EmpathyOn a recent visit to the Spanish Canary Islands, I stayed in a beautiful four-­star hotel in Gran Canaria. The location was desirable, the grounds pristine and the view breathtaking.

New to the islands, I asked the concierge on my first day if she had any recommendations. In a cold tone, she tossed a map, rolled her eyes and informed me that it was “up to the guest to decide what to do”.

The icy encounter caught me by surprise and instantly changed my experience and hotel perception in sixty seconds flat.

Some hotels turn to gimmicks or add amenities to entice returning guests and increase revenue. Such tactics have merit but there is a simpler and more cost­ effective way to encourage repeat customers and boost income: customer service. While an essential part of the hospitality industry, it is rarely exploited to its full potential.

A Gallup survey of the hospitality industry found that the quality of service was frequently the main factor in returning guests. Surprisingly, the survey suggested that only about one in five guests felt fully engaged during their visit.

Staff empathy helps create an enjoyable guest experience and motivates them to write a positive review -­ both of which affect revenue.

When we think about customer service, our thoughts go first to handling complaints, but much more is involved. All interaction with a guest is, in reality, ‘serving the customer’. It includes anything from booking a meal in the hotel restaurant to offering advice on where to shop locally.

The difference between a guest’s perception of service as perfunctory or as excellent hinges on the attitude of the staff. Exceptional service is provided by those who don’t only attend to the request or complaint, but who also empathize with the guest.

The difference between empathy and sympathy

Empathy is sometimes explained as walking a mile in another person’s shoes. The idea is that you can only truly understand someone’s pain if you’ve experienced it yourself. Empathy is just as valid if we are able to imagine what it would be like to be in their position and respond accordingly. This is equally true when dealing with requests or complaints.

We are all consumers in one way or another, having received both good and bad customer service. Hotel staff can draw on their experiences to understand why a guest might be either enthused or upset by the service provided. Acting on this knowledge may require a change in attitude. Rather than seeing requests or complaints merely as something to be handled, they should be viewed as opportunities to meet or exceed the guest’s expectations. That means picturing yourself in the guest’s place to know what those expectations might be.

For customer service to be outstanding, guests must be treated as individuals. While sympathy and empathy are not mutually exclusive, sympathy merely concedes a problem exists. Empathy assures the guest that you sense the value of the issue to them personally. Sadly, empathy is not displayed as often as it might be in customer service, especially when dealing with complaints.

Listening with care

When a guest is complaining, emotions will be involved. The empathetic staff member will listen to the guest carefully, not simply offering sympathy but acknowledging the emotional impact caused. A good listener will show genuine interest by looking beyond the bluster and asking perceptive questions, determining not just the problem but also the resulting distress or frustration.

Exercising empathy may change the way you respond to complaints. How would you feel in these circumstances? What would you want to happen if the roles were reversed? Obviously businesses have rules and financial constraints which need to be taken into consideration. Not every guest’s wish can always be accommodated and most guests recognize this. By engaging them as individuals and showing you care, a guest will allow the matter to be handled in a reasonable way.

More than words

Studies have shown that spoken words themselves account for roughly 50% of communication, with the other 50% coming from tone of voice, stance, facial expression and other forms of body language. The ratio of words to body language varies by circumstance and individual. Regardless of the percentage, it makes it hard to fake empathy.

You may offer excellent advice, but if your non­verbal communication doesn’t match your words, the guest will notice. They might receive the help they asked for, but still not feel that you are sensitive to their personal situation. Insincerity, such as bland statements of concern while you continue to use the computer or as your eyes flick to the clock on the wall, is damaging. It can result in a perception of poor service even when matters have been competently resolved.

Encourage empathy

With the ability to show empathy now recognized as a critical part of customer service, the more astute hotels are incorporating it into their staff training. Games and activities are being used to help staff understand the importance of empathy when dealing with guests.

A number of hotel chains send selected staff to stay at other establishments. On their return they are debriefed and asked how they felt as guests. The objective is to get them to help a guest staying at their hotel in the same way they had hoped to receive it themselves.

Empathy should not be a trait reserved solely for guests. Staff watch and learn from management. If communication from above is trite or unfeeling, it will be hard to motivate the staff to respond to guests any differently.

Empathy translates to profit

Good reviews are essential for any successful hospitality business. A guest has three options for reviewing your hotel after they leave. If their experience was poor, they are likely to leave a negative review. An average stay is unlikely to result in any review, but an outstanding visit will generate positive comments. A 2015 J D Powers study of guest satisfaction in North American hotels revealed that 80% of those who were delighted with their experience would definitely tell others. This translates into more business.

The Gallup report mentioned earlier indicated that many guests would be willing to pay more for responsive staff. The same report showed that hotel staff that handled problems well and were attentive to guests’ needs created a significant competitive advantage.

With the quality of customer service so essential for positive reviews and return clientele now is the time to put yourself in your guest’s shoes. Displaying empathy doesn’t just make sense, it can also have a direct impact on profits.

About the author

Arianna O'Dell

Arianna O’Dell

Arianna O’Dell is the founder of Airlink Marketing, a digital agency that helps hotels, restaurants and travel destinations attract and retain clientele.