Could workplace directors deliver a customer experience like a ‘service brand’?
Why is there such a gap between the level of service you would expect in a hotel and that which you are likely to receive in so many workplaces?
By Alan Williams
Edition 2 – February 2013 Pages 20-23
Tags: Brand • Customer Experince • Service
Workplace management (including FM) has long grappled with its own identity – the definition of what it does. I have often heard it packaged as the provision of a range of services such as reception, catering, security, meeting rooms, housekeeping and engineering, all within a built environment. This is the same list as a hotel general manager would propose for a hotel – a built environment with an almost identical range of services. In both situations, these services are provided to customers – guests in a hotel; employees and visitors in a corporate workplace. So, if the two service scenarios are so similar, why is there such a gap between the level of service you would expect in a hotel and that which you are likely to receive in so many workplaces? This article will focus on some of the issues around this question, and what is needed to create a “service brand”.
What is a service brand?
Having made the assumption that in many (or perhaps most) cases a hotel will deliver a higher level of customer service, we need a way of generically describing that hotel-type of organisation. We have called it a service brand – any organisation that provides a more general experience for the customer, beyond a pure product. There are various degrees of service brand but, as service becomes the battleground for di!erentiation, the traditional service brands such as hotels, leisure facilities and airlines are being joined by products that are being developed into service brands.
The technology and automotive sectors are classic examples where the product alone can no longer be relied upon for competitive advantage. Service brands do not just happen. Any leading service brand did not get to that leading position without having developed and applied a methodology. As an example, our “Servicebrand” methodology supports organisations to align and coordinate three key areas of strategy to create a strong service brand:
brand identity, employee engagement and customer experience.
The output of this approach is a tailor made plan to deliver:
• A clear sense of purpose and identity, unique to the organisation
• Inspired employees being the best version of their organisation
• A customer experience driving advocacy
The underpinning concept is to manage holistically the areas shown in the diagram, in a truly integrated way, so that consistency and credibility is achieved in a sustainable way at all touch points of an organisation (inside and out). The coordination and alignment of the three areas creates the service brand. It also generates additional value which could take the form of any combination of the following: increased profit, increased customer satisfaction and advocacy, improved employee engagement and retention, improved brand recognition and reputation.
This approach is relevant in any service environment, including workplace and facilities management. Whilst the service provision in a workplace environment may not be on a direct transactional basis, as in a commercial service business scenario, the same principles of service delivery management apply. Can we really apply the best of hotel service culture to the everyday workplace? You might argue that these two environments – hotels and workplaces – accommodate such entirely di!erent activities that the parallel is inappropriate. But I would suggest that, as employees become more mobile, the level of service and hospitality experience that will be required (probably expected) when visiting the o”ce (as opposed to being based there every day), will increase. In this way, the workplace is becoming an extension of any organisation’s service brand just as a hotel or any other face-to-face retail operation is. And there are already some organisations that are leading the way. Debra Ward, managing director at MITIE Client Services recently cited a conversation with a very good friend who works for Google; this friend is heavily pregnant with twins (with a two year old at home) and yet she still makes the 40-minute commute into work every day. Debra said, “Everyone would understand if she just worked part time from home.” But when Debra asked her why she continued to go to work, her response was rational assessment. In a unfaltering:
“The food is fantastic and always available and they cater to some of my nutritional requirements and strange requests, there are sleeping pods for me to lie down for 20 minutes in the afternoon, my chair is repeatedly adjusted to meet my changing needs, there is a masseuse on site every week, I feel productive and valued and my team are all there… why would I want to stay at home?”
This is an organisation that understands the impact of workplace services – not only on employee productivity, but also as a way to reinforce the brand image and ultimately, employee and visitor advocacy. It is fascinating that for many other organisations these services are just regarded as a part of the business to outsource (and often outsourced means out of mind).
What could be done di!erently in the workplace environment? From discussions with colleagues in both sectors, the di!erence between the management of a hotel and a corporate workplace seems to be about a sense of central purpose, a focus on customer service and operating as one team. The crux perhaps is in the way the leadership and structure of the service delivery organisation is approached.
FMs often consider themselves as custodians of the built asset, whereas hotel managers are owners of the guest experience. A hotel is operated through a coordinated communication framework, including a daily operational review, a periodic events planning meeting, a monthly operational meeting, performance reporting by department etc. In FM, communication is too often managed and reinforced at a service line level with little e!ort to align practices, make use of common formats (e.g. for reporting) or coordinate activity across service lines.
In a hotel, the all-important leadership is generally provided by a person who has strong customer service or operational experience, perhaps gained in food and beverage, the rooms division or sales and marketing. A common thread is an understanding of the importance of customer service and the ability to lead and motivate teams of people around this singular goal. These leaders tend to manage by walking about, interacting with guests and employees to find out what is happening, as opposed to relying on management reports and meetings. These leaders are supported with specialist experts in areas such as finance, human resources and property. The identity of the hotel as a whole is the key driver, and the constituent parts recognise the importance of their role as part of the whole. In FM, there is still much room for improvement in this area of a single point of coordination and alignment rather than an emphasis on management in functional silos. Of course, if there is a range of service partners (or even di!erent divisions of the same company!) this is more of a challenge, but adopting a virtual organisation” approach is a good starting point.
