Loews Hotels CEO Jonathan Tisch on the Essence of Customer Service: Experience, Service and QualityPublished: July 11, 2007 in Knowledge@Emory
In the book Chocolates on the Pillow Aren’t Enough: Reinventing the Customer Experience, Jonathan Tisch, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels, co-chairman of the board and a member of the Office of the President of Loews Corporation, along with freelance writer Karl Weber, discuss the best approaches to customer service in an increasingly competitive marketplace. In a Q&A with Knowledge@Emory, the online business publication of Emory’s Goizueta Business School, Loews Hotels head Jonathan Tisch discusses his new book and the nuances of the customer service game. Whether you’re dealing with hotel customers or consumers in any other industry, customizing service is key, he notes in the new book.
Knowledge@Emory: In your opening chapter titled “What Happened to My Customers,” you note the many factors causing customers and clients to be more demanding and less loyal to businesses. Certainly, competition is a big player in this, as well as the plethora of marketing information hitting consumers, and much more. How do you keep your own employees and managers motivated and focused on the big picture, considering it is so easy to get discouraged in this sort of environment?
Tisch: At Loews Hotels, we educate all of our coworkers about the big-picture goals of the company. This is vital in an industry where quality of service differentiates one company from another. We also make sure we recognize our coworkers effectively when they deliver outstanding customer service. Our industry is very much based on service, and the individuals who offer that service need to be recognized constantly for their contributions to our success.
Knowledge@Emory: Obviously, hoteliers like yourself, face specific demands, and you talk about this in the book, since you deal with the physical, emotional and psychological needs of the customer as they stay at your properties. How can you equip your executives to deal with such an all-encompassing, 24-hour demanding customer service relationship?
Tisch: We have a skills training program called Living Loews, which consists of a two-day training program that hones employee etiquette and hands-on selling, among other skills. Part of this training deals with how to handle pressure, which is something employees in any industry are bound to face. We’re all human, so mistakes can happen. But when they do, we train our coworkers to impress our guests with an extraordinary recovery that we hope they’ll remember even more.
Knowledge@Emory: In the book, you point out that customization of services is key to getting ahead in customer service. You note that making the point of contact a dynamic and rich experience, no matter the industry, is the secret. But, then, of course, customer tastes are always morphing and changing. How does an organization effectively stay on top of the changes in taste, and then trickle down this information in a usable fashion, throughout the various tentacles of a business?
Tisch: Listening to the customer and staying on top of trends and competitors is vital to any business. I titled the book Chocolates on the Pillow Aren’t Enough for just this reason. If you think the old ways of impressing customers still work and work forever, you need to think again. I hope my book will show readers the importance of reinventing the customer experience again and again. Look at what your competitors are doing to attract and retain customers, or even better, look at what companies in other industries are doing. There are ideas all around you if you look for them.
Knowledge@Emory: Probably one of the more compelling examples you bring up in the book is that of Harley-Davidson, and how, under the tutelage of CEO Richard F. Teerlink, they were able to turnaround an ailing company with a combination of better quality control on their motorcycles, as well as tapping into an ad campaign that played into the idea that their motorcycles were certainly true American symbols--symbols of the wide open road and a free-wheeling independence. So, at the end of the day, customer service needs to be inextricably linked to marketing, product quality and many more aspects of the business. How do you keep these divisions in sync, especially in such a large organization?
Tisch: The key is to train ALL departments of your organization to be customer-centric. Thinking about customers can’t be left to marketing and sales alone. Manufacturing, R&D, strategy, management, all have to be focused on the needs and desires of the customer. If they are, your brand will shine, and customers will embrace it.
Knowledge@Emory: Interestingly, you also point out in the chapter titled “Engineering the Total Customer Experience,” that being “customer-centric also means paying close attention to your relationship with your employees--how you select, train, motivate, and reward them.” Ultimately, these are the people that are the first touch points for the customer. What are American employers doing right and doing wrong with their employees, and how is that trickling down to customer service today?
Tisch: Best Buy trains their personal shopping advisors to talk about product features in down-to-earth terms that any customer can understand. Their Geek Squad service sends experts in a Volkswagen Beetle to visit customer homes to install hardware and software. Both of these examples show how a company can train staff to speak the same language of a customer and meet them at their comfort zone. Too many companies do the opposite: intimidating customers, and getting frustrated by what they don’t know or understand. Companies are certainly getting better and better, but they still have a long way to go in terms of making their customers feel like guests instead of just another person at the end of the financial transaction.
Knowledge@Emory: You point to the examples of Starbucks and Disney as examples of organizations that are looking beyond their original idea or product to expand into arenas never before imagined. With Walt Disney, he moved beyond the cartoon mouse to build an entertainment, motion picture, and amusement industry, of course. Now, Starbucks is seeking to go beyond the cup of coffee, but has seen rather lackluster sales on CD and book offerings. Moving into what you call “experimental ventures,” and not into an affiliated business associated with your main product or service, requires a ton of research, capital, and expertise. But at the end of the day, isn’t it really just a crapshoot? Can you ever really get a sense of what might work?
Tisch: Experimentation is necessary for success, but experimentation certainly risks failures. Starbucks may have had some disappointing initiatives, but they dropped them fast and moved on to different experiments that might work better. A customer would rather see a brand try new things than stay exactly the same forever. The key to success is studying your customer carefully, listening to them, and thinking of new ways that you can serve them. If you go beyond what your customer is ready for or what they want from you, that’s when a venture might be the wrong one to try. You can’t be all things to all people.
Knowledge@Emory: Certainly, in extending your brand, you mention that the company needs to get a sense of what the customer thinks you stand for. Isn’t this really all about establishing a strong marketing presence and goodwill, to some degree? And, isn’t there a time to say that growth may not necessarily be the right thing, unless there is a strong reason for it?
Tisch: Companies should focus on increasing the positive reaction customers have to your brand, and then profits will follow. If you focus instead on growth for the sake of growth, you might end up alienating your customers and damaging your brand. Apple is a great example of doing this right. They keep coming up with innovations that excite customers, and extraordinary growth has followed. If they instead had set out to be bigger instead of better, chances are the customers might not have followed and growth may never have come.
Knowledge@Emory: Probably the biggest consideration for hoteliers, and certainly for any and all firms involved in a business that is driven so directly by customer service, is matching up the customer service goals with other initiatives across the organization. How do you accomplish this, and how have you been able to directly measure and establish the effectiveness (ROI) of customer service initiatives?
Tisch: The most important measurement is the response of your customers. I read and respond to all mail that I get from customers. We monitor the reactions of our guests closely and we immediately received overwhelming positive feedback in response to initiatives ranging from the Living Loews training program to our “Loews Loves Pets” program.
Knowledge@Emory: Why do you think customer service is such a difficult concept to grasp for most corporations, even though they seem as if they understand it, in principle? And where do you see the future of customer service heading?
Tisch: One reason customer service is so hard is that customer relationships are like any relationship: they are living entities that evolve and need constant attention and coddling. Second, customers are always changing. The next new thing is always emerging. Your customer relationship is like a game or a dance with partners who are continually developing new, surprising moves that demand quick and sensitive adjustments on your part. The future? If I tell you one answer, it will be old news a week later. Customer service depends on constant reinvention or customers will go elsewhere. What will remain constant is that customer-centricity is here to stay. If we keep our focus on the customer, we’ll discover the next new thing that will keep them coming back for more.