Saturday, December 29, 2012

How Service Leaders Innovate


Sentosa's WAVE ensures that guest centric values are instilled in all employees (courtesy of Sentosa)

What distinguishes service stars from other establishments? Is there a magic formula?

Well, the answer is less to do with rocket science than with investing in people.

As a judge for the Singapore Experience Awards 2012, I was recently invited to the Singapore Experience Conversation organised by the Singapore Tourism Board. There, I had the privilege of learning from two of the tourism industry's brightest stars - Sentosa and the Lo & Behold Group (an F&B group comprising Loof, The White Rabbit, Overeasy, Tanjong Beach Club, and Extra Virgin Pizza). 

Speaking informally about their experiences, Sentosa's Lim Suu Kuan (my fellow exco member from ASA) and Lo & Behold's Andrew Ing provided many useful and practical insights.  Let me share some of the key highlights.

Investing in Good Staff

Awesome guest experiences begin from the people delivering the service. As such, it is paramount to invest heavily in staff. Training and equipping employees with the right skill-sets is key. Remuneration frameworks should also be geared towards talent attraction and retention.
 
At Lo & Behold, a radical idea is currently being explored to pay a lot more money to good staff, but work with fewer of them. This strategy may attract more Singaporeans to join the Food & Beverage industry and improve retention (high turnover is a huge bugbear in the trade). To do so, the feasibility of such operations needs to be carefully studied. For instance, it may be more practical for front of house operations rather than the kitchen.

Rewarding Service Excellence

Current reward systems for service staff are disproportionate to the value they provide. As such, it is necessary to tip the balance such that they take greater ownership of the guest experience. Greater mutual recognition of the service rendered would also be useful.

At Sentosa, both revenue and customer service targets are used to determine staff bonuses through a company-wide game. The quantum can be half a month's pay or more, depending on whether "stretched" targets are reached. To qualify for the "service bonus", it is compulsory for staff to attend a service-related course. This further perpetuates the value of service on the island.

Treating Customers as Guests 

In Andrew Ing's book, customer service isn't just about scripts but what people can do. One should think of one's customers as guests to one's home. Consider how you should serve them to make them feel comfortable and at ease. Such principles are embodied in a service credo (codenamed PASSION) for the Lo and Behold Group.

Collecting and Using Customer Feedback

All service businesses should proactively collect and use feedback. This includes scouring social media sites and responding to complaints strategically.

Onsite surveys and interviews can also be extremely useful. An example was a casino in Las Vegas which discovered that increasing the length of stay of a guest resulted in an increase in money spent.

Tapping Employee Knowledge and Insight

It is imperative for lifestyle businesses to harness the knowledge of one's frontline employees in any visitor experience strategy. At Lo & Behold, a staff suggestion programme is in place to gather any ideas for improvement. Staff are also given a budget to experience how service is like at their different outlets, and to suggest ways to improve them.

At Sentosa, employees are given the afternoon off four times a year to experience the island's many attractions from the guest perspective. This is further supplemented by an 8 week programme (3 hours per week) attended by staff where they design a process to enhance guest experience on the island. This provides a tremendous lift in their ability to sense how things are designed from the perspective of the guest.

Working with Multi-Disciplinary Groups

Having a multi functional team helps to provide different perspectives on the guest experience. In the case of Sentosa, both front-liners and corporate staff undergo the same training programmes in guest experience. Many incremental changes bubbled up from the staff involved in such programmes regardless of their functional expertise.

Deploy Technology Prudently

Technology is costly and legacy systems may cost millions of dollars to replace. To circumvent this, Sentosa opted to use whatever is available in the market, for example EZ Link technology to gain island entry. This helps to reduce guest inconvenience.

To further raise fascination amongst guests, Sentosa will deploy technology for guest engagement over the next few years. It will introduce a design thinking methodology to ensure that there is guest centricity in everything that they do - from the architecture of their buildings, customer processes, to staff-guest interactions.

Awesome Rallies and Talking Shop

At Lo & Behold, daily briefings called "awesome rallies" are conducted for staff on all its restaurants to share tips and insights while encouraging mutual learning. This spirit of communal learning helps ensure that good practices are disseminated amongst the team. Andrew also makes it a point to praise one of the staff everyday, using the principle of catching them doing right (as opposed to doing wrong) as a motivator.

In Sentosa, the service quality team meets staff to garner feedback from both frontliners and their supervisors in "talk shop" sessions. These cover areas such as the pain points of customer experience and ideas for improvement. Feedback from such sessions have led to the introduction of more water coolers, prayer rooms and cheaper food (fast food outlets) on the island.

Surprising and Delighting Guests

At Loof (a Lo & Behold establishment), staff has the discretion to reward a customer with a complimentary food item if he/she spends more than $50. Happily, such practices lead to the guests spending more money and time at the outlet. This apparently was a bottoms-up idea from a staff.

Naturally, the question then arises whether certain customers may take you for a ride. While that possibility may arise, Andrew felt that it was unlikely that the five out of 2,000 guests who do that will kill one's business. One has to be bigger than that.

Are the Customers Always Right?

An interesting discussion ensued on whether all customers are equal. Suu Kuan observed that in the US, guests are more forthcoming in saying thank you. Such a respectful attitude leads to a virtuous cycle of better service being provided. While Singapore service standards are comparable, our guests are far more demanding. Leading from this, what's needed was perhaps a campaign to educate and engage our guests and customers to be more realistic about service.

In the case of Singapore Airlines, a list of blacklisted passengers whom they do not want to fly is developed for its global operations. A similar practice is in place at Sentosa to ensure that staff are protected from abusive customers. At Lo & Behold, only guests who were a great nuisance would be banned.
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