Of Waffles, Baggage, and More…

Customer delight goes way beyond regular SOPs.

Breakfast at a luxury resort… somewhere in India

“Can I have a waffle please?” asks a young, sarong-wrapped guest gaily, looking excited to be in this environment on her family holiday.

“Yes Madam.” says the young chef at the waffles and pancake counter. There were a host of toppings on offer, though not of the frozen variety.

“Can you put a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it?” asks Ms. Sarong, demurely.

“No Madam, we do offer ice creams at lunch and dinner buffets, but not at breakfast,” answers the budding chef.

Ms. Sarong persists, “But can you not serve my waffle with a scoop of vanilla ice cream?”

The young waffle & pancake chef chimes a collective ‘nix,’ ‘nada,’ and ‘nyet,’ by uttering “Sorry Madame.”

A last-ditch effort by the petite sarong-wrapped damsel floored me (I happened to be waiting to order my waffle, and hence had a birds-eye view)… she told the ‘The Rock of Gibraltar’ chef coyly, “It is my birthday today.”

The Rock wavered for a moment, batted his eyelid, and then continued to stick his feet in, refusing to budge from his Saran-wrapped position. “Sorry madam, I cannot serve you ice cream at breakfast,” he averred.

T’was a wretched sight to see the guest agreeing to the ‘Waffle a la mode du Chef Rock of Gibraltar,’ as she traversed dejectedly back to her table, to anticipate an average breakfast on the beginning of what was supposed to be a celebratory day for her!

There is a chance that this guest may go elsewhere the next time.

Moral: Guests may forget what the hotel associate says, but they will never forget how the hotel made them feel.

Check-in at an airport counter… also, somewhere in India

“Even the elephant carries but a small trunk on his journeys. The perfection of travelling is to travel without baggage” … Henry David Thoreau.

Alas, Henry never married, and hence probably did not fathom the lady traveller!

On a busy pre-Dassehra weekend, I had a first-hand experience of revenge travel mayhem at an airport. I was standing in an abominably long line, awaiting my turn at the check-in counter.

I finally pushed ahead to the counter, and asked the gaunt, harassed check-in counter assistant about my flight. He claimed he had already called out for passengers for my destination, and now the counter had closed for my flight. Reminding him that we were still 50 mins from the flight, I asked how he could dare close the counter before time. I put my luggage on the belt and insisted he check us in.

Looking for an excuse to stall us, he told me our single suitcase weighed 30 kg. I told him it was so, as we were two passengers. He objected, splitting hairs on the fact that we had two separate PNRs, which permitted us to have one bag each of 15 kgs. As my wife and I were the travellers, I asked him what the problem was, so long as we had 30 kgs between the two of us. He continued reading me the rule book. Amidst this arguing, he nevertheless printed the baggage tag and initiated the process of handing over the stub.

My wife, standing afar thus far, and understandably cheesed at this Balaam’s ass’ stuck-up behaviour, vented her exasperation on his comportment. This annoyed our Paper-Tarzan at the counter, and he audaciously tore the just-printed luggage stub, telling me that now he was not checking our luggage in. I had to bite in my angst and apologise to PT, who was probably weighed down by his own emotional baggage, and request him to re-issue the luggage stub. PT did so, grumbling away, and then nearly threw his back out while trying to straighten the bag on the belt whilst attaching the stub… retribution from the skies I guess!

Moral: Keep your ego aside while dealing with a customer. Standard Operating Procedures must delight and not red-tape the customer.

Standard Operating Procedures, aka SOPs, define a path, a process for associates to walk on. However, the service industry must realize that SOPs have the ability to frustrate the customer, aka guest; and must be flexible to the guest and situation, keeping within acceptable parameters.

The service industry promises features, advantages, and benefits. Somewhere it has lost out on delighting the customer! Customer delight may vary from person to person. At an airline check-in counter, customer-orientated processes along with conviviality are sufficient at most times. Yet, how often do we ask for seats of our choice and are told by the airline associate that the flight is sold out; then board the aircraft, only to discover empty seats galore?

Customer delight goes way beyond regular SOPs. Decades ago, it was sufficient to be proficient with SOPs in order to delight a customer. Not anymore. The traveller today expects to be delighted impromptu. No longer does the customary complimentary cake delight the guest on their special occasion… they want an in-the-moment delightful experience.

They need ice cream on their waffle!

Why the kerfuffle
Over a waffle
Or, the commotion
Over a check-in
Put the guest ahead
Don’t be pig headed
Follow SOPs
Yet, delight to please

This article has appeared in ET HOSPITALITY WORLD.COM October 2021

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A Shared Vision enhances Profitability

A Shared Vision enhances Profitability, and it is what you and your team members want to create or accomplish as a part of the organization.

Bill Marriott famously once said ‘I want our associates to know that there really is a guy named Marriott who cares for them.’ He understood that if his team were to share his vision, they needed to know of his existence as a caring, understanding, and existing personality.

