Keeping the Smile in ‘Service with a Smile:’ How to Deliver Service Beyond the Mask

Customer service

What has happened to customer service? It is the essence of, and foundation upon, which our industry has been built. Excellent customer service is quickly becoming a thing of the past. We see it every day in the long hold times for major corporations (if you can reach anyone that isn’t a robot), the never-ending phone tree systems, and the inability of many service-oriented businesses to make us feel welcome, or, at the very least, appreciated.

What business used to consider the number-one priority—the adage, “the customer is always right”—seems to have shifted in the past decade. We can chalk a lot of this change up to the use of social media and the short-form communication Twitter has instilled in today’s information sharing. Then there’s the advent of the “self-service” website now being used to facilitate our needs and take the place of the customer service representative. For instance, who hasn’t had a conversation with a chatbot in the past 30 days?

When you add in the mandatory use of face masks and the addition of plexiglass barriers at customer touchpoints, customer service seems to have suffered a quick, painful death. After all, if you are a person who doesn’t smile with your eyes, it can be difficult to see if you are smiling at all. While the social media generation has a different outlook, even seeming to accept sub-par customer service as the norm, it may be time to re-invigorate the notion of true customer service, especially during a time when customers need it most.

Is Customer Service Dead?

We’ve talked about how important it is to answer your phones during this time, to ensure your website is up to date with local, state, and brand guidelines and your OTA presence reflects your current restrictions. What we haven’t talked about is the weight of today’s restrictions on our frontline workers—those who answer the phones and greet guests when they arrive.


However, when you can’t see the smile, how do you maintain the axiom, “service with a smile?” How can we better communicate to our guests that we are happy to see them and that we are here to provide them with excellent customer service?

Certainly, there is fatigue occurring as restrictions ebb and flow. Concerns about job security abound as many frontline workers have been furloughed. But for employees who continue to service the weary traveler, customer service and a friendly face are more important than ever before.

While many workers may be doing the best they can greeting guests from behind their masks, there are those who may have forgotten that a simple smile will be hidden and not be seen by the guest. Without a friendly greeting, amiable conversation, or asking the standard questions about how they can make a guest’s stay more enjoyable, it can appear that the front-desk employee has been replaced by an automaton.

Five Ways to Up Your Service with a Smile Game

Now is not the time to let fatigue set a new standard. After all, we are all suffering from the ongoing upheaval in one way or another. What we don’t want to do is forget that customer service is the foundation of the hospitality industry. Here are simple steps to work with your team:

  • Engage the guest with words — A simple smile to acknowledge the guest isn’t possible today, which means your staff will need to engage with the guest through conversation. It can be as simple as asking how their day was and, more importantly, thanking them for choosing your hotel.
  • Explain how things have changed — For many guests, their stay at your hotel might be the first time they’ve been in a hotel since this all started. What they experience today won’t be the same as it was pre-COVID. Having a brief personal script that tells them about the changes can personalize the experience. It might even be different if it’s the first time they’ve stayed in your hotel vs. a returning guest.
  • Highlight what is still available — Standard protocols may have significantly shifted. Informing guests what is and is not available, such as take-out food from the hotel restaurant or bar, is an important part of not only guest services but also revenue. If your hotel still has specific amenities available, be sure all front-desk staff are aware of them and proactively communicate them to incoming guests. Failure to tell a guest that the restaurant is available for grab-and-go items, or the bar will allow drinks in the room, can result in lost revenue.
  • Be ready to help them fill the gaps — Your hotel might not have the same services it once had. Your staff needs to be prepared to help guests fill those services. Where is the best coffee and Danish locally? Is the pizza joint around the corner a great place to get a slice? Is Uber Eats a good option? You have the opportunity to service your guest and help out locally owned businesses.
  • Keep the personality in your personnel — Masks mean we can’t see the person behind the plexiglass. Consider displaying framed selfies of your team members during their shift. Make it personal by sharing something about that team member. You can change up the personal question every so often to keep it fresh.

Guests are just as anxious as us. Our hospitality will go a long way to alleviate those fears. But not if we don’t work at it.

Today’s Smiles Will Result in Return Business

From sales to the front desk, today more than ever before, we must ensure our guests understand how much we appreciate their business. We all have bad days, but for those who represent your organization, it may be time for a new strategy, a new line of training to help your staff convey emotion through the mask.

Whatever you do, it is important to help your staff understand that business is fragile and if a customer is left feeling alienated, it is likely they will stay elsewhere the next time they select a hotel. Or even worse, provide a bad review that could affect sales in the future. You’ve done the hard work of getting heads in the beds—make sure front-desk and service staff understand and buy into the new strategies of customer service from behind the mask.

Your guests will remember the extra effort and that extra effort will likely result in the brand loyalty you will need as our industry moves into recovery in 2021 and beyond.

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Kristi White is chief product officer for Knowland. As a hospitality veteran by trade, with two decades of experience in the hotel and revenue management side of the industry, White has a pulse on the needs of hospitality group business. She has advised hundreds of hotels worldwide on improving their business strategy, hotel performance, and overall profitability. She is a recognized expert in hotel group sales and meeting intelligence and a frequent speaker at industry conferences and universities, as well as a former member of the Board of Directors for the HSMAI Revenue Management Special Interest Group. White also began a podcast entitled “Bring It On” during the pandemic to provide useful information from industry experts to help the industry with recovery: