When it comes to hospitality, it's essential to have a clear idea of what your customers want from your business.

But how do you find out exactly what's going on inside their heads? How do you ask the question without intruding on the experience of your guests? And is it possible to know their hearts' desire before they do?

In response to reader demand to learn just that, Caterer and Hotelkeeper has done some digging - and it turns out it's not as tricky as you might think.

While consultants and feedback programmes can prove very effective there is often a cost barrier to employing such methods that in these lean times could prove prohibitive.

We spoke to a panel of hard-hitting industry heavyweights to find out alternative, and cheaper, methods to understand the needs of your customers (Can you tell what they're thinking).

It quickly becomes apparent that imperative to an operator's success in customer satisfaction is the employee, or as Chris Talbot of Assured Customer Experience described them, the "internal customer".

And in order to get the best out of your staff, you've got to put the best in and that comes down to training. According to Institute of Hospitality chief executive Philipe Rossiter, a typically quiet January should provide operators with an excellent opportunity to develop and inspire their teams (Don't skimp on staff training).

The benefits of a skilled workforce are obvious, but less so is the fact that it also needn't cost the earth. Experts and operators reveal the innovative ways in which up-skilling can be done without breaking the bank, such as an in-house mentoring scheme or e-learning tools.

It is during the quiet times that the best businesses equip themselves for growth. That time is now.

By Janie Stamford

E-mail your comments to Janie Stamford here.

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