NATIONAL REPORT—We’ve all seen them: viral videos of customer-service nightmares with irate customers blowing up, and employees trying to do their best to deflate the situation. It is the worst nightmare of any business.
When you are a business owner, you trust that your employees will be able to handle any customer service situation they may encounter. You train them, but unfortunately, there isn’t always enough time to handle all of the various scenarios employees may face.
Now, Forbes Travel Guide has a new way to train employees for the wide variety of customer-service situations they may face, all from their cellphones or tablets: the Star Coach app.
The idea for the app came out of the feedback the company heard from participants of its in-person training, which included a number of role-playing activities. “We have learning and development experts who will go to a hotel, restaurant or spa and train the employees,” said Laurel Mocklar, VP of product with Forbes Travel Guide. ”What we would have clients say to us as we left the property is, ‘This is great; I loved role-playing with the trainer. I want to keep this going. How do we keep the learning going?’”
The company was looking to do just that and found the solution when its sister company, Sharecare, acquired a voice analysis technology. “As soon as we saw a demonstration of that technology, we realized how applicable it would be for the hospitality industry and that it really answered that question of ‘How can I have my employees practice during the training session and not just role-play in a training session?’” she said.
The app features a variety of video scenarios (57 at press time) employees might face on the job, including a guest complaining about the sheets, another asking for a room upgrade and one who appears to have had too much to drink.
The developers hired actors to make the scenarios as realistic as possible. “We hired real actors to play those parts, in part because we wanted them to be high quality, but we also wanted to be able to elicit that emotion you would feel in a real guest interaction,” said Mocklar. “So when a guest is angry in a scenario, we want you to have that sense of feeling nervous and feeling put on the spot and to respond like it is a real situation even though it is obviously virtual.”
After viewing a scenario, the employee speaks into his or her device, and that is when the voice analysis technology does its job. The technology analyzes the fractal patterns in the voice that reveal the user’s confidence, level of emotional involvement, effort to connect to the guest and overall stress. The training tool provides instant feedback and guidance on best-practice behaviors. With this immediate feedback and through repetition, service providers are able to improve their guest interaction and, ultimately, provide a better guest experience.
“Instead of analyzing your words, grammar or tone, Star Coach detects underlying brain wave patterns in your voice that reveal remarkable intelligence about your stress, energy level and, most importantly, mindset,” she said. “It is analyzing what is going on underneath the words you say, and even under how you try to sound—so putting on your best phone voice, as it were, does not necessarily connect with the guest if your emotional state isn’t in the right place.”
Training is not just about knowing the right words to say. “That is obviously very important, but then it is how you make the emotional connection with the guest,” she said. “How do you get the guest to feel like you are paying attention to them, feel like you understand their concerns and that you take their concerns seriously?” Guests also want to feel like you know what you are doing, that you can help them. “All are things that you can’t train from a handbook,” Mocklar said.
Through repetition, users can improve their score and that will lead to better customer interaction. “It gives employees a chance to role-play repeatedly in a really comfortable environment,” said Mocklar. “This really puts it right in your hand on an iPhone or Android device where you can practice repeatedly and try different things in how you would address a guest, or how you would handle their problem, or how you would respond to a compliment. It gives the employee the chance to practice not just one time, but again and again.”
She continued, ”Ultimately, you get to a point where you understand what it takes for you to feel more confident or more emotionally involved, or more connected with the other person. Then you can unite that with what you know the correct words are to say. It is getting that internal state to align with that correct response that you know you have to give.”
Mocklar said that she has heard feedback from both new and experienced employees who have trained on the app. “From people who are newer to the hospitality industry, we have had them tell us this is so great because they are new to working at a front desk,” she said, adding that they like to have the opportunity to practice some of these situations before they are faced with them in real life.
The experienced employees will often say they don’t need the training—at first. “A lot of them will say, ‘I didn’t really think that I needed training, because I have been doing this job for a long time and I know what I am supposed to say to the guest,’” she said. “But what is interesting is that Star Coach is kind of holding a mirror up to your emotional state and your energy and your stress levels, and for more seasoned employees who can reflect on those results, they begin to realize that there are patterns in their interactions that they might not have been aware of.”
In some cases, experienced employees might score higher than the ideal level of confidence. “When you score above something, it is not necessarily good,” said Mocklar. “You are aiming for that target range, which is that colored portion on each bar. There are benefits and drawbacks when you score above or below, but if you are scoring way high on confidence, you might actually be coming across as being very brash or arrogant to other people and you may not even realize it.”
Hotel operators are able to monitor their employees’ use of the app. “We provide the manager—usually a learning and development manager or an HR manager—with a monthly report that shows them, for each employee of the program, how often they practiced, how many minutes they spent and who didn’t practice, so they can keep tabs on their own employees’ use of the application,” she said.
The Boston Harbor Hotel is one of those operators that has used the app to train employees. “The Boston Harbor Hotel has always been a big proponent of role-playing during team and departmental meetings to solve issues and further enhance the guest experience,” said Stephen Johnston, managing director/general manager. “This app has allowed our associates to role-play individually during times that are convenient to their schedules, while still gaining many of the same benefits that come from a group setting.”
The hotel initially rolled out the app in phases to different leadership levels. “As with everything we do in the hospitality industry, it is very important to have everyone engaged across all departments and all levels,” he said. “Star Coach will be the next phase of our already immersive Forbes Travel Guide culture, and will begin at orientation for every new employee joining the Boston Harbor Hotel team. For our colleagues who are already actively engaging in Star Coach, we do weekly check-ins to review progress and gauge the success of the program.”
Johnston has seen a difference in his employees’ interactions with guests. “The app’s ability to analyze an employee’s emotional engagement levels through voice intonations has brought a new level of awareness to all of us when approaching guest situations verbally. Employees who readily use the app and integrate it into their daily or weekly schedules have shown great success in enhancing their confidence levels and interpersonal skills,” he said. HB