Coupling service culture and colleague engagement through technological innovation
Walt hated my usage of the term Data Warehouse.
“It’s not a data warehouse…it’s not even close”, he scolded me.
“Whatever”, I said, “data warehouse sounds bad-ass.
Walt’s a consultant. He works for one of those big firms like Deloitte or Accenture. He builds and maintains data warehouses all day, every day. I’m not a consultant. I’ve worked in hospitality all my adult life. I’ve spent the past decade working for a luxury hotel. Our separate paths crossed on the local beer league circuit.
I thought I had a great idea for a managed service catering to a luxury hotel group. Walt was very receptive and wanted to learn more. I’m not sure if his enthusiasm was genuine or he was stringing me along for all the IPAs I was buying him while I explained my idea.
My first thought was to get ahold of every single email in the history of hotels in order to data-mine them for useful insights. I theorized to Walt that a trade group such as Hospitality Technology Next Generation could act as a facilitator, pooling all the old emails taking up space on the servers of competing hotel companies. This led to a side conversation where Walt accused me of being Big Brother. He called me a dangerous idiot, saying that anybody associated with me was bound to be either sued or fired. We reached a compromise on the basis that the emails would be anonymized. I’m fairly certain this was a minor quibble to which Walt applied a disproportionate amount of false resistance in order to string out the conversation long enough for me to buy him another IPA.
Hockey is the shared language between me and Walt. I used the sport to explain how a consulting firm could use the emails as an opportunity. At the NHL level, teams are stocked full of elite players drilled relentlessly until their systems and protocols are ingrained and instinctive. Teams have countermeasures for all of their opponent’s maneuvers. Games devolve into stalemates.
If a team is down by a couple goals, they need to find a way to break the stalemate. That’s when fighting becomes useful. It puts players under duress. Duress causes them to deviate from their standard operating procedures. If a world-class defenseman skates back into his own zone to retrieve a puck with only hockey strategy to calculate, he’s going to make the right decision. When he has to add the possibility of getting punched in the mouth into that paradigm, mistakes occur.
“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” -Victor Hugo
Hospitality has been refined to death. With improvements and innovations becoming so incremental, it’s not too bold to state the industry is at a stalemate. Pooling the emails is how to start a bench-clearing brawl. The job of a consulting firm is to be the enforcer that allows their company to keep, their heads, manage the comedown, and exploit this new opportunity.
They would help their client use data science to make sense of the ensuing chaos. The example I used for Walt was group sales. Algorithms could be developed to identify every piece of correspondence that has ever been written in pursuit of booking a group. These emails could be data-mined. Emails executed in the context of a successful sale could be compared against those of failed queries. They could be parsed for key words and phrases associated with successful bids versus those that went wrong. This intelligence would inform the learning and development of future group sales managers.
I proposed to Walt that, since I was the F&B lackey and he was the tech whiz, perhaps he was already aware of even better applications. I wondered aloud about the potential for machine learning to draft future sales queries. He maintained his poker face, finished his beer, and ordered another.
Walt never offered me a definitive evaluation of my proposal. In the days and weeks which followed, he introduced me to several of his favorite tasting rooms between Boston and New Hampshire: places like Night Shift Brewing, Rockingham Brewery, and Great North Aleworks. I bought him more beer and he explained his business to me. He described how a consultant presents a client with a tangible managed service whose execution is highly measurable. If the client is satisfied over time, this opens the possibility for managed services which are less tangible with more indirect benefits.
I nodded enthusiastically, demonstrating my comprehension. “You get your hooks into the bastards!”
He seemed offended; didn’t stop him from ordering another beer. As penance he made me read the book Strategy: Pure & Simple written by Michel Robert, the former head of Decision Processes International. Eventually, he helped me cobble together something approximating a white paper for the cost of only a few hundred dollars-worth of craft beer.
I began with the premise that typical hospitality employees are analogous to Luddites. Of course, they use and embrace consumer technology at a similar rate to any cross-section of society. However, people with a predisposition toward technological engagement, one which results in true embrace and expertise, tend to be diverted from hospitality by various carrots and sticks.
