Entry level positions have a lot of things in common regardless of the industry. Depending on the mentality of the employee, they are either jobs or careers. The only thing that really distinguishes the two is the mentality of one holding the position.
In my experience, hospitality is no different. Most people started out like I did, needing a steady job to pay the bills, others wanted to explore hospitality as a career. Both mentalities can produce a well rounded and competent employee, but those who looked at their positions as just a job were often much less engaged in the business. They didn't need to go that extra step to understand the business as a whole. Once they reached proficiency in their position, apathy can take over and they begin to coast. Their development stops at the end of the procedures manual. For typical day to day transactions these employees can be valuable, but without that engagement they won't be able to take the initiative when difficult situations arise.
Fighting apathy with knowledge
Anyone who has worked in a hotel knows to expect the unexpected it, but not everyone is ready or willing to handle those situations. An apathetic agent can often make these instances worse before making them better.
Most crisis or situational challenges are difficult to train until it actually happens, so when it came time to for me to start training new employees I focused on more than just what the procedures manual covers. Concepts like Rate Parity, Comp Rates or the ADR aren't necessary for an entry level desk agent to check someone in, and are often glossed over. But these concepts become extremely important when its time to make a decision. I made it a point to teach the business alongside the procedures. A desk agent with even a basic knowledge of what these terms means and how to apply them on a daily basis has far more utility to a hotel. As I trained more employees this way I noticed more confident and engaged agents.
Arming desk agents with additional knowledge helps to for them to remove uncertainty from most situations. Since the interaction with the front desk is often the first experience a guest has with a hotel, your agents ability to handle stress can help determine the tone for their entire stay. Knowing how to solve these issues always gave me a sense of accomplishment, and that feeling kept me engaged in the position. I have seen once apathetic agents transform and become supervisors or managers once someone took the time to explain the 'why' of the business and not just the 'how'.
Combining knowledge with authority
An employee is only as good as the tools they are given and without the authority to take action even the most engaged and knowledgeable agent can be ineffective. Trusting your agents to make informed decisions can be stressful since it usually involves discounted rates, upgrades or offering compensation. Some managers want to have approval over these decisions, but in smaller properties they might not always be available when needed.
Take price matches for example; most guest shop online for hotel rooms and the more travel savvy ones understand the benefits of booking direct. They shop for the cheapest price and call the property to match. Without the authority to adjust the price, chances are the agent will tell the guest they can't and they have to book the room online. That minor adjustment can end up costing the property much more in the form of OTA commissions. In this situation, ideally the agents who aren't authorized to do so will check with someone who is, but more often than not, the agents take the easy way out. Limiting an agent's capability is a quick way to promote an apathetic environment and frustration, even more so if they have the knowledge to make the right decision.
Once given the authority to make decisions it's important to monitor and encourage their action. Make documentation a part of their decision making process. Leaving notes about why something was done can help answer any questions a manager might have while reviewing reports and can save a lot of time down the road. These explanations were crucial in continuing to develop my agents. I was able to correct mistakes in procedures and give immediate feedback and recognition for their work. This had a huge effect on the overall moral of the staff and our guests could easily notice the difference.
Turning authority into satisfaction
We bring on staff to make our jobs easier and perform the tasks that we don't have time for. Having a staff of smart and empowered agents allowed me to spend time on bigger issues. Agents spent less time seeking permission and could assist more guests. As a property we were able to get more done in less time and greatly improved guest satisfaction. Trusting in their abilities to handle the day to day operations drastically cut down on situations where a guest asked to speak with a manager. Issues rarely escalated to that point. It's understandable that these methods won't have the same effect with every employee and yield the same results. But in those cases I have to ask myself; did we hire the right person for the job?
Joshua Meehan is a Marketing Specialist at E-Marketing Associates, where he assists independent hotels with marketing strategies, social media, and contributes regularly to the E-Marketing Associates Blog. E-Marketing Associates works exclusively with independent hotels and builds innovative online marketing products that increase direct bookings and drive top-line revenue.