This blog tour by Jonathan Tisch has been interesting on a few levels. What a creative idea, for starters. And what a clever publicist to pick up on it.
I knew we'd be up at the end of the tour week, and I thought that things might be getting repetitive by now. So I sent questions that I hoped were different, and might scratch through the polished package that accompanies anyone who occupies a corner office, to say nothing of someone who is also on the speaking circuit. I don't think we got anything unvarnished, but I think we did get some frank and forthright commentary. Here's our e-mail Q&A, as conversational as we could make it.
"[It is] challenging for CEOs to balance service versus profits"
Susan Abbott: Jonathan, I first wanted to tell you that I read a paragraph from your book to kick off a recent client working session about customer experience. It was about how everyone in the organization actually needs to think about and be focused on customers. I was happy to hear people repeating this stuff a week later to others.
I only wish it was so easy to get people on board, especially at the top of the organization. I know some are -- Lafley at P&G of course is a great example. But it seems like the exception, not the rule. Why aren't more executives on board?
Jonathan Tisch: With the focus coming from Wall Street on quarterly earnings for public companies, it becomes a bit challenging for CEOs to balance service versus profits. The enlightened leaders of some companies have figured out that great customer service usually leads to an enhanced bottom line. That is the ultimate challenge – to find ways for your customers to receive the service that they deserve, turn them in to life-long customers, and ensure that they don’t go to the competition should they have a bad experience.
"What has changed is the business of hotels, not the hotel business"
SA: One of the things that immediately drew me to your book was your genuine understanding of the vulnerability of the traveler who is a guest in your hotel. I spent a few years where I was continually on the road, and it can be a lonely and frustrating place at times.
Still, I recognize that my expectations are very high. But of course this wasn't always the case -- I can't imagine what travel in the 1800s must have been like. It makes me wonder how customer expectations will change in the future. You mentioned the importance of staying on top of emerging trends and the next demographic shift. Could you comment on that?
JT: What is happening in the lodging industry today relates to the old saying, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” What has changed is the business of hotels, not the hotel business.
Our business has become highly sophisticated with very large, corporate entities becoming players. When you look at the Marriotts, InterContinentals and Hiltons of the world – all with many thousands of properties, at different price points and market niches – you understand that the big are getting bigger and that, through acquisitions and strategic alliances, they have become formidable competition with tremendous offerings.
There has also been a greatly enhanced focus by Wall Street and private equity on the hotel business, so many of the new players are very well capitalized and have extremely bright people as part of their organizations.
That’s the business of hotels.
But what hasn’t changed since the first person checked into a hotel 1,000 years ago, is the hotel business. At its core, our business is based on hospitality and making people feel welcome, comfortable and safe. The companies that continue to thrive are the ones able to skate the line between profitability and hospitality.
Going forward, we will always have new technological advances to deal with. But once again, our industry is extremely biased toward interpersonal and human relations.
"The companies that thrive are able to skate the line between profitability and hospitality"
SA: You mentioned several instances in the book where staff quite correctly bend the rules to look after a customer. But you also note consistency is critically important -- customers need to know an organization is reliable and dependable.
Is there a tension between customization and consistency? And if so, how does an organization deal with this tension?
JT: If your co-workers are properly educated and trained, then customization and consistency can, indeed, be compatible. That’s the nature of crisis resolution. What I like to discuss with my Loews Hotels co-workers isn’t about the problem necessarily. It’s about the recovery.
With so many options for the consumer, recovery from a problem is paramount because that’s how you keep one of your customers from going to a competitor.
It is a very fine line that has to be taught to, in some cases, entry-level individuals – how to get involved and what opportunities for crisis resolution are available to them. At Loews Hotels we pride ourselves on balancing consistency with customization to provide the level of service our guests have become accustomed to.
"The CEO cannot be involved in every decision -- nor should they be"
SA: I'd like to ask you about managing a culture of innovation. If we want to harness the creative talents at all levels of an organization, how do we do that? What specifically does the CEO need to do to role model the right approach? Short of writing a book, of course.
JT: The CEO always sets the tone for an organization. Due to corporate hierarchy, it can get a little lonely at the top if there’s not complete buy-in at every level of the organization.
Due to physical and time constraints, the CEO cannot be involved in every decision – nor should they be involved in every decision. It’s extremely important for middle and senior-management to have a very clear understanding of the goals and objectives of the company. In addition, creativity is an important tool that should be harnessed to effectively manage toward these goals. This is something that needs to be taught to all the individuals making decisions.
"The CEO always sets the tone for an organization"
JT: It’s very important to always monitor the touch-points of your organization so that you can see where the customer intersects with your product or service.
As the CEO, there are times when I find myself talking to clients about their experiences, in a sense pleading with them to be honest and candid with me. It really is important for the CEO to hear everything – the good and the bad. Because much of what gets to a CEO on a daily basis is somewhat sanitized by those working for them, I find it important to regularly speak with our guests.
Additionally there are always letters, observations, comments and criticisms that come across the transom. CEOs always need to understand what’s being said about their organization so that they can deal with the situations appropriately.
SA: Thank you, Jonathan. It's not often that a CEO of a major organization lets themselves be interviewed by a blogger. I really appreciate having your executive level perspective on things that my readers and I think about!
JT: Thank you, Susan, for this dialogue! I’ve enjoyed this week immensely. Thank you for welcoming me to your blog.
SA: We talk a lot on this blog about the need to stay close to customers, and the tools that help you do that effectively. I'm wondering what some of your favorite methods are?