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HOTELS, STAR RATINGS, AND SERVICE QUALITY

By Rene T. Domingo (email comments to rtd@aim.edu)

The service sector has been following with interest the excitement of the manufacturing sector in improving product quality through techniques and philosophies like zero defect, quality circles, and total quality control (TQC). Indeed, banks, hotels, and airlines could learn a few important lessons from the modus operandi of carmakers and semiconductor manufacturers. Though the approach to enhance quality may be similar, service quality is different from and more difficult to recognize than product quality. A product has definite physical dimensions- length, width, height, size, color, weight, function etc. Quality standards are easily established by getting the customer's expectation and specification of these dimensions. On the other hand, a service is dimensionless; or put it another way, it has multiple and changing facets - being a person-to-person encounter. Service quality thus becomes a moving target.

In spite of its elusive nature, service quality exists and is no way a relative and subjective impression of the customer. It is an objective reality that the management can pursue -- proven by the fact that customers, collectively, can confidently claim that this or that establishment provides good or bad service. To say that service quality is "satisfying the customer" is an oversimplification and is a useless guide to management. Every service establishment would like to think that it is satisfying the customer, when the customer might feel otherwise. A more focused description of quality and customer service in the service industry is necessary.

Let us take the hotel business as an example. To provide genuine service quality, hotels should duplicate, if not exceed, the convenience, company, and security the home provides to the customer to whom the hotel is often his only refuge and protector in an alien environment. During overseas travel, whether for business or pleasure, the hotel is where one stays the longest time.

Unfortunately, the star rating of hotels confuses and misleads the customer as to the real quality of their service. This self-evaluated and self-serving rating is based on hardware (room amenities), foods, frills, and rates -- but never on the more important software: customer service like promptness, friendliness, and consistency. We often see 5-star hotels which provide sloppy 2-star service; similarly, there are 3-star hotels that provide excellent 5-star service. Money can buy hardware and stars, but software or service can only come from good management and a strong customer-oriented corporate culture that every hotel staff believes in. The difference between hardware and software is illustrated by the following example: The customer may forgive a waiter who serves promptly and courteously a not-so-tasty sandwich, but not a waiter who slams on his table a freshly-baked super deluxe sandwich. Put it another way, a hotel may pave its hallways with exotic orchids but the customer is not amused if check-in procedures are very slow.

Sloppy check-in and check-out procedures expose the lip service most hotels give to customer service. Insensitive hotel managements do not realize that it is during check-in time that a guest is in his most irritable state - he is so tired that the only thing in his mind to get to his room right away. He has queued excruciatingly earlier in airline counters, immigration, customs, and taxi stands in several airports, carried his heavy bags, suffered jet lags, and the last thing he would want to see is a long slow-moving queue in the hotel attended by one lonely fumbling receptionist, while other hotel staff and supervisors watch her helplessly. Strangely enough, most hotels, oblivious to the suffering of their paying customers, do not add another receptionist to shorten the queue. They should learn from the express lanes of supermarkets and airlines. Check-out time is the time the guest would want to get out of the hotel as soon as possible and get to the airport. Ironically as if to irritate the guest, it is also the time that the hotel cashier starts collecting your bills from the different hotel restaurants and checking your bills for misplaced ones -- activities that could have been done before you come down to check-out.

Finally a classic example of bad management: everybody knows that the hotel foreign exchange counter in most countries is a rip-off. No guest, except the inane or the super-rich, really changes much money here with its outrageous exchange rates. Most guest would walk or take a cab to the nearest bank (he's lucky if it's near or open) or some hole-in-the-wall foreign exchange booth in which he risks getting mugged, short-changed, or being handed fake bills. The hotel forex counter is not really a customer service since it compromises the finances, safety and convenience of its guest. Hotels should not make money in all it operations, or every time a customer makes a move. It should make money in delivering the total service package - thus it must be willing to break-even or even lose in some operations just to provide quality customer service. In Japan, famous for its passion for customer service excellence, it is refreshing to discover that the forex rates in all hotels and airports are the same as the bank rates.

Guests seldom take the time and effort to provide the hotel feedback on its service quality. They simply spread the good or bad word around without the hotel's knowledge. They and their friend either come back, or never return to that hotel again. To conclude, service quality in the hotel industry is the supersensitivity to, accurate assessment of, and anticipation of customers' or guests' needs and problems.


 

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