Isadore Sharp is founder, Chairman and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.
Whether purchasing a yacht, a diamond, a sports car or a handbag, luxury consumers expect the experience of making the purchase to be as rewarding as the purchase itself. A company’s ability to provide that kind of experience depends on its employees.
When the first Four Seasons opened on Jarvis Street in Toronto 45 years ago there was no grand plan, but a consistent thread – to provide great service. The essential question for us in the early days was: “What did guests value most?” Market research said luxury, not necessarily elegant surroundings and gourmet meals.
The greatest luxury is time, and service can help you make the most of that. Give greater productivity greater enjoyment – what better luxury can there be?
Of course, designing service to help busy people make the most of their precious time can be challenging. We can’t pre-check service or sample it: production and consumption are simultaneous. Those few moments of service delivery are make or break point, when reputation is either confirmed or denied. And the outcome normally depends on the lowest paid people, and often, in too many companies, the least motivated.
To be at the top we get service standards down to the bottom of the pyramid, and that process begins for us with our hiring policy. We hire for attitude. We want people who like other people and are, therefore, more motivated to serve them. Competence we can teach. Attitude is ingrained.
Polls taken recently for Fortune’s annual listing of the 100 Best Companies To Work For in America – which I’m happy to say has always included us – find that employees in these firms value, primarily, three things. First, to work for leaders who demand and inspire their best. Second, a physical environment that makes work enjoyable. And third, a sense of purpose, and a feeling they’re working for more than a pay cheque.
In every area, we push down responsibility, from head office to our frontline people, who have authority to make most decisions they feel are needed to satisfy our guests. That’s why, early on, we set a mandate of zero mistakes. Inevitably, of course, mistakes occur. But when our employees are trusted to use their common sense, they can, and do turn mishaps into new service opportunities. Then, what the customer remembers is not the complaint but the outcome.
This requires managers who are less bosses than mentors and communicators. For employees to act on their own initiative, they have to know our priorities. We pay as much attention to employee complaints as to guest complaints. We upgrade employee facilities whenever we upgrade a hotel, we have no class distinction in cafeterias and parking lots. We establish career paths and promotion from within – as one employee quoted by Fortune said “Great pay, great perks, great food. I’m treated like a five diamond hotel guest.” Our gold rule is treat everyone – customers, employees, partners, suppliers – as we ourselves would want to be treated.
The fastest way for management to destroy credibility is to say employees come first and to be seen putting them last. If management shows greater concern for power, prestige, and costs than for customers and company values we forfeit belief and trust, along with our goal of being the best. Trust is the unseen and too often neglected determinant of corporate success. Trust is the emotional capital of leadership, the essence of the brand name, and a synonym for customer loyalty. Every year that service culture grows stronger, with a camaraderie that deepens to create a sense of community that makes cooperation the norm.
My task is to sell the vision, preaching the gospel of service every day and in every hotel. I continuously restate and develop it. I focus employees at every level on one priority: giving customers added value through service. Motivated by an inner need to do well by others, our people delight and surprise our guests every day. The sum of their efforts is what makes Four Seasons unique. By nurturing the full potential of every willing worker from top to bottom, I believe that businesses can tap a unique source of leadership and success for the 21st Century.