So the challenge in FM is whether to continue doing things from a traditional building functionality and contract management perspective, or to learn from relevant sectors like the hotel industry where the focus is more on team leadership and customer experience.
Hardware and software
Integrate the hardware (built environment) with the software (service, and customers). Few could deny that Apple has completely reshaped the personal computer market by taking this customer centric approach way beyond where others thought possible. “When I called the PC manufacturer they told me it must be an issue with the operating software but when I called them they said it must be a hardware issue”.
With Apple there is one port of call because they have a joined up product and service o!er delivered along with a great attitude and some very clever processes.
As for the relevance to FM, just think of the built environment as the “hardware” and everything to do with people (service providers and customers) as the “software”.
Could the two be any more closely integrated? If you have not been already, visit an Apple store and you’ll experience it for yourself the minute you cross the threshold. So perhaps the next step for FM is to place customer experience and employee engagement at the centre, rather than buildings and contracts.
How should workplace directors put the customer at the centre? Insight from all stakeholders (employee, customer, community and supplier) would be needed and a measurement framework would assist comparative e!orts.
This could consist of specific workplace-related questions as part of the business’ employee engagement/satisfaction process or a separate survey focussed on workplace. It is also possible to consolidate valuable information from a range of sources such as helpdesk calls, emails and feedback forums to create a rich picture of information from all stakeholders.
With such an approach, it is possible to develop a greater understanding of what customers think of their experience, compared to their expectation, and how important this is to them – linking everything back to resource to assist in prioritisation and resource allocation of workplace services. Analytics (rather than pure opinion) could then drive business strategy and the business planning process – including employee productivity. A more transparent, scientific approach would also facilitate service delivery re-engineering from a customer journey perspective to realisee “ciencies and reduce silo structures. There are a range of practical challenges to overcome for FM in this scenario, starting with people processes. FM services are often outsourced to a range of service providers, each with its own company processes (e.g., induction focused on their employer organisation rather than the client organisation). And of course the standard can vary enormously from one provider to the next.
Total Facilities Management (TFM) – where one service provider delivers all FM services under one management structure – does provide a compelling solution to disparate service line management. But, this is generally theory more often than practical reality. Even with a TFM service partner, the challenge is no less for the client to communicate their values and for the service partner to comprehend, then communicate, then drive the client values and brand, rather than their own.
Critically, consideration also needs to be given to emotional perception as well as rational assessment. In a service transaction this is a major contributor (maybe more than 50%) to the overall perception of the customer. Companies like Zappos, the online retailer, and the Four Seasons hotel group, recognise that if the culture in the organisation is right, many other employee issues simply do not arise. But culture needs constant nourishing, attention and referencing to flourish and be strong. Inclusion of emotional factors makes measurement more of a challenge but, if ignored can make
any assessment at best flawed and potentially meaningless. 31Practices is a trademarked tool that can bring a service brand to life through day-to-day employee behaviour. It is an articulation of the behaviours expected from everybody in the service organisation. Similar exercises have been conducted in organisations as varied as Northampton Council in the UK (Taste the Strawberries campaign) to Ritz Carlton (ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen credo). The 31Practices tool adopts a co-creation approach with employees so that the behaviours are real, and the management team takes responsibility for embedding into day to day processes (e.g., interview and selection, induction,
performance management, communication framework etc.) The bringing together of all of the above in an integrated way results in a very powerful combination of fully engaged employees delivering customer experiences that are consistent with the brand identity of the organisation. This delivers that indefinable quality that cannot be documented in operating manuals or process flow charts but creates a strong emotional attachment for members of the service team and customers alike – a successful service brand. This is perhaps best demonstrated by a quote from a hotel guest on departure who said: “When I arrived last night I explained to the young night porter that I had forgotten my business suit. I was amazed when he o!ered to collect his suit from home to lend to me. How do you do that?”.
FM has without doubt evolved from being a department which maintains building functionality to an integral function in managing an organisation’s cost base. However, there is an opportunity to evolve further again so that the value of FM as central to core business strategy is appreciated and the impact on brand perception, attracting and retaining talent, employee engagement and productivity is fully understood. This integration of “hardware” and “software”, as part of a strong service brand, is the way to position FM as more strategic and therefore more valued.
Alan has more than 20 years senior management experience in demanding customer service based businesses. He has enjoyed roles with Marriott (Hanbury Manor), Whitbread, Compass/RBS, InterContinental Hotels and
Barclays Capital. Alan has a track record of success in devising holistic Servicebrand strategies, and then using deep operational experience to turn the creative thinking into sustainable, practical reality. Alan has applied this approach as a consultant and an employed senior director, in global blue chip organisations, as well as smaller entrepreneurial companies and in the public sector. He is a writer and regular speaker on the service brand concept and related subjects.
Alan graduated in hotel & catering administration at Surrey University (where he has since returned as a visiting lecturer). He was a global ‘train the trainer’ for the Marriott International Spirit to Serve programme, and attended the Whitbread Leadership Course at London Business School. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality and a board member of the British Quality Foundation.