To Script or Not to Script? Shifting Trends in Hotel Service

The celebrated actress Meryl Streep once said that “acting is not about being someone different,” but rather about “finding myself in there.”

 

If we look into quotes about scripts and acting, we run into a lot of stuff like this — and it’s all very fascinating in the context of high stakes movie making. But what does it tell us about real life? After all, acting is rampant in the world of service-based industry — especially in the hotel business, where guest interactions are prized and valuable.

 

Back in 2012, the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration conducted a detailed study of over 2400 American hotel customers, in which the perception of “scripted service” was rigorously tested. Among the most interesting findings was a commonly negative perception (around half) of service scripting in general. Significant numbers did, however, consider scripts valuable insofar as they led to a better completion of tasks.

 

Despite these variations, participants in the study were unanimous on one very important point. When they picked up on “surface acting,” their perception was always negative. Nobody likes it when a hotel employee — whether front desk, housekeeping or any other position — runs through the motions.

 

It’s not difficult to see why. Our industry relies on good service and the perception of good service — but neither of these things are possible when personality and warmth are extruded from guest interactions in favor of conformity and bad acting. In situations where interactions are forced to into a rigid mold, the element of service is effectively dehumanised — and the guest feels alienated as a result. We’ve all been there, and the effect is very real. Is this a person standing in front of me, or a set of corporate values and pre-packaged solutions? If I wave a hand in front of the receptionist’s face, will he or she react? Is there any hope of my problem being solved, of my request being met? Or will the script produce an ‘error’ message and a blank stare? (“The computer says no”.) Guests don’t like this feeling at all, and hoteliers should do a better job recognising its detrimental effects on service and (ultimately) on reputation.

 

At the same time, we must remember why scripted service was invented in the first place. A hotel is nothing without quality control. That includes cleanliness, amenities, fixtures, food, beverage, information, location, and yes — service.

 

The problem is, our attempts to “quality control” service are prone to backfiring. Sterilisation is an asset in the housekeeping department, but it really has no place in the complex human dynamic of service interactions. People are tired, anxious, hungry, and have problems that need solving. The last thing they want is a bad acting performance and a barrier to genuine problem solving.

 

The solution, of course, is not to do away with scripted service altogether. Tie-dye shirts and a “chilled out” attitude toward getting things done might work for a hostel on the backpacker circuit, but not for a hotel looking to maintain a standard of professionalism for business and leisure travelers. We need order. We needs tasks to be completed constantly and correctly. That’s why we have Standard Operating Procedures and processes and that’s why the service script exists; we need it to ensure that all our guests receive a consistent standard of service.

 

If we take the time to think it through, we’ll find that the answer to the scripting problem is a blend of “good acting” and license to spontaneity. Among the conclusions of the Cornell study were a series of recommendations for hoteliers who seek true quality control in service and guest interactions. These include looking closely at the “balance between task and treatment,” deciding which elements of service benefit from more flexible scripts and which elements must be rigid, training employees to be better actors, and including employees in the development of service scripts.

 

Some hotels of course have done away with scripting and instead prescribed a set of values or guidelines for staff to reflect. These allow for staff personalities to shine through within boundaries. These are all great ideas that should be taken seriously. Nobody is looking to overtake Meryl Streep in the Oscar department — but when service scripting comes into play the rules are largely the same. A convincing performance with genuine interest and spontaneity will lead to a better reception and a happier audience.

 

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