Business Resources - Professional Development - November 2017


“Soft skills,” or relationship skills, are taught to attractions employees to help them enhance the guest experience with effective and engaging communication (Credit: Silverwood Theme Park)

Relationships Are Key

How to improve your employees’ ‘soft skills’ when interacting with guests—and one another

by Heather Larson

Start your employee orientation with a “Smile Off.” Treat your trainees like guests. Have returning staff relate stories of park happenings. Role-play.

All of the above methods help make the soft skills taught in training stick. Repetition helps, too. Unlike practical or technical skills that can be covered in a handbook, these “relationship skills” require other teaching techniques but make all the difference in the guest experience. Explaining and ingraining the aptitude for problem solving, conflict resolution, clear communication, and how to diminish touchy situations should start on Day 1 for attraction employees. 

“I truly believe soft skills are the foundation of everything we do,” says Kevin Kahl, manager of organizational development at Hershey Entertainment & Resorts in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “Guests come to us because of the way our employees interact with them. Our team’s use of soft skills makes the most impact and results in the highest return on investment.”

Body Language

Before introductions, Kahl holds a “Smile Off” with his trainees. They separate into two groups and must make eye contact with a complete stranger in the opposite group. When everyone has a partner, one of the pair smiles in different ways while the other tries to keep a straight face.

“No one can ever keep a straight face. This exercise emphasizes the importance of communicating with eye contact, a smile, and welcoming body language,” Kahl says. “Then we lead into what we sell in this industry, which is a feeling that turns into a memory, and when it’s a great memory, customers return. Repeat business is part of our training window.”

Another component of body language covered during Hershey training addresses giving guests directions. 

“We tell them never to point. Pointing might cause a misperception, so we use a full hand instead,” Kahl says. “That hand guides the pathway. It’s more inclusive, and employees can highlight various things along the way, giving guests the whole Hershey experience.”

During Kahl’s three-hour orientation, he sprinkles tips about body language and other soft skills throughout. When the group separates and individuals go to their assigned departments, training there also reinforces appropriate body language along with other relationship skills. Everyone receives training on all the soft skills at least twice, but in different ways.

The Greeting

Tips for Successful Training

  • Give your employees the resources they need to appease a guest, says Nicole Walker of Silverwood Theme Park.

  • Do not expect common sense from new hires, Walker says. A company needs to tell employees what the company thinks is important.

  • Management should attend the same training as employees to later reinforce what was taught, recommends Mike Hourigan, a soft-skills training consultant.

  • When your employees are happy, your guests will also feel happy, says Kevin Kahl of Hershey Entertainment & Resorts.

Nicole Walker, training manager at Silverwood Theme Park in Athol, Idaho, likes to use conversation points in some of her training. She asks for suggestions from her new cast and crew for the right words to greet guests. “Hello” works, but don’t leave them hanging, she says.

Follow up the greeting with a question, like “how is your day going?” Then probe for further information. Find out what the customer needs. 

“We teach it, practice it, and witness it,” Walker says. 

After greeting a Silverwood guest, the crew gives undivided attention and listens carefully.

Mike Hourigan, a soft-skills training consultant in Charlotte, North Carolina, says effective, good listening ties back to appropriate body language.

“If a guest appears upset, find out why. As you’re listening, keep your arms open, lean in a little toward the person, and nod your head while they’re talking,” Hourigan says. “Even though you smile at first, if they tell you they’ve lost a child or their wallet, then that smile should change to a more serious expression.”

Instill Relationship Skills

Certain methods used for training these soft skills seem more successful than others. Walker says she likes to tell stories to reinforce her training. Using her actual park experiences make the incidents and how they are handled more memorable to her trainees. 

One such incident she related to a group of trainees had to do with a parent becoming irate when his child was turned away from a ride because of his height. By offering options for other rides, a magic show, or any number of activities taking place in the park, the ride operator could easily defuse the guest’s emotions. This situation made a good role-playing scenario.

“Role-playing is a very practical way to talk about real things that happen at Silverwood,” Walker says.

Kahl also likes using employees’ situations in his training. Trainees relate better to actual park incidents than made-up situations. They can better visualize how to deal with what has happened and might happen. Some guests get upset when faced with a challenge, especially people who have saved for months to vacation at the park. But workers may discover they have even more issues with their fellow team members.

Conflict Resolution for Coworkers

Not all employees will get along. Since workers spend more time together than with guests, they need to be taught how to defuse touchy situations with one another.

At Hershey, when coworkers need to talk about a difficult topic, they call it a “Courageous Conversation.” In his training, Kahl emphasizes the importance of having an upfront conversation with a colleague who is not carrying his weight, and the benefits of having this discussion. “It diminishes the conflict,” Kahl says.

A potential clash occurs when a worker returns late from his break three times, which affects the team member who has to cover for the first employee. Hourigan says the conversation to resolve the issue might go something like this: “John, I have a job to do, the same as you. I’m concerned that I could get fired for not taking care of my responsibilities because I’m covering your duties. I suggest you ask someone else to cover the next time you know you’ll be late.”

Hourigan says to use “I” language as much as possible. He also gives a formula to follow: First, the employee states what the situation is, then the problem that situation has created, and, finally, a possible solution.

Reinforce Initial Training

All trainees may not absorb everything taught in training, so they need some follow-up. Management at Hershey uses surveys, interviews, and observations as the means to see if employees follow through on what they have learned.

“If we can create an environment that instinctively fosters the right behaviors, we don’t have to do anything,” Kahl says.

Walker says ongoing training happens throughout the season at Silverwood. Some of that comes during regular department meetings; occasionally, a crew member needs one-on-one training, which she provides. Management also takes part in “lunch and learn” sessions. Learning here never has to stop, says Walker.

“If our cast and crew didn’t demonstrate soft skills, we wouldn’t have a business,” she says. “Guests would have no reason to come back. We want to provide a beautiful atmosphere where our workers are passionate about creating a great experience for our guests.”

Heather Larson is a freelance writer in Tacoma, Washington, who frequently writes about small-business issues.