Today, the Novotel London West in Hammer-smith is a quality hotel and convention centre with a turnover of £25m and 180 permanent staff supplemented by 70 agency employees. However, four years ago it was an ordinary tourist hotel offering ever lower prices and struggling to shake off a poor reputation with its staff and customers.
The French parent company, Accor, decided it needed to reverse this decline, so it brought in a new general manager, Ren Angoujard, and invested 30m on converting the hotel into a convention centre.
Angoujard says: “Having invested that much in the building, it was important that we also invested in our staff to ensure they provided a service that was consistent with a four-star convention centre.”
He spent a year searching for an HR director who was prepared to take on the challenge, and eventually hired Helen Kalyan. Together with Angoujard’s assistant, they formed a project team and developed a service philosophy called ‘Service Extraordinaire’.
The first stage of the training programme was to agree four standards:
– Look professional – be professional
– Greet every guest and colleague
– Look after your hotel
– Be positive.
These were devised through consultation with hotel guests and employees and by observing other convention centres and service-orientated companies, such as airlines. The team set the launch date of 4 November 2002 and gave all employees one month to prepare for it.
Each employee had a three-hour training session on the changes and Angoujard also wrote to all of them, explaining Service Extraordinaire and enclosing a credit card-style reminder listing the four standards.
Kalyan admits it was difficult to alter the mindset of some employees, however.
“Many people had been here a long time and had developed a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude,” she says. “They were resistant to change, and we had to work really hard to show how much this initiative would benefit individuals as well as the hotel.”
A major step forward was the decision to appoint 10 coaches. The team advertised internally, promising training to successful applicants and received 37 applications. After training on coaching they were expected to do regular checks of areas of the hotel, directly addressing any gaps in service and coaching fellow employees on how to get it right. Kalyan believes it was this more than anything else that helped to build a culture of excellent service.
Two years on, the scheme has been a success. Employee satisfaction has risen from 58% in 2002 to 88%. Staff turnover has fallen from 78.1% to 34.2% in the same period. There has been a 70% increase in repeat bookings, indicating that customers are choosing to stay at the Novotel rather than simply ending up there because everywhere else is full. Customer satisfaction is now at 99%, and there was a 9% sales increase between 2003 and 2004. The hotel was recently awarded the ‘Customer Service Strategy of the Year’ award in the National Business Awards.
Angoujard estimates that the scheme has cost the business around £150,000 each year, but he is certain that the investment has been worthwhile. Every morning the hotel asks randomly selected guests for quick feedback. “It’s the first thing I read when I come in every morning. It used to be full of complaints, which we had to sort out, but now it’s an absolute dream. We haven’t had an individual member of staff criticised for 18 months now.”
The project is ongoing. In phase three the project team launched the 10 behaviours that relate to the four standards, and they are now about to enter phase six, in which they will be applying those generic behaviours to specific departments and jobs. As Angoujard says: “Service Extraordinaire had a start, but it has no ending. We will always strive to improve what we do.”
Learning points for HR
Kalyan advises other HR managers who are attempting to improve the service levels of their organisations to consider it from the employee point of view.
“I’ve spent most of my career working in operations rather than HR, so I have a good understanding of the pressures people in the hospitality industry face. If I didn’t, then I would have made sure I asked them before introducing something like this.”
Three years ago, Delphine Delacroix was working on reception at the Novotel London West. When she saw the advertisements for coaches she applied, believing it would be a good way to advance her career.
“My colleagues were very happy for me when I got the job,” she recalls. “They saw it as a great opportunity and it really has been. I’ve received training in customer service and coaching and have since been promoted to become a banqueting operations supervisor.”
The most difficult aspect has been coaching her peers, but she feels her training stood her in good stead.
“I like to lead by example, and the experience has taught me such a lot. I expect to be with the Novotel for some time and hope to keep progressing towards a management role.”