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Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The Great CAR Crash of 2021

Matt Moore

If you follow this newsletter or our Employer Resources with any regularity, you may have noticed some recurring themes over the last few months: a) big changes are happening in the world of the hospitality and tourism industries in the wake of the pandemic, and b) history indicates that, in some shape, form, or fashion, we’ve seen similar stories play out in the past.

Last month, we talked about the rise and fall of the Ice Industry, and how a catastrophic fire in San Francisco caused ripple effects around the world and changes to our systems of banking and trade that still exist today.

Catastrophic events often lead to major shifts in technology, policy, and individual mentalities of the populations that they affect. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – allegedly started by a cow kicking over a lantern in its barn – led to the invention of sky scrapers and an era of innovation and competition among architects that shaped how cities have been built around the world for the last 150 years. The hyper-inflation experienced in Germany following World War I has shaped that country’s vigilant approach to monetary and fiscal policy for over a century.

Here in the U.S., even today most of us have some passing familiarity with the great Stock Market Crash of 1929, and the ensuing Great Depression. It affected our grandparents and great-grandparents approach towards saving and investing, and now generations later, the specter of a crash causes many to view the Stock Market with trepidation and distrust.

So with history as our guide, what sort of changes might we expect in our corner of the world – the world of hospitality and tourism? Just since March of 2019, we’ve had the Flash Recession, the Supply Chain Disruption, and most recently, the Great Resignation (more on that next month!). So in that spirit, I’ll offer up a new trend we’re seeing take shape – the Great CAR Crash of 2021.

The End of the “Customer is Always Right (CAR)”

Most of us have heard this axiom at some point in our lives, but if we’re being honest, is it ever in a positive context anymore? These days, it’s usually offered up as a justification for why a customer feels they’re entitled to be an odious troll (or worse) to everyone on your staff until they get what they want.

It wasn’t always this way. The CAR mentality arose from a movement to treat all customers with equal respect and empathy, and to empower service and sales employees to truly listen to their customers and attempt to do everything in their power to meet their needs. It was a necessary change to the caveat emptor (buyer beware) mentality that many manufacturers and service providers had adopted in the first half of the 20th century. But every pendulum reaches its maximum amplitude eventually, and the pandemic has accelerated (among many norms) the declining acceptance of the CAR approach.

In our CoolWorks 2021 Employment Survey, hospitality workers overwhelmingly communicated their exasperated experiences of dealing with hostile and abusive customers in 2020 and 2021, all while working in public-facing roles in the face of a deadly pandemic. Over 63% stated that their outlook on working in hospitality and tourism had changed as a result of their most recent employment experiences. Behind wages and the cost/availability of housing, job seekers prioritized a need to feel safe in their jobs (both from exposure to disease and from verbal/physical abuse from customers) and supported by management in their workplaces.

One major issue with a “Customer is Always Right” mentality today is that it can frame your company (and as a result, your employees) as having to be wrong, which creates a hierarchy of human value within your workplace. This dynamic can be debasing, causing your employees to feel less important as human beings than your guests, placing them in situations where they may feel unsafe, eroding their morale, and ultimately driving them to seek other opportunities. No parenting book encourages teaching your children that they’re always right and should never accept otherwise – doctors aren’t trained to convey this message to patients, or teachers to students. Likewise, companies can potentially create a negative social structure within their business by weighting their organizational priorities towards customers and neglecting the experience of their staff.

So does this mean that employers and their teams should no longer focus on providing great service and memorable experiences for their guests? Of course not. At the end of the day, all of us are customers somewhere, at some point, and we all just want to be treated with respect and decency. But if prioritizing that level of service comes at the cost of employees’ physical and/or emotional wellbeing, then some changes will need to be made, or companies will run the risk of constantly losing – or never attracting – the team members they need to run their business.

Extra credit: Check out Richard Branson’s interview on why customers come second at Virgin

Refocusing on the Employee Experience

We have always encouraged employers to think of their employees as their first customers and their most valuable assets. They are the heart of your company, and your customer’s experience begins with them. So logically, the Employee Experience should be the first point of focus for every employer.

Start with your company objectives. Are they regularly identified? Do they address the success and safety of your staff? Do your mid- and upper-management teams have the training, tools, preparation, and planning in place for how to deal with unpleasant guests so that they’ll be able to quickly intervene and stand up for your employees? If so, great job! Always be looking for ways that you as an employer can enhance the experience of your team so that they feel valued and supported. If you’re not explicitly including your staff’s experience in the goals of your company, then it might be time to reevaluate. Your employees could choose to work anywhere, and they’ve chosen to contribute their time, knowledge, and energy – all irreplaceable resources – to your organization. Honor that choice by identifying and communicating to them how you hope to improve their lives while also providing a safe and memorable experience by working for you.

Once you’ve identified and defined your Employee Experience, take a look at your recruitment marketing efforts. Are you speaking to what you hope your employees will gain by joining your team, or what you hope to provide your customers? A little bit of both is fine, but remember that when you’re recruiting you’re not talking to customers – you’re trying to connect with potential employees. If, for example, your recruitment materials only talk about “providing a world-class customer experience” or “offering unparalleled service and luxury to our discerning guests” but say nothing about what you hope your employees will gain from their time working with you, red flags are going to start going up for today’s job seekers as they may tend to envision a workplace where avoiding negative online reviews outranks the well-being of employees.

Organizational Psychologist Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University (who coined the phrase “the Great Resignation”), recently pointed to how “pandemic epiphanies” are causing a society-wide shift in individual priorities. The pandemic caused many people to ask “What is it I really want to do with the limited time I have in my life?” Where we choose to work determines how we spend a large majority of that time. People are looking for opportunities that provide more flexibility (work from home, hybrid workplaces, flexible scheduling options, etc.) and a greater sense of purpose (work that provides opportunities to grow, advance in a career, make a difference or give back, experience more of the world).

Employers in all industries can meet the changing priorities of job seekers by fostering a culture of feedback and transparency, listening to what’s important to their staff, finding ways to evolve their cultures and workplaces, and making the Employee Experience an ongoing operational focus. Some of that work will be challenging and require sustained effort to effectively implement, but the employers who make those efforts will be successful in building stronger organizations, diverse and thriving teams, and better, happier customers.