Wisdom from the Front Desk

November 24, 2015

When I was a young receptionist at a 5 star hotel in the late 1970s, my colleague and I had a brilliant idea: Use Australian slang to spice up guest interactions. We called the women “luv” and the men “mate.” When someone asked to use the house phone, we offered the handset and told them to “ask the Sheila on the other end to help”.  Gulp!


File under “seemed like a good idea at the time” and “lucky I wasn’t fired.” If anyone pulled a stunt like that when I was managing hotels, I can’t tell you how swift the disciplinary action would be. After all, the front desk of a hotel is not a laboratory for social experiments. It’s the front line of customer service, the first opportunity to make or break a customer experience.


I admit that as a former hotelier, I have pretty high expectations as to what constitutes good front desk service. But the expectations of non-hotelier guests are higher still. Not knowing what goes on behind the scenes only heightens the need for front desk staff to be in top form (shock, horror) all the time.


So how is this accomplished? What goes into an impeccable front desk?


A marble top, sit-down desk or personal receptionist and signature scent all add to the pedigree of the experience, but it really boils down to the interactions between staff and guests.


Here are some of the key attributes I look for in a good hotel receptionist:


  • It’s all about the eyes! I can’t believe the number of times I’ve watched the eyes of a receptionist remain glued to the computer, finishing some sacred task rather than focussing on the guest arriving in front of them. This is not good! Front desk staff should acknowledge guests as soon as they can see them, and smile. There is no task more important than giving your guests a visceral, positive feeling from the start.


  • They are genuinely friendly and make the guest feel they are the only one in the room. A ringing phone? Other rude guests trying to butt in? 10 people in a queue? The seasoned professional takes it all in their stride and gives each guest their full attention in the moment. They may excuse themselves to answer the phone, but only to ask the caller to hold. They might smile at customers waiting, but that is only so they rest easy whilst the guest at the front receives the service they have paid for.


  • They don’t treat guests like criminals when a card defaults. It can happen to anyone. The guest may have forgotten to pay their card on time, or overspent on that particular card. Perhaps the last hotel didn’t release the pre-authorization in time, and the card is temporarily over limit. The point is, good staff don’t make the situation any more embarrassing than it has to be. They explain, apologise and ask for another card or cash.


  • They know their city. As a hotel guest, I often ask for directions or recommendations. It’s amazing how frequently the front desk isn’t sure and has to ask someone else. I’ve run several hotels in which exploring the local area, and enhancing the guest experience through first-hand knowledge, was a standard part of the front desk training. Guests love it when the person at the front desk has valuable information at the ready.


  • They understand that grumpy guests are people too. My plan to use slang with guests was ill-fated, yes—but at least it was good-natured. I wanted to be a really good receptionist, one who made every grumpy guest smile at least once. I understood that people came to us direct from planes that may have been late, or 500 mile car journeys, or meetings that may have been intense. Instead of taking that grumpiness personally, I tried to work out how to make guests happier.


Those of us with a few years of industry experience know that some hotels emphasise physical attributes over things like emotional intelligence and local knowledge. This is a mistake. Of course the outward presentation is important—but personality, attitude and tangible sense of commitment have an even greater impact on guest experiences and expectations.


To gain the maximum impact, there’s no need for lavish front desk remodeling, and there’s certainly no need for embarrassing slang. Given the right tools, training and (most importantly) disposition, front desk staff are capable of giving you an immaculate front desk all by themselves.



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