Thursday, 12 December 2013

Have You Tasted Your Own Pie!

For a family birthday recently, we decided to pick up a specialty cake from a well-known chain of Coffee shops. Gradually they are gaining currency for their fare and we decided to give them a try. We selected a sinful looking type with a heart of butter scotch and caramel, dark chocolate exterior that was topped with more dark chocolate lattices. With three of our favourite ingredients we couldn’t have gone wrong, yet we wanted affirmation from the Cafe staff about the perfectness of our choice. I asked the teller and then the Outlet Manager what they thought about it and they said it was a good pick. I then asked them if they had tried it. The teller drew a blank and the Manager tried to hide behind a non-committal nod leaving my query unanswered.

Then there have been servers working in establishments ranging from a seasoned American pizzeria franchise to the newbie French Patisserie & Boulangerie, who have failed to deliver the perfect order or provide correct information about the ingredients that have gone into making a particular dish. 

We were staying at a mountain resort a few months ago and asked the F&B Manager for his recommendation. While there were a couple of things he could suggest, the rest of the menu he was clueless about.  Yes, it was the F&B Manager and he had not had the chance or taken the trouble to test the entire menu out.  His lack of first-hand knowledge about the wares of his hotel led us to have one bad meal at the place, coercing us to give a mental black mark to the resort in an otherwise wonderful stay. 

The Joys of Knowing Your Own Product

This may or should not happen with larger chains with their big strategies and immaculate planning. I have been witness to elaborate menu tasting sessions where all related folk – from General Manager to the Kitchens and F&B Brigade – spend delirious and divine afternoons testing the restaurant menu changes tasting dish after dish in a state of gastronomic debauchery. Sometimes, our warriors in white have been generous enough to invite the Excom to combine work with pleasure in a benthamitic exercise, getting us to become wiser about what our restaurants offer on the whole, share our opinion and along the way become more informed brand ambassadors.

Yet, I’ve had mushrooms raise their heads in my risotto in spite of telling the order taker that they are anathema to me. I’ve been agreed with for a service in the suite and then have the Front Office Assistant sheepishly backtrack because he didn’t know better. Don’t you recall the times when you went ahead to expect a certain feature tom-tommed by the greeting Concierge only to have the Guest Relations Manager issue an apology on the non-occurrence of it! There have been times in all our hotel interfaces when the General Manager has had to give an explanation just because the ill-experienced PR Assistant had up-sold some facets which we had come to expect but were still a long way off from the Brand’s reach or plan. 

Price to Pay

From a Pizza Hut to a star hotel, there have been innumerable times when we have been served up the wrong fare only because the maître d’hôtel or the man of the moment was ill-advised and inexperienced. In fact, at a competition hotel once, an Editor friend’s husband was presented with a platter of the crucifying crustacean even after the hotel had been informed about the gentleman’s specific food allergy causing him to have a swollen tongue, choking bout and severe reaction. It cost the hotel its reputation and brought upon both, harsh backlash and a bad review. That was a small price to pay; because severe food allergies in some cases can also prove fatal.

It’s not just food. It goes over to the other products that your brand / hotel sells – for instance the incomparable range of beverages, that fantastic tea menu with those exotic names on the list, definitely the rooms & suites, of course the spa or specialty merchandise showcased in your boutique shop.

Ways to Ensure Staff Are Familiar with Offerings

When one of the hotels I used to work for was unveiling its world-class new rooms and suites with all the mod-cons and trappings that any top brand could offer – from French linen and bath amenities, Danish television sets, rich Indian weave throws, crystal vases, Lalique lights, original art on the walls and remarkably super-luxe routine of services covering turndown, in-room and entertainment – the astute VP & GM worked out a roster along with the Rooms Division Head for all the key Executive Committee members and Department Heads to try the rooms & suites out for a night with their respective spouses. We were supposed to try out ALL the services during our stay, the spouse lending the outside eye into the exercise and fill out an exhaustive feedback form on both the hard and soft aspects of facilities and service. I think that was a fantastic way to have staff learn about the new facets, internalize them and then stand on confident ground to sell, promote, up-sell or cross-sell the product, as the case may have been.

My soul child recounted a similar exposure at a Pizza chain she worked with during one of her summer holidays. For every up-sell or for exceeding the target, the trainee would get a free Sundae or Gourmet Pizza. This way, the management not only offered a neat, happy incentive but also ensured that the entire menu had been tried by the front-of-the-line sales staff.

