Serving as a profession
While she bears the name of the last Habsburg empress, as a young girl, she never dreamed of marrying the prince. She wanted to serve him. And so Zita Langenstein trained as a butler. What distinguishes good butlers, how they impress clients without much ado, and what can be learned from this for other businesses is what we wish to share in this keynote.
The service of a butler is greatly appreciated in Buckingham Palace as well as among VIPs and busy people from the business world. This also goes for the first Swiss butleresse to be trained: “Zita the Butler” Langenstein, who needed a strong will, stamina and discipline until she attained that goal. “I met a butler for the first time during my apprenticeship in Hotel Schweizerhof in Berne. I was fascinated,” explained Zita, who is originally from Canton Nidwalden. Because a butler is not an official profession in Switzerland, she diligently completed hospitality training and began working for a family. To do so, she had to get over her initial shyness. “Shyness is not a virtue. Sought after in service are confident personalities that clients can rely on.” And so in 1982, she gathered her courage and sent an application to a butler school in London. She tried again and again, year after year. And year after year she received a polite, politically correct, yet disappointing rejection. But she never stopped trying for 18 years, until finally she received a positive decision from London in the year 2000. It was only later that she learned that before her, no other woman had ever been granted admission to this respected course of training. The future butleresse was overjoyed to be given this opportunity and to this day remains enthusiastic about what she learned in butler school. “The training at the butler school in London was the best thing that could happen to me in terms of customer focus and service,” enthused Zita Langenstein.
“Strong personalities are required in service.”
Zita Langenstein, butleresse
From the farm to Buckingham Palace
That is how the former farm girl from Central Switzerland became a sought-after butleresse. The services of a professional butler are appreciated not only by the British royal family, but also by wealthy families and VIPs around the world. Household management, Christmas preparations, organizing gifts, holidays, celebrations and receptions, door to door accompaniment: these diverse tasks are among what fascinate Zita Langenstein about the butler profession. She is also inspired by the interesting personalities that she meets within the scope of her profession and the complex processes that she is involved in. “I was ideally prepared for these tasks in the butler school. The highest priority was on intercultural skills, organizational abilities and flexibility.” And this is demanded again and again, such as was the case at the wedding of Charles and Camilla, which had to be delayed and completely altered due to the sudden death of the Pope. Or the arrival of a very busy guest, for whom plans change by the second – and for whom everything should run smoothly nonetheless. Needed for such cases are a functioning network, precise organization and seamless processes so that ultimately everything goes off without a hitch and the client is satisfied. Also required is a talent for improvisation so that an extremely delicate situation appears as if it were precisely so planned; because customers tend to be demanding personalities – a tendency that is increasing.
“A butler knows what he or she is doing”
“A butler must know what he or she is doing. He or she never asks: ‘It this right like this?’ or ‘Are you satisfied with my service?’ A butler knows what is right and when there is something to be done or not,” explained Zita Langenstein. It is an art to constantly convey the feeling that everything is in place and ready, without having to be asked to do so. Precisely that is the butler’s reward in his or her profession.
“There is nothing you cannot get, whn you are asking in the right way.”
Ivor Spencer, Founder of the International School for Butlers
No major discussion is required for this: if the client has a wish – to conduct a telephone conversation, to use the bathroom, to change conversation partners – no words are exchanged, instead such wishes are communicated with small, nearly indiscernible signals. This requires the ability to understand the signs and proactively adapt the strategy. To ensure that it works smoothly, the client’s requirements and “secret language,” the codes and signs to be used, are discussed in advance in the so-called butler interview. It includes 20 to 50 questions for the client. The butleresse leaves nothing to chance: the checklists range from simple requirements – eating and life habits – on to individual special wishes and complex organizational details.
Butlers are networked among themselves and maintain contact. The checklists are passed on, the information about clients constantly supplemented. “I dedicate a book to each client. Inside it I note the individual preferences and characteristics of each person, what was eaten and drank, which clothes they wore, which gifts were received or given, what went well and what did not, and so on,” explained Zita Langenstein insightfully. For her, the book forms the basis for what she must pay attention to next time, what is to be learned. That is because: “minor surprises or mistakes can always happen – even if you have set up an afternoon tea 100 times,” according to the butleresse. That is why one talent is essential for butlers: they must maintain an overview. That means keeping all the threads together, dealing with different personal-ities, guests and co-workers and to never get lost in the individual cases. “A great deal is expected of a butler,” Zita Langenstein knows. “That is why I plan everything very precisely and go through the process several times. I even practice certain situations in front of the mirror,” she revealed.
