Inconsistency helps: Tom Peters On Excellence

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The Independent Online
THE REQUEST at 8am seemed simple enough. I would be arriving at the hotel in Washington at 1pm and needed a room then and for the night.

Night? Try nightmare.

The reservation person said that my 'early' arrival (4pm is standard check-in time) meant that I needed a 'day room' and then a regular room for the night.

'Same room, though?' I asked.

'Probably. First you'll need to check with the front desk on the day room.'

'You can't do that for me?' I asked.

'No, you need to set up the day room first, then get transferred back to me.'

'Seems strange,' I said.

'Well,' she almost huffed, 'it is two departments. But,' she added, sensing my frustration, 'you could ask the front desk for the day room - then, after you check in, call down and extend it for the night.'

'But I wouldn't be assured of a place to sleep tonight that way, would I?'

'No, but the chances are good.'

It was both tourist and World Cup season in the capital, and I wasn't sure my chances were that good. So, confused and defeated, I finally asked to talk to a manager - who managed to work things out for me. He apologised for the two-department bit (though he took no apparent note of my pro bono suggestion that the procedure was absurd).

All this brought to mind an exchange at a seminar in Edinburgh the week before. I'd been ranting about giving front-line employees lots of authority to sort things out for customers. One participant came back at me: 'But how do you ensure consistency from front-line employees in these highly decentralised organisations?'

'Ah-ha,' I almost shouted. 'You don't] We're trying to nurture inconsistency - the kind of personalised response you'd got from a mom-and-pop shop.'

Look, I read the late Dr Deming, too. I understand process variation, and the need for pilots and hotel housekeepers to follow checklists carefully. But I'm afraid our Total Quality Management fanatics go too far. Our heart's desire should be the pursuit, not the suppression, of variation.

To be specific, I want that hotel reservation person in Washington to be chairwoman, founder and chief executive of Customer Care for anybody who calls.

As an experienced traveler, I know that when you call a hotel for a room that night, you usually get transferred to the front desk which controls reservations for the current evening. But that's a convention for the hotel's convenience, not mine. When I phoned that hotel instead of the one where I normally stay, the staff was confronted with an opportunity to book a room for a day and a half (day room plus night room fees) and to make a friend who just might come back long- term. To do that, however, reservation clerks need an affinity for variation - that is, for meeting my special (although hardly bizarre) needs.

Let's give my Edinburgh questioner his due. I'm not suggesting we just hire people and turn them loose. I would train the hell out of that clerk-reservationist-chief executive of Customer Care. Andersen Consulting spends 6 per cent of its gross revenue on training. It's in the knowledge business, per se - but so is everyone, as I see it. Burger flippers and hotels should measure their training expenditure by the Andersen standard.

Next, the front-line employee should understand the economics of the business. Using the jargon of the day (the 'open-book corporation'), she should have about as much information at her fingertips as the real chief executive. Ever wonder, Ms Business Owner, why employees don't go through the same sort of decision-making process that you do? Usually it's not a lack of motivation; mostly it's a lack of data.

Finally, our reservationist-turned-chief exec should be part of a regular discussion group with senior management that simply jaws about the hotel, its aims (vision, if you must), problems, opportunities. The idea is not fact-stuffing (traditional training), but working together on the corporate ethos. It's what partners routinely do in small business. And, hey, we're trying to get the reservationist to be just that - a partner in a business.

Business success at Ritz-Carlton, Nordstrom and elsewhere comes from making every customer, even when there are millions, feel human, unique and the object of the front-line employee's total attention - for a minute or so. And, to belabour the oft-neglected obvious, that only comes from turning every front-line employee into a one-person entrepreneurial enterprise that happens to be embedded in a much larger corporate body.

TPG Communications