Is the customer really King?

12 Nov 2018

Is the customer really King?

This may be controversial, but to any company executive reading this article, let me direct this simple question – how confident are you, really, that your company still holds your customer satisfaction as its highest priority?

I have recently spent a period immersed within the operations team of a major corporate hotel operator. It was a stark reminder for me, of just how easily a corporate body can lose sight of what should be the true priority in their business. I really would like to know when that particular company stopped putting the customer at the heart of everything they do? One person within the business commented to me:

“Our Chairman must live in the same world as the Queen, thinking that the whole world smells of fresh paint. Whenever he’s coming around on a visit, someone will be out the night before making sure all the paintwork is done before he arrives. Why don’t we do that for the paying customers?"

I certainly experienced first-hand on multiple occasions, where the customer experience was compromised, to ensure compliance with perceived corporate instructions & targets. Busy hotels operating at below minimum staffing levels, under-resourced and with disengaged team members, who feel unable to voice their true opinions for fear of unpleasant consequences.

This got me thinking, where does the disconnect lie? I wonder whether the executive board are aware of what’s happening “on the ground”. If they were, then shame on them.

Somehow, I suspect that they weren’t fully aware, because how could the board of a successful international hotel operator knowingly allow this to happen. How I would love to ask the CEO that very question over a coffee – I look forward to that conversation when he replies to my request for a meeting.

I was reminded of when the Ford Motor Company faced being broken up by its institutional investors after the financial crash in the US after 9/11 and the work of Alan Mulally to turn around the situation. Among other initiatives, Mulally changed the toxic & unhealthy boardroom culture of Ford, in favour of an open & supportive environment, where problems could be shared in safety and solutions identified. He famously would make his worldwide executives travel to weekly board meetings where they were asked 1 simple question: What is wrong in our business? The first meeting is reported to have lasted only 10 minutes, as nobody felt safe enough to raise any problems around the board table. After 10 minutes, they were sent away, only to be called back 1 week later. The next meeting opened with the same question – what is wrong in our business? Again, nobody would answer. Reputedly, this went on for several weeks before executives started to share their challenges and issues openly.

In my management career, I always felt that my key responsibility, as the leader, was to keep our customer’s real experience at the heart of every business decision I made. If I held true to that value, I could realistically expect that value to be shared by our colleagues throughout the business. I also worked hard to maintain a visible and genuinely approachable presence within the business. I would actively encourage colleagues at all levels, to openly share their positive & negative feedback, without any fear of retribution. Only through this genuinely open & approachable leadership style, could I be confident of knowing what was happening in the business & understand what challenges our team were facing, which in turn allowed me to channel resources and finances to where it was really needed.

To reflect this value, we turned the traditional hierarchical corporate structure on its head. Our organisational chart had customers at the top, followed closely by our front-line operations staff; the Housekeepers, the Kitchen Porters and the Grounds Staff. As the business leader, I was at the bottom of our inverted hierarchy. I was always mindful of how everyone impacted upon the daily operation and our customer’s experience. In blunt terms, I could be out of the business for an extended period and nobody should notice, but how little time would it take for the Kitchen Porter to be absent before the dirty dishes pile up and service is compromised?

So, if you are a corporate executive reading this article, let me leave you with a few questions to reflect upon:

Do you genuinely have your customers at the heart of your business? Are your unit managers openly sharing their problems & challenges with you? Do your hotels only smell of fresh paint when the Chairman is going to visit?

Oh, and if you think it was one of your hotels that I recently spent time in, do get in touch and let’s have that coffee.