“The great accomplishments of man have resulted from the transmission of ideas and enthusiasm.” -Thomas J. Watson
Walt dismissed this hypothesis. He demanded tangible evidence. I was wise to his false-resistance by then. I barreled right over his thinly-veiled attempt at scoring another round and told him to take my word for it. Any industry populated by these personality-types is faced with constant resistance to any technological innovation. It seems impossible to achieve total buy-in. It will never be pervasive. A hotel can wallpaper itself with flat-screen TVs and mobile POS units, but, in the heart of the house, there will still be paper transfer sheets and bottle-for-bottle transfers. The finest hotels in the world, at the granular level, still exchange information with binary systems probably invented by Cesar Ritz.
Essentially my initial managed service was to wrangle these Luddites and ensure 100% employee technological engagement. Successful implementation of this would prep the battlefield for the follow-up service (the upsell, as we call it in the hotel world) – crowdsourcing the day-to-day operations of the property.
The first part was an easy sell. Walt was only able to milk one beer out of that explanation. Hotels are in the business of dealing with people. They want nothing to do with handling technology. On some level, they understand this. This is why every Catering & Conference Services Department in the known world contracts out their Audio-Visual needs to a third party. They don’t want to risk setting off some CEO who’s already having a bad day by relying on a Banquet Manager with an F&B background to troubleshoot a faulty wireless lavalier.
These A/V companies are actually consulting firms who are leaving piles of money on the table. Not only do hotels not want to deal with troubleshooting the wireless lavalier, they want nothing to do with the flat-screen TV’s, the mobile POS units, or the company cell phones. They spend their days trying to please guests. They don’t want to waste time worrying about which technological ecosystem they want to get slowly sucked into.
A consulting firm would not only steal the A/V company’s business, they would assume the burden for selection, transition, and implementation of all technology company-wide. They would collaborate with hotel management in order to arrange a series of carrots and sticks which would assure employee technological engagement at even the most basic levels. Successfully creating this environment would allow for the roll-out of the Data Warehouse of Ideas.
“Oh boy…here we go”, Walt muttered and drained his beer.
While he snapped his fingers at the bartender for yet another overpriced IPA, I decided to change course. Logic wasn’t working with this guy. I decided to tell him a story featuring the Data Warehouse of Ideas and co-starring a few old friends.
“Every really new idea looks crazy at first.” -Alfred North Whitehead
I told him to imagine a fully operational Data Warehouse of Ideas from the perspective of a new hire:
It’s her first day on the job. Alexis. She’s a smooth pimped-out player from the streets who knows how to get hers. That’s why she applied to be a banquet server at the brand-new luxury hotel that just launched in the city. She’s always worked in hospitality and she’s heard some good things about this company. She likes the concept of not having to worry about showing up for a Tuesday shift just to man an empty section of a restaurant all night. On the other hand, she’s had one too many jobs where she’s had to report for duty in a tuxedo shirt.
Still, it’s her first day on the job. Her instincts tell her to be optimistic – even if it’s just an affected, mask-of-sanity portrayal of optimism. This baby-step is reinforced by the Director of HR who happens to be entering the hotel at the same time as her. He says hello using her name. I mean, he met her at the interview. But still, how many interviews did that guy conduct while he was hastily stockpiling a workforce for a looming opening day? She has to stop at security inside the employee entrance. That person knows her name, too. That’s impressive. She’d never even seen that security guard before. But he used her name. Like a guest.
All hotel chains have a stated Service Culture. All hotels have a stated Colleague Engagement Protocol. Sometimes, these are nothing more than lip service hardly reflecting the property’s actual day-to-day operations. At the best hotels, the stated principals are put into practice. At truly elite hotels, Service Culture and Colleague Engagement are the exact same thing.
Service Culture is how we treat our guests. Colleague Engagement is how we treat each other. To maintain the highest level of consistency, they should both be the same. Treat everybody the same. Nothing changes. It’s about respect. Anybody who’s ever worked in a hotel knows this industry attracts employees from all different cultures and disparate backgrounds that all have different interpretations of respect.
