Monday, May 28, 2012

What's your standard?

I’ve been working in hotels for over 25 years and one word that drives the entire industry is “standards”. It is not only the hotel industry that is focused on standards; every industry or business uses standards to be successful at what they do. Even in our personal lives, we are guided by our own personal standards, which we set for ourselves with one thing in mind – to live a better life.

So if we pause for a moment and define the word standards, what does it tell us? Well the dictionary describes this noun as “something considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison; an approved model” it goes on to further define it as “an object that is regarded as the usual or most common size or form of its kind” and “a rule or principle that is used as a basis for judgement”. I think these cover most common definitions we are all familiar with. And if we asked the general public to define the word standard, they would all come close to one of the definitions above.

Think of the number of times we see the word standard in our lives? “Standard terms and conditions” “standard size” “standard operating procedures” “standard service”… and it is the latter one I want to focus my attention; “standard service”

By definition, standard service could mean a service that is given to all customers which is the same. So no matter who you are or where you come from, we will provide the same level of service to all of our customers. Let’s look how this fits our dictionary definitions; “something by general consent as a basis for comparison” – We smile at all customers. “an object that is regarded as the usual” – all of our stakes are of the highest quality. “a rule or principal used for judgement” check out time is noon. And for many years, the service industry focused on standards, missing a big piece of the puzzle called “customer service”

Unfortunately standards have also hindered our lives and have made people become rigid in the service they provide to their customers. All of us at some point would have heard the words “I’m sorry but it is not standard” which is a lame excuse for saying “I’m sorry, we don’t have the empowerment to serve you” or if something has gone wrong and you complain they would tell you “I am sorry that is not our usual standard” which often drives me nuts as if this was not their standard why did it happened? The aviation industry is driven by standards of safety to avoid the death of millions of passengers every day; you would not like it if someone close to you dies in an airplane accident and they tell you “I am sorry, it is not our usual standard”

In the earlier part of my career in the hotel industry I worked as a housekeeper and this was the breaking ground for me when it came to learn what standards are and how successful they can make you, or if ignored, brake you. As a young manager, looking after the biggest department in the hotel, I began to realise that if I was going to be successful I needed to focus on two things; my people and my standards. And soon I learned that both are connected and if in synergy, they make your very successful. People need to feel engaged to want to work for you, particularly in hard labour jobs like housekeeping. Try and clean 16 rooms every day, go home to look after your family and still smile when you go to bed, it is not easy. And then you have your boss banging on about standards! If you can do all that and still get up in the morning and smile, you know you are onto a winner!
Keeping my staff happy was not rocket science, I focused on give people what they need to do their job; make it as practical and effective as possible. Trust me, they will do their job. But no one works just for fun, but most of us at work want to have fun, that’s half the battle when it comes to loyalty and engagement. So I always made sure that work was a fun place and provide them with everything they needed to do their jobs. The latter also gave me the platform to then drive standards. You cannot ask someone to perform to standards if they don’t have the tools to do their job.

But this in itself was not sufficient to drive a work force that was happy and delivered the standards. People can be engaged and still not deliver the required standards; this is where you get the response when something goes wrong in service “it’s not our usual standard”. So how do you get someone to really consistently deliver without ever slipping from that desired performance?

Well for me it was simple and twofold; first they are my standards and I have to be always on top of them, never accept something that is below. If you do, guess what? Yes, if you accept it, this is your new standard, it become accepted and therefore the norm. Remember the definitions at the beginning? “Something considered by an authority as a consent” you’ve not said anything so you have given “consent” to that standard. You have to always accept nothing less than what you expect. As a frequent traveller I know I feel safe with certain airlines because they have “high standards of safety” actually it is not high strands of safety, they just don’t accept anything less than what is required to keep people a live.
Secondly, and perhaps even more important than maintaining my own standards, it is to get people to own the standards. In other words, your standards need to be their standards. If they do, they will not accept anything less; it’s human nature, they will soon begin to say, “it is not our standard”. So I embarked in a mission to show my employees what happens if you deliver poor standards. I took several approaches; one was to get them to experience low standards, and I asked them “would you stay in this room for 300 dollars?” This doesn’t always work, as people do not relate to something that may not be at their reach. And so I went to the core of it and I changed their working environment. I lowered “their” standards. I began to take things away, little by little, subtlety and over a period of time. Immediately people began to be disgruntle. Some came to me and asked me why I had taken some things away; I said “Oh sorry, it is not our usual standard” and gave some things back to them. Others heard this and soon enough I had a revolution in my hands. So I called a meeting and there I told everyone “who is happy with the new working conditions we have? No surprising, no one put his or her hand up. After an explanation of what they had just experience, relating it to standards and why I did it, everyone clapped and smiled and I took the opportunity to once more reinforce the important message behind the experiment; everyone needed to own and maintain the company’s standards whilst giving our customers a personalised service that meets their personal standards.

I do not claim that after this everyone delivered 100% my standards, no, not at all, but it did make my job easier when I pointed out to someone that they had not met my standards, they knew it was not personal and it was important for the customer. Since then I have never lowered my standards, I don’t have to, people always know what it is expected of them and work hard to achieve it. Those who don’t like it move on, those who can achieve it stay.

I also learned another invaluable lesson after this; everyone’s standards are different, and if a customer seems disgruntled and you think “what’s the matter with him! We’ve delivered to the standard” you may have delivered to your standards but not to his. This is where the magic happens in great customer service, the gap between you and the customer, when you deliver your standards and can meet the customer needs, no matter what they are.