Four Seasons’ Sharp: Even in a recession, customer service must be “the foundation” of a hotel

In his new memoir, “Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy,” Isadore Sharp describes how he built one of the hotel industry’s most successful and respected brands. But the book ends just as things start to get interesting: with a historic downturn in the lodging industry. I asked Sharp to pick up where the book left off.

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Q: In your book, you talk about how Four Seasons survived — and even prospered — during two recessions. But by most accounts they weren’t as severe as the current economic downturn. How is the company holding up?

Sharp: There’s no question that our industry as a whole has been affected by the current economic environment. Our approach to business at this time is the same as always — to provide our guests with the consistency and excellence they have come to expect of Four Seasons.

Providing exceptional experiences to our guests is a fundamental part of our business model and has been the foundation for our success, through good times and bad. In times of uncertainly, our guests value the reliability and care that we provide. It’s a relationship of trust that is more important than ever.

Q: In the last year, we’ve seen a lot of hotels reduce amenities and cut staff in order to save money. Of course, rates have also dropped pretty dramatically. Could you talk a little about what differences, if any, a customer might notice between a Four Seasons experience in 2008 versus now?

Sharp: It’s been reported that many hotel companies are cutting services and amenities to cope with this challenging business environment. This is something we will never do. It is the promise behind our brand name.

Our focus continues to be on providing the services our guests need to be productive when they stay with us on business, and to focus on family and loved ones when on vacation. Whether it’s 24-hour room service, one hour pressing, complimentary shoe shine, overnight laundry, exceptional complimentary children’s programs — all of the services we provide add up to a tremendous support system for our guests, allowing them to spend their time with us effectively. These services represent a tremendous value to our guests, especially when every travel experience matters and nothing can be left to chance.

Q: Let me ask you about the Glitch Report. In your book, you describe it as “a review of the previous day’s mistakes” that’s undertaken by every department at your hotel. Where did you get the idea for a Glitch Report, and what’s your most memorable glitch?

Sharp: If one of the pillars upon which we built the company was going to be service, then continuously challenging ourselves to achieve the highest possible standards of service seemed like a logical thing to strive for. A glitch report does just that. By keeping close tabs on what’s happening at the hotel every day, the management team has the ability to work closely with staff to continually teach, reinforce and empower them to make great customer service decisions.

There isn’t one particular glitch that stands out. What I appreciate hearing, always, is how guests returned because of the way a particular issue was handled. What’s important with a glitch is not the error – it’s the recovery. Guests remember how they were treated and the outcomes, and we always strive to ensure that the outcomes are positive.

Q: I’m sure you’ve received letters from your customers about how a Four Seasons employee went above and beyond the call of duty to make a hotel stay better. Your book is filled with terrific examples. Would you mind if I asked you to name your favorite one, in that it summarizes what makes Four Seasons such a successful brand?

Sharp: It’s hard to pick a favorite, but certainly one that was quite dramatic was when the tsunami hit our resort in the Maldives. That’s a great example of not just one, but an entire group of employees responding as one, thinking first and foremost about the safety and security of our guests.

There were so many emotional stories from that day — everything from children being rescued from the sea to the employees giving up their sleeping quarters for guests to be more comfortable. We were so fortunate that our guests and employees suffered only minor injuries. It was truly an example of our culture in action – the summation of everything we strive to achieve every day at all of our hotels.

Q: I was fascinated by some of the hotel deals that didn’t work out — I believe you referred to them as “bad apples.” There are hotel guests who might fit that description as well, in that they’re difficult to please, consume a lot of your employees’ time and are not always pleasant to work with. Is there ever a time when you say, “It’s obvious we can’t make this person happy” and suggest they take their business elsewhere?

Sharp: It’s true that pleasing all of our guests is the ultimate goal and for some, we won’t hit that mark. We look at those instances as an opportunity for us to learn, to try and understand what we might have done better, or differently, to achieve a different outcome.

We recognize that not everyone will be a repeat guest, but our goal is to ensure that we have made every effort to create a memorable guest experience. Our employees will exhaust every possible solution, never ceasing until the guest is happy. By involving the senior management on duty, who always directly addresses complaints and personally sees that it is rectified, we foster a deep trust that inspires deep loyalty.

Q: I was surprised to learn that your business philosophy didn’t focus entirely on maximizing shareholder wealth, but that you also felt a responsibility toward customers and employees. How has that shaped the way Four Season views customer service? How has it worked out for investors?

Sharp: The guest experience is the cornerstone of the brand around which every decision has been made. Because of this approach, customer service is the foundation of our company, rather than the afterthought it can so often become. This creates deeply loyal guests who choose to stay with us every chance they get, bolstering business and ultimately making us attractive to development partners. And that, in turn, creates brand value and loyalty.

Q: I think there are those in the hotel industry who would say you’re trying to have it both ways — making guests and investors happy at the same time. What’s your secret?

Sharp: The first, and most important, focus for Four Seasons has been on the people we select to work with us. We don’t necessarily start with people who have hospitality experience. Many of those technical skills can be taught. Our employees are chosen for their service orientation; they derive great pleasure from going the extra distance for a guest. And that’s not something you can teach someone.

The second important foundation is our focus on the Golden Rule — to treat others as you wish to be treated. Adhering to this seemingly simple principle results in employees that feel cared for and respected. They, in turn, treat our guests with that same care and respect.

We also give our employees the chance to experience our service from the other side. All staff receive complimentary room nights at our hotels and discounts on food and beverage. Experiencing the service their colleagues deliver, perhaps half way around the world from their own hotel, makes them proud to work at Four Seasons and inspires them to continue to improve upon their own service to our guests.

Q: What advice would you give a hotel guest who wants to get good service, other than staying at a Four Seasons property?

Sharp: For me, it goes back to the Golden Rule. Service industry providers are amongst the hardest working, and often the most under-appreciated, members of the workforce. I try to treat them with kindness and respect and find that I get that back tenfold. Saying a simple “thank you” can go a long way to making someone feel special and appreciated.

Q: As I read your book, I wondered about how Four Seasons was adjusting to the new world of social media and blogging. How does a hotel brand with hundreds of thousands of guests and properties around the world protect its good reputation when a single malicious post to a Web site can hurt business?

Sharp: We believe the best way to protect our brand within the ever-evolving media landscape, is through consistency. By ensuring the core of our business never changes — delivering the same, high-level anticipatory service in settings that immerse guests in the destination — just as we have been doing for more than 40 years, we keep our loyal clientele happy.

Now this is not to say that we haven’t begun to interact in this realm. We are testing social media platforms from Twitter to YouTube as channels for interaction with guests to share news and collect feedback. It is a natural extension of what we are already doing; one which we anticipate will only help foster a deeper connection with our customers.

Q: Could you tell me about the last hotel stay that wasn’t a Four Seasons property? What did you like about it? Were you impressed by anything? Did you find anything to be annoying?

Sharp: I have a policy not to comment on other hotel brands.

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