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Getting Aggressive: A Subtle Message for the Hospitality Industry

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June 01, 2014
Technology Insights
Michael Schubach - Michaelschubach@me.com

In my eternal quest for truth I am compelled to do a little myth busting. The first myth is that old people are unnecessarily grumpy. As a younger person, I would have told you this was an indisputable, self-evident truth – the elderly are a cantankerous lot. I believe it stems from their shared belief that humans need only endure a reasonable amount of general nonsense, social and political dysfunction, gross negligence from their peers and the apathetic bumbling from the upcoming generation. Somewhere around age 60 their tolerance threshold is irreversibly crossed and the elderly feel that after a lifetime of playing nicely, they may now say and do just exactly as they please. They exempt themselves from the practice of social etiquette and common courtesy, and “grumpy” becomes a living, breathing euphemism of understatement.

Now that I’ve irreversibly crossed that threshold, I take exception to the use of the word “unnecessarily.”  Elderly Americans are grumpy for good reason – in fact, for many good reasons.  Worse than your typical elderly American is one who has spent many years in the hospitality industry and therefore possesses a heightened sense of what service is supposed to be, which brings me to the second myth: a car dealership is a place where you are waited upon intensely – perhaps too much so – until you make a decision. Why pick on the automotive industry? No reason other than a recent personal experience where an irresistible myth No.1 encountered an immovable myth No.2. 

Quite innocently, and with love in my heart for my fellow earthlings and the exotic foreign automobile I was seeking to purchase, I entered a car dealership. I presented myself to the receptionist, bid her a pleasant afternoon, and requested a brochure for the car I wanted to buy.  She walked me to a nearby table where she briefly examined the piles stacked there and announced the result of her meager attempt: “Sorry, we don’t have any.” Having discharged her obligation of minimum effort, she returned to her station to await her next opportunity to underperform. I remained undaunted. I took to opening the doors of cars on the display floor that were wildly beyond my price range.  Nothing summons a car sales representative to your side faster than the fear that an obvious member of the underclass is attempting to befoul a European luxury vehicle. To my utter amazement, I was left alone and unattended as I slammed glove boxes and trunks, and then took to rolling car windows up and down and testing the emergency flashers.  My cries in the showroom wilderness went unanswered. 

Clearly they were just waiting to see how long I’d last before I got bored and moved on to a domestic car dealer. Trying to play “Triumph of the Will” with an elderly person is a very bad idea because “stubborn” goes hand-in-hand with “grumpy.”  I retired to a lobby chair, determined to sit with an annoyed look on my face until someone asked if he or she could help me. I sat for five minutes before I hit pay dirt. An obvious salesperson came up to me looking helpful and anxious to please. He smiled at me and asked, “Are you Richard?”  When I told him no, he glanced around the room, spotted another likely candidate and managed to emit one solitary word as he moved on: “Sorry.”  So was I.

I spent another 30 minutes in that chair, now just waiting to see how bad the bad impression I had already formed could become.  Short of sending up a flare, it had to be obvious that I was there to part with a good deal of money.  Nonetheless, my behavior was entirely too subtle for this dealership. There was no shortage of employees who passed me by; logoed team shirts were the dead giveaway. I finally returned to the receptionist and politely inquired if this was indeed a place where cars were sold.  She assured me that it was, and I asked how I might go about qualifying to participate in the process. I was finally introduced to someone who took the time to try to sell me not what I wanted but what they had in inventory. I was once again reminded that for those of us who want a new or different car, the acquisition experience is more obligation than opportunity.

But why am I telling you this?  With Hospitality Upgrade in hand or on screen, it’s a statistical surety that you’re neither a car dealer nor likely to become one. I tell you this sad tale because it reminded me of a technique that service providers could use to evolve into something more beneficial to the human condition than simply grumpy. During my tenure at a world-class destination golf resort, we had a general manager who was devoted to customer recognition and assistance. We were already noted for our southern hospitality, but easy-going charm wasn’t sufficient to fulfill his vision of excellent guest service. We were coached to be “aggressively friendly,” to acknowledge, to greet, to assess the guest’s situation and to take immediate action if there was anything we could do to improve the guest experience. 

Aggressive friendliness is a skill that requires you to take affirmative action before you know for sure that any such action is required. The rules are simple but very effective:  when you move around your hotel, resort, casino or car dealership, you walk with your eyes forward – never down, never vacantly self-absorbed and never glued to a phone or tablet. You look for and at anyone headed your way. Ten steps before you come face-to-face with another person, you acknowledge his, her or their presence by smiling or nodding. Your intuitive self assesses the guest situation:  are they strolling or struggling?  Did they stop to smell the roses or are they lost? Can you provide genuine assistance or merely brighten their day with a warm greeting? (Those are your only two options.) When you’re within five steps, you’ve prepared your greeting. As you approach, you deliver.  If you harbor even a vague doubt about your assessment of the guest’s situation, you stop to ask if there is anything you can do. Imagine how my car buying experience might have changed if just one of the dozen-or-so employees (and I mean all of them, not just the obvious salespeople) who walked by and ignored me had been aggressive enough to ask if I needed anything. 

I should also mention that my tenure at this legendary golf resort was as a member of the IT team. There is no shortage of IT professionals who come to hospitality from more mundane industries, and they are often startled by our peculiar belief that the geeks are required to be as friendly, helpful and responsive as the rest of the staff. (I was going to say “the service staff” but the spirit of aggressive friendliness is that everyone in every position is a part of the service staff. Take that, you disinterested car dealership receptionist.) I feel compelled to remind my fellow technicians that our tendency toward technical arrogance is more real than many of us may realize, and that ignorance of hospitality operations is no excuse for a lack of participation. If you’re wearing the team shirt, then you’re on the team. 

Remembering my fondness for being aggressively friendly has made me less aggressively grumpy.  Sadly, I still remain elderly and reasonably – as I see it – stubborn. And by the way, I do have one final piece of advice: buy American.  I did, and in doing so parted with a good deal of money I was prepared to spend on another more exotic choice.  Take that, you disinterested European luxury car dealership.               
Michael Schubach is a regular contributor to Hospitality Upgrade and can be reached at Michaelschubach@me.com.

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