As a nation modernizes, builds shiny new skyscrapers and climbs up the global GDP rankings, one of the first things that tends to deteriorate is the standard of customer service within its hotels and restaurants. As a country matures, labor costs shoot up as workers take jobs in other industries. While this is good news, sectors that rely on large numbers of employees to engage and interact with their customers get hit hard. Rising costs and increased competition mean that local workers no longer wish to work service professions such as hospitality, dissuaded by the long hours and low pay typical of the industry. As a result, guest service declines as hotels cut back on manpower – or squeeze more hours from existing employees – to boost profitability.
The Singapore hospitality industry is a perfect example of this. The City State is an economic success story, with one of the highest GDPs in the world and a highly educated population. Yet Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself has admitted that his country’s service standards are sub-par, commenting “Ask any tourist or even a Singaporean which country has good service, (and) I don’t think Singapore comes immediately to mind”. Hotels are caught in a conundrum, either they spend more on manpower, reducing profitability and raising the ire of investors and owners, or they cut back on staff, accepting a lower guest satisfaction rate. Regrettably, many hotels choose the latter.
Hotels in developed nations need to explore alternative ways of improving the level of service in their hospitality industries in a sustainable and affordable way. The answer may lie in a better incorporation of technology both in the front and back end of the hotel.
The smart hotels have already taken steps to leverage technology in a manner that allows them to improve customer service. The Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, for example, relies heavily on a highly motivated and trained team of service staff – from butlers to waiters – to ensure that its guests receive a level of service consistent with the Shangri-La brand. As such, they have subtly weaved technology into the guest experience in a way that is unobtrusive, yet saves up time, allowing staff to concentrate on the guest. For instance, they provide thousands of newspapers and magazines from over 100 countries in over 60 languages free via their PressReader app, removing the need for staff to hand deliver the newspaper every morning, yet improving the overall guest experience (I can’t remember the last time I brought a physical paper).
The new generation of millennial traveler has grown up surrounded by the Internet and technology. Some hotels have started to use self-service check-in kiosks as many guests now value speed and convenience over personal contact. There are also programs in place that allow the guest to pay via their mobile phone, and are able to receive an itemized bill that can be paid for on the spot. No need to queue at the Front Office, and more hotel staff available to address the specific requirements of the guest.
However, the largest impact technology can have on customer service is through staff training via mobile learning. Today, smartphones have become so sophisticated and ubiquitous (87% smartphone penetration rate in Singapore) that they offer one of the most efficient means of training for large numbers of employees anywhere, anytime, allowing learning to be conducted during a lunch break, or on the way to work. Vitally, this can be done at a lower cost. My own mobile learning company, Qooco, is able to provide mobile learning solutions for up to 80% lower costs than traditional classroom-based learning methods.
The biggest challenge many hotel service employees face when dealing with guests is often language. With clientele visiting from all over the world, English is the de facto means of communication, while the increasing numbers of Chinese tourists visiting Singapore make Mandarin a necessity. It is impossible to separate language with service, and a high level of proficiency is needed especially when dealing with tired, jet-lagged and hungry guests – yet English or Mandarin is not usually a first language for many employees. Mobile language can be used to teach languages to service staff, and has been proven to provide better results than traditional classroom-based learning.
Mobile learning can also be adapted for vocational training. Software has been developed that can demonstrate the correct techniques to pour wine, for instance, or how to approach a seated guest, or from which side the server should approach to take away an empty plate. Mobile can even be used to teach staff how to upsell.
There is a resignation among hotel executives in high-cost, developed countries over the level of service they can provide with the manpower resources at their disposal. Yet with the constant evolution of technology, there are now ways to significantly improve guest service without committing to unsustainable employee expenditures. From PressReader apps to robot butlers to mobile learning, perhaps we are just seeing the beginning of a new era of hospitality service.