Imran Amed talks to Carolyn Clark about the award-winning model that keeps Fairmont Hotels & Resorts at the forefront of luxury customer service.
TORONTO – For Carolyn Clark, SVP of Human Resources of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, exceptional customer service must begin with a company’s frontline employees. This overarching philosophy that governs the award-winning chain of 58 luxury properties — including The Plaza in New York, the Norfolk in Nairobi, and Québec City’s renowned Chateau Frontenac — exemplifies how a customer service mindset is deeply embedded in all aspects of the company’s operating model.
A thirty-year veteran of the Toronto-based luxury hospitality company, Clark says she sometimes scratches her head when she walks into a famous luxury boutique only to receive frosty service and aloof looks. More often than not, says Clark, she simply walks out of such stores without making a purchase. She shrugs her shoulders, “I guess they just don’t get it.”
From the selection of employees to bespoke customer-service training programmes to innovative employee-recognition initiatives, Fairmont’s approach to guest service is a benchmark for the entire luxury industry, not just those in the hospitality space. I was fortunate to catch up with Carolyn on a recent trip to Toronto so that she could share her wealth of customer service expertise with the Luxury Society community.
IA: You see an inextricable link between human resources and customer service. Tell me more about that.
The operating philosophy of our company is really very simple. We believe that well-trained, motivated, engaged colleagues will deliver exceptional customer service, which in turn will create guest loyalty. This is extremely important in today’s economy. We believe that if we take really good care of our colleagues, they will take really good care of our guests — and the profits will follow.
Our mission statement that you can see right there on the wall, “Turning Moments into Memories for our Guests,” provides a single purpose for each one of our 30,000 colleagues around the world.
While we have amazing hotels in the best locations across the globe, we know we can’t create memories from the colour of the wallpaper, the bedspread in the rooms or the furniture in the lobby. Our colleagues are the face of Fairmont. They are our brand ambassadors and the only ones who can make those memories, every moment of every guest’s stay.
To deliver on this, we developed “Service Plus”, our integrated human resource management strategy. Obviously, we’re always refining it, but the foundation of “Service Plus” has remained constant for the past twenty years.
There are four pillars: Select, Lead, Train and Recognise. Many organisations will put a tremendous amount of emphasis on a great selection process, training programme or recognition programme. But those who have studied our company agree that our approach is integrated across all four. You can’t just carry out one or two, and not the others. This is the secret to our success.
IA: And this integrated approach begins with the selection programme for employees?
Yes. We’ve been working with the Gallup Corporation for more than twenty years. Whether you’re staying in a hotel or buying a luxury good, companies are selling a brand promise that must be consistent. Likewise, consistency in the selection process is also critical.
Gallup came into our hotels and studied our best room attendants, servers and managers, developing structured interviews and talent profiles to help us hire more people like our top employees. Every single colleague who joins our company goes through the structured interview. We handpick each one individually.
There are several key characteristics we look for. One, which we sometimes call “Woo”, or “Winning others over”, is the innate ability to provide warm and engaging service. We can actually identify among applicants those who possess a natural service ability. No amount of service training would transform an individual who isn’t naturally inclined to service into someone who would rank amongst our best.
IA: So once you’ve selected employees, then you aim to ensure they’re managed by exceptional leaders.
Yes, exactly. We put a great deal of emphasis on leadership selection, training, and development.
Gallup always tells us, “people don’t quit their company, they quit their leader.” We can create the best work environment possible for our employees, but if they don’t have that strong day-to-day relationship with their leaders, we’re not going to retain them.
When you think of the service industry, it is very labour intensive. At Fairmont, we have 30,000 employees in our company. We probably have 27,500 frontline and heart-of-the-house colleagues who are led by about 2500 leaders. These leaders need to be able to energise, engage and motivate our frontline colleagues and provide the day-to-day work environment to help them be the best that they can be.
IA: Let’s move onto training then. What role does training play in your integrated operating model?
Overall, our philosophy is that we hire for talent, and we train for technical. We’ve just launched a new training programme — our Fairmont Service Promise — which is our one major strategic initiative for this year.
We are in the worst economic downturn in memory, but we recognise that, especially now, it is crucial to focus on guest service and training. People are more discriminating than ever about where they travel and spend their vacations — and where they stay. It’s our service that is going to differentiate us.
The essence of the programme connects to our mission, and we empower our colleagues to create memories for our guests. We don’t want them to be robots, so we encourage them to be themselves. It’s all about the power of one. People want to feel like their individual needs are being met. We want to treat each guest as a unique individual, and to deliver the experience they are looking for.
Our leaders are going through the programme first and then they will teach the Fairmont Service Promise to their colleagues. By the end of 2009, every single colleague in our company will have gone through this programme.
IA: And then there’s the employee recognition programme. How does this work?
This is one of my favourite parts. We want to recognise and reward our colleagues who fulfil our mission to create memories for our guests.
Two years ago we introduced our monthly Memory Maker awards that recognise the exceptional service of one leader and one colleague. We also have an annual award that BusinessWeek called an “employee-of-the-year program on steroids”, whereby each of our properties gives a $5000 reward to two colleagues to create their own memories.
To identify the winners, we use customer feedback and employee recommendations, including Bravograms, an online tool that our employees can use to recognise each other for going the extra mile to deliver the best service.
Imran Amed, Editor-in-Chief