Management: Satisfied workers make for good service

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The Independent Online
Hal Rosenbluth runs one of the biggest - and fastest-growing - travel businesses in the world. His secret? Putting the customer second. Roger Trapp reports.

The mantra "The customer is king" has become so widespread in companies of all sorts - rather than just those in the service sector - that it comes as a bit of a surprise to find a travel management company insisting that it does not put the customer first.

What is more, it does not seem to have suffered from the policy. On the contrary, Rosenbluth International has over the past 15 years grown from a $20m regional travel business to a $3bn global presence rivalling the likes of American Express. Along the way it has been garlanded with a host of awards. It is, for example, featured in Fortune magazine's latest list of "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America".

It is not that the company and its executives - led by chief executive Hal Rosenbluth, great grandson of the founder - do not care about customer service. In fact, they are passionate about it; they just believe that concentrating on the customer is not the way to achieve it.

The idea is set out in The Customer Comes Second, a book written by Mr Rosenbluth and Diane McFerrin Peters, the company's director of corporate communications. Subtitled "And Other Secrets of Exceptional Service", the book has a few tips about such matters as training and finding the right people in the first place, but it really comes down to putting your people first.

Now, just as "Our people are our greatest asset" has become a well-worn phrase even for those executives who regularly ditch substantial portions of those assets, putting people first has been much talked about, but, in fact, not that widely honoured.

But then, Rosenbluth International does not seem to be afraid of going a different way from the crowd. The Philadelphia-based company has adopted as its mascot the salmon because, says Mr Rosenbluth, "we're a group of contrarians who always insist on swimming against the tide. We know that those who journey down a different road may have a tougher trip. But along it they will experience things that those who travel the traditional paths might never see. And most important in business, they will get there first."

At a time when many people think companies like Rosenbluth are under threat because individuals and companies are increasingly able to make their own travel arrangements via the Internet rather than relying on agencies, it is continuing to expand. In the past couple of years, it has set up a fully fledged European operation that, as a result of winning contracts with such prestigious businesses as the Dutch electronics group Philips, employs more than 400 people.

And with annual growth still in double digits, the company is considering a flotation in order to finance it.

But even though the company has grown to such an extent over recent years, insiders insist that it remains true to the personal business philosophy put in place a decade or so ago by Mr Rosenbluth. According to the book, the company he joined was pretty much like any other in the way it was managed. But even though it was highly successful within its own area, this reluctant recruit to the family business was - as he puts it - "hell- bent on changing it from head to toe".

He was prompted to make the move, he says, by seeing "a flourishing business held back by politics; powerful individual efforts thwarted by a lack of teamwork."

Working on the basis that change has to start somewhere, he began his overhaul in the corporate travel department, at the time a low-profile start-up. Now, thanks to the market in corporate travel services created by deregulation of the airlines, it has grown to the point where it accounts for about 90 per cent of the whole organisation's business.

Such an atmosphere provided the opportunity to change things because Mr Rosenbluth almost instinctively saw that the way to make an impact was through service. And, though Rosenbluth has its share of training initiatives, he realised that the way to achieve that was through happy employees.

Accordingly, the company has various programmes - some of them a little zany - for involving its 3,700-odd staff and making them feel valued. For instance, employees - or associates, as they are known - are encouraged to show how they feel about the company by being issued at regular intervals with crayons and paper. And associates are exposed to the "big picture" by spending days with senior managers.

Contented people will do their utmost for customers because they enjoy it, while formal training and incentive programmes are often doomed because they are entreating employees to be friendly and helpful to customers despite the conditions in which they work.

As Mr Rosenbluth says, "We're not saying choose your people over your customers. We're saying focus on your people because of your customers. That way everybody wins."

As a travel industry veteran, Julian Knott, vice-president responsible for business development in Europe, was sceptical about the way in which Rosenbluth's American approach would go down in Europe. But on joining the organisation two years ago, he read the book and decided there were elements that could be adapted.

Moreover, the company's joint-venture partners in China and India say they were drawn to it by a business philosophy that equated with their own, ie that family, the work ethic and business should be integrated.

Rosenbluth itself has tools designed to help people become better at dealing with customers, but he says it also spends a lot of time on the recruitment process with a view to getting the right sort of people in the first place.

"If you take the time and choose the right people they are going to serve in the right way. It's not just something you can learn. It's an attitude, a skill and an art. If you mix it all together it works."

Though it sounds simple, Mr Rosenbluth obviously feels there is a little more to it; he is currently at work on a sequel to his best-seller.