At a well-known five-star hotel, I asked if I could extend my checkout time by two hours. I was told no; the hotel was full. Unless I paid for a half day; then they'd accommodate me.
If the hotel was full and needed my room, why would it make a difference if I paid them? And if they did have the ability to extend my checkout, why would they charge me? I spoke with the manager. Same answer.
That was the last time I stayed at that hotel franchise.
Contrast that to my recent experience at the Four Seasons in
When I arrived I didn't have to stand in line to check in; the valet simply handed me the key to my room. Which was set-up exactly as I like it: a yoga mat and an exercise schedule on the bed; a bowl of fruit on the table. And they automatically extended my check out time.
I am a customer for life.
How do they do it? What's their secret?
I sat down with Michael Newcombe, general manager of the hotel and 17-year veteran with the Four Seasons, to find out. A woman from room service brought us water and we began to talk
He told me about meeting Isadore "Issy" Sharp, who founded the Four Seasons in 1960 and is still its CEO. Michael met Issy in
Michael tells that story to every new hire on his or her first day.
Michael practices proximity management. Every month he meets informally with each employee group. No agenda. No speeches. Just conversation. That helps him solve problems: for example, the time guest check-in was being mysteriously delayed.
During his meeting with the front desk staff, he learned they were slower than usual in checking in guests because rooms weren't available. Then, in his meeting with housekeeping staff, someone asked if the hotel was running low on king size sheets. Most CEOs wouldn't be interested in that question, but Michael asked why. Well, the maid answered, it's taking us longer to turn over rooms because we have to wait for the sheets. So he kept asking questions to different employee groups until he discovered that one of the dryers was broken and waiting for a custom part. That reduced the number of available sheets. Which slowed down housekeeping. Which reduced room availability. Which delayed guests from checking in.
He fixed the problem in 24 hours. A problem he never would have known about without open communication with all his employees.
Michael walks the property regularly. He asks employees about their families, brings donuts, arranges for birthday parties and softball tournaments. He gets beyond the name tag.
I tested him by asking about the woman who poured our water. He smiled, "Judith transferred here from
These are all good management techniques. Perhaps the secret is that Michael does what others just talk about? But there's more to the hotel's approach.
To get a job at the Four Seasons, you need to make it through five interviews, each looking at you from a different angle. The HR director assesses your ability to work. The division head assesses your skills. The Department head looks at cultural fit. The resort manager explores your potential to grow within the resort. And the GM (yes, Michael meets every new prospective employee) looks at your potential to move to another resort.
One in 20 new applicants gets through the process. A 5% admissions rate. That's twice as competitive as Harvard.
Each interviewer is looking for one thing. Together they get a full picture of an applicant. Can he do the job? Will he fit in? Can he grow? Perhaps that's the key to a turnover rate of 11% compared with the industry norm of 27%.
Almost as an afterthought, Michael mentioned one more thing. "When an employee transfers to another resort, they're accepted without interviewing."
"On the basis of?" I asked.
And there it was. The secret ingredient.
Sure it's important to stay close to employees, clients, and products. And it makes an important difference when the CEO listens and really cares.
But underlying these is trust, deeply embedded in the culture of the organization, exemplified in its daily operations, driving its success. These days, with banks going bankrupt and employees getting laid off, trust is in short supply. So its value is higher than ever.
Trust is as simple as following through on your commitments. Every sales person knows the way to make a quick sale is to develop quick trust. A good sales person will send you an article with a little note saying it made her think of you. That builds a relationship.
But a great sales person will call you to tell you she saw an article that made her think of you and promise to send it to you. Then she'll send it. That builds trust.
Great sales people create an opportunity to fulfill a commitment -- even when one doesn't naturally exist -- and then fulfill it. Like Issy Sharp's promise to visit Michael in
Michael listens to his employees and trusts they have something real to say. In turn, they trust him enough to say what's on their mind. Each interviewer looks for something different and trusts the viewpoint of the others. And each GM trusts the others to transfer only those employees who will succeed in the new resort.
I know plenty of managers who transfer their poor performers to other divisions. But at the Four Seasons that would kill a GM. They know their reputations depend on successful transfers.
That trust trickles down from GM to employees. And from employees to guests.
I was in the locker room, having just worked out in the gym and taken a shower. I didn't want to put my sweaty clothes back on, so I was wearing a gym bathrobe. I was worried the locker room attendant wouldn't want me taking a bathrobe out of the locker room. How could they keep track of the robes? Guests might take them home. That's why so many hotels have little notes on their robes that say, "You are welcome to buy this robe in our gift shop."
So I was walking out of the locker room in the robe, sweaty clothes in my arms, when the locker room attendant said, "Excuse me, sir."
Busted, I thought to myself, as I turned to face him.
"Would you like a bag to carry your gym clothes up to your room?" he asked, holding out a plastic laundry bag.