No Matter What Business You’re In… You’re in the Hospitality Business

I recently did a keynote speech at a Customer Experience conference in New York.  As part of that event, the participants and speakers had the chance to share dinner with Danny Meyer at his restaurant Eleven Madison Park.  For those not familiar with the New York restaurant scene, it’s an understatement to say it’s highly competitive.   Danny Meyer is the CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group which includes several of New York’s other favorite restaurants, including Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, Blue Smoke, and The Modern.  Last year, Danny published an exceptional book called “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.”

Over the course of the evening, Danny Meyer had the chance to share some of his thoughts on the distinction between service (the things we design our processes and train our employees to provide) and hospitality (the sum of all the thoughtful, caring, and gracious things we do to demonstrate we are on the customer’s side).  Service is a monologue; it’s about technical delivery, standards, and execution.  We decide what to do and how to do it.  Well designed and executed service usually does a good job of meeting customers’ rational needs and expectations.  On the other hand, hospitality is a dialogue; it’s about watching a customer’s experience with every sense and following up with a thoughtful and appropriate response.  Hospitality is the component of the experience that addresses the customers’ more important emotional needs and creates real loyalty.

It’s natural to think about hospitality if you’re in the hospitality business.  However, it’s not hard to see that creating a hospitality experience can apply to just about any business… at least any business that wants to have truly loyal customers.    Hospitality is the concept that reframes customer loyalty as the business’ loyalty TO the customer.

Unfortunately and fortunately… true hospitality is rare in the business world.  Very few businesses actually deliver it and, as a result, are unworthy of any real loyalty FROM their customers.  This creates an opportunity for any highly committed competitor.  There certainly are organizations that differentiate their experience based on hospitality.  For example, I consistently have a hospitality experience with Nordstroms and am increasingly willing to pay a premium to shop there.

In his talk, Danny Meyer emphasized that an organization’s ability to deliver hospitality has to do with who you hire and how you manage them… core components of the employee experience.  The individual characteristics he felt critical to a hospitality experience include people that demonstrate: 

  • Optimistic Warmth.  Genuine kindness, thoughtfulness, and a sense that the glass is always at least half full
  • Intelligence.  Open-mindedness and an insatiable curiosity to learn
  • Work Ethic.  A natural tendency to do something as well as it possibly can be done
  • Empathy.  An awareness of, care for, and connection to how others feel and how the individual’s actions affect others
  • Self Awareness and Integrity.  Understanding what makes you tick and a natural inclination to be accountable for doing the right thing

In parallel with hiring individuals that exhibit these characteristics, there are several specific elements of the management environment, managers behavior, and management practices, that Danny emphasized:

  • Infectious Attitude.  Managers have a positive attitude and the ability to stay positive in the face of adversity.
  • Charitable Assumption, Patience, and Tough Love.  Managers assume the best in other people; understand and capitalize on unique strengths; and build accountability
  • Long Term View of Success.  Management maintains a focus on the long term value of the employee and the customer experience
  • Sense of Abundance.  Enlightened generosity with employees and customers rather than operating from a sense of scarcity
  • Trust.  You can’t motivate, empower, or collaborate with people if you can’t trust them

In the time since this event, we’ve had the chance to work with many clients on the role of hospitality in their business.  In most cases, this deceptively simple concept has led to a fundamentally different way of thinking about delivering a differentiated customer experience… one that is intimately linked to and reflective of the employee experience.  

Some of the obvious barriers is that delivering true hospitality can’t be scripted.   You need to create elbow room for employees to do the right thing for the customer.  This requires a deliberately designed pattern of interventions in the employee experience including recruiting, incorporating, training, communicating, measurements, and rewards.  It also involves surfacing the unwritten rules that may be driving employee behavior inconsistent with the desired customer experience (see Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?).

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