This is standardized respect.
After clearing the security checkpoint and wiping the sweat off her brow, she’s greeted by her direct supervisor, Susanne. Susanne uses her name, too. It’s just not as special anymore. It’s already becoming ingrained.
Susanne escorts Alexis into the Human Resources training room. She makes small talk along the way, lobs out a friendly gesture or two – just like a host or hostess would treat a guest on the way to a dining room table in order to be in full-compliance with Forbes 5-star expectations. Alexis is offered a seat in the training room next to Lorik. Lorik is a grizzled breakfast cook. He’s been in some of the greasiest kitchens in the city. He’s going to be cooking in banquets. He’ll be working with Alexis. They’re both hard-nosed F&B veterans.
“One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains it’s original dimensions.” -Oliver Wendell Homes
They sit through a whole day of classes. This is difficult for them. They’re both smart but it doesn’t work like that. If they had any predisposition for sitting in class, they wouldn’t be working in F&B. That’s no knock on F&B workers. That’s no knock on class. There are just certain things that don’t mix.
They sit through this talk about mission statements, company vision, core principles, and departmental standards. There were some acronyms thrown out to aid memory retention but they were both occupied with stifling their laughter. Lorik has no filter. He’s whispering wise comments at Alexis, trying to get her to laugh and disrupt the entire orientation. Maria, the Director of Learning & Development, knows a pair of troublemakers when she sees them. She launches a few listening comprehension questions at them like shots across the bow. Lorik and Alexis are smart. They volley back a few phrases they absorbed via osmosis. It’s not right but it sounds engaged enough, at least for the first day. Still they get the message – head down; nose clean for the rest of class.
At the end of the day, they both emerge from the training room punch-drunk from learning. Alexis complains that there better be some lucrative shifts at the end of all this training. Lorik can’t think straight but he thinks Alexis is cool and wants to impress her. He mutters something about how they should be making a higher hourly rate while enduring this orientation crap. That sounds like something she’d agree with.
That first day ends with a positive twist when they are presented with gift bags like the ones celebrities receive at the Oscars. There are breath mints, a water bottle, maybe their name tag, and a few other items. The most important component is the gift card to a partnered vendor. It can be exchanged for a cell phone of choice (probably some limitations in the fine print). It also provides a free month of basic service. Maria explains to them that they can be reimbursed for a significant portion of their mobile bill each month. All they have to do is meet the benchmarks to be outlined during Day 2 of orientation.
Lorik’s confused. Initially, he was surprised and delighted. But Alexis didn’t react at all. He considers: He just got a free cell phone and they’re going to help pay his bill. Something seems fishy. What kind of hoops does he have to jump through to meet these benchmarks? What about Big Brother? Alexis pays no attention to his ravings. She’s already researched this perk in depth. She couldn’t understand why one employer supplemented mobile plans while others did not. It was all legit, though, and she would know.
Over their first few weeks on the job, Lorik and Alexis get acclimated to these benchmarks. There’s a variety of them. Sometimes new tasks are added. Sometimes others are deleted.
“Daring ideas are like chessmen moving forward; they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.” -Goethe
Every month, they have to use a preloaded app to provide a certain amount of feedback. They can upload pictures, video, audio, or text to the secure server. There’s an algorithm which uses data from TimeSaver, the ADP payroll software which their hotel uses. Based on hours-worked, it determines a minimum requirement of information to be uploaded to trigger the mobile plan subsidy. Alexis doesn’t pay a lot of attention. She just calls in and talks her face off a couple times a month. Lorik likes to call after each shift and rattle off what he liked about the day and what made him mad. That and a couple beers put a nice cap on the day.
Nobody ever seems to follow up with them about what they upload. Alexis decides to test the system during her second month. She recites the phone book. A couple days later, a spa manager she hardly knows approaches her, suggesting she take the Data Warehouse of Ideas seriously. The algorithm actually contains a mechanism to flag phone book-reading and other anti-social behavior.