Hotels are in the business of selling experience. Guests come and live in the rooms, eat at the restaurants, relax by the pool or in the Spa, shop in the arcades. These experiences are partaken of by all the five senses. Hotels have a much longer shelf life and recall value. Guests keep returning to places they have had a fantastic stay in. It is a people-centric business, created by people and plattered out to people. So, it really does make sense for the team to have experienced firsthand the product they are employed to serve up and showcase.

What Ignorance Looks Like

Staff who have not experienced their own product cut a sorry figure in front of guests – from close at home quarters or distant shores – who can come up with just about any query – what’s the best soup on the menu, what on earth is oolong tea and what does it taste like, which masseuse has the most magical hands at the health club, which aromatherapy oil works like a miraculous antidote to jet lag, how far is the next-door golf club really, is the award-winning entrée we read about on Tripadvisor still served at the Hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant and what does it really contain?

“Is it” is an easy question to answer. It can be learned from manuals or in training sessions and repeated ad verbatim. It is “how” that can cause all the trouble. Sample this - “Is the mattress good?” asks the guest. The Lobby Manager showing the room or the Executive Housekeeper welcoming the guest or the Chambermaid providing the turndown are all tutored to respond with a standard – “yes, it is one of the best. It is made with medium to firm innerspring coil or is exclusively of fine foam to ensure excellent support and a comfortable night’s sleep.” But wait till the guest hits you with the next barrage of questions – “How firm is it? Will it be easy on my back? Will I be able to get a good, uninterrupted shut-eye? I quite hate the ones I have used at Brand X. I hope yours are not the same?” A cookie-cutter ‘yes’ to all and a standard parrot-like response will quickly sift the chaff from the informed, experienced grain that knows his product like the back of his hand and can help the guest feel confident and comfortable with the product.

A Staff Member into that Committed Brand Ambassador

It was the autumn of 2001 and I had just returned from a fellowship in the United States. While I was away, the chain I used to work for had fully launched its Vilas top-end properties that we had all been preparing for before my sabbatical. I used to head the Communications Department for the Chain’s property in India’s capital city but had the privilege to work very closely with the Corporate Office. I was in tandem with the Corporate Communications Office for all the international Press visits from our top source markets. Imagine my chagrin and embarrassment at the initial few FAMs when I was quizzed about the exquisite vilases by the visiting journalists and all I could recite was what I was reading in the brochures like them. I was upset at not knowing enough, at not having experienced the peerless properties myself; yet being treated by the unsuspecting foreign media as an expert Brand Ambassador.  For the media, all of us were on the same side of the fence. For them, it did not matter whether I was the Unit head and not from the sanctum sanctorum of the Corporate office. I was a Brand representative; they could have asked me anything expecting the perfect responses to all they wished to know.

Finding myself at a disadvantage I walked into my General Manager’s office, expressed my disappointment and shared how I felt it was embarrassing for the Company too. The bright boss did not wish to spend too much time discussing what was an obvious issue, agreed with the larger objective, got the due permissions from the President’s office and sent me packing on a three-city tour to stay in the three jewels that the Chain had just unveiled. I came back with information that was etched on my mind, reinforced by the superlative services in the ethereally designed edifices of awe-inspiring, spell-binding hospitality. Then on, I needn’t have consulted a brochure. My press releases and backgrounders on these jewels had that extra punch and my personal representation of these products to the media – well what can I say. They saw the Vilases through my eyes and experienced it first with me before setting foot themselves.

If you want to turn a staff member into that committed brand ambassador you must have them experience the product, enjoy its finer elements and identify with it closely for stronger brand affiliation and greater representation that cuts above training manuals and modules.

Don’t make the oft-repeated mistake of training a department or team in just its own area. You must plan out to give cross-training and cross-exposure. I’ve been asked about who does our flowers? Which brand of gold-rimmed show plates are used in the French Brasserie? How does the Hotel store its wine? Is the hotel equipped to handle special ability guests and how? A bellboy may be quizzed about the best temperature control in the rooms and a personal butler could be enlisted for advice on the most appropriate choice for supper to soothe the upset belly or a potion to tame a splitting headache. The permutations are endless. All you can do is rise to the occasion or shine out as a stellar example for housing the excellently trained, most well-informed team that knows its product because they have experienced it themselves!

Let the team have its pie and eat the cake too! 

Note - Picture Courtesy - Google Images