Tips to help your team build the skills necessary to prevent negative guest interactions

This week I had the opportunity to speak to bowling proprietors at the International Bowl Expo. The topic, How to Stop Karen Before She Starts, sparked a fun and lively discussion! But this topic is no laughing matter. These days, guest demands are high and it’s up to us to prepare our teams for every kind of interaction.

To help get started on the path to stopping the dreaded Karen moments, we put together a few considerations, tips, and proven training activities to help give your team the boost…and the tools… necessary to win over even the toughest customer.


No. 1: Get your house in order first.

I read a fascinating article in Harvard Business Review titled “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers.” A troubling idea, don’t you think, after years of “above and beyond” mantras? The article shared that 89 out of 100 customer service leaders had stated that their primary strategy is to exceed customer expectations. When those organizations’ customers were also surveyed, 84% remarked that the company had failed to exceed their expectations in their most recent interactions.

It’s no secret that guest expectations are high. And, unfortunately, guests seem to be arriving with more emotional baggage than previously. While we can’t control their baggage, we have to give our team a fighting chance to prevent negative interactions. And that starts with giving guests less to complain about.

Are you teaching your staff to smile but not how to sweep the floor? Are you training them to be personable but failing to train them on current promotions, coupons, and how exactly to handle a guest’s complaint with the right talking points, action items, and response times?

In my experience, many leaders give vague tips that team members don’t know how to interpret, much less implement. “Delight the guest. Exceed their expectations. Make it happen. Do whatever it takes. Think like Disney.” But Disney has a comprehensive guest interaction strategy that is meticulously trained, coached, and managed. As in sports, sales, or leadership, those who make it look easy aren’t just naturally talented. They’ve spent a lifetime honing the skills that make them successful.

To prevent Karen Moments, first, take a hard look at your processes. Where are the friction points that need to be smoothed out, and what will it take to reduce or eliminate them? Common friction points to consider:

  • Long lines and unnecessary waiting
  • Confusion around party processes (e.g., decorations, outside food and drink, schedule, payment, etc.)
  • Lack of proper communication in marketing (staff isn’t trained, coupons don’t make sense, too many rules, etc.)
  • Team members without clear direction
  • Over/understaffed in areas

No. 2: Mend the mindset.

One of the main problems I have with the “Karen” stereotype is that, after a while, it becomes easy to blame every complicated guest interaction on the guest simply “being a Karen.” Becoming jaded is a risk in almost every industry. Teenage staff who are just new in the workforce are seen as “stupid and lazy,” managers are all “idiots who don’t do any real work,” and guests are all “entitled and ridiculous.” Sound familiar? This kind of polarization of others is positively rampant on social media, but it must be eradicated if you want a healthy work environment. That’s why you have to spend time with your team addressing stereotypes, finding common ground, and remembering that on the other side of the phone, the counter, or the facility, is a human being that probably thinks a lot closer to how you think than not.

Empathy training is a critical component of building a quality team that wants to delight your guests, and that starts with remembering what you love about your jobs in the first place. To train on empathy, try:

  1. Ask team members to articulate what they like about your guests. Activities that train this:
    • Small group discussion, followed by individual groups sharing what they had discussed with the entire group. You can also ask them to make a list on chart paper to tap into other learning styles and memory-building tactics, then review lists as a group.
    • Individually or in small groups, write ideas on a sticky note, such as “when guests smile because they are having fun.” Afterward, they put notes on the wall, and you review them all as a large group, compiling similar responses into trends to be acknowledged and discussed.
  2. After you’ve established what you like about guests, ask them to share when and how things go wrong.
  3. Help them connect with how they would feel in a similar situation. You could facilitate a simple discussion around your day-to-day operations or broaden the scope to have the team share when they were upset or disappointed as a consumer.
  4. Ask, “So, if guests feel like this…and you would feel similarly… then are our guests’ feelings so different from our own? Facilitate discussion around common ground, giving others the benefit of the doubt, finding empathy by putting yourself in their shoes, etc.
  5. Ask them to generate ideas for handling situations when things go wrong. The more team members think and talk about how to view and interact with guests, the better they’ll perform in the moment. This skill could be taught in a group discussion format, by asking team members to develop role plays and skits, or instructing them to develop sample scripts to be shared with the group and discussed. When conducting any kind of training like this, the key is to provide space after each group or skit to elicit group feedback and deliver your own coaching.

No. 3: Fill the toolbox.

When you’ve elicited feedback from the team on handling difficult guest interactions, you’re allowing them to build tools to help them survive those situations in the real world. Consider what other tools are necessary and where and how you might teach them. Such as:

  • Specific steps to service recovery
  • How to show you’re listening, that you care, that you can and are ready to help, etc.
  • How to identify when trouble is coming
  • What can you resolve on your own vs. when to get a manager
  • How to meet and greet guests on the floor (includes: eye contact, body language, who talks first, how to give directions, etc.)
  • Promotion and coupon training (terms and conditions, upselling discussions, point of sale, etc.)
  • Language of upselling
  • How to develop speed in food service
  • How to carry a cocktail tray (This is becoming a lost art. Please bring it back. Aren’t you sick of seeing wait staff carrying two drinks at a time, doubling the time it takes to drop drinks? It can’t just be me.) 
  • How to answer the phone

If you spend just a little time smoothing out your friction points and equipping your team with what they need to connect better with your guests, you’ll find they are in a much better position to prevent the Tik Tok-worthy meltdowns we all cringe over. Where are you going to start?

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