As able communicators in the virtual world, the Facebook generation must also not forget how to interact professionally in the real one, says training consultant Melanie Lamey.
Picture this: two young men in their early thirties and a woman in her twenties, with good jobs in hospitality, are sharing a flat in London. One evening, they all find themselves busy on their laptops, updating their profiles on a social networking site. All three are sitting in their lounge, "connecting" to their "friends" on Facebook in total silence.
This may not be the daily scenario for everyone but we surely all recognise it. In a recent survey, the web research company Nielsen identified Facebook as the most heavily used web brand, accounting for 13% of all UK internet time.
The survey also revealed that the average Briton spent 34% more time online this year than last. Online life is taking precedence over complex human interaction.
It is a trend the hospitality industry, in particular, should worry about. Our people are spending less time communicating face-to-face, giving us fewer opportunities to develop skills that enable us to do so successfully.
Why is this important? It's important because we only want to do business with people we like. But what makes us "like" people?
As a basic human instinct, we subconsciously have the need to seek acceptance in others. This approval and acceptance we pick up subconsciously, through non-verbal communication in the form of tiny gestures and nuances in the voice. When signals of acceptance are given, it makes us feel good about ourselves, generating our "liking" for someone.
This non-verbal communication stands for more than 90% of what is communicated in face-to-face communication. Every thought evokes a reaction of our body. It is our thinking that is at the core of what we convey and how we are perceived. The awareness and ability to strengthen our message through non-verbal communication is an essential skill the service industry heavily relies on.
Compare a porter who, with a sour face, slumped shoulders and crossed arms, mumbles a "hello" to his colleague, who stands straight, open armed and smilingly says with confidence, "welcome back".
A genuine, warm smile, direct eye contact, open body gestures - open palms and arms - a straight body posture and a confident voice, evoke a powerful, irresistible subconscious message of acceptance and likeability to our customers.
In real life, it is this non-verbal interpersonal communication that is a key factor in customers' buying decisions - it's not prices or products alone.
But with more time than ever spent on PCs or mobile devices, we're in danger of losing these essential skills.
It is an alarming trend that begs the question: what communication skills can we expect of the next generation and how will this affect the service our industry can provide?
According to Nielsen, two- to 11-year-olds spend 63% more time online than five years ago. Technology is changing swiftly and will force us to make some vital adjustments. We must encourage and instil in our staff the skills that are at the heart of our customers' loyalty.
Here are some simple steps you can take within your organisation to nurture those essential skills:
1. Be seen to be good with people.
Set an example by spending time with guests and staff rather than behind the desk, creating genuine rapport with people - going beyond the meaningless "how are you doing" - and always use names. Be an inspiration to others.
2. Have coffee breaks with staff.
As a leader, be in the know, ask questions and take time to listen. Get to know your staff as people and find out what they feel passionate about. Watch the buzz in their body language - the very energy they need to convey to customers at work.
3. Have regular scheduled departmental meetings.
Get staff to engage and contribute. Have an agenda; discuss improvements, issues, achievements, experiences; and give praise and measured criticism. Share your vision and goals.
4. Be precise about body language.
Demonstrate and practise how you would like your staff to convey warmth and friendliness, likeability and acceptance to customers. Service with a smile and open palm/hand gestures may seem elementary, but are they actually used?
5. Be precise about the choice of words.
Give examples of expressing warmth and friendliness through words - not robot-fashion. For instance, younger generations find the word "welcome" or "a warm welcome to you", almost impossible to say, yet it is an essential and impressive introduction to new guests. Be clear about subjects that can or cannot be discussed and where inspiration for small talk is taken from - visual clues.
6. Make a really big deal out of positive comments.
Highlight, celebrate and rave about positive comments from guests or colleagues - be as creative as you like. We all thrive on praise, which affects our attitude towards work and increases confidence levels.
7. Encourage interest groups.
Having found out what people are passionate about (see 2), provide meeting space for staff to give talks on their subject - food and wine, gardening, fitness, languages, travel, photography and so on. This creates connections between people face-to-face, allowing them to share their passions using their body language.
8. Ask guests personally.
Find out in detail about your staff's social skills. Ask what makes them feel special or what your staff could do to show they care, for example, "I love being recognised by my name but I wish staff made more time to talk to me".
9. Shake hands after shifts.
A solid, confident handshake with eye contact, a genuine smile and a sincere word of thanks carries enormous weight and "connects" to others, though it may not always be humanly possible.
10. Provide staff with positive reading material.
The source of our body language lies in what we think. Reading positive-mental-attitude books is a highly effective way to enable your staff to improve their confidence and communication skills and be motivated. Self-help books are available online at minimal cost.
We need to act. Technology is evolving at an ever-faster rate. It may be called Twitter today and something different tomorrow, but whatever the latest internet trend, it will take time away from what is precious, unique and irreplaceable to us as human beings - personal human contact.
We need to realise the value of face-to-face communication and invest quality time in speaking and listening to our staff - and families - with our full attention and in the real world.
For more information on how to create excellence in people skills, you can contact Melanie Lamey viawww.settingstandardsworldwide.comor by calling 0121-323 4939.