By Kevin Meyer
I'm a fairly simple and frugal guy, but there are three, maybe four, luxuries that I do indulge in. When I travel on business I just need a clean bed and I love Marriott's Courtyard chain. When I travel on vacation I want more – and that's why regular readers know I'm a Four Seasons junkie. If they have a hotel anywhere close to where I'm going, I'm there.
That's because the "more" that I want while on vacation is actually less. I don't want to wonder if the hotel will be clean, if the bed will be comfy, if breakfast will be tasty, if the hotel will be in the right part of town, if the internet will be reliable, if I can get something to eat at 3am when recovering from jet lag, and especially if the room will be quiet. Four Seasons does this – everything is perfect, and perfectly consistent, every time. In years I have yet to have a single complaint.
And yes, like with most top tier hotels, I could tell you stories that would amaze you, even if they don't necessarily add any intrinsic value. Such as being met by Four Seasons at the gate (INSIDE security) at the Hong Kong airport, whisked through a special immigration line while your fellow travellers are asking what rock band my wife and I must belong to, and out a side door to their limo so we're at the hotel before most people have cleared customs. Or arriving at their Singapore hotel, checking in in the room (like at most Four Seasons), going straight down to the bar and having the waiter greet you by name – literally 5 minutes after check in. At their Costa Rica resort last April a pool boy greeted me by name and told me how one of the medical products my company makes has helped his daughter. I learned the staff reviews Linked In profiles of guests while on the bus into work. Value? Maybe not. But still pretty cool.
For that perfection I do pay more – sometimes double or even triple. But while on vacation it's worth it to me… to think less. There's compensating value to me. As a bonus I also almost always learn something about service – or even about lean – so I'm tempted to write off part of the bill as a business expense. Note to IRS auditors reading this: I've never actually done this.
Finally to the real story of this post. I'm having a quiet breakfast this morning at the Four Seasons in Bangkok after arriving late the previous evening after a long day of traveling from the US. My table is at the side of the open atrium so I get to watch the staff in action. I've always been amazed by how the staff at their hotels – whether at the restaurants or elsewhere – will be at your side exactly the instant you need them, but are also never annoyingly intrusive. Now I know.
Amidst the flurry of wait staff running around, I noticed that there was always at least one person just standing – and watching. Not always the same person, but there was always one. Just looking around the room at all the customers – and the rest of the staff. If a customer looked up and looked around indicating they needed something, instantly that wait person went over and another person took over the watching and looking. If a line started to form (ie, more than one person) at the front of the restaurant, the person would head over and help with the seating. And someone else would take over the watching.
Someone was always standing, observing, and watching.
So I looked up and to the side, and instantly a waiter was at my side. I asked what he was watching for, and his response? "Just observing, sir." Yes, "just" observing. That "just" has become one key to their exceptional customer service. I wanted to ask if process improvements were identified and acted on, but that's when the language barrier kicked in.
Taiichi Ohno would be proud.
Lean types know of the "Ohno circle" concept. Go to the gemba, and "just" stand and observe. 15, 30, 60 minutes – whatever it takes. In fact, he would tell people that if they haven't observed something that needed to be improved, they should go out and stand longer. How often do you, and your team, take the time to simply observe? How often do you go out to your shop floor and just stand and watch the process?
When you rush around focused on firefighting and fixing things, you miss the nuance of the process. Or, in the case of Four Seasons, a tiny shift of a customer's eyes that indicate they might need something.
Take some time to "just" observe. Better yet, make it part of the ongoing routine of you and your staff.