Service Breakdown: A Failure of Leadership

After thirty-five plus years in the hospitality business in both hotels and private clubs, I can state categorically that poor service comes from poor leadership.  Show me an operation with poor, shoddy, inconsistent service, and I’ll show you an organization with a failure of leadership.  This observation flows from the understanding that leaders who recognize service problems in their organization will take corrective action.  They will establish a plan of action, set priorities, lead employees to execute the plan, and follow through to completion.

Why, then, is poor service so often the rule rather than the exception?  I have met many competent, hard-working, and professional general managers who voiced a clear and unequivocal service vision for their operations.  They understood the need for well-defined standards, thorough training of employees, and constant reinforcement of service ideals within their organizations.  Yet, they struggle to establish and maintain high standards of service.  While we all recognize the many demands on our time, the challenge of employee turnover, the training burden in a detail-intensive business, time constraints, and ever-present budget pressures, these are not the root problem.

In examining this challenge that never seems to go away, I believe I have discovered the most significant source of the problem – the lack of well developed and consistent leadership skills among subordinate managers, those who direct the day-to-day activities of the operation’s line employees.  While the general manager may clearly understand and articulate the requirements of service, unless that “gospel” is communicated faithfully, consistently, and continuously to line employees by their immediate supervisors, there is a breakdown in the service message.

Throughout my career I have inherited or hired front line supervisors whose background, experience, and education should have prepared them for the challenges they would face daily in our business.  While most had more than adequate technical skills to execute their responsibilities, they were often lacking in a critical aspect of leadership – how to direct and motivate employees to achieve high levels of quality and excellence.

While some front line supervisors demonstrated exceptional leadership skills, many did not.  Often my biggest problems were created by supervisors who did not treat their employees properly, who did not communicate expectations, and who did not seem to understand or follow the most basic requirements of leading or managing people.  These profound failings were crippling to the organization and required many hours of counseling, training, and, in some cases, terminations to remedy.

Over time I realized that any focus on training of line employees to smile and be friendly was a waste of time until I could be assured that supervisors developed basic leadership skills.  From that point on, I focused my efforts on training supervisors.  Regardless of background or education, I wanted them to learn to be effective leaders, to paint and preach a vision of excellence for their staff, establish goals, communicate expectations, provide support and training to their employees, and solve the inevitable problems that arise when people work in a service context.

The training called for a clear vision for hospitality operations and guiding principles that would shape our efforts.  I made it clear to supervisors that our employees were truly our most important resource, and they must be treated with dignity and respect.  Supervisors were told that their primary job was to provide direction, support, and training for their employees and that, based on their experience or education; I held them to a higher standard.  I also provided detailed guidance on how to develop line employees and correctly counsel and discipline when necessary.  Finally, I put a positive emphasis on communication and problem discovery.  In time these concepts were formalized into a leaders’ handbook which was issued to newly-hired supervisors.

How successful was I in achieving my ends?  I would frankly admit that the results were mixed.  While some supervisors responded positively, others seemed incapable or unwilling to grasp basic leadership principles.  These, typically, after much invested time and effort, were encouraged to take their talents elsewhere.  But on the whole, the effort yielded improved employee morale, lower turnover, better two-way communication, and a more upbeat team spirit among all staff.  We still struggled with budget and time constraints on training, but we were far better off than we would have been without the effort.

Consistency and high levels of service will always be a challenge in business.  Without competent and committed leaders at all levels, general managers will always be trying to “do it all.”  In time they will burn out or be forced to compromise their standards.  In either case the result is service breakdown.

Thanks and have a great day!

Ed Rehkopf

This weekly blog comments on and discusses the club industry and its challenges. From time to time, we will feature guest bloggers – those managers and industry experts who have something of interest to say to all of us. We also welcome feedback and comment upon the blog, hoping that it will become a useful sounding board for what’s on the minds of hardworking club managers throughout the country and around the world.

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