Service with a smile only goes so far, but providing customers with consistent, genuine care can be a major selling point.
Kathleen Taylor, president and chief executive officer of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, highlighted how the luxury company goes to great lengths to ensure guests have just what they need from one property to the next, and in doing so has instilled a service-oriented corporate culture.
This consumer-friendly approach is far from a newfound thing. Recalling the company’s early days, Taylor noted how, in 1961, company founder Isadore Sharp opened a motor hotel, “a modest building in a not so fancy location even at that time.” But even then the essential question was: What do customers value most? Market research at that time pointed to luxury, which did not equate just to elegant surroundings and gourmet meals, Taylor said. On closer inspection, the greatest luxury proved to be time, and “service could help them make the most of that,” she said.
While the Oxford English Dictionary defines luxury as “the state of great comfort and extravagant living” or as “an essential, but desirable item,” that definition does not apply to the Four Seasons, Taylor said. “What we do is essential for travelers who want to be sure their time and travel dollars are being well spent. It may be uncommon, but it is not extravagant,” she said, noting that designing service to help busy people make the most of their precious time is not as easy as it sounds.
Well aware that the few moments when service is actually delivered is “a company’s make or break point,” the Four Seasons aims to make sure guests get just what they are after, and that task often depends on frontline employees, who tend to be the lowest-paid and often, “in too many companies,” the least motivated, Taylor said. Whether booking a reservation on the phone, greeting visitors in lobbies or interacting with housekeepers, these exchanges leave impressions on Four Seasons’ guests. “These frontline staff represent the product to our customers. In the most realistic sense, they are the product, its personal component,” she said. “We came to understand quickly that positively impacting the attitudes of our employees would be the only way to succeed.”
By getting to know a customers’ likes and dislikes, staffers can anticipate their needs.
Taking a page from the golden rule — “to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves” — the company’s employees know to ask themselves, “Is this action, this decision, this deal consistent with our core values?” That credo was adopted decades ago and guides interactions with guests, business partners and investors, as well as Four Seasons staffers, Taylor said. Those who fail to live up to it are asked to leave the company, regardless of their seniority, Taylor said. In addition, new recruits are hired based on the company’s principles.
The Four Seasons makes a point of having potential hires go through four or five interviews, primarily to evaluate attitude. When opening its first location in Mumbai, India, in 2008, the company received 34,000 applications, conducted 15,000 interviews and eventually hired 450 employees, Taylor said. “It’s always a lengthy process, and an expensive one, but minor compared to the cost of struggling for years to change bad habits and negative attitudes,” she said.
In addition, managers aren’t seen as bosses but as mentors, coaches and communicators, Taylor emphasized. The aim is to empower employees, involve them in decision making and to support them. The strategy seems to be paying off, considering that the Four Seasons continues to rank among Fortune magazine’s list of the best companies to work for in the U.S. and the fact that employee turnover is “very low,” Taylor said.
Editor’s Note: The presentation by Kathleen Taylor, president and chief executive officer of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, was omitted from the coverage of the WWD CEO Apparel and Retail Summit.