Aneta Korobkina – Service strategy designer, International business trainer and speaker on customer service and leadership

Everybody in the hospitality industry knows about customer service and how important it is for the company. What is your definition of customer service? What are the main “ingredients” of service excellence for hotels?
It is very interesting how everybody knows it is very important and yet not much is done to truly say we are guest-oriented or as the trends are saying human-oriented. For me customer service = profits. But if you ask me how I define it, I would say, “Outstanding customer service is a mix of great processes and amazing people, which gives the desired result (profit).” What does this mean? Many times, I get requests for employee training and when we do a full-service analysis we find out, the problem is not the people but the processes and procedures which prevent employees from being guest-oriented and providing excellent service. Many times, hotels concentrate on making money today rather than looking into the far future and make decisions based on where they want to be in 5-10-20 years from now. Let me give you one very simple example to get a better idea. If you argue now with your guest about 15$ parking, which comes from misunderstanding each other, you will lose that guest and probably many more. So today you are happy you earned 15$ but think how much you will lose in the future.
If you design your service strategy to work in the long term, you will truly see the results. As they say: “Rome was not built in a day.” So, I always say, to be unique and have outstanding service, which will bring revenue in the long term, you need to work on service strategy aligning processes and people with your vision.
What is your opinion on the development of the industry in recent years? How would you describe the market in Russia and CIS countries? What are the main trends and topics that need more attention nowadays, and what are the positive changes that you see already happening?
I believe Russia and CIS countries are still undiscovered pearls of the world. There is great potential for any kind of tourism here and with the development of tourism comes the need for accommodation. However, there is no clear strategy or plan. I personally see little bit chaotic movements, hotels build without analysis and further understanding what we will do with them, I see single hotels and regions working separately on attracting guests instead of all of them working together. In my opinion, in this part of the world, only Georgia has actually started slowly to use its potential.
Talking about the trends, I would say that one of the first ones is the true local experience. This also is a threat to hotels because many tourists use Airbnb. One reason for this might be because it is more affordable but also because it gives you an opportunity to experience an authentic way of life in the location you are visiting. Hotels need to be really creative to catch up with this trend. The other day I had a friend traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg for a weekend and she booked an apartment with her family for an actually much higher price than a hotel. When I asked: “Why?” She responded: “We wanted to feel living in an apartment in the city center and experience the life of the locals.” I am not a huge fan of Airbnb, but I tried it when traveling to Vienna once and, to be honest, that was a great local experience.
Then I must mention personalization as a major trend for hotels. The rise of big data gives a huge opportunity to work with the preferences of guests. I believe, nowadays guests more than ever want to be treated as individuals, rather than just another check-in number. This will definitely have an effect on the guest’s loyalty; thinking: “I can get over the local experience since at this hotel they know me, they treat me great and they appreciate me.”
Technology as a trend, in general, is something I believe we can write a whole book about. Here I would mention Smart Hotels (use of internet-enabled devices). You can pretty much do everything on your mobile phone. Then the use of artificial intelligence (use of chatbots in communication with guests). Then I will continue with the use of virtual reality, especially when it comes to the process of booking. Instead of looking at photos on your computer, you can actually experience the hotel and understand if this is the place where you want to spend your vacation. Just imagine the difference where we are now and where we were about 10 years ago when most of us were still going to a travel agency to choose a hotel for vacation.
And I guess the last trend I would like to mention is Bleisure. I believe hotels’ job will be to provide great service if they want to keep their guest 1-2 days extra with fast communication, excellent access to information. What is “Bleisure”? Combining business travel with leisure activities. This is very popular among the millennial generation. Something I am trying out as well. Mobile apps are of huge help when it comes to this. In general, I am a very optimistic person and look positively on the changes in the world. However, the hospitality industry is a very traditional industry and I have seen only a few positive changes so far in our region. Most of the changes and trends I have seen are in the chain hotels.
One of the questions we ask hospitality executives is what the skills are they are looking for in the person when deciding to include them in their teams. The question we want to ask you is “the other side of the coin”: What are the main skills that managers should have to keep their team motivated, happy and disciplined?
This can be a really long answer. Growing professionally, I have come to the conclusion that the qualities of the executives are much more important than the qualities of employees. In my experience, I can say that even if you take a non-experienced line employee and you put them under the wing of a great executive, these employees will make miracles happen.
I would say the first and the most important quality is “leading by example” or “walking the talk.” Here passion, honesty, and integrity play a huge role.
As a leader, most of your job is to inspire team members to push themselves, to do their best and to grow. You cannot do this without passion, integrity, and honesty. You cannot do this if you are not doing it yourself already. For example, I am a very passionate and demanding manager, but also, I am very demanding to myself as well. For me, there is no big difference between leading your children at home and your employees at work. Children will not do what you say but will do what they see you are doing. Secondly, I would say creativity and being a great communicator are important qualities. If you want to be ahead in today’s VUCA world, you must be creative and innovative at the same time. Creative thinking and constant innovation are what make you and your team stand out. Use the trial and error system because if you wait too long to get to the perfect state, it’s going to be late already. Most importantly, you need to improve throughout the process. On the other side, what I regularly see happening is that the leader’s vision, innovation, and the idea of where we want to be is not clearly communicated to the team members. So, the team feels lost and does not work at the highest performance level. Therefore, learn to be a great, transparent communicator. Don’t forget that words have the power to motivate people and make them do the unthinkable.
Thirdly, I would mention empathy and empowerment. The time of the dictatorial style of leadership is long time over. Developing closer connections with your employees, understanding their problems and feeling them is a great way of improving performance. Setting standards and principles of behavior help a lot. At the end of the day, employees are not robots, even robots break down sometimes so develop your empathy to the level where you will be able to feel your employees without even asking a question. And the last but not the least quality I would mention is empowerment. As they say, “If you want to go alone, go fast; if you want to go far, go together” Empower your employees, give them tasks, mentor and coach them. If you continue to micromanage your team, it will develop a lack of trust. Give them a chance to be responsible by providing them with all the resources and support they need to achieve the objective. If they make a mistake, take responsibility and continuously improve the skills of your team.
You also do a lot of business training all over the world for different companies. What are the main topics that hotels want trainings for their staff?
Yes, that’s true. There are 10 countries on my list for now. Mostly hotels but also a lot of other industries that believe they can improve service in their companies, such as banks, retail, and pharmaceutical companies.
The most popular topic is developing leadership skills, followed by service excellence, where we work on conflict prevention, empathy, love for yourself and others, etc.
There are also requests for sales training but I always say, “learn to keep and satisfy your current clients and they will bring new once” There is no point in teaching selling skills when your employees do not have the basic communication skills to provide outstanding service.
Also, here I would mention the importance of implementing blended learning for the best results. Blended learning is a mix of traditional face-to-face education and mobile education. There are many mobile applications but the one I personally recommend is Service Guru. It is a mix of education, communication, and motivation.
What I find very interesting is that if other industries understand the complexity of the problem and ask for a long-term strategy, our hospitality industry is still trying to solve the issues with a pill (one-time training). When I talk about service strategies, they seem to not realize the potential they must work on in the long term, rather than operating just from today to tomorrow.

Photo: Moscow Marriott Hotel Novy Arbat