Art of Hospitality


Great design, both physical and service, isn’t about one or two parts elevated above the rest of it. We don’t expect a great hotel to have spotless bathrooms but lousy curb service at the front door. We’re far less likely to talk about a restaurant if only the appetizers are worth going for. The most remarkable experiences aren’t the one offs, they’re the ones that consistently and harmoniously deliver at all of the edges. Harmony requires an extra level of care and obsession on all of the details…not just a few. Harmony matters…but it’s really hard. That’s what makes it remarkable.

A Service Culture

…is not merely doing customer service. A service culture exists if you are seeking to change people. Customer service is what we call it when we are nice to people. Customers, whether patrons in the butcher shop, students in class or parishioners at church, all have a problem to solve. Part of the problem is transactional…solved by merely providing what’s on offer…the cut of beef, education or comfort. Solving this part of the problem isn't customer service nor does it require a service culture. One step up, being pleasant and helpful, is what we’ve come to know as customer service. This wrapper around the transaction is part of the culture we’ve developed and come to expect. But it’s not worth extra…being nice just comes built-in. Alternatively, service comes from doing something else. It comes from acting with intent to change a person from someone who merely gets served to one who feels uniquely looked after. It’s a gift of focus, obsession on detail and caring that comes with no strings attached…and it’s usually a pleasant surprise. 

Customer service is an overused and misused phrase connected to what and how something gets done. But a service culture starts before that…it begins with the “why” something gets done. Purpose creates a cause and pins meaning to the act of serving. It’s what creates and drives a service culture. And it’s what changes someone fom merely being part of a transaction to someone who cares about changing the way people feel.

Purpose begets “wow, you did that just for me”.

Have a nice day.


Hostess vs. Innkeeper

  • hides behind a podium 
  • smiles and says hello
  • moves you along
  • processes
  • assigns tables
  • takes you to your seat
  • keeps things moving along
  • says good bye and thank you
  • position themselves to “dance"
  • welcome
  • get to know
  • seek to understand why you’re here
  • pick up clues
  • deliver the unexpected
  • make new friends, and...
  • remember old ones
  • create comfort and trust, so...
  • they can get the truth when people leave
Innkeeping requires vastly different skills than hostessing. But first you need to understand why you’re doing it…so you know who to hire.

The Investment in Feedback

Assuming you’re interested in what people notice about you and/or your business. And assuming you’re interested in thanking people for taking the time to let you know, I offer the following guide to the business of customer feedback.

  1. Make it easy…No arduous processes (multiple layer menus or long lists of questions or multi page comment forms).
  2. Make it genuine (human) and brief. Best to get it in person upon departure. But if you can’t a brief follow-up soon after will do.
  3. Make it heard…act like you’re listening and that you care. The request should be personal. And the request should come from the top (or very near the top).
  4. Thank you…everyone who provides feedback should receive a personalized response thanking them for their time and contribution (repeat customers should get extra attention). Yes, it’s an extra step. But it shows you care.
Now apply this to your internal customers as well…now there’s a twist.

Of course this sort of attention takes time…probably at least an hour or two each day depending on the size of your business. But if you do this well, it gets noticed and builds trust. And that’s one of the best assets you can build…definitely worth the investment.

Why is more important than What

What does it mean to hire someone successful?

What it shouldn't mean is hiring people who work the hardest, the fastest or the cheapest. And it shouldn't mean hiring people who will simply follow instructions. Because these people will get tired. And when they get tired of that work, tired of you, they will go away. People going away means you need to find new ones. And that costs money. Turns out it costs way more to keep finding, hiring and training new ones (then putting up with people growing tired, being unhappy, firing them, defending lawsuits, etc.) than just hiring people that choose to stay a long time. Unhappy people get tired…happy people stay awhile.

What it does mean is hiring people who want, care about and value the same things you do. And it means hiring people who make the choices you would make. It means finding people who are aligned with you and as a result are happy doing what you do.

Success and happiness are not about stature and money. Those are outcomes, results of deeper convictions and associated actions…one's core values. As a society we like to measure success in the results a person has achieved (experience, job titles, college degrees, kids not in jail, compensation history, etc.). And to some degree this is fair since the outcomes are directly tied to a person's world views, culture and the choices they've made throughout life. But given the possibility that two people with generally the same outcomes may have arrived there on completely different paths, with different ideals, a different series of fortunate or unfortunate events, different teachers, different parents, etc., it's worth digging deeper. 

What (someone has done) is not what's important. Because what is not what you're paying for. You're actually paying for Why…why they chose to accomplish something…not the fact that they arrived. What a person is likely to accomplish (in your organization) is based on how they will act, how they will relate to and connect with others and how they feel about themselves and the people around them. If they found their way to past accomplishments doing things you wouldn't do or wouldn't be proud of doing, it's best to know that up front so you can either avoid them or mitigate the misalignment in some way. This way you'll both be happy.

