The tea’s not hot and other frontline stories

teapot-220X207During my trip to Mumbai last month, I had the great pleasure of staying in one of the Oberoi hotels (which has the world’s best banana bread, of all things) and talking to Vikram Oberoi, chief operating officer and joint managing director of the Oberoi Group. He is the grandson of the Group’s founder, and oldest son of Mr. Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi, the 85-year-old chairman of the group who is credited with making the Oberoi brand synonymous with luxury and service.

Well-known for his attention to detail, Vikram was dressed immaculately with matching tie and handkerchief. His English accent reflected his many years of studying and working abroad, as he attended secondary school in England, graduated from Pepperdine University in the US, and, as part of his training, worked as a butler at the Park Hyatt Sydney (The Rocks) in Australia.

We discussed how he learned to maintain the Founder’s Mentality at the Oberoi through his father’s example and in particular how the leadership team maintains focus on frontline execution. From the outset, with every story, Vikram was quick to credit one or more of the frontline staff who deliver the Oberoi’s first-class service.  

He told story after story after story, and you can tell that he uses these stories to help the hotel staff to discover the company’s founding principles. The stories tended to fall into three main categories:

1. Stories that demonstrate the importance of exploring root causes of customer complaints, so the entire hotel group can improve

My favorite of these was the simplest. One guest had left a simple comment on a card saying that the tea was not as hot as it should be. The hotel manager wrote a nice note to her apologizing, but it was clear to Vikram that he had not really investigated the issue. After reading the manager’s note, Vikram began to probe. As he tells the story, “The customer was English and I was confident she’d know her tea. So I asked the hotel manager to measure the temperature of the Oberoi hot water against that of a normal tea kettle. And there was a difference: Our big machine was a couple of degrees cooler. I probed further and we found that the machines were significantly colder toward the end of the descaling cycle, just before we cleaned them. So the hotel manager and I looked at it even further and realized that our standard maintenance program for the machines didn’t take the temperature changes over time into account. We called around to other Oberoi hotels and learned this was a common problem. And it meant that maybe, at the wrong time in the maintenance cycle, we might deliver cool tea. So we solved it. One small observation from a valued customer led to a fundamental change in our hotel maintenance procedures.”

This story was far more important than the impact of scaling on water temperature. With it, Vikram was role-modeling how to use customer feedback to explore root causes of all types of delivery issues.

2. Stories that demonstrate the benefits of always putting the customer first and avoiding first instincts.

One of the hardest things about running a hotel is that customers do odd things that cause problems. Vikram used these stories to explore the consequences of simply following first instincts. “If one of your core values is that the customer always comes first, then you need to live it 100% of the time. It is easy to live it when there’s no issue, but what happens when you’re not actually sure if the customer is right, or when their behavior is costing you real money? Our first instinct is to let them know there is an issue with their behavior,” he says. “It’s understandable, but it is not our value.” Instead, the Oberoi aims to instill the idea that by truly putting the customer first, employees can find a better solution that will preserve the hotel’s values and reputation.

One American family who was occupying two rooms gave Oberoi staff a prime opportunity to work out this tension (author note: although the story sounds like what I do routinely, it wasn’t me!). Both parents and kids were taking all the toiletries – twice a day. “Now, on one hand, that’s great and we love it. We know when they use our lovely shampoos at home they’ll think of us,” said Vikram. “But on the other hand, the housekeeping staff was getting upset. The manager called me to talk about it, and his first instinct was to go to the family and very politely point out that they probably had enough toiletries. I stopped him and asked: ‘Is that putting us first, or the customer first?'”

With some coaching, the manager found another, better way to address the customer behavior. This is what he did: He created a basket of soaps and shampoos and oils used at the hotel’s spa, and wrote a note that was signed by the housekeeping staff. The note said, “We notice you like our toiletries and wanted to give you a supply you can take home and share with friends.” And the family loved it; they wrote us after saying we were the most fantastic hotel and they would tell all their friends to visit. That’s a wonderful business result resulting from the investment of a box of lotions!”

Again, this story is far more important than how to handle customers like me who take all the soap (I do, I really do). It is about getting the front line to think differently, to really put the customer first no matter what and see how that single act can result in truly delightful service.

3. Stories that show the magic that happens when employees take it upon themselves to delight the customer.

Vikram told story after story of employees going the extra mile to help a customer. It is so important to the company that they established the Empower program, giving employees the power to do something nice at any time to any customer with no explanation. “Every month, the company collects three great ‘Empower’ stories from each hotel and shares best practices. One employee, for example, got to know a guest and learned that her close friend was just diagnosed with cancer. As the guest was checking out, the employee rushed over to give her a scarf to carry home to her friend with best wishes from the Oberoi staff. Our people hear about a guest preference for dessert and will add it to the room service order, at no charge. They’ll give them a free drink at the bar. They do what they think will delight them, and they do it when they think the moment is right in a way that really means something special. It isn’t all the time, it isn’t every customer. It is the real authentic moments when there is a connection. The leadership team wants to tell these stories and celebrate the employees that created them.”

Most cultures are built on stories and most apprenticeships are built on story-telling. After an afternoon with Vikram Oberoi it is pretty clear that the Oberoi is built on a thriving culture and apprenticeship.

This entry was posted in Frontline obsession by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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