Management also has to conduct a certain amount of spot-checking in order to meet their customized benchmarks in order to trigger their own mobile plan subsidies.
As a banquet server, Alexis must document all guest consumptions through her phone. Sometimes these are sodas on a beverage station. Other times its alcohol from a portable bar. Sometimes, she cross-trains as a hospitality bar attendant for the guest rooms. The same concept applies. There is an app available for this, but her phone is already bogged down with every music and social media app in the known universe. This forces Alexis to use the alternative method of logging onto the secure server via her web browser. She enters her consumptions and waits for her submission to be verified.
Sometimes she forgets. This totally sucks. Playing by the rules means 100% compliance. Even if it’s an honest mistake, she has to do the walk of shame with a paper release form (since she seems to like these binary systems so much!), getting signatures from her direct supervisor, department head, and either the Director of HR or General Manager. The direct supervisor and department head both sign almost blindly. However, the choice of whether to approach the GM or Director of HR is a pick-your-poison debate which has her seriously considering just paying cash that month for her mobile bill.
Whenever she enters HR, the Director vaguely threatens her with a promotion into middle management. And the GM, this is his pet project. He’ll start babbling on about the merits of 100% compliance until she has to walk out like George Costanza backing out of Steinbrenner’s office.
“Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.” -Alfred North Whitehead
Lorik doesn’t deal with guest consumption. He places the banquet kitchen’s daily food requisition through his phone. He doesn’t like the web site because it takes too long to navigate. He just downloads all the apps. There’s the vendor app for the food. There’s a work order app for servicing the dishwasher and other hardware. There are apps for documenting HACCP and food safety compliance. There’s also an app which gives him access to the Banquet Event Orders. He only has access to the read-only version.
The stewards and other cooks have noticed they can pawn off all these pesky data-entry requirements on Lorik. It makes their job easier. Lorik doesn’t seem to put up much resistance. He’s willing to deal with all this tech compliance as long as it means he doesn’t have to do battle trying to break down whole chickens again.
About 18 months into his tenure, the Director of Engineering takes a seat next to Lorik in the employee cafeteria. It’s nothing new. Ed and Lorik discovered about 6 months ago they were fans of rival basketball teams. They’ve developed a passion for getting better every day to keep them the best at ridiculing each other’s teams.
Except today is different.
Ed mentions an opening in the IT department. He suggests Lorik should apply for it. Lorik objects. It’s entry-level and he’s not really into wearing a suit. Ed waves his hand dismissively. He points out that Lorik is approximately one more burnt steak away from a career at Denny’s so maybe entry-level isn’t so bad. He also mentions that Data Warehouse of Ideas metrics revealed Lorik has just set the corporate-wide single-month record for technological engagement. Maybe the IT department will provide the upward mobility that he always found so elusive in the culinary field.
The GM instructed Ed to approach Lorik about applying for the IT opening. He was acting on a morning briefing delivered by the Data Warehouse of Ideas intelligence report. It cross-referenced Lorik’s over-engagement in technology with random snippets of text in Ed’s shift reports about how he’d established a rapport with the banquet cook. It appealed to the GM’s personal belief in encouraging managers to engage with employees from other departments. It avoids the heavy-handedness of top-down directives from a manager to a direct subordinate. It also builds a sense of team and community across the workplace.
This GM. Let’s pretend his name is Pat. Let’s assume that. He prefers his title to be presented in the French in all written and verbal forms of communication. The Directeur Général believes deeply in expanding his luxury hotel company’s portfolio into key business and leisure destinations. Therefore, he has prepared his title for a smooth transition in anticipation of the conquest of his homeland.
As arrogant as he may come off, Pat is often found shivering in his own sweat, fearful of how his corporate overlords will criticize him next. If he increased revenue by 12% one year, all that means is they expect an increase of 15% the next year. No amount of production satisfies those people. He thought he was brilliant, talking his way into this job with his Data Warehouse of Ideas. Now, this contraption has turned into the mother of all thorns in his side.