Humility – the attitude of those who serve
What attitude must you have to be successful in the butler profession? “As in any other profession, a butler must adjust his or her service to the target group, so that his or her clients are satisfied or – even better – impressed,” explained Zita the Butler, and went on to add: “I am not aware of any profession in which serving is not an essential skill.” For the butleresse, service has nothing to do with submissive behavior towards the client. Actually, quite the opposite is true: “What is required is a pure, professional and, most of all, surprising service by a strong personality.” In addition, a butler must have human understanding, specialized competence, charm and discretion and make use of synergies. Moreover – and that is practically a matter of course –, expertise in handling clients as well as co-workers and service providers is an essential requirement. “I try to establish a good connection to each person I am dealing with,” explained the butleresse. “However, I must admit that in my butler role I am very strict with my colleagues and partners. Of course we have no time for another and are completely in demand.” Despite this – or perhaps because of this – she manages to bring the best out in each partner. To accomplish this, she conveys to her counterparts the feeling that they are the ideal and most professional partner for the respective task. In the briefing, she explains precisely what she expects from staff and partners. “There is often an atmosphere of uncertainty and cautiousness because the expectations are high. But if I build up the team, strengthen it, give it the feeling that we all know exactly what we intend to do, then they all give their best.” Towards this end she likes to tell stories. These help to capture the expectations in a nutshell in a humorous way.
No-goes in the life of a butler
Humor, resilience and toughness are virtues need-ed by a butler. The butler is ultimately responsible for everything that happens. Personal sensitivities must be fundamentally left at home. To speak about ones own well-being is among the no-goes in the life of a butler. “I am tired,” “I'm hungry,” “My father isn’t doing well”: there is no room for the personal sphere of a butler while in service. “This distance is at the same time a protection that provides security,” according to Zita Langenstein. Despite this profes- sional attitude, it can also sometimes be challenging to remain constantly correct and always ready to serve. When situations, locations and programs change at the last minute, this in turn has an impact on the table settings, partners, quality assurance, security, procedures, personnel and time management. In such cases, Zita Langenstein recommends: “If an assignment deviates from the agreed upon standard, then simply act as if you have everything under control. Although, I would also sometimes prefer a stricter program,” the butleresse laughs.
“I am not aware of any profession in which serving is not an essential skill”
Zita Langenstein, butleresse
Standard vs. individual preferences
Experience is good, standards are necessary: around 70% of a butler’s job is specified according to protocol. Individual customer requirements make up the remaining 30%. This is best illustrated by the following example: finger foods are specified for afternoon tea, including three to four elegant sandwiches: ham, cucumber, cheese, salmon; two to three types of light pastries: chocolate, berries, cream; one or two scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam and two to three different types of tea: Earl Grey, Ceylon Orange Pekoe, Darjeeling. However, if the client happens to have diabetes, then, while the standard is maintained, the contents are exchanged accordingly as if by magic – without the lady for whom Zita Langenstein works even noticing. If her client is a vegetarian, then the standard is naturally also maintained, but all meat and potentially all fish ingredients are switched for products that the client loves. “While doing so, I do not merely take the easy path by simply preparing two cucumber and cheese sandwiches, but two vegetarian products are additionally integrated,” the butleresse revealed.
The relative high portion of standard process provides security and planning, which is important for preparation and especially for new team members. This security is something that clients really appreciate: “We butlers master the standards. Our know-how really comes into play when it comes to individual service and special wishes. This ensures a fantastic experience for our clients.”
What makes a butler happy?
Even if they act in the background and are nearly invisible, butlers also love appreciation and recog-nition from their clients: “The feeling that I have met my client’s expectations or even exceeded them, makes me happy,” stated Zita Langenstein. “And I want to get a sense of the customer’s reaction to that certain extra. Only then am I satisfied. OK is just not enough.” If, nevertheless, an assignment only receives an “OK,” Zita Langenstein does what all butlers most likely do: sit down, have a cup of tea and reflect. This reflection can last a while, sometimes days, weeks or even months. It lasts as long as it takes for “me to come up with a brilliant idea. And when I have come up with a solution, then I write a card to the respective person with a very personal text in which I express my regrets.” The butleresse has style even when it comes to apologies. Ultimately, it is the tone that makes the music.