Photography of people working in a restaurant

July 28, 2021 •

5 min reading

Applying the science of training to the hospitality industry


Effective training in hospitality skills needs a clear structure: demonstration, practice, feedback, implementation and a solid follow up plan.

Personality traits are not enough

“Hire for attitude, train for skills” is a famous motto in the hospitality industry. It means hotels should select employees who have certain personality traits, even if they do not know yet the specific skills needed on the job. Training will be delivered later to help employees acquire the relevant skills. I am afraid that it is more a motto than a reality in the hospitality industry. The problem with training is that it takes time and is not without effort. For this reason, training is often very limited, if not completely skipped, as reported by a student: “It often happened to me and my co-interns that we autonomously carried out a task, and in the end, we had to learn through an angry supervisor that half of it was wrong. This was quite demotivating and did not promote our learning process.”

It's easy to think that an intern simply has to learn on the job. But can he or she really learn like this? Is it right to think that just because we explained instructions once to someone on how to do something, it should automatically stick to memory?

If your work is to teach others, you already know that people do not learn in this manner. If you supervise others, you might not have realized this for many reasons. Most of the employees already know a great deal so the new information you pass though them can be instantly associated with lots of information already stored in long-term memory. However, we should never forget that training takes time. It is not because you mention once how to do something that people will retain the information. Most people will not.


Download the Customer Orientation Report, by Dr Fernandez


The ideal 4-step process

  1. Demonstration is the first step in the training process. Very often, it is the only one where a supervisor explains or shows how to do something (cutting carrots, opening a bottle of wine, or upselling a product). It is a necessary step but it is insufficient to promote learning and acquisition of a new skill. You cannot assume 18-year olds will know how to drive a car just because they have seen their parents do it or have been told how a car operates. According to the renowned training expert, Eduardo Salas (Trustee Chair and Pegasus Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida), it is essential that learners see good and bad examples to better differentiate the key features of effective performance.

  2. Then, practice is essential, but again to stop the training process at this stage would not suffice. This stage can be achieved through role play, or any other way to practice. It is by performing the same exact physical movements or mental operations that will be required on the job that employees will learn. Practice alone is not sufficient because mistakes can occur quickly and if they are not quickly corrected, there is a high risk of persistent mistakes.

  3. The third element is feedback. It is essential that employees get feedback during practice. Good feedback will help the employee identify what is being  done correctly. Employees will learn quickly appropriate behaviors if they receive acknowledgement of their effectiveness. Equally, when mistakes are committed, employees will modify their behavior (and might be less resentful). It is one of the key principle of operant conditioning. What gets reinforced gets repeated, what get punished get suppressed. Even if it takes time, it is maybe the most important step to retain how to behave appropriately in a job context.

  4. After training, implementation at work is crucial so that employees can practice the new skills learned during the training session. There are many ways to facilitate this. Supervisors should remind and encourage employees to do so but employees should also be rewarded for implementing new skills (or trying to do so). For instance, supervisors might discretely hear how waiters are upselling products to customers. Even if customers do not follow the employee’s recommendations, the supervisor might reinforce the behavior of upselling by mentioning how the employee used the right words.


Training employees to use customer-oriented behaviors

As described in the industry report (that you can download here), in 2015 and 2016 we conducted a large-scale study in Switzerland to test the effectiveness of a training session whose purpose was to increase customer-oriented behaviors among restaurant employees. Our results demonstrated that the training intervention was effective and that employees who adopted the customer-oriented behaviors taught during the course received higher tips. The training course was conducted in the restaurant where employees were working. It lasted approximately 1 hour and a half, and consisted of different steps: description and demonstration of each customer-oriented behavior (e.g., upselling, complimenting the guest for the meal chosen, repeating the order, introducing oneself by one’s name), practice and feedback. The effectiveness of this course can be explained by some of the principles described above. I also would like to mention how the effectiveness of this training session could have been better.

First, the training session was not lecture-based. For each customer-oriented behavior covered, I demonstrated how to carry out the behavior and I asked the participants to repeat the sequence of actions. Other participants and myself gave feedback on the effective implementation.

Second, I tried to remove the obstacles by asking the participants if and how it was reasonable to apply the behavior in the work environment. Sometimes, participants were reluctant to apply some of the customer-oriented behaviors in the training program. For instance, many employees told me they would never touch the customer on the shoulder or that they would feel uncomfortable introducing their name to the guest. After reflection, they found their own alternatives. For instance, they didn't introduce themselves but they introduced the colleague who would come a few minutes later and take the order. As another example, they would not touch the customer but they would touch the table (it might not be as effective as directly touching the customer, but it might convey more friendliness).

Third, most of the course took place in the restaurant where the employees worked. In my opinion, the importance of the context is essential to facilitate transfer. Many studies in Cognitive Psychology have confirmed that transfer of learning is easier when we use information in the same context as where this information has been learned.


Allocate time for follow up and practice

Two barriers should be however acknowledged. The first one is that the training only lasted approx. 90 minutes. Without time for some follow-up, it is not clear if employees will maintain the use of customer-oriented behaviors in the long term. Our study has demonstrated that the intervention aiming at increasing customer-oriented behaviors was effective on a short-term interval but I am not sure that the positive effects would last over longer periods of time (weeks, months, or years).

The second barrier is related to the first one. It would be essential to continue the monitoring of employee behaviors over time. If employees do not receive feedback on how they are doing, they might very quickly stop performing actions such as repeating the order or complimenting the guest if they are not sure of their effectiveness. It would be beneficial if restaurant managers could continue to monitor how employees use customer-oriented behaviors and to provide recognition for the continued use of these behaviors, or corrective feedback if employees do not use these behaviors or use them inappropriately.



As shown in this article, it takes time and effort to train employees. We cannot assume they will retain information because they have been told or shown what to do. It is essential they can see, practice, get feedback, and have opportunities to implement the newly learned skills. If companies want to increase service quality and enhance the service skills of their employees, they might need to train them in the use of appropriate customer-oriented behaviors (even if they have been hired for having the right attitude).

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Written by

Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at EHL

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