“New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can’t be done. 2) It probably can be done but it’s not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!” -Arthur C. Clarke
Before, nobody saw the trends, not until an employee was in HR with tears streaming down their face. Now, the trends are right there to see in real-time for anyone with acuity and access to the data. And these corporate overlords? It’s almost like they get a kick out of spotting a trend before one of their GM’s does. A GM can try to explain it away however he wants. If there’s a trend in the data, there’s either something wrong with the hotel’s day-to-day operations or an error in their implementation of the Data Warehouse of Ideas.
Pick your poison.
Pat nearly got fired last month. The Chief Executive called him at noon Hong King time. The Chief Executive is Monsieur Riley. He’s not even French. He’s British. Nobody knows the origin behind him being addressed as Monsieur. They just know everybody in the corporation addresses him that way. Nobody wants to be the lone wolf to learn the hard way the downside of calling him something different.
Anyway, at noon Hong Kong time, he was talking at Pat in a very intense tone. Pat was half-asleep so he didn’t pick up on everything. He caught some grief about some banquet server named Alexis who has evidently set a corporate record with 72 fully executed paper release forms to date. But the broad thrust seemed to be that Monsieur Riley was prepared to fire Pat via text message if he didn’t get up to speed on a particular trend his property’s Data Warehouse of ideas had been blinking and beeping about for the past two weeks. Monsieur Riley didn’t come right out and spoon-feed Pat the exact nature of the problem. He intended for this to be a learning experience…for both of them.
Pat jumped out of bed, made a mental note to brainstorm a more serious approach with Alexis, and scrambled his Executive Committee into the hospitality version of DefCon 5, gathering them in the Situation Room. The Situation Room is actually just the overflow seating area in the employee cafeteria. The lights are fluorescent and the chairs are uncomfortable, but it works. The banquet servers don’t chirp about ExCo meetings that seem a lot like junkets. Any situation’s urgency also resonates across the hotel when a cafeteria full of employees observe the whole of ExCo enter the fluorescent-lit room with a sense of purpose.
Every so often, when a member of ExCo is in a bad mood, they grab an employee out of the cafeteria at random, stand them at the front of the fluorescent-lit room, and pepper them with stern-faced questions about their department and their own personal contributions lately. Put them under duress. Carve out an escape route if they’re floundering. Maybe they prove something to ExCo. Maybe they prove something to themselves. If nothing else, its entertaining.
There’s no time to play those games on this day. The Data Warehouse of Ideas had isolated a number of trends including: a month-long uptick in housekeepers complaining about being scheduled too early (early human analysis suggested this was due to scheduling duties being transferred to an inexperienced assistant manager); a stand-alone idea to reverse the ball-room airwall to create space for a full-service café for conferences rather than simple coffee urns [gold-star employees whose actual job performance may be highly questionable but whose DWI (Monsieur Riley is very upset about the Data Warehouse of Ideas’ unfortunate acronym) metrics indicate deep engagement have their shift reports flagged for personal review and potential follow-up by a member of the Executive Committee]; and a two week-long uptick amongst restaurant staff in red-flag phrases including ‘creep’, ‘uncomfortable’, and ‘quit’.
“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have an endurance without death.” -John F. Kennedy
The issue that had Monsieur Riley all fired up turns out to be sexual harassment. It used to be that when sexual harassment occurred in the workplace, somebody was getting fired. Something awful had been said or somebody had been touched somewhere. Beyond terminations, sometimes people were arrested. Often, the hotel got sued just for being built around the incident.
Now the situation’s different but it doesn’t make Pat’s job any easier. Based on the frequency of words, its highly unlikely there’s been an open-and-shut case of harassment. The word frequency correlates to a working environment that is a precursor to full-blown harassment. It doesn’t matter. A trend of this nature should have triggered a formal action plan a week ago. Pat overlooked this somehow. It’s possible signing all those paper release forms for Alexis commandeered his focus. Now they need to identify the exact nature of the problem and agree on an action moving forward. Essentially, they’re executing a preemptive service recovery.
An employee can’t be fired for something they haven’t done. Alternatively, they can be observed closely. They’re customized learning and development plan can also be modified, extremely when deemed necessary. The Data Warehouse of Ideas imposes the requirement for more active management. Authority can’t be the first tool out of the toolbox in these situations.
