Treat Employees Right So They Treat Customers Right

Starting from a modest offshoot of his family’s construction business (“The Four Seasons Motor Hotel,” if you can believe that), founder and chairman Isadore Sharp has built one of the great brands and organizations in the hospitality industry, the privately-held Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, with 93 highly-rated luxury hotels and resorts under management worldwide.


by Micah Solomon 
Most impressive to me is that the Four Seasons organization  has been built in alignment with Mr. Sharp’s longstanding commitment to The Golden Rule, to applying this principle of fairness to all of the entities involved in creating their hospitality experience; to quote the Four Seasons corporate framework, “In all our interactions with our guests, customers, business associates and colleagues, we seek to deal with others as we would have them deal with us.”  The success of this approach in employee retention –Four Seasons has one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry–and engagement–Four Seasons has been ranked in the "100 Best Places To Work" for 18 years straight–is evident, and Mr. Sharp also credits this philosophy with allowing Four Seasons to provide what he says is the single most important factor in the success of his company: a superior level of customer service.

Micah Solomon: Can you talk about your Golden Rule philosophy of treating employees and other stakeholders equitably and with respect, and what the implications have been for building a business and sustaining a high level of customer service and hospitality? 

Isadore Sharp, founder and chairman, Four Seasons Hotels And Resorts: [It starts with] the strategic decision that transformed my company, the decision to make the quality of our service a competitive advantage and a distinguishing factor that would be recognized by the general public. That led to the next decision, which that if we were to accomplish this goal, the only people who are capable of performing that task are the people who work in the hotel, from the low level to the high level. Everybody who worked in the hotel had to be able to give the customer a sense of a sincere level of service.

If we were asking them to perform at this high level, we had to make sure we gave them what they needed: What would these employees need to inspire them to treat customers this way? That's when we put in place a commitment to the Golden Rule: treating people with the dignity and respect that they're entitled to, creating a work environment that led everybody to rise to their best self, creating a team spirit that everybody recognized their particular role was crucial in performing this level of service we were talking about.

Micah Solomon: Were there challenges along the way?  I expect it wasn’t a rose garden walk getting all your managers on board in treating employees and vendors and subcontractors according to Golden Rule principles?

Mr. Sharp: Was it challenging? Absolutely. When we first set out to determine how we're going to behave [in keeping with their new corporate commitment to the Golden Rule], there were many problems. We had people at the very senior level of this company who didn't abide by it, so I was personally having a very difficult time because I knew that if these senior employees weren't going to walk the talk, we would have to separate them from the company. Which is what we ended up doing: Many senior people in this company were terminated because they would give the Golden Rule philosophy lip service rather than sincere attention.

It takes years of slow work creating a team that are consistent in their values, believe in the philosophy and are prepared to do their work while following the ethical behavior the philosophy implies: Do the right thing, making sure that you don't compromise on the principle in how you treat everybody–your vendors, your customers, your partners, your tradespeople who work there.

This isn’t something that can be accomplished by putting up a plaque or making a speech. It took work over many years–I would say a 15-year period. Today with a company of over 45,000 people, there's no doubt in anybody's mind that the Golden Rule has been the bedrock foundation that has allowed the company to be recognized for the quality of service that distinguishes us from our competitors.

Solomon: Is it true that any Four Seasons employee can stay as a guest at any property anywhere in the world, free of charge?

Mr. Sharp: Yes. Every employee, after a certain length of time working in the company, has the right to travel free of charge, and they do. Many, many people. I get letters from people who over the years as long-term employees have had the pleasure of visiting more than 20 hotels. They go with their spouses, and they get an experience that's exactly according to what they themselves have tried to give to their customers.

 Solomon: If I had to ask you one thing, what is most important for any hospitality professional or leader to get right?

Mr. Sharp: The singularly most important thing to get right, that’s most important to our customer, is the consistent quality of the service the customer expects to get, that satisfies their reasons for using a hotel. That's what hospitality is all about. That's what the word means. [At this point, Mr. Sharp told me that the top four drivers for Four Seasons customers are service, product, location, and recognition. He then went on to discuss this fourth driver, recognition.] Everybody likes to be treated as an individual, so recognition means that any [you’re serving] a customer who has stayed with you before, you find ways to make sure you can acknowledge that, acknowledge their habits and preferences, their guest history with our company. That we know who they are and make sure they are treated as an individual, not as if it’s mass production.

Recognition comes in trying to treat every customer in a manner which is respectful and is sincere, and the key word here is “sincere.” Recognition isn't just knowing the person's name. It’s a matter of accommodating that person's needs, recognizing they're special. That they're here for a purpose and satisfy that purpose. And people who come into the hotel perfectly manicured and dressed to the nines should feel comfortable, as should the person with a baseball hat turned backward and a pair of jeans.

Solomon: One final question: Anything you want to say about leadership and your leadership approach? I spent some time recently with a former, very senior employee of yours who told me that when he worked for you, he appreciated that you were the kind of leader who could sit in the employee cafeteria with him and eat a tuna salad sandwich and just talk like you were ... I don't think he used the word “peers,” but you could have a straightforward conversation.  You weren’t leading from on high.

Mr. Sharp: “Leadership” is a term that is misunderstood and misused. Here’s why: Usually, if you look at career paths, as people move up that career ladder, they are inheriting that role of “boss” through a promotion.

So suddenly you’re anointed the boss, you’re now in charge of these 40 people in the department.That doesn't necessarily make you the leader of those people.Leadership is something that has to be earned every time, and the only way it becomes effective is when you've earned the trust and respect of the people you are now empowered to direct. Once you earn that respect and trust, you then have influence, not because you are their boss but because they believe in you.

At that point, when you tell them what you expect of them, they will go beyond anything you could order them to do, to live up to that trust. This is what makes you a leader, this ability to influence not from a position of power but from the position of respect.

Now, there are a lot of people who get into that “boss” position, and they're not interested in influencing via respect. They’re just interested in cracking the whip and saying, "This is what you're going to do. Now get to it." Which they will, up to a point: People will work to a rule, but that doesn't make you an effective leader. An effective leader gets people to go beyond whatever they can do, gets each person to participate and to try to do their best and to show you and to prove to you, because we all have an ego.

We all need to be patted on the back and recognized. People, by nature, just want an opportunity to show you and prove to you what they can do. My role in that is to create a work environment that allows people to rise to their best self.

Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant, customer experience speaker, hospitality industry speaker and bestselling business author. His most recent full-length book is High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service

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