Neci Ward was instantly drawn to hospitality and has made a both dazzling and down-to-earth career of it: dazzling, because she is one of only five in the world who were recognized in 2021 as finalists in the Forbes Travel Guide’s Spa Employee of the Year competition, in her case for her work in the spa attendant role at Skana Spa at Turning Stone Resort Casino in New York—a Forbes Four Star-awarded resort; down-to-earth, because the work of hospitality, as Ward practices it, is be attuned to the every nuance of the moods and desires of the guest, “what they are feeling, not necessarily how I am feeling on a particular day, say after fighting the traffic to get to work.”

It’s a good thing Ward was drawn to this field, where she has now been a beloved and admired figure for over 15 years. The adulation from both her guests and her teammates has been such that her spa director, Shane Bird, felt moved to nominate her for the recognition sponsored by the Forbes Travel Guide. “Getting this recognition is something I never expected, for sure,” says Ward, “and while it’s certainly why I do this work, it’s a lovely recognition for the value people see in what I and my teammates do every day.” (Of the five finalists, the winner, perhaps inevitably and appropriately, was a therapist, due to the extra burden that role has carried during the extraordinary Covid era: Najla Ceman, who practices at The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown, and deserves enormous congratulations. My reason for focusing this article instead on Ward is the more purely customer service-based and less technical nature of her role as Spa Attendant.)

The personality elements of the greatest customer service and hospitality employees—and how to hire (select) for them.

Ward is clearly one in a million, though, in a different sense, one of a million—or maybe only one of a hundred thousand, if solely count up all of the dedicated, superbly trained employees who populate the ranks of only those hotels and resorts at the verifiably top echelons of hospitality, the Forbes Travel Guide-rated Four-Star and Five-Star hotels and resorts, of which there are fewer than a thousand in the entire world.

So what makes a hospitality employee on the level of a Neci Ward? Desire, beyond doubt; which both got her on the trajectory to get her this job in the first place and, she says, both got her through the slower days during Covid and the more challenging days she sometimes faces when things run less than smoothly.

And, perhaps even more importantly, something in her personal makeup that makes her just right for tuning into guests day in and day out, for “having patience, being committed, putting the guest at ease, never rushing them in any type of way­–no matter how rushed or stressed the inner voice in your own head may be telling you to be.” She is clearly cut out for a job in a way not all of us are, something she credits to strengths she learned directly from or picked up by example from her father, a pastor, who was central to her upbringing.

In addressing the question of personality makeup, all successful customer-centric organizations use some sort of screening tool to help them find employees with the personality traits of the next Neci Ward. Whatever industry you’re in, I suggest you research such tools for your company as well.  Or, for a shorter thumbnail version to get you started, take a look at my WETCO list of desirable traits for working with customers. (You’ll never forget these if you think of a big, wet dog shaking itself off outside of Petco.)

A resource for readers: If you’d like a printable, shareable copy of the WETCO personality traits, email me at micah@micahsolomon.com to ask for it (include a sentence or two about you and what you do as well, if you’d be so kind) and I’ll hook you up.

Warmth: Simple human kindness.

Empathy: The ability to sense what another person is feeling.

Teamwork: An inclination toward ‘‘Let’s work together to make this happen’’ and against ‘‘I’d rather do it all myself.’’

Conscientiousness: Detail orientation, including an ability and willingness to follow through to completion.

Optimism, specifically what psychology calls an “optimistic self-explanatory style”: the ability to bounce back and to not internalize challenges.

The customer service training that goes into a great customer-centric employee

To bring her natural aptitude to life, Ward has received a whole lot of customer service training and retraining over the years. The training element, central to the success of all high-performing four- and five-star hospitality employees shouldn’t be overlooked; it one of the elements of what makes customer service as practiced by the hospitality industry so successful and needs to be kept in mind and emulated if you’re in another industry but looking to learn from hospitality as an exemplar of just how great customer service can be.

External Training/eLearning Content: The MAMA™ Method of Customer Service Recovery

(As a customer service trainer, training designer, and custom eLearning program designer and producer myself, I’m asked with some regularity to transform companies into, say, “the Ritz-Carlton of banking,” or of tech, or even of screwdriver manufacturing, but I’ve yet to have a hotel ask me to turn them into “the CitiBank of luxury hotels.”)

Taking a “whole person” view of employees

While in some industries, “People are our most important resource” is the most cynical of platitudes, in the hospitality industry, no truer words could ever be spoken. A hospitality organization can’t succeed until it learns to effectively recruit, retain, and develop employees.

Some hospitality leaders even object to using common terms they feel reduce the importance of employees. There is nearly universal objection, for example, to the simple word “hiring” and a preference to replace it with the term and concept of “selecting.” Herve Humler, President and COO of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company [now, lamentably, emeritus], explains: “You don’t just ‘hire’ people, you carefully select them.”

The Broadmoor, the longest-running Five Star hotel and resort in the Forbes rating system, takes what they call a “whole person” view of employees: they strive to never look at an individual as a “position,” or “position-filler.” As their director of training told me: “When you think of an individual as a whole person, you’re not thinking of them as a server, you’re thinking of them as ‘Jimmy.’ Human beings, including Jimmy, have things that happen in their life. They have kids, they go on vacation, they have up days, down days, aspirations, desires, frustrations, good and bad things that are happening in their lives. If we understand the whole person, on days when Jimmy comes to work and seems not the same, we can sit down, talk with him, and see how we can help.”

The importance of giving customer service and hospitality employees input and leeway in their work

Beyond treating them humanely and as well-rounded people, one final element seems to distinguish how employees are treated in the best environments for creating exceptional service: employees there have input into the design of, and leeway in the performance of, their work. This is not entirely out of the kindness of their employers’ hearts; their employers need their employees to have this input and leeway; it’s a phenomenal, self-supporting employee development technique, and a recipe for creating levels of service that otherwise would never exist.

These principles were perhaps best stated in the documents that have guided The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company since its founding (the language used has changed only slightly over the years): “To create pride and joy in the workplace, all employees have the right to be involved in the planning of work that affects them.”

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To give Neci Ward the last word here, and make tangible how strong her “will to be hospitable” is: “I found out about this place—that a beautiful spa was being built here in Oneida/ Verona [New York], and I said, ‘That’s for me.’ I’ve always felt, and my parents taught me, that if there’s something you really want out of life, you let the person who can make that happen for you know that you want it. And I let the people at Turning Stone know, and they made it happen for me, and, I’m still here, and I love every moment.

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