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The People Create the Experiences: How Four Seasons Built an Army of Customer Champions


Nearly 50 years ago, Isadore Sharp opened the first Four Seasons motel—you heard that right, motel—in Toronto. Who knew that within but a few decades the Four Seasons would transition from a “motelier” to hotelier, and one of the most respected hotel chains globally? Well, Isadore Sharp knew.

A Culture Built on Customer Experience

From the beginning, Four Seasons focused on the customer experience. In fact, the company made experience its main differentiator — its product, so to speak — and in the process, redefined luxury. Sharp’s idea of luxury had very little to do with the lavish or luxurious surroundings of the hotel itself. Luxury, he determined, was the way guests felt during their stay, as described in his book about the Four Seasons experience, Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy. The guest’s interactions and relationships with employees created a feeling of luxury. So did the small, considerate touches, like complimentary shampoo and conditioner in the shower—amenities that Four Seasons made a standard part of the guest experience, long before it became “standard” to include toiletries in hotels. Luxury was the cumulative guest experience. This unique philosophy fueled the company’s growth from a single motel in Toronto to 92 Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts properties around the world.

In a keynote address at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Sharp said: “The outcome in our industry normally depends on the front-line employees—doormen, bellmen, waiters, maids, the lowest-paid people—and often, in too many companies, the least motivated. These front-line staff represent our product to our customers. In the most realistic sense, they are the product.”

Fast forward to 2013, and the Four Season focus on experience is still in full bloom. In fact, Four Seasons executive Scott Taber, Four Seasons VP of Rooms, was honored as Customer Champion by 1to1 Media for his work in leading CX initiatives and for embodying the admirable ideals of the organization. The 1to1 Media Customer Champions program recognizes customer-centric leaders who use innovative approaches to instill customer-focused strategies throughout their organizations that make a positive bottom-line impact. Taber has been with Four Seasons since 1985, serving as General Manager of multiple locations and leading customer experience initiatives from different executive roles.

“We are passionate about the customer experience at Four Seasons,” says Taber. “This recognition is a testament to the strength of our entire team and the commitment we’ve made to continuously enhance the guest experience.”

The Four Seasons “Secret Sauce”: Empowering employees

Sharp’s recognition that the front-line is the key to the customer experience lives on today. When stepping into any Four Seasons or speaking with any Four Seasons employee, the passion is tangible. And a big part of this is due to the people. How does Four Seasons continue to foster this customer-centric spirit? By empowering its employees to go out of their way to create outstanding experiences. Here are just a few examples:

Democratize Innovation: At Four Seasons, every employee is an innovator, and each hotel functions as a miniature lab. Four Seasons knows that the best ideas don’t always come from the land of theory (or corporate boardrooms). Instead, the best ideas can be generated from the field and from the frontline—the people in contact with guests every day, who are delivering these experiences. Four Seasons encourages employees to continually seek ways to improve experiences, from handing out free sunscreen by the pool to changing the check-in process to trim wait times. And if an idea at, say, the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley is working well, Taber and his team will apply it to properties across the globe. By empowering the frontline with the freedom to ideate, experiment, and test small changes in operations within hotels, Four Seasons creates an army of customer champions, each motivated by the spirit of improvement and in possession of the power to drive it.

Eliminate the Fear of Failure: At Four Seasons, failure is simply viewed as an opportunity for improvement. Each property used to run a daily “Glitch Report” meeting, at which team members would discuss the day’s missteps and identify areas to improve. This attitude recalls that of another Medallia customer, Extended Stay America. One of the first things CEO Jim Donald did after he took the helm was to print “Get out of free jail” cards and hand them to frontline employees. The gesture made it clear that they could take risks without failure or blame. A growth-mindset environment, at both of these companies, propels improvement and innovation across the business.

Data to the People: Another key component is empowering the frontline with key customer data, so they can understand and act on issues. Taber has worked to popularize a Medallia dashboard that enables property managers to not only see their own customer experience performance indicators, but also to compare among regions. This facilitates a healthy awareness and competition to drive improvement. “It’s part of our culture as an organization-wide effort empowering our frontline employees with insights on the needs and preferences of our guests,” says Taber. “This enables our hotels to truly understand and connect with our guests as we strive to always exceed their expectations, and create great value in choosing Four Seasons.”

Congratulations to Taber and Four Seasons on the well-deserved recognition as an organization filled with Customer Champions.

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