Build a Hospitality Culture...or Die

This time of year is loaded with lists...of things you should and shouldn't do. This one by Guy Kawasaki may be one of the most complete I've ever read. It's practically a book full of advice given in a few paragraphs. While he intended it for small business, it applies to everyone, big or small.

Not surprisingly, my favorite point is the first one...put likeable, competent people on the front line. Seems like a no brainer. But, virtually every company does exactly the opposite. They let the lowest paid, least experienced talent make the first impressions. This is a culture developed by big business out of desparation...desparation to control every aspect of a customer interaction. Unfortunately, it often backfires. That's why small business is making a strong comeback, using hospitality...meaningful interactions and personal build a loyal audience of raving fans and stealing market share in the process. Yes, there's plenty of stumbling in the process. But, who cares, as long as the customer is happy and there's enough in the financial tank to open tomorrow.

The smaller the business, the easier it is to put your best people on the firing line. It just works out naturally. The coffee shop owner is the barista, the the innkeeper is at the front desk, etc. But, as your business grows past one or two it becomes exponentially problematic. We're taught (in business school and by experience in other large companies) that when you add staff, you need to add managers to manage control what and how much the group produces. We're taught that this is actually the coveted spot in the organization, first to manage front line workers, then to manage managers and so on. So, as one gets "smarter", they move further and further away from the customer. The irony is that as we move away from our customer, we actually get dumber. A dumber organization with more layers, i.e., smart is that?

So, what to do...

The extreme would be to put the highest paid, most experienced group up front. But, this is financially challenging and organizationally ineffective, especially as you grow. The reality is that bigger means there's more administrative stuff to do. Here's a compromise. Make sure that more than half, closer to two thirds of your management (assuming they're the most competent and likeable) spend more time on the front line with their staff than in an office or cube. This means two things need to happen. Non-customer related work needs to be reduced or shifted elsewhere. If it's non-essential to building a loyal fan base, let someone else do it, i.e., outsourcing. Secondly, build a hospitality culture by hiring people who want to be near the customer. This is the hardest part. Odds are, you're not going to find them in the traditional business school or at a large firm. So, if your priority is to build a hospitality culture (it should be), stop looking there. That means you'll need to either grow your own or find some in small business. Small business produces the most likeable and nimble talent on the planet...out of necessity. They either serve the customer remarkable well or they die. These people can infuse your company with the hospitlaity culture you need to be front line focused. Likely, they'll also be the ones that don't follow rules well or know how develop a fifty- page strategic plan. But remember, your customer isn't buying those things. They're buying likeable people who can quickly solve their problems. So, please get some.





Breaking Tradition

People change. Expectations change. The market forces us to get better and constantly improve. Hospitality offerings today are much different (and mostly better) than they used to trumps old. Tradition evolves.

Most of us care enough to adjust practices to adapt to ever changing service expectations. Generally, we understand that if we don't change, someone new is going to come along and take our place. But, as you venture away from center...away from the core group delivering the experience...this comprehension depreciates. And sometimes, quite rapidly.

I recently sat in on some property management software training, specifically the "front desk" module. The very first thing I the check-out screen, the cursor begins in the "room number" field. So, I asked the trainer..."can we change it so the cursor begins in the name field?"..."no, can't do it without rewriting the program code." Great, so we've been asking our front line employees to use guest names instead of room numbers for as long as I can remember, but the software can't be changed to accommodate that. Ridiculous. Obviously, the software company isn't selling hospitality, they're selling program code, check-out efficiency, i.e., software. They're stuck on traditional means and methods. And, that's a huge problem.

What's the biggest obstacle to delivering restaurant quality meals in a banquet setting? Probably moving the food from a central kitchen to the meeting room, and holding it until the group is ready to eat. So, why not design a mini kitchen at or near each meeting room allowing food to go from oven to plate to guest along an uninterrupted path? That would eliminate hot carts and allow you to cook to order (not from scratch). Too expensive? Not when you factor in how many people are going to leave your events completely underwhelmed...having experienced yet another mediocre banquet meal. Is the kitchen consultant selling hospitality...or kitchen equipment? Is the chef pushing you to deliver a meaningful dining experience? Or, are these people stuck in tradition?

If building strong relationships with your current customers is the key to finding new ones, why isn't your marketing firm pushing you to find ways of developing a permission asset? Why aren't they requiring you to ask every current customer to stay in touch? Why aren't they pushing you to spend more on creating newsletters, personal email communications, blogs and handwritten thank you notes than traditional advertising campaigns? Why aren't they moving you out of traditional marketing and into new marketing?

We're pretty good at evolving our own troops and motivating people to deliver better results. But, what about those companies we rely on as partners? Are they pushing us and moving us forward? Or, are they taking an easier more traditional path just to sell their product or earn a fee?


People like efficiency...not automation. People want to feel special...not part of a program. Every time you place someone in an automated telephone answering sequence and force them to go down a predetermined path, there's a good chance you'll lose them...if not at the outset, then at some point when the paths don't work for them.

If you're stuck with an automated system, the first choice should include talking with a live questions asked, 24 hours a day (or, at least anytime the business is open). Anything less is inhospitable. 

Hospitality First

Technology is by most accounts wonderful. But, it also changes the game…radically. Internet and device advances have leveled the playing field and lowered the barriers to entry in almost every category. And along the way, the power of influence and control has shifted from the company…to the buyer. It’s easier than ever to create something remarkable and bring it to market. It’s also easier than ever for your product or service to be duplicated, made more cheaply or worse…obsolete. All of this happens at lightening speed, creating an environment of market confusion…lots of similar products. Just look at what’s going on in the new “lifestyle” hotel category or computers and pda’s. And, while most are so busy trying to outdo the other guy with better design, bigger buildings, more pixels, etc., we’re forgetting what most people really want…to be engaged.

Being different and remarkable isn’t a matter of having the best product. It’s a matter of delivering the best experience. And, it’s the delivery part that most companies don’t do so well…because they choose not to. It’s easier to focus on the physical aspects of anything…once you make the part, the building, the drapery, it’s done. No training, coaching and counseling necessary. But, while design and function are important, the delivery is often what makes an experience so interesting and memorable…or, when executed poorly, doomed for failure. The artful and meaningful delivery of anything, i.e., hospitality, requires engagement…people interacting with each other. And, that’s complicated…lots of emotion to manage and many moving parts. There are personalities to deal with, illness, varying degrees of aptitude and a myriad of other issues out of your control…on both sides. No doubt about it…it’s the toughest part of business. But, if you get this part right, you win…every time. That’s what gets talked about, and, more often than not, that’s what people want. 

Your job (and mine) is to bring to light how important hospitality is to any business…to show examples of longstanding organizations who win because of people and service, not because they make something that’s faster or cheaper. Our job is to introduce ideas, processes and principles which bring hospitality into focus. Here are a couple of things you can start doing now to get ahead…

  1. Stop selling (what you make), and focus on the person you’re dealing with…on the phone, at the counter, in line or whatever. Ask engaging questions (other than, how are you?), make a kind remark about something they’re wearing, etc. Show them you’re interested in them first, then worry about what they want on their sandwich. It doesn’t need to take ten minutes…thirty seconds will do. If your company doesn’t allow an extra thirty seconds, find a new one. 
  2. Listen and observe…everyone gives clues about what they want…if they’re in a hurry, had a bad day, etc. But, too often, we’re so interested in getting through our own script, we fail to pick-up the clues and to improvise…to take it where the customer wants it to go. Listen well.

Engaging with people is your best chance to be different. But, as is often the case with the best things, it’s the hardest part to get right. So, most companies fail. There’s your chance.