So why then are we hiring, promoting, firing, measuring performance based on What people do instead of Why they do them? Mainly because the way we've been measuring outcomes has been baked-in for ions, from pre-school through retirement. It's basically a life of multiple choice and whoever has the most awards, stripes or certifications wins. And besides, it's far easier to measure results than it is to asses core values. College Degree? Check. Ability to type 50 words per minute? Check. Didn't get fired for stealing? Check. Trying to determine how someone is wired…much more challenging. But not impossible.

Here's how I do it…at least how I start anyway. The first question I ask a candidate (Hint, it has nothing to do with work experience, GPA or how many people they managed.)? What are your dreams? What do you want to do with the rest of your life? Okay, that's two questions. But you get the picture. Here's another question I always ask…what do you do for fun? Usually these two (three) questions tell me more about a person (and why they do things) than ten of the more standard HR questions ever will. And it always, always changes the tone of the interview. It loosens things up. It makes it okay to be human. Now, with the standard HR stuff out of the picture, we can get down to figuring out if we're both going to be happy…with each other. Try it…it's fun.

The easy thing to do is to find people who are experienced and seemingly a good fit based on their abilities, which is their aptitude measured by past performance…stuff they've done well. You'll get some good hires this way. And they will do their jobs least for a bit. But for long-term success culture, happiness and personal fulfillment win. Personality, character, love of the game, and passion for the same things the organization stands for trumps productivity and efficiency every time. So go find some dreamers. 

The Art of Gift Giving

The foundation of hospitality is gift giving...doing more for others than for yourself. What is often overlooked is when it's most important for the recipient and not necessarily convenient for you. There's very little art in heaping on the expected smiles, catch phrases and giving someone trinkets. The art happens when you go out of your way to do something meaningful...for the moment. That's remarkable. Unfortunately, you can't do this by reading a script. It requires expertise in picking up clues and then acting upon them. Oddly enough, the clues are gifts themselves. So it becomes an it improv. The key is to do something, to act, perhaps go out on a limb, to complete the exchange. Without action, the gift of the clue is wasted. What a shame. 

What makes the story of the video so remarkable is the surprise action by the young man at the end. The real heros might be his parents...thank you.

Hospitality Duty

Tour of Duty Ride from Michael Chaffin on Vimeo.

I’ve spent better part of my life perfecting the art of hospitality, serving and caring for others. And I've learned that almost everyone has an innate sense of duty to help other people. But most of us practice caring in friendly confines. When it comes to danger and especially putting your life on the line, we tend to lean out...and rightly so. Well, there is a minority group of people who lean in. They are willing to assume risk of harm and maybe worse to help people, to keep us safe and to allow us to enjoy the freedom of how we want to live our lives. It might be a police officer directing traffic in a busy intersection, a firefighter working tirelessly to control forest fires or a military member looking for landmines in Afghanistan. This is a different type of Duty...a different type of Art. And the Tour of Duty Ride currently underway across the USA draws attention to that Art.

I literally ran across this group two weeks ago while out for a morning run in Las Vegas. Since then, I helped host them on a stopover in Little Rock and now have an opportunity to join them for the last two stages of their incredible trek. I couldn’t feel more honored to be a part of their quest. These are caring people with nothing to gain but the experience of the journey and the hope of inspiring others to recognize the importance of service through this highest form of hospitality.

I feel privileged to be on board and thank you for your dedication to our collective art.

Growing Your Tribe

The folks at Natural Running Store really get it. They understand that you aren't buying shoes. Rather, you're buying attention, special treatment and the feeling that someone cares about you. 

This is a powerful example of how technology can amplify hospitality and help you build an audience of loyal, raving fans vs. simply applying digital to traditional marketing methods, i.e., email blasts and banner ads. 

Don't create billboards, create engagement.


Driving with Your Head Down

This isn't a post about texting while driving. It’s a post about awareness. It’s obviously not smart to drive with your eyeballs focused on the dashboard (or anything other than outside) for more than a second or two. The same rule applies in hospitality. And it’s the one I see broken the most often.

Go out today and watch how many people don’t see you coming. Test it. See how close you can get before they make eye contact, before they smile and before they speak. Those of us formally trained in the business of service know it as the 10 and 5 rule. If a person enters your 10 foot circle, you must acknowledge their presence by stopping whatever you’re doing and making eye contact. Once they hit 5 feet, you must say something to them, presumably something nice.

Awareness though begins outside of 10 least it does in the customer service business. It starts with your approach on how you do things. You’re either the type that focuses intently on the matter at hand, like sorting receipts or typing an email and tunes out most everything else. Or you focus first on your surroundings and passively on the other busy tasks that you need to get done by the end of the day, shift, etc. Focusing outside your own bubble isn’t something that comes naturally, it’s a developed skill which requires practice. So, if you’re in the hospitality business (who isn’t really), please go practice. And make it mandatory for everyone on your team.

Who Am I Going to Hire Next?

