Culture: The Secret Ingredient to Excellent Service Quality in Hospitality - Intercultural Insights
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Intercultural & Business
Culture: The Secret Ingredient to Excellent Service Quality in Hospitality
June 20, 2017

If there is a place where customers pay special attention to the quality of the service they receive, it is in the hospitality industry. As such, not surprisingly, hotels invest a significant amount of time and money into equipping their employees with fairly sophisticated soft skills such as anticipating guests’ needs, paying individual attention, service when promised or the ultimate objective of exceeding guests’ expectations.

What is often overlooked in this context are the general conditions under which a service encounter takes place. In today’s globalized economy, hotel chains operate all around the world while trying to maintain their philosophy and quality standards through a strong corporate culture. The industry is also known to be one of the most inclusive and diverse employment environments. At the same time, with the rise in human mobility, the hotels’ clientele is becoming increasingly diverse in culture.

Trying to achieve excellent service quality while not paying attention to these factors is like serving an exquisite meal without tableware. Trying to meet or even exceed a guest’s expectations requires a careful look at one’s own and the guest’s frame of reference, which is based on beliefs, preferences, values and other elements of culture.

Let’s look at some examples of seemingly “universal” soft skills for successful hotel employees:

Exhibiting good manners

While a guest from a culture with high power distance might expect hotel staff with  “good manners” to act  submissively and obediently, a guest from a low power distance culture could expect cordial and inquisitive behaviour.

Smile at work

While smiling might be considered an essential part of a service encounter in some cultures, others view it as completely inappropriate. While in Anglo­-American cultures “a service with a smile” is highly valued, in Israel, smiling might be interpreted as sign of inexperience, and some Muslim cultures could view a female smiling at a male as an indication of sexual interest.

Service when promised

Different perceptions of time can make this attribute an obstacle. While in monochronic cultures, time is viewed as a distinct commodity, and tasks tend to be carried out one after another, in polychronic cultures, time is viewed more flexibly, and multiple tasks tend to be handled concurrently. Hence, the hotel staff needs to have an understanding of their guest’s sense of time, whether exact or relative, precise or casual in order to meet expectations.

As the above examples show, culture can create multiple pitfalls to achieving excellent service quality. Increasing the employee’s cultural sensitivity can help reduce the gaps. With an understanding of the spectrum of cultural preferences that may exist in a service encounter, employees have higher potential to satisfy their guest’s expectations. Ultimately, culturally sensitive employees are the key to achieving high service quality standards in international hotels, which can lead to a competitive advantage over hotels in which employees are lacking these skills.

Akteos’ Cultural Profiler of the Nomad’ Network is a valuable tool for this endeavour. With ten dimensional categories about one’s view of society, working style and relationship to others, it allows getting a better understanding of one’s own cultural baggage. With this information on hand, cultural profiles by country and company can be created and contrasted with one’s own profile. Customized cultural awareness trainings offered by Akteos Asia can help sensitizing for cultural cues and practicing the appropriate behaviours in intercultural service encounters.


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About author

Carolin Barr

Carolin Barr

Carolin is German national with more than 10 years of international experience. After her academic study in Austria and Indonesia, she gained professional experience in commercial and non­profit organizations in Germany, Singapore, the United States and the Netherlands. Carolin holds a Master of Arts degree in Cross-Cultural Communication and worked as Intercultural Consultant for Akteos Netherlands before relocating back to Singapore and joining Timeo-Performance and Akteos Asia.

There are 2 comments

  • Avatar Charlie Spencer says:

    Two items jumped out at me in this article.

    The first was comparing service without considering culture to serving a great meal without utensils. Aren’t there a number of cultures where food is still eaten with the hands, or where at least some foods are eaten that way? I’d overlook the comparison in another context, but it doesn’t seem to work in a multi-cultural one.

    The other was the overall topic in general. On the rare occasions I travel outside the US, I don’t expect the same style of service I get at home. I have different expectations here at home, depending more on the size of the facility and the surrounding area than anything else. It strikes me as one of those cases where the traveler should conform to local custom. There are too many people going different places from diverse backgrounds for individual local staff to conform to all of their accustomed behaviors. Besides, how is the staff supposed to know where a guest is from?

    “When in Rome…”

    • Avatar Carolin Barr says:

      Hi Charlie,

      I appreciate your comments.

      As for the analogy of culture and tableware, the latter could also very well be a banana leaf for a meal eaten by hand. The point is, culture is the basis for service quality expectation.

      As for your second comment, hotel staff certainly can’t and shouldn’t possibly study each guests’ individual cultural service preferences. The aim is rather to increase the staffs’ overall cultural awarness and intelligence to enable them to navigate effortlessly along the spectrums of guest preferences based on the cultural cues they identified.

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