After formalizing the action plan with his Yes Men in ExCo, Pat notices an opportunity. It’s possible those complaints about the scheduling in housekeeping aren’t what they seem. The Data Warehouse of Ideas reveals trends but those trends still need to be analyzed and interpreted by humans. These complaints seem far too uniform. An entire department never complains in unison like this, with such similar phrasing, over the same exact issue. Never happens, basic group dynamics.
This actually feels more like labor organizing.
In the old days, that meant lawyers, union-busting, retaliation, and just a whole lot of sore feelings and wasted time. It doesn’t work like that anymore. This department will have to be observed. Sometimes labor unrest is the result of mismanagement or uncompetitive wages. Other times, its seeded in a few employees who have grown out of their role, making them disgruntled or burnt-out.
It takes just a slightly disproportionate amount of attention to that department for a period of time. The squeaky wheel might be transferred or promoted to a role that will reinvigorate them. There may be a few other deft personnel maneuvers that can shape the dynamics in housekeeping. Perhaps someone is joined in the employee cafeteria by James, the Director of Purchasing, where they are told about the opening at the New York City property, closer to their family. If nothing else works, Pat may just have to fast-track the department’s yearly raise and brace himself for Monsieur Riley’s wrath.
He’ll keep this housekeeping insight in his back pocket. He is expecting his phone to ring at noon Hong Kong time tomorrow. Monsieur Riley will ridicule Pat for his mistake. Pat may be able to toss this potential labor trouble back in his face. The implication will be that Monsieur Riley missed something, too. That’s a gamble. Monsieur Riley may have another countermeasure in his own back pocket. Pat knows he will constantly have to reevaluate the risk and reward throughout the conversation. The best he can do is establish probabilities as to whether Monsieur Riley has another card to play.
Pat knows his career depends on using sound judgement in these situations. He knows many other careers rely on his decision as well.
After I finished up my story, I waited in anticipation for Walt’s response. Walt drained his IPA. He frowned at the bartender for placing the check in front of him. He fingertipped the check and slid it slowly across the bar, directly in front of me. Then he let out a long audible exhale.
“Okay…you got a neat story there. It sounds well-rehearsed. Let me ask you this. How is all of this going to make a hotel any money?”
“Whaddaya mean? It’s going to streamline operations. Every other hotel chain is still fighting like it’s the Union and Confederacy…you have an airforce!”
“But how does it make money? Specifically. These people are in business to make a profit. So far you’ve outlined massive expenditures for technology and consulting services…not to mention paying for everybody’s cell phone and damn data plan. You’ve got a lot of money going out the door. All I can see in return is you made it almost impossible to fire anyone…even for sexual freaking harassment!”
I flailed at hotel redesigns. All major hotels, if they’re operated properly, execute a major redesign of their property every 8-10 years. This includes switching out the carpets, furniture, and other items so the property doesn’t appear to become dated. This includes back of the house areas such as the kitchen in order to ensure those departments have access to the latest and best innovations.
This is the largest capital expenditure in a hotel’s budget. Normally, the decision about how to specifically deploy all these dollars comes from a third-party consultant, or a corporate meeting room far away. Sometimes, the advice of a property’s general manager is taken into consideration.
8-10 years-worth of Data Warehouse of Ideas feedback would provide a detailed roadmap for getting the absolute most ROI out such a major investment. The shift reports of every single culinarian could be data-mined to evaluate what needed to be changed and what should stay the same for the kitchen’s remodel. The hood fan may not actually need to be upgraded to the top-of-the line model. Maybe engineering just needs to be more mindful of adhering to the maintenance schedule. The cheap and simple installation of a handsink could work wonders, allowing the garde-manger and grill cooks to assist each other during a rush without the risk of cross-contamination.
Walt rolled his eyes. “I don’t know…I’ll have to think about this. What are you doing tomorrow? I’m feeling like wine.”
“That’s right. I know a nice place…you should see what they offer by the glass.”