My first job fresh out of college was with Four Seasons Hotels working at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. I experienced the legendary Four Seasons customer service immediately when upon arriving for work and stepping out of the elevator into the lobby, I was greeted by name by an assistant manager who was informed of my arrival by the bellman. It was a deliberate example of how they would try and greet every guest checking in as well as an example of how customer service extended to employees. Working for Four Seasons was a great experience and an opportunity to learn firsthand how an unwavering and institutional emphasis on personal service can deliver unparalleled customer loyalty, and help to build a brand.
The principals of customer service are certainly not revolutionary, but although they are simple in theory, they require significant organizational commitment. And when applied properly, they have proven to be a clear differentiator for many businesses.
There is the sentiment in the commercial real estate market that customer service falls somewhere well down then line after location, price, and amenities as primary factors for attracting and retaining tenants. And while those are undeniably important, they remain somewhat out of the control of property managers. The one thing within your absolute control is customer service, and in these uncertain times, doing everything you can to service and keep your existing tenants happy is the most important work you can do.
So, what lessons can you apply to your business from one of the world’s leading customer service organizations?
Put People First
They have a mantra at Four Seasons called the “3 Ps” – people, product, and profit. Their philosophy is that people always come first. If their employees focus on service, this will naturally enhance the view of their product which of course leads to profit. Can exceptional customer service enhance a tenant’s view of your product – your building? It must, otherwise, property managers would not be concerned with issue request response times, cleanliness, comfort and building security. The point is that you can go far beyond those things and create a truly unique customer experience.
Attitude not Aptitude
Four Seasons hires people with a focus on attitude first over skills. They believe that they can train anyone on basic tasks, but they cannot instill passion. This service attitude permeates throughout the organization and is not limited to customer-facing roles. Think about the people (including your vendors) who may come into contact with your tenants; do they all have the same passion for customer service and are they properly trained on how to address and deal with your tenants?
Customers = Employees
We know that the customer is supposed to be treated like royalty, but too often employees are treated like second class citizens. – It is easy to understand in those situations why employees aren’t too enthusiastic to treat customers well. Be good to your employees and they are more likely to treat your tenants with respect.
Service as a Differentiator
We all strive to find that one thing that provides us with our competitive advantage. For Four Seasons Hotels, it is clearly “customer service.” Everything they do is driven by the customer and for the customer. In fact, they strive to go beyond expectations. For example, they were innovators in building customer relationship management databases (CRM). They know whether their guests like firm or soft pillows, the normal time for their wake up call and how they like their eggs. They also maintain a complete history of communications with that guest. How much do you know about your tenants? Do you schedule regular conversations with them at different levels of the organization? Do you have a centralized location to maintain a log of those communications?
Treat All Customers Exceptionally
As their core business client profile started to change over the years, Four Season adjusted their staffing with that change. As they saw an increase in teenagers traveling with their parents and realized that teens have different needs, they introduced a “Teen Concierge.” This concierge is closer in age to teenagers and is there to serve the needs of these younger guests. How do you interact with the different constituencies in your tenant organizations? Do you focus all your efforts only on the person who signs the lease and the rent checks, or do you do have a service plan for the office managers and administrative assistants who wield significant influence on perception within their organizations?
Why doesn’t every other hotel chain deliver Four Seasons style service? The assumption of course is that it is costly. There is certainly a cost involved, particularly in terms of technical innovation such as the creation and maintenance of a custom database. However the bigger obstacle is commitment. It is hard to replicate what Four Season’s does, because the service mindset permeates the entire company. Competitors cannot just decide to deliver exceptional customer service. It must be part of your DNA and extend to every employee in the organization. A good place to start an evaluation of your customer service program is to look at your operational and training manuals. Highlight all of the areas that apply to customer service and decide on what needs to be added or adjusted. Then look at the personnel training and evaluation component of that manual that relates to customer service; if it doesn’t exist, create it, implement it, measure it and improve it regularly. Figure out a way to connect a compensation component to customer satisfaction. Go far beyond the yearly tenant survey…think creatively.
These are competitive times and it is critical that you hold onto the relationships you have. Use this opportunity to evaluate and improve your customer service program. It is entirely within your control to improve and solidify your tenant’s perception of your property and organization and position yourself for the turnaround that will come, so that your reputation and brand attracts quality tenants who are looking for something beyond just location and price.