Time to ditch 'Standard' Operating Procedures?

By James Bland

20 January 2015

Around about this time of year, as we are announcing our VenueVerdict awards and accreditations, I try to set time aside to consider what makes some properties better than others. The starting point for my musings is usually the list of Gold Standard properties – each year I look for what unites them, and each year I come up with the same conclusion.

It’s a fairly diverse list. It is dominated by venues which call themselves ‘specialists’, to an extent. That’s little surprise – I would worry if it were not. But there are pockets of branded hotels who make the grade, mostly just one or two beacons of excellence, but nonetheless important symbols that should inspire their peers to greater things.

A particular success story is QHotels, who steadily increase the number of properties achieving Gold Standard period on period. How do they do it? From what I can see, it is a relentless focus on service driven from the very top (I think their CEO has attended every presentation I’ve delivered) and an understanding that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. The IHG Managed Estate, which is currently going through a number of transitions (1, 2) is another example. The team at the top focused relentlessly on the customer experience, integrated feedback measures into performance analysis and provided ‘supports and reports’ that inspired GMs to optimise hotel performance. The Holiday Inn brand team looks to be picking this torch up, and if the new owners work with them in the same way that IHG’s central team did, then hopefully this excellence will permeate across their groups too, like some sort of beneficial virus (for want of a better term).

But it doesn’t always work like that; the same is not true of all other groups. The obvious observations about ‘structure’ and ‘focus’ aside, I think that ‘Standard Operating Procedures’ (SOPs) could be to blame – at least in part.

Don’t misunderstand me. It is not the concept or the documents themselves that I object to, it’s the content and the implication. An SOP should provide a floor below which service levels should not fall, not a ceiling that acts as a barrier to improvement. I think that by prescribing ‘standards’ (the very name shouts mediocrity), brands and groups can provide an easy way out for properties; they can do the bare minimum required to meet the brand’s standard, and that’s good enough. (Those that go above and beyond, by the way, will be the trailblazers).

Instead of specifying what a coffee break should look like or contain, why not provide a default, but make it a requirement to ask the client what would be most important to them? Have your weekly meeting and run through operations, but task members of your team with researching the organisations attending and make suggestions for little tweaks and enhancements? Kraft Foods management meeting? Bye bye “Celebrations”, hello Cadbury Heroes. Regional sales managers from FitnessFirst? Adios chocolates, hello fresh fruit. Got some judges coming? Maybe ditch the tabloids and over-order the FT. A seminar for construction workers…. well, you get the idea. (No stereotypes here, thank you very much!). My prescription? A little thinking every day; it’s good for the soul and great for the customer.

So, I say it’s time to ditch ‘standard’ from the vocabulary. What should replace it? Well, much as I love the idea of “Outstanding Operational Procedures”, the acronym “OOPS” perhaps doesn’t inspire the confidence it should. Maybe “Excellent Operating Procedures” are the way forward.

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