Communication, accountability and recognition are the goals of Stark Service Solutions' newest launch: an app that provides a seamless guest experience and promotes a motivational team environment. Company president Naomi Stark Burgess explains its far-reaching potential.
Imagine, if you will, a 20-something guest arriving at a mid-scale hotel. She booked her stay online and checked in using the hotel's branded app, and she's looking forward to room service and a hot shower. The shower won't heat up; disgruntled, she hunts down the right contact numbers and makes some calls on the frankly prehistoric in-room phone. An hour later, the hotel employees have done their job; their guest is fed, showered and full of gratitude. There's no immediately obvious way to pass this on to the supervisors of the staff who helped her, though, so she doesn't. Come performance review time, the staff's stellar work today will be forgotten.
This is the kind of scenario that Naomi Stark Burgess, president of Stark Service Solutions, is trying to help hotels avoid. The Florida-based company provides management training workshops, cloud-based training and operational solutions for hotels. Its flagship cloud product, the Touch System, is a software portfolio containing tools for employees and managers to boost communication, recognition and accountability. Workshops such as 'Formula 10' for managers and supervisors, and 'Pick Up the Pace' for customer service have garnered glowing reviews from hoteliers, who say their rankings on internal leader-boards and TripAdvisor shot up after their teams learned to communicate more efficiently.
In February, the company launched the Stark Service Solutions app. It incorporates the Touch System into a mobile platform featuring a guest-facing side, internal employee training and instant communication with the Stark team. An app is a common inclusion in many hotels' marketing strategies, usually including booking and sometimes a check-in feature. Most hoteliers are well aware of the need to appeal to guests who are digital natives, but in a world in which people use apps more than mobile websites or TV and 75% of consumers use their phones to shop, Stark Burgess says the hospitality industry has yet to discover the full potential of mobile solutions.
"Traditionally, hotels are, especially internally, very antiquated in many places when it comes to communication - whereas the consumer population's really shifting to become more and more app-driven," she says. "An app is a no-brainer; you have to have it."
The white-label Stark app can be customised to suit any hotel client, whether branded or independent. On the guest-facing side, it was designed to appeal to millennial travellers and give the hotel 'unprecedented communication directly with the guest'. In a similar way to many branded hotel apps, it can handle marketing and pre-arrival contact with unlimited push notifications, turn-by-turn navigation and social-media integration. However, the real distinction is in its on-property features. It combines all of a guest's contacts with hotel employees into a seamless experience, in which everything is logged and communicated straight away with the right team members. Instead of a phone call to the front desk - an antiquated way to get hold of somebody, by many millennials' standards - guests can use the same app they booked with to communicate requests such as maintenance or food orders, as well as instantly commend a staff member for their work.
"You want to recognise those individuals, but it doesn't mean that you want to have to take the time to sit down and send an email. It's beneficial for the hotel and the guest because it means a more personalised experience," says Stark Burgess.
The app links hoteliers closely with Stark's support teams. As Stark has grown, maintaining close contact with its clients has remained paramount. Users can record a voice message requesting help and send it instantly, for anything from technical difficulties to training questions. The whole experience is designed to be user-friendly for a busy staff member on the operational side with minimal training required; the company also provides tips and online tutorials for its software.
While it connects guests directly with staff, and staff with technical and training support, the other main function of the app is to connect staff members with each other. An internal messaging service keeps HR, senior management, supervisors and employees in direct contact. Hotels with security concerns can instantly alert security personnel or send out safety warnings to all employees. Cleaning schedules and event calendars make sure the whole team is always on the same page.
Recognition being an important part of the Stark ethos, employees can also use the app to recognise each other for their work the same way a guest would - no matter their role or level of authority. Every shining review is recorded automatically for managers and human resources so that when it's time for a performance review or 'employee of the year', they can easily run a report.
"It also helps to put focus on the people giving the recognition - is it the right type of recognition? With the transparency that the Touch System provides, there's accountability for everyone to be part of the culture, and, if they're not, they can be coached," says Stark Burgess.
This is the key to the Stark approach: improve communication, accountability and recognition for a more efficient team dynamic. Stark Burgess has spent more than 20 years in the hospitality industry, including a meteoric career trajectory during her first few years at Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Her properties regularly achieved low numbers of problems experienced by guests with a high rate of resolution. Now an industry leader, speaker and author, she has seen many operational supervisors who were promoted into their roles without adequate management training. While they may be fully competent in the operation aspects of their roles, they often need coaching to learn how to manage and motivate a team. Managers who don't provide enough recognition for their employees' efforts foster an environment of dissatisfaction, where morale is low and work ethic suffers because employees feel unappreciated. But it's not simply a matter of meetings and seminars; effective training, she emphasises, needs to be measurable, consistent and easy to implement.
While large brands often have corporate structures and human resources departments to train employees, it may still be left up to the operations side to provide post-orientation training and accountability. That disconnect between departments, added to a proliferation of standards and policies handed down through upper management, can result in managers who are expected to implement a complex array of procedures without adequate support.
"You teach them how to do it and why to do it, and then you give them the tools to actually do it, and, with that combination, the team can actually be successful," she says.
One of the app's features is an automated pre-shift meeting agenda that ties into the training programme. It notes issues logged by guests as well as personal touches like employee service anniversaries and birthdays, to help managers keep communication lines open and foster good team morale.
Independent or boutique hotels of the kind spread widely in Europe often have the opposite problem to large brands - they lack the resources for a dedicated HR department. With no one focusing on training, it once again takes a back seat to immediate operational concerns. These properties can adopt the training content and employee recognition programme that Stark provides through the app, which includes a library of standard operating procedures.
"Our purpose is to bridge HR, training and operations," says Stark Burgess. "There's a lot of software out there that
might be housekeeping software, maintenance software, maybe recognition software. The app is a very simple, cohesive tool where all of it is tied together."
The app has been built for iPhone, iPad, Android and HTML5 to suit a wide range of devices. Available on the US and European iTunes and Google Play stores, it includes language support for Spanish, French, Portuguese and German as well as English. Stark Burgess says the company is keen to expand its client base.
"We have clients internationally - we work with hotels in Central America, North America and Australia. One of our goals is to establish a footprint in the European market," she says.
Since the February launch, the Stark team has been working on a suite of upgrades. They soon plan to roll out an improvement to the app's 'top-ten issues' dashboard, where managers can see at a glance the most pressing issues or most problematic locations in their property. The new feature will send automated prompts with solutions taken from Stark training content to help managers quickly resolve on-going difficulties; for example, bathroom hygiene problems will trigger a prompt to review standard operating procedures for cleaning staff.
The best managers see staff as human beings, with birthdays, anniversaries and the need to feel like their work is appreciated. They know a team can only function at its best when every member - including the manager - is motivated, kept in the loop and held accountable. They also know that any solution must be adaptable. If guests today engage with apps, an app it shall be. Tying guests and staff together in a culture of recognition, the Stark Service Solutions app is made for managers like these.