Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In order to fully appreciate the importance of empathy in a hospitality context, it’s perhaps useful to start by distinguishing between empathy and sympathy. The difference between these two terms is the following: sympathy means to feel compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships and difficulties that another person experiences; meanwhile empathy means putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. So why is this so important for hoteliers?
Hospitality is a service business
Hospitality is an extremely competitive business and involves more than just putting a roof over a customer’s head or serving food and drinks. What will distinguish one establishment from another is the quality of service. This is doubly true in upscale and luxury hotels where guests expect personalised service. The ability to respond and even anticipate customers’ needs is what cements client loyalty to a hotel or restaurant.
In order to improve their brand positioning in the marketplace, hoteliers need to make emotional connections with guests, as this is the only real differentiator. With so many, hotels, brands and alternative lodging possibilities available, most of which have similar basic characteristics, the one distinguishing feature is how well hotels and brands succeed in creating loyalty among their customers.
Loyalty schemes don’t create emotional bonds
While guest loyalty programmes intended to create bonds with customers are here to stay, they are often seen as too transactional in nature whereby guests are essentially bribed with ‘free’ overnights and air miles, for example.
Meanwhile, true loyalty is based on an emotional relationship between the hotel and the customer, not simply the result of paying people for their business with tangible rewards. Additionally, creating true loyalty goes beyond marketing gimmicks as it must be infused in every interaction and experience that a guest has, from the moment they begin to search for a room.
Indeed, 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. Meanwhile, the difference between a guest perceiving service as perfunctory or excellent depends essentially on the attitude of the staff. Exceptional service is provided by those who don’t only respond to a request or complaint, but those who also empathise with the guest. Soft skills are needed.
Good listening skills are essential
When a guest is complaining, emotions are 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 overlooking the bluster and asking perceptive questions, so as to determine not just what the problem is, but also the resulting distress or frustration. Practicing empathy should change the way staff respond to complaints.
On the other hand, businesses do have rules and financial constraints which need to be respected. For instance, it is a mistake to believe that “the customer is always right”. Not every guest’s wish can be accommodated and most guests recognise this. Through engaging with them as individuals and showing concern, guests will usually allow the matter to be handled in a reasonable way.
Beyond words, the importance of non-verbal communication
Spoken words themselves only account for roughly 50% of communication, with the other 50% coming from tone of voice, physical stance, facial expression and other forms of body language. Of course, the relative impact of body language varies according to the circumstances and the individual. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to fake empathy. Guests may be offered excellent advice, but if non-verbal communication doesn’t match the words, the guests will notice. Even though they may receive the help they requested, they may still feel that staff members have not been sensitive to their personal situation.
Social media impact
Yet another reason to emphasise genuine empathy is the potential impact of online customer reviews on a hospitality business, if guests feel they have not experienced excellent service. What departing guests say on Booking.com or TripAdvisor after leaving can make or break a hotel or restaurant. If their experience was lousy, they are likely to leave negative reviews. An average stay is unlikely to elicit 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 naturally should translate into more business.
Otherwise, a 2014 Gallup survey of the hospitality industry found that the quality of service was frequently the main factor driving repeat guests. The report indicated that many guests would be willing to pay more for responsive staff and demonstrated 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 it is essential that hospitality staff put themselves in their guests’ shoes. Displaying empathy doesn’t just make sense, it can also have a direct impact on profits.