That’s what I focus on...every day. While there are a lot of distractions (many of them good), there’s nothing more important to me than hiring the right people. So, I always reserve time for this task no matter what. When I’m not interviewing prospects, I’m working on improving and preserving the culture that attracts them.

Back to hiring the right people. You hear this all the time...our secret is we hire the “right” people. I’ll define it further...I hire artists. Artists are people who are capable of and interested in producing more than the required tasks. They give you what Seth Godin terms...emotional labor. These are the people that will make your company alive with stories that spread...make you remarkable.

So, here’s what I focus on when I hire...precisely in this order.

  1. Are they aligned with your culture?
  2. Can I fulfill their dreams? (I figure if they’re going to give me their heart and soul, I should give them more than a paycheck)
  3. Are they competent?

This approach has worked for me for quite some time. Realizing there’s a lot that goes into each of those three items, the point here is that the technical part of the evaluation comes’s the least important, at least in the sort of work we do.

I encourage you to worry less about the next big idea, how to change your product or how to market it. All of those things will sort themselves out quite nicely if you make hiring artists and preserving culture your first priorities.

I just finished taping this as a segment in my Art in Hospitality series...will be up soon.


In hospitality we use clues to surprise people...we read them to help us deliver a memorable experience. But, it works the other way around as well. Customers use clues to make buying decisions. And not always the ones a business owner wants them to use. Case in point. The other day I decided to change my insurance company...not because of price or bad coverage...because they insisted on using a fax machine (or worse, the U.S. Postal Service). My decision was based solely on a seemingly trivial point of technology. But my problem wasn’t the fax machine. The fax machine was just a clue. A clue into how the organization they approach business. Do they choose easy over right? Do they do the hard work that gives me what I want? Or, do they stay in safe harbor, expect me to jump through hoops and hope I won’t go away.

Starbucks on the other hand continues to earn my respect, not because they make the best coffee (they don’t), but because they learn, evolve and give me what I want. The other day I forgot my wallet in the car (probably because I was so frustrated about using a fax machine). No worries...Starbucks lets me pay via my smart phone. Pretty slick...saved me a journey back to the car. I also like that innovative idea of the little stoppers that go into the lids so you don’t spill the coffee all over your suit. It’s clear they do the hard work to figure out what their customers want. And I bet they don’t use fax machines.

The more choices, the more clues matter.

Art of Asking Questions

Almost no one seeks to understand a customer. Often, there’s an abbreviation, a stop’s called good customer service. Walking by a table in your restaurant and asking “how was everything?” satisfies your requirement...we did our part. And the customer...”it’s fine”...they did their part. A very simple and pleasant exchange...feels good, good service. What if you went a step further? What if you wanted to know what they thought of the new risotto? How would you approach that? What if you learned they seemed interested in how it was prepared? What if you engaged and invited them into the kitchen? What if the chef took some time to share some insight into her approach to cooking? Once you make the investment in really learning something from people the pay-off is huge. They feel special and you get invite, to learn more, to add another one to the tribe.   

Asking the right questions takes the relationship to a more meaningful place...a place of caring and trust. Asking the wrong questions leaves you with the rest of the pack...just another place...forgettable. 

The Battle for Engagement

I've been in a battle...for a long time. Sometimes the battle is with co-workers, sometimes with bosses, sometimes with myself. Nevertheless it's a overcome tradition. All my marketing professors, virtually all of my peers and every marketing firm I've ever hired have spent a great deal of time trying to convince me that I'm somehow flawed in my thinking that engaging with people should take precedence over shouting at them.

My argument is based on a simple have a better chance of practicing art when you're engaged with someone than when it's a one way conversation. Engaged, I have a better shot at making someone feel comfortable, cared for and welcome. Engaged, I have a better chance of building a loyal audience of raving fans. And far less of a chance to annoy them.

Here's the problem...there are serious counter forces at work. Traditional marketing (specifically promotions) is simply easier and safer to do than engagement. There is a huge body of evidence (albeit outdated) and countless pundits that will convince you that banner ads, tv and radio commercials, billboards, email blasts and table tents are the answer to generating more customers and more sales. Generally speaking, this old way of doing things doesn't require much in the way of meaningful content as long a you have a big ad budget. Of course, most of us don't have that...a big marketing budget. Even so, we find our way to tradition somehow, some way. And the paradox the absence of remarkable content and engagement we're left with the only shout and hope for a favorable response.

For every dollar and minute you spend hanging on to tradition, you rob yourself of the opportunity to engage and build a relationship with a customer, to inspire front line staff to do meaningful do something that matters. I encourage you to begin replacing traditional marketing with engagement activities, perhaps slowly at first. But, later as you gain momentum and the word begins to spread, you'll find yourself measuring referrals, evangelist incentives and rewards instead of click through's and 800 number counts. And, you'll find yourself in a happier place.

Legacy work isn't born from tradition, it's born from hard, meaningful work, done by heretics that often scare others away.