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What is great service?

by Andrea on December 10, 2010

Great service can often be found in a quirky detail – like the incredible care and attention that head barman Antonio puts into serving your martini at the Egerton House Hotel

There’s good service and then there’s great service.  I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about the difference between the two.

Great service doesn’t have to require a huge effort.  A concierge arranging to pick your car up – when you left it in Frankfurt and need it in London – is great service; but so is finding out what that film was that I saw half of last night and can’t remember what channel it was on.

Yes, we always remember something that went way beyond the call of duty – but sometimes great service is just about recognising what a customer wants before they actually work it out themselves and giving it to them.

I’ve seen a guest reach the door of a London hotel, look at the dismal rain and wince.  And a member of staff quickly came over with an umbrella and held it out to him.  That got a smile and solved the problem before the customer needed to ask.  Hotels with great service understand this.

Great service doesn’t have to be showy.  Waiters at the Crillon in Paris have the theatre of service down to a fine art; they’ll put the plates in front of a table full of diners then lift every cover at once in precise harmony.

But the thing that makes them great, not just good, is that they never once interrupt a conversation to ask whether you’re ready to order or whether you’d like anything else; they hover, unnoticed, until there is a lull in the conversation and a moment that gives them their opportunity.

I think the key to it is that you can achieve good service by having the right procedures and the right scripts.  But great service comes only when you’ve trained staff to listen to customers and think about what those customers really want.  It’s often about tiny noticeable touches.

Staff at the top-rated Milestone Hotel in Kensington are trained to listen to customers’ very specific needs and provide “tiny noticeable touches” at every opportunity

Check rates at the Milestone Hotel

A nice instance of great service I experienced recently was when I had struggled womanfully to try to finish a massive main course, and simply couldn’t.  But I was determined to have a dessert, as I knew the sorbets were something special.  I ordered.  And right away, the waiter asked me: “Would you like that now, or would you like a little time to digest?”

Of course I’d like ten minutes to digest!  What a star – instead of rushing me through my meal, he’d given me the chance to set my own pace.  And he’d done so in a nice tactful way too.

Great service can sometimes be very simple.  It’s got nothing to do with wearing uniforms, or calling guests ‘sir’ or ‘madam’, or ceremoniousness.  I don’t need my bags carried for me – I never travel with more than a day pack – and I almost never use taxis, so don’t call one for me.

But I do want to know where’s a good jogging track near the hotel – and what the weather is going to be like if I go out for a run.

You can achieve ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ by writing a script – but you can only provide what customers really want if you listen to them (one hotel that should know better had a doorman who once tried to call me a taxi when I was dressed in running kit, probably because the staff manual said ‘Always call a taxi’. That really was an own goal!).

I’ve had great service in 4 and 5 star hotels.  I’ve also had great service in a budget hotel, when I was tired and checking in late, and the desk clerk could see I was hassled. “Look, here’s your key, get some sleep, and we’ll do the rest in the morning,” she said. “Just don’t run off without paying us!”  Now that was great service on a par with the best London hotels.

Finally, a luxury London hotel that consistently excels in providing great service is Hotel 41 (currently the number one London hotel on TripAdvisor).

The reason why Hotel 41 is the current TripAdvisor London number 1 has everything to do with superb staff who are trained to offer attentive yet never intrusive service

Check rates at Hotel 41

Photo credits: Egerton House Hotel, Milestone Hotel, Hotel 41.

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