Twitter updates on how the resort "rocked," but also my firefighter buddy Alex updating his MySpace page to let his firefighter friends and also his VW club know how much fun this destination and the resort was.

Likewise, his wife Dana made several updates during the week to her Facebook page, which is where she stays in touch with her 8 brothers and sisters, plus about 500 other active "friends." Fortunately for this resort the news was all positive and I'm sure someone down the line is going to read what they posted and be influenced by it.

For hospitality industry organizations who are truly focused on creating guest hospitality excellence, this is really all great news because now our industry is becoming as transparent on the issue of quality as it became long ago on the issue of price when "best available rate" pricing was first implemented.

Regardless of what your feelings and opinions are about social media and guest reviews, the fact is that now your hotel's reputation is at stake and guests are going to be talking about how they were really treated for better or for worse.

If you are embracing consumer generated media, guest reviews, and social networking as marketing and public relation opportunities to get the good news out about your hotel, here are some training tips for your next meeting:

  • Accept that the key factor in the booking decision of your hotel's future guests is going to be hospitality and guest service, as measured not by an inspector from AAA, Mobile, your brand, or the State health inspector. But is going to be a bigger differentiator based on the way ordinary guests are treated on a daily basis.
  • Make sure your team is aware of what guests are saying about your hotel and team. For associates who don't have online access, print postings for display in the employee areas.
  • Categorize and react to recurring issues mentioned in negative postings. Put aside the "ranters" and "ravers" who provide extremely bad or good emotionally-based reviews. Instead focus on the day-to-day mundane feedback which is most indicative of your overall training needs.
  • Discretely and indirectly encourage positive postings. It has always been tradition for hotel service staff to encourage positive guest feedback by handing comment cards to guests who are verbalizing a positive experience. In today's world, we can simply mention to departing guests who are raving that if the guest ever goes on TripAdvisor you would appreciate their "help in spreading the good word."
  • Share all recent postings with team members. Support those departments or possibly individuals who might have been targeted unfairly, such as when the real service issue was reading a system or process and not a person. Yet be straightforward when the feedback is reasonable and valid. Take advantage of the occurrence being written about as a "teachable moment."
Of course you can and should be posting responses which first and foremost apologizes for the circumstances in a way which defends the hotel's actions (if they were in fact defensible) but doesn't invalidate the person posting the review. There are also legal actions you can take for fraudulent postings which unfortunately still happen all too often even in the corporate hotel world.

By focusing on these and other best practices for hospitality and guest service excellence training, you can ensure that your team will be excited to sign on to the Internet and visit guest review websites and social media posting to read about all the positive feedback that is being posted.

Founded in 2006, Kennedy Training Network (KTN) is the lodging industry's best source for training programs and services in the topic areas of reservations sales, hospitality and guest service, and front desk revenue optimization. Services including customized, on-site training workshops, private, individual hotel team webinars, and reservations/front desk mystery shopping assessment and coaching reports. Additionally, KTN is also a resource for conference keynote and break-out sessions for management companies, brands, and associations.

For more information, visit www.kennedytrainingnetwork.com for details or e-mail doug@kennedytrainingnetwork.com
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