Steamboat Springs When it comes to magic, John Santaniello leaves little to chance.
Santaniello, general manager of the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel and Conference Center, spoke to a gathering of Steamboat Springs business leaders this week about the creation of "magic moments" in the service industry. Even though the desired result could be described as "high touch," Santaniello's approach is anything but "touchy-feely." He focuses on deliberate goal-setting, frequent communication and fact-based decision-making in order to achieve service goals. The creation of magic moments for guests depends upon putting well-thought-out policies into writing, Santaniello believes.
"That was my greatest challenge when I got here," Santaniello said. "You've got to get this stuff in writing. If you have unwritten policies and procedures, they are never going to be understood by employees. We have to know how to prepare our staffers to know when the moment is magical -- getting to the moment is critical."
Santaniello assumed his role at the 326-room Steamboat Grand Aug. 1, 2002.
Immediately before coming to Steamboat, he held the position of general manager of lodging operations for the Keystone Resort. In that role, he said, he found himself managing condominiums and missing the environment of a full-service hotel.
Prior to Keystone, Santaniello was general manager for Laguna Brisas Spa Hotel in Laguna Beach, Calif.; hotel manager for the Mondrian in West Hollywood, Calif.; vice president for ARI-Worldwide Aircraft Charters; and held various management positions with Ritz-Carlton.
Delivering top-quality service in a resort hotel can be fairly straightforward, Santaniello told his Steamboat audience. Magic moments most often occur when hotel staffers extend themselves beyond the imaginary 10-foot cone that surrounds each guest to interact with them.
An example might be a lift operator walking through Gondola Plaza at the end of a shift. She spots a "Dad" with three sets of skis in his arms and two young children in tow. Instead of walking by without meeting their gaze because "that's not my job," the lift op stops to offer help. Then, instead of merely pointing out the ski school office, the lift op strolls over to the building with the guests.
The customer has just experienced a "magic moment" that could lead to a return visit to Steamboat.
"That's what we feel brings customers back time and time again," Santaniello said.
Creating those moments cannot be left to chance, Santaniello emphasized. It begins with hiring the right kinds of people, then making certain they are aware of what the standards are.
"We're going out to select the best team players we can, but the group needs to know what the expectations are," Santaniello said.
Proactively soliciting customer feedback is an important step, Santaniello said. But the next step is displaying that feedback to employees.
One technique Santaniello and his department heads use in pre-shift meetings is to ask individual employees the question: "What does it mean to exceed a guest's wishes?"
For employees who don't interact with customers directly, a prep cook for example, it's important to establish in their minds that they play a pivotal role in guest satisfaction.
In a small resort town, it's also important for people in the hospitality industry to understand that they represent their employer even when they are off duty.
Santaniello said he's sensitive to those issues when he's in a busy parking lot and lays off his car horn.
"People are going to recognize you and say, 'Hey, that's John of the Grand and he's being a jerk in the parking lot at City Market!'" Santaniello said, laughing.
Ulrich Salzgeber of Alpine Taxi said his company also works hard to think of other businesses and organizations in town as customers, even if they aren't direct customers.
He considers hotels as being among his customers.
"Customers are not just paying customers," Salzgeber told Santaniello. "We have to make the Grand happy. We'd better make you happy -- we think of you as a customer."
Is it possible to become too deliberate in one's approach to customer service? Santaniello believes so. A longtime manager with the Ritz-Carlton hotel group, Santaniello said employees are required to carry a card bearing the company's service credo on it.
"I can't tell you how crazed the Ritz-Carlton employees were about that credo," he said. "They were required to carry it in their pockets. They owned and engaged the credo."
Ritz-Carlton went as far as scripting proper ways to enter and exit conversations with customers, Santaniello said. That could be going too far.
"It can become so contrived it's robotic," he said.
The goal is to encourage customer interaction that feels genuinely caring.
Salzgeber believes magic moments in customer service can be created by customers as well as by employees.
"It's a philosophy of life," Salzgeber said. "I get great service in restaurants when other people are complaining. Why is that?"