Read the Room

handwrittenI’ll warn you: I’m a reader. Like Sesame Street’s Count (a Muppet obsessed with counting everything in his path), I read everything from the small print on soap wrappers to the large print on bus advertising.

Shortly after my arrival in Kyiv, I was so engrossed in reading a sign written in Russian that I hadn’t noticed that I had stopped in the middle of the street to do it. While I was trying to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet, a streetcar was bearing down on me, his warning bell just background music to my focused mind. Luckily, my guide was more aware of our surroundings and averted an early and traumatic end to my visit.

When we check in to a hotel, my wife unpacks while I head to the desk, where all manner of information awaits. I blast through guest service directories, maps, brochures and TV channel guides. Surprisingly, these documents provide good insight into the area and the hotel.

I notice the pool hours and breakfast menu, but I also notice the misspellings, poor grammar, dog-eared directory pages and the shiny round stain on the guest comment brochure that a previous occupant used as a coaster for his soft drink.

To me, the items on the desk in a hotel room speak volumes about the hotel, the image that management is trying to project, and how they feel about their guests – not to mention the quality of the housekeeping.

I have no illusions that the room was built last night, just for me, yet it should feel that fresh and clean, and the printed material should be fresh as well and reflect, when possible, a personal effort.

Opening notices and form letters with a salutation like “Dear Customer” or “Dear Guest” not only lacks warmth and charm, it is actually almost intentionally cold and impersonal. It is anonymous and jarring; the salutary kin of “Hey, you!”

There may be a place for “To Whom It May Concern” somewhere, but not in today’s business world. A business cannot cultivate affinity in the soil of anonymity. To paraphrase UCLA football coach Red Sanders: Personalization isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Doing everything else right means nothing if you treat your customer like just another ant in the colony.

It’s shocking how frequently we use the equivalent of “Hey, you!” in our communications with the public. We feel somehow obligated to begin every communication with a salutation, and when there’s no identifiable person being addressed (”Dear Mrs. Jones”) we fall back on the universal but nonspecific “Dear Customer.”

In high school English, we were taught that a letter contains the salutation or greeting, the body and the complimentary close. This is still true, though the letter-writing art has taken a big hit in the age of email and texting, where certain practices have lamentably become antiquated (When was the last time you sat down and composed a handwritten letter to a friend or family member?). The truth is that not all communications require a salutary open. When it’s anonymous, it’s better to just omit it.

A good hotel wouldn’t offer a room with graffiti sprayed on the wall or cigarette butts on the floor. Equal attention needs to be paid to the room’s printed matter, and the messages that it carries. What’s on the desk may be inconsequential to many, but not to people like me.  

I’ll be reading you!


Scott H. Lewis is managing director for Ukraine and the CIS for Signature Europe. A former journalist and public relations counselor, he has provided crisis, public speaking and presentation training to senior executives across Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. He is the author of “60 Seconds to ‘Wow!’”, a book on presentation skills. An American, he has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine for more than a decade.

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