Ricardo Semler who pioneered the Semco story and articulated his success in empowering and creating a common vision believed in a decentralized, participatory style and let his employees set their own hours, wages, even choose their own IT. In 1990, the Brazilian economy went into a severe downturn, forcing many companies to declare bankruptcy. Workers at Semco agreed to wage cuts, providing their share of profits was increased to 39%, management salaries were cut by 40% and employees were given the right to approve every item of expenditure. How did he fare? Semco’s revenues subsequently jumped from $35 million to $212 million in nine years, with an annual growth rate of 40% and the firm grew from several hundred employees to 3000, with an employee turnover of about 1 percent.
Ricardo Semler’s leadership style can best be described as radical. This approach encourages followers to share their ideas and apply their creativity and ingenuity to reach the company’s goals. The employees have the opportunity to offer suggestions to improve the company.

Findings through a survey by Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman revealed that People leave Managers, not Companies.’ This apophthegm is one we all have heard of, and is oft-repeated; yet strangely, it is referred to others rather than to oneself!

Henry Ford said once, ‘if everyone moves forward together, then success takes care of itself.’

Beyond a point, an employee’s primary need has less to do with money, and more to do with how he’s treated and how valued he feels. If you are losing good people, look to their immediate supervisor/manager.

Jack Welch of GE once said, ‘Much of a company’s value lies between the ears of its employees. If its bleeding talent, its bleeding value.’

Ponder for a moment the cost of losing a capable member of staff. The cost of substitution entails:

  • The cost of not having someone to do the job in the interim
  • The cost of recruiting, and then skilling the new incumbent
  • The loss of the company’s reputation (Every person who leaves a corporation becomes its representative, for better or for worse)
  • The loss of clients and contacts the replaced person had with the industry
  • The loss of morale amongst co-workers
  • The loss of trade secrets this person may possibly share with others

Too often, Shared Visions really mean, ‘I have a vision; you share it!’ 

A General Manager of one of India’s 5-star hotel chain worked hard at bringing up his ageing hotel’s brand equity in the market. From an ARR of ₹5600, he took it up to ₹7560 over 24 months, with a slew of efforts. He facilitated the improvement of the brand’s perception in the city – interestingly by staging niche F&B events, P.R. interactions, Revenue Management interventions, involved Guest interaction, and through intense sales and behavioural Training for his team. Unfortunately, the ownership did not share his progressive vision of differential pricing to achieve a better RevPAR. Instead, they insisted that rates should not be offered below a mandated level of ₹7500/+ taxes including breakfast. The owners forcibly cancelled all signed RFPs (including those producing 500 – 2500 room nights per year) and Travel Agent contracts and made the hotel sales team create new contracts which most clients refused to sign. The result? Irate clients (Corporate/Travel Agencies, etc) took their business elsewhere. All this occurred at the beginning of a financial year, and the repercussions were immediate. From a top line of ₹63 crores (ARR ₹7560), the hotel dipped to ₹45 crores (ARR ₹5200) over the next 3 years (incidentally, all this was pre-pandemic, when business elsewhere was stable, if not increasing).

The greatest leaders mobilize others by coalescing people around a Shared Vision. 

On the other hand, another hotel owner I know shares his vision and allows the operator to function with optimum freedom, his only caveat being that major policy decisions be discussed with him, for his opinion. The General Manager is equally competent as in the earlier example – the difference here is that in this second case, the owner and operator work towards a shared vision. The operator also shares this collective vision with his team. It is no wonder that the top line grew y-o-y at 12-15% pre-Covid. [In fact, during the current pandemic, the hotel has managed to stay out of the red, thanks to innovative changes in the hotel’s business plan, expense reengineering, and operating policies]

Peter Senge, the author of The Fifth Discipline identified ‘Shared Vision’ as one of the five disciplines necessary to create a learning organization. A dynamic organization adapts and transforms itself to function effectively in a complex and dynamic world. These are organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results that they truly desire, where new and expansive thinking patterns are nurtured, where collective aspirations are set free, and where people are continually learning to see the ‘big picture together.

A Shared Vision must be strongly evoked by all leaders on the team, and be capable of driving them relentlessly, if need be, towards a common goal. A quote attributed to Helen Keller says, ‘The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision.’ To rephrase this quote in the context of Shared Vision, it would stand as, ‘The most pitiable organization is one who can see, but has no vision.’

A Shared Vision enhances Profitability, and it is what you and your team members want to create or accomplish as a part of the organization. It is derived from common interests and a sense of shared purpose for all organizational activities… and leads to sustained profitability. 2000 years ago, the Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu said, ‘Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say: We have done this ourselves.’

This article has appeared in ET HOSPITALITY WORLD.COM September 2021

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Adapt or Perish

H.G. Wells famously wrote, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”

This quote (Adapt or Perish) very tastefully summarizes evolution itself. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus never ceases to adapt, but then, neither must we.

Flux is always unsettling, and most find it undesirable. However, inaction could mean death. The international business world abounds with faux pas made by business leaders, leading to the demise, or de-growth of their business.

  • Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer, actually invented the first digital camera back in 1975. The leaders of Kodak failed to see digital photography as a disruptive technology. They were comfortable with their achievements in the film market and thus missed the digital revolution after starting it. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
  • Once worth $125 billion, Yahoo eventually sold to Verizon for less than $5 billion. Yahoo, in 2002 almost had a deal to buy Google, but the CEO of Yahoo refused to go through with it. And in 2006 Yahoo had a deal to buy Facebook, but when Yahoo lowered their offer, Mark Zuckerberg backed out. If Yahoo had taken a few additional risks, we would all be yahooing right now instead of googling.
  • Xerox was the first to invent the PC, and their product – the Xerox Alto, released in 1973, was way ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the management thought going digital would be too expensive and they never bothered to exploit the opportunities they had. They were convinced that the future of Xerox was in copy machines. Xerox failed to understand that one cannot perpetually make money on the same technology.

We have interesting corporate gaffes within India too.

  • For those of us growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Onida was the go-to brand when it came to home-grown electronic appliances. However, the company failed to adapt post-liberalization. A combination of internal issues within the owning family, failed advertising, new entrants in the industry, an ageing customer base, and poor after-sales service led to its downfall.
  • Tata Nano was a revolutionary innovation; but it was an idea, which failed to align with a changing India, burgeoning with an aspirational lower middle-class population. Being marketed as the ‘Cheapest Car of the Nation’ backfired. The makers positioned it as a cheap vehicle which, in India, translates to low quality. In a country where emotions play such a vital role in everything, this disconnect spelled doom for the Nano before it even hit the roads.
  • The downfall of Kingfisher airlines from being India’s most premium airline, was due to its refusal to adapt to the vortex of business forces, coupled with egoistic decision-making by its flamboyant owner. Acquiring the loss of Air Deccan, the sudden launch into the international arena, the change in segments giving rise to competition, along with external dynamics like the rising cost of aviation fuel, and the company’s inability to follow the ‘adapt or perish’ lessons on adopting cost-saving initiatives for survival led to its demise.

The need to ‘adapt or perish’ in the context of Indian hospitality, is accentuated through umpteen examples of businesses perishing due to in-flexibility, a fixed mindset, and resistance to change.

Some promoters have realised the essentiality of instituting a professional team, distinct from the family, running the show. The particularly applies to investor-led hotel companies, who insist on a professional approach and team, to increase their returns in as short a time as possible.

Alas, there are many who believe that ‘papa knows best.’ These owners refuse to delegate decision-making to their ‘Papier-mâché’ board. Today’s market is abuzz with news of one of India’s 5-star family-run hotel chain prospecting for suitable buyers for its prime properties. While Covid-19 has already broken the back of several small hotels which have given up the ghost, and are scouring buyers; a professionally managed larger hotel chain should certainly have had a better chance at survival. If only they had evolved from a feudal approach to a professional mindset!

Mövenpick Hotels entered India over a decade ago, with ambitious plans to grow in several destinations pan-India, once they would consolidate their flagship hotel in Bangalore. While Mövenpick Bangalore opened in 2011, the company’s vision perished over the next few years. Kicking the India-bucket, they exiting in just over six years. The reason? They failed to give India its due as a fathoming hotel market with a growing expertise and potential for quality. While Mövenpick Hotels are an established Swiss hotel chain, they failed to adapt to the Indian market. Their apparent detachment and relative indifference for their pilot project in this country were the reasons the owners eventually dispensed with their services.

Adapting does not necessarily mean going along with concurrent success stories. Adapting may also necessitate going against the grain, whilst incorporating a protracted vision of the market.

Ninety years ago, Ellsworth Statler, father of the modern American hotel industry, was quoted as saying “There are three things that make a hotel famous – location, location, location.” Yet, Capt. C.P. Krishnan Nair selected sites for the first 3 hotels of his hotel group – The Leela group (Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore) totally against the grain of ‘location, location, location.’

Capt. Nair, a feisty hotelier, knew how to roll with the punches. While choosing locations for new properties in Mumbai and Bangalore, he was able to foresee that an emerging India needed luxury hotels closer to the airport. In the case of Goa, he foresaw the need for a pristine location in the south, far from the madding crowd of the then internationally branded, North Goa hippy culture. In all three locations, their hotels had a first mover’s advantage, as there were no luxury brands there. By going against the grain, until the competition eventually came up several years later, the group had a chance to milk revenues in a relatively monopolistic micro-market, and consolidate.

Today’s environment has spurred the industry to innovate. Who knows – the new mantra for successful hotels will probably change from ‘location, location, location’ to ‘innovate, innovate, innovate’!

An example of this is ‘Bungalow Stays,’ where due to the pandemic-induced social distancing, travellers now prefer exclusive stays in spaces enhanced by space and natural surroundings. The bane of the hotel industry – Airbnb, and it’s like, have more of an edge in today’s environment. The hotel industry can no longer claim that such disruptors do not affect them. After years of denial, the hotel industry is now onboarding this segment… ‘Adapt or perish’ is being taