Auditing the Auditors, Part I of III
A Report Card on Independent Quality Assurance
By Steven Ferry
Don Quixote tilted his lance at windmills: we tilt ours at service standards that do not meet expectations, which is why I am spending a perfectly beautiful Florida spring Sunday inside, banging away on the keyboard when sensible people are beaching, sailing, golfing, etc.
We tried unsuccessfully on several occasions over the years to give independent QA providers, standards for the butler service being offered by (463) luxury hotels around the world so they could incorporate those standards into their own and help raise butler-service levels in the hospitality industry in a way that our small organization could not, on its own, achieve.
All to no avail, but we learned as the years rolled on: Many five-star properties asked us to conduct mystery guest assessments of their butlers, and some even of their whole properties. In doing so, we were asked to assess against internal hotel/chain standards, as well as those of other QA providers. Finding they fell short in various aspects, we were compelled to create our own standards:
1) For the two glaring omissions in QA standards: the world of the butler, as mentioned above, and EQ (emotional engagement)—of which more later;
2) Adjusting standards to move away from requirements that forced hotels into actions and behaviours that were robotic and inappropriate for the property. Imagine, while rooming a guest, having to point to a hairdryer in plain sight and say, "This is your hairdryer!" Yet that was just one required standard that hotels were being penalized for overlooking.
This quixotic effort to reform QA bumbled along for several years until I met a kindred spirit: Jochen Ehrhardt of TRUE 5 STARS, who single handedly has been engaged in a similar but more fruitful path: assessing the top 3,000 luxury hotels in the world, 1,200 of which he has visited personally, and only 1,500 of which qualify for featuring on his web site.
"TRUE 5 STARS is completely independent and unbiased," Jochen pointed out once, "Its Quality Assurance Audit standards are the most detailed and demanding in the industry, while reflecting reality better because we constantly adapt to the latest market developments. Hotels typically score 15% lower compared to the feel-good QA audits of the larger QA providers, because standards cannot be raised if they are not set higher, as befits true five-star properties and the expectations of their guests."
Even though only a small percentage of hotels around the world provide butler service of one stripe or another, Jochen immediately saw the need for standards for butlers, too, and happily incorporated ours into TRUE 5 STARS'. One small victory!
Thereafter, many late nights were spent discussing standards in hospitality and what to do about them. Being German and English, albeit from different generations, we approached the whole subject logically. We assumed as a starting point, that standards were necessary to…maintain standards! Some individuals will say 'Throw all rules away, be spontaneous and do whatever makes you feel good, etc.," and we end up with people who cannot do the actions for which they are being trained and paid for, or which are expected by their customers/clients/patients/fellow citizens. Think Concordia, Pizzagate or any number of the real or imagined, large or small departures from what we would consider to be viable behaviours and outcomes. With standards, we know we will not have melamine in our chocolate and baby formula, Roundup in our stomachs, and that when we stay at a hotel or resort, we will enjoy that stay.
So then the question was, were owners and hospitality management companies happy with the standards being set and managed by leading, independent QA companies? The fact that quite a few chains run their own QA programs would indicate that they feel they can do a better job internally in some way. A survey of GMs in luxury hotels around the world told the story where the rubber meets the road, or perhaps more germanely, where the guests meet the beds.
Responses varied on perceived pros and cons, but one GM nailed the issue with, "Independent QA audits are good but a big revamp needs to be done because staff attitude is changing, as well guest expectations."
And there is the crux of the matter—coming up with standards is no easy feat: As many standards can exist as there are people to dream them, and the difficulty becomes settling, generally via a committee of interested parties, on those standards by which guests will feel well-served. This varies by evolving culture and sub-cultures, generations and gender, so how does one put order into such a confusion or series of moving targets?
The answer is simple, actually: each property has a purpose or mission statement that is trumpeted by its branding and marketing, and supported by its location, structures, décor, ambiance, facilities, activities for guests to engage in, and service style—and key geographical and consumer markets to which it reaches out.
This is not new news.
So why is it such a brain twister to come up with standards that reflect that individual property's or chain's manifestation of these elements that should add up to that purpose or goal being achieved—and thus happy guests—and furthermore, to update the standards from time to time?
Herein lies the contradiction with one-size-fits-all standards: the expectation that everyone fit into a 40-inch/100 cm waistband pair of trousers/pants/jeans.
For instance, what the Silent Generation expected from their hotel experience would bore the hind legs off a millennial; and yet many of the standards offered currently suit the mentality and standards of the Silent Generation and perhaps the Baby Boomers, too. As a Baby Boomer myself, who espoused environmental responsibility decades before it was fashionable, for instance, I am disconcerted by the ubiquitous and health-damaging EMF pollution existing in the very best of hotels and resorts worldwide today, even those in pristine locations.
Our bodies rely on very delicate electrical systems to run properly, and these are blasted to kingdom come by wifi and cell phone reception, much in demand by green-conscious millennials. Not to sidetrack down this road of contention, but it does serve to illustrate that the setting of standards that reflect current needs is more-than tricky: for while a millennial would be happy as an iPad in wifi exploring the virtual world, older codgers like myself would prefer to be in a tranquil setting enjoying the wealth of the moment afforded by the beauty of the real world consciously and proudly created by each hotel and resort.
This lack of customized standards that fit the purpose and markets of each property is the source of the frustration felt by more than a few GMs with the results of QA audits; and any failure to really satisfy or wow guests. It is not all bad, by any means, as the pros obviously outweigh the cons—or QA programs would be a footnote in the history books—but it seems QA could use some QC!
Other issues raised by GMs include concerns about cross purposes or compromised interests: one company providing audits which, when passed, permit hotels and resorts to become paying members of its sister company—the problem being that the incentive exists to lower standards so as to increase membership.
Another issue that comes up is the constant effort to identify the guests who may be auditors—one hotel chain even posting in their staff areas, a rogue's gallery of known-inspector mug-shots. This "spot the inspector" game is a distraction from the real game of servicing guests, and an effort to paint a false picture for any auditor who has been outed. But who can blame the staff, from the GM on down, when bonuses, accolades, and promotion are pegged to the results of randomly executed and too-brief/not-comprehensive snapshot audits; which sometimes suffer from a lack of consistency between inspectors and a lack of fairness in presenting scenarios; and invariably lack clarifying information where boxes are ticked as either "Satisfy" or "Insufficient" judgments.
The GMs found benchmarking against their (local) competitors to be of most value with outside audits, but only one-in-three felt benchmarking actually resulted in improved performance. Placing the focus on besting the competition and improving the bottom line is like having ones attention riveted on the scoreboard instead of the game in progress—the better approach being to focus on setting and implementing standards that actually improve the guest experience. Otherwise, one risks becoming irrelevant, especially if the standards are off-base to start with; and furthermore, if they are lowered in order to increase membership, or in the case of luxury hotels, if the standards are written as lowest common denominators of service that can encompass three-star-and-up facilities.
Equally important as an issue is the fact that most QA auditors and their organizations simply act as judges (and even jury and executioner, for some GMs); perhaps they provide some follow-on training which is apparently not held in much regard for its focus on hitting audit points and not addressing underlying issues that will actually change conditions. The relationship is not that of partner, therefore, but of judge (and marketer), neither of which quite provide the help that would prove of greatest benefit. Action programs, proper analysis and addressing of basic issues in training, resources, etc., and staying the course to guide improvement are how a partner might deliver value.
EQ—One Big Missed Opportunity
And finally, we come to the question of EQ, emotional engagement: All those GMs canvassed considered EQ to be the most important element in QA, expecting maybe 50-50 consideration with facilities/hardware. This harks back to the early days of QA, when Egon Roney, who published his first restaurant guide in the 1950's, subsequently carried on a thriving business rating hotels. His guide was probably the first to recognize that increasing facilities and services offered didn't necessarily equate to guest satisfaction. Roney's star rating was color-coded: Red stars for excellent service, black for acceptable, and white for below par service. A 5-star grand hotel in London might have black or even white stars, while a small country hotel with limited facilities was classified as a 2-star hotel, but because of the high level of personal service and consistent guest satisfaction, those two stars were red. Somewhere along the line, that focus on service quality was lost in QA programs—and as one ends up with what one pushes, hotels were nudged into focusing on material elements at the expense of live and solicitous service.
One QA organization recently added a few token EQ standards to their facilities-centric assessment; these EQ standards have the same technical understanding, accuracy, and efficacy in improving EQ application in hospitality, as doctors had of how the body worked until the 17th Century. Following the theories of the ancient Egyptians and espoused by Galen, a Greek surgeon from the 2nd Century, they claimed for centuries that blood was produced by the liver and was one of the four liquids in the body, the balance of which determined an individual's mood and health. From which they came up with practices such as blood letting to cure pathologies. Dr. Harvey, a doctor in London during the 16th Century, confirmed that blood was pumped around the body by the heart and had nothing to do with one's "humors." It took a while for Dr. Harvey's observations to be viewed and accepted, the cry from the medical community being, "I would rather err (be mistaken) with Galen than proclaim the truth with Harvey."
There is no reason that understanding and adopting the proper use of emotions should take so long: all it takes is acknowledging that maybe not everything there is to be known about emotions and emotional engagement, is already known! That just maybe, a Harvey-like breakthrough has already been made.
A sadly misnamed "Emotional Quotient" might be better named "Emotional Quality," but it does little to define what is meant by this all-important skill of emotional engagement. Current more-advanced concepts of EQ include: the demonstration of genuine individual care & recognition; the delivery of "wow" moments and stepping above and beyond the expected to create unique moments that make a lasting impression; smiling; proper verbiage; anticipatory service—all of which only obliquely hint at emotions, and instead only reflecting the style of service for which superior service providers, such as butlers, are famous. As a result, the power of emotional engagement is not being harnessed in hospitality, even though its use is greatly desired.
More advanced hoteliers see that Western-focused QA-concentration on facilities as opposed to solicitous service does not work in the East, but this is more of the same error: that emotional engagement is simply solicitous and genuine service, as opposed to being a whole new subject that puts hospitality into a whole new ball park of service excellence. One should be able to use emotions to make guests happier, a basic goal of hospitality.
In Part II of this series, scheduled for August, we will examine the difficulties faced by hoteliers in evaluating quality/gauging how they are doing and therefore coming up with workable strategies to move forward—including assessing the value to management and guests alike, of report cards generated by QA audits for management versus the report cards being published broadly to potential guests on social media.
First published in Hotel Business Review and reprinted with permission of the author