Charm school does not make up for lack of competence

I have a clear perception that many hospitality companies have calculated that “charm school” is much cheaper than training employees for competence and are intentionally pursuing a strategy not of adding form to substance but of replacing substance with form.

I am just back after two weeks of airlines, airports, security checks, hotels and the hospitality industry surrounding the “wedding business”. Everybody seems to have been to charm school and that’s nice. But smiles and charm ring hollow sometimes. I perceive a decline in competence.

The Connemara used to be my hotel of choice in Madras. My preference shifted to the Adyar Park in the late 90s and that remained my preferred choice till 2006. Now after an 8 year break I have spent 8 days at the Park. But I am left somewhat disappointed.

I note that ITC has expended much effort in training staff in their charm schools. The smiles and politeness border on the excessive. My stay would have been unforgettable if backed up by efficiency and competence. Unfortunately this was not the case.

Even where some competence was visible, it was far too narrow and there seems to have been little interest – either from the employer or the employee – to widen the employee’s area of expertise. Where employees did not have an answer – no shame in that – they had no interest in getting me an answer let alone increase their own knowledge. Security was for show and brainless and bypassed by the “privileged” regularly. Time does move slower in Madras than in the rest of the world but 5 minutes should not be 30. What I took to be promises were clearly not perceived as being promises by the front desk staff.  And these non-promises were produced with a smile at the drop of a hat – a first response without any substance. It was an attitude which permeated the establishment. Plenty of smiles, empty promises but no real interest or a pride in the result. It is only my perception but the younger employees seemed to more infected by the “charm school syndrome” characterised by smiling – but empty – promises.

One noteworthy exception was the concierge and his staff who impressed with their breadth of knowledge and their readiness to address all issues. Presumably they were all too old to have been sent to ITC’s charm school.

Smiles and the politeness are welcome and necessary but they are not sufficient. Without competence the charm rings dangerously hollow. A modicum of politeness would have been sufficient for competent and professional staff. But no amount of smiling and fawning compensates for a lack of competence.

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