Tuesday, October 4, 2011

WHY THE LONG FACE?: A MEMO TO SCOWLING FRONT-DESK EMPLOYEES

When it comes to my requirements for ensuring a pleasant hotel stay, service with a smile was never at the top of my list. Swift and complimentary Wi-Fi, a spotless bathroom (no mildewy shower curtains ever!), mint-condition carpeting, and bed sheets with no evidence of previous guest activity have always been far more pressing concerns.

But sometimes you really don't know what you've got until it's gone. I worked in several hotels and restaurants and one supermarket during my high school and college years in Florida, so I know perfectly well that it's all about the customer, who is always right. During my years of customer-service drudgery, I may not always have agreed with said customer, but if I wanted to hang on to my job, I knew I'd better smile while I was faking compliance. In return, when the shoe was on the other foot, it felt good to be walking in it. I didn't hate being on the receiving end of one of those plastic, plastered smiles.

In New York City, friendly customer service was optional. At the Union Square McDonald's, which was a few blocks from my apartment, the women behind the counter used to sneer at customers almost as if they were daring them to expect a warm and fuzzy attitude. They prepared me for life in Buenos Aires, where customer service is pretty much non-existent. Aside from the hysterical men, it's probably the one aspect of living there that I miss least. People were rarely rude, just complacent, which, in a way, is worse, because you can confront someone for being rude, and I can be the king of counter-bitchery. Complacency you just have to learn to live with.

So imagine my surprise when I arrived in Australia, and not only did people cheerfully offer assistance, but for the most part, when workers in supermarkets and retail stores smiled and offered a warm greeting, for the most part, they actually seemed to mean it. On the other hand, workers in Melbourne's bars and restaurants, like the ones in BA's, are a bit hit and hiss. What I call complacent, they insist is just them being laid-back in that typical Aussie way.

Whatever.

I think part of the reason why I love Bangkok so much is because of the people, who are always so ready with a smile or a kind word, which I usually can't understand. Sometimes I feel guilty because I don't feel as if I'm living up to their standards of politeness. They smile, they bow, and I try to do the same, but all I can think about is how ridiculous I must look.

The one place I can put my shame away is when I'm checking into hotels. Since July 5, I've stayed in 16 of them in six different countries. I've seen housekeeping staffs, door men, concierge attendants and security guards who would put those practitioners of Southern hospitality back home to shame. For countries where tipping is not obligatory, they sure work hard to earn it!

If only all hotel workers had such a strong work ethic. But aside from the Swedish owner of Noren Resort in Koh Chang, Thailand, and the Indian guy at Anantara Bangkok Sathorn hotel who recognized me from DJ Station, one thing I've yet to see is a smiling face behind the front desk. I could have sworn the parting words of the guy who checked me out of Sky Hotel in Kuala Lumpur yesterday were "See you next time.... maybe."

Don't count on it.

For some reception employees, I think they're merely accessorizing -- a frown is part of the ensemble. The woman who checked me in at Anantara and the one who performed the honors at the Sky Hotel were so stunningly beautiful that I figured cracking a smile might interfere with their Asia's-Next-Top-Model effect. But I couldn't understand what excuse the guy with the terrible skin manning the front desk at KL's Royale Bingtang could possibly have. Doesn't he know that Kiehl's could help clean up his acne and, by extension, his attitude?

No "Welcome to Royale Bintang," or "How are you today?" All I got was a scowl and a half-whispered, "Can I have your passport?" I was reminded of the Absolutely Fabulous episode in which Edina scolded a snooty retail worker by saying, "You can drop the attitude. You work in a store." Indeed. And it's not like the Royale Bintang is the Four Seasons. Or even Holiday Inn (which, by the way, are a lot more upscale in Southeast Asia than in the States). I've never been one to rely on the kindness of strangers to make me feel at home, but a smile and a "How do you do?" may have made my "deluxe" suite seem less shabby and more chic.

It even might have improved the smell of the bedsheets, which had the odor of laundry that had been left wet too long before being thrown into the dryer. I called Housekeeping to request a change of sheets. A half hour passed before anyone arrived, but the woman who showed up smiling was so sweet and friendly, she made me feel slightly guilty for having such high expectations.

And that's the power of a smile. Try it. Sometimes it works.

UPDATE

I just returned from a trip to the front-desk at Royale Bintang to ask about printing out my train ticket to Penang, and was told that the business center closes at 5pm. Fair enough, but neither of the four people I spoke to, including the on-duty manager, offered an alternative, and I witnessed an unfortunate comment being made by the on-duty manager to a guest. "If you don't want to pay for services, there are plenty of cheap hotels around here where you can stay!" he spit. What irony!
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