Because much of hospitality relies on non-verbal facial cues, The Union Club of Cleveland’s Lawrence McFadden, CMC, GM/COO, is helping his team define new ways to communicate with members from behind face masks.
“Hi, Mr. Jones. It’s Lawrence, your General Manager.” This was my response when a key member didn’t recognize me behind my COVID-19 protective mask.
Once a few minutes passed, I lifted my mask from a safe distance to show Mr. Jones that it really was me and we all had a great laugh. Unfortunately, both of us were embarrassed having sat countless times together on several club committees during the past five years.
After this exchange, I wondered how masks might enhance hospitality. This simple veil removes many of the human emotions that I often take for granted. Body language is one of the most important values in any interactions, and it’s never more important than in a private club.
We always practice addressing members by name, but now with a mask, we realize how much it meant to the members to jointly recognize our staff. Personalized recognition always translates into individualized service securing confidence for both parties.
Simply put, emotion, engagement, and facial expressions are all part of hospitality. We use non-verbal communication so as to not interrupt the enclaves of celebrations, business meetings, or gatherings.
Maybe the great quote, “a picture is worth a thousand words” has never been truer. In this case, a visible smile shows I care for your business. But what does not seeing that smile do?
Recently, my wife and I went out to a local restaurant, trying to support the local economy while celebrating “getting out” of the house. Our server was delightful, efficient, and empathetic to the changes within her organization. During the meal my wife asked for an additional beverage, then when the back waiter came to clear a few key items, my wife changed her mind. To which it was responded, “I will tell your waiter”. Laura, my wife, who prides herself of placing herself in the shoes of service, was embarrassed as she thought she was speaking to the original server.
Often in my role at the club my smile takes the place of multi-tasking at the hostess stand, allowing me to seat a member while acknowledging the next party giving them the confidence they had been noticed and would be engaged shortly thereafter.
With two-thirds of our faces covered, it has strained the ever-important eye contact. Our beautiful eyes without visible facial alignment can turn into an emotionless “poker face” description of a sort.
Now often we make eye contact, but certainly aren’t sure what the other is thinking.
So, now mandated with masks, we have started practicing modified methods of recognition. A slight wave of the hand, a respectful nod of the head, even a second look, or a step forward in the members’ direction. These body adjustments give the member more confidence that they have been addressed, seen, and potentially understood.
Once past the facial expression challenge, there exists the chance that our voices are being muffled behind the cloth screen. This potentially gives the impression that a server or member could be mumbling. The mask weighing heavily on the shape of the lips causes an unnatural movement for words which causes a muffled exit of sound.
Like many clubs, our members can be in advanced ages; adding additional background noise may cause a conundrum of hearing challenges in a simple service experience.
We recently went back to consistently repeating the order, especially if the member hasn’t removed their mask, confirming we heard their order correctly. This assists with the clarification of each other.
Maybe as a hospitality professional, I am too sensitive to these slight changes in our atmosphere or service. Certainly, I guess that people do notice the mask intrusion and are at times frustrated but seem to understand our current situation in this ever-changing pandemic atmosphere.
And probably the mask will be a thing of the past when we move to a healthier more confident environment, there’s no question it has taken some time to get used to. So, while it is certainly safer for our members and our staff, it can’t replace a warm welcome with a quick smile that traditionally worked well for us in the past.