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Motivating and leading during tough times

Tough times are upon us and hoteliers everywhere have to contend with falling demand, lower revenues and controlling costs.

It is of course tempting at these times to just cut and cut, by which I mean, slash payroll by retrenching employees or readjusting their work schedules.

While there is no denying that such measures will be unavoidable especially in more challenged markets, it would be a mistake to go overboard with cuts.

One, you could end up cutting too much so that it affects your service delivery and two, you could end up with a very demoralized and disincentivized team at a time when you need them the most.

I am often asked how do you motivate and lead a team during tough times. We’ve all been there before and I find these steps have worked for me.

One, I’d want my staff to voluntarily practice expenses control, aggressively seek new business from a shrinking pie, deliver the highest standards of quality products and services to retain and ensure returns of guests.

In return, I have to keep on encouraging and motivating and rewarding my team. Clearly communicate, explain the situation and the dangers/consequences. Rationalise my restructurings whether direct expenses or labor. Lead by example on any action whether it is belt tightening programmes or guests retention programmes.

A content and motivated work force will always be supportive of the organisation that respected it and treated them fairly in good times. A savvy leader always prepares for rainy days.

I also find tough times a good period to retrain staff. And this is especially so in countries where governments are introducing incentives for retraining.

Singapore is a good example of a government that has taken the initiative to help companies through the downturn by encouraging them to retrain staff with generous incentives and subsidies.
And if you are smart about it, this could be a good time to differentiate your property through customer service. While others are cutting, you could be re-strategising on how to come out more strongly on the other side.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about companies using customer service as a differentiator. But I believe very few companies in the world can do this –  companies which already have a proven and consistent track record of official and recognised Service Excellence. I can only think of one company in Asia – Singapore Airlines – that has done it successfully.

Remember, if you claim customer service as a differentiator, any failure is unforgivable.

You can however practise Service Excellence and if it’s consistent enough, you can let the customer judge you as different. Word of mouth is a very powerful advertising medium as we know.

Before you embark on a journey towards service excellence, you must ask yourself these questions:
1. Are you prepared to invest for a long term return?
2. Is there serious commitment at all levels of the organization to succeed, including owners/shareholders? True commitment…?
3. Will it add real value to the business, translated into a significantly improved bottom line? This is a market driven assessment.

To begin the process, you need to embark on these steps:
1. Vision, Mission and Core Values arrived at by a committee representing all levels in the organization.
2. Clear understanding of the undertaking by all stakeholders in the organization and obtain buy in/commitment and support.
3. Change attitudes and behaviors through training and indoctrination exercises.
4. Selection of service minded employees. This is where specific/targeted psychometric assessment comes in handy.
5. Have in place an effective reward and recognition system for employees.
6. Establish the standards based on the guests’ expectations.
7. Keep abreast of changing guests’ expectations and trends.
8. Have in place reliable guests’ satisfaction measurements and feed backs. Be prepared to quickly correct course accordingly.
9. Constant improvements never end.
10. Dissemination of the “good news” media relations, publicity programs, marketing.
11. Returns, recognition, standing in the market/industry instill pride and motivation for all to continue.

Be aware though of the challenges of such a strategy – there’s employee and leadership turnover to start with. Then there’s the fact that employee commitment to learn and consistently deliver will cool off. There could also be disenchantment by shareholders/owners due to slow results, and the slow returns vs the costs involved.

Recognising the fact that high turnover could be an impediment, it is important to have in place solid policies, processes and standards as well as constant training and improvement programs that become the “organisation’s unwavering way of life”

For the immediate term however, it is important to get the most out of your staff during difficult times, and this is what I would recommend if the circumstances allow it.

The blind boy who dreamt of being a cook

In 1987, back when I was managing a hotel in Ottawa, Canada, we were approached by an institution for the blind and asked if we could take on someone named Fred and give him work in the kitchen.

We were all a bit taken aback. How could a blind man work in the kitchen, we thought? But we were told Fred had always dreamt of being a cook, it was all he wanted to do and could we try it out for a month?

“Please make his dream come true,” we were asked.

How could we refuse?

Our chief butcher volunteered to be the team leader and Fred, with his minder’s help, slowly found his way round the back of the house and his way to the kitchen. He was trained and given repetitive tasks – peeling eggs, chopping, laying bacon. The team got used to Fred and welcomed him as one of them.

The experience also fostered pride and a sense of achievement among the entire hotel workforce.

A month passed. Fred wanted to stay on. For the first time in his life, he had earned a pay cheque which he sent to his parents in Newfoundland. He looked so proud in his chef’s uniform. When I left the hotel a couple of years later, Fred was still working in the kitchen.

Fred opened my eyes to a new vision – that personally, in my career, I would do what I can to employ disabled wherever I was and that one day, when the time is right, I would try and do something on a bigger scale about the employment of disabled by the hotel industry at large.

Even as we complain about lack of staff, it seems to me we are ignoring a critical and valuable segment of our society. And it’s always bothered me as to why we don’t open our doors wider to those who may be physically challenged but are fully capable of doing certain jobs?

For example, at the front desk, we have staff standing around. Why can’t we have staff in wheelchairs? There are those who think this may upset the guests – when they see a handicapped person at the front desk. But perhaps it’s not the guest we really worry about but the inconvenience to us.

A mindset change is required and this is the right time for us to do something about it.

The first thing we should do is determine departments and positions suitable for different disabilities.

For example:

  • Hearing/speech impaired – laundry operators, maintenance technicians, housekeepers, public area cleaners, storeroom attendants, accountants
  • Visually impaired – commie cooks to carry out repetitive tasks (peeling eggs, chopping, laying bacon), spa therapists
  • Reduced mobility – front office agents, concierges, telephone operators, reservations agents, service call centre agents, office work, accounting, secretarial, management
  • Paraplegic – working from home in jobs with PC/headset requirements such as research or even telemarketing.

The challenges are numerous.

  • Lack of back of house facilities for the physically handicapped
  • Lack of investments in equipment
  • Lack of awareness and sensitivity within the work place
  • Lack of government incentives
  • Lack of government regulation to provide for proper back of house facilities
  • Lack of training facilities and institutions specialized in this segment
  • Lack of peers/supervisors training to learn how to deal with the physically impaired

But the benefits are also numerous.

  • Support for an ignored segment of the society
  • Help to alleviate employee shortage
  • Recognition as a sensitive organization
  • Create a loyal workforce
  • Create a more caring and sensitive workplace and, by extension, society
  • Reduce unemployment levels
  • Help to reduce the financial burden on society

I still remember Fred’s smile when I returned to the hotel in Ottawa a year later after I left. He was standing at the staff entrance and when I greeted him, he, recognizing my voice, replied, “Mr Geday, how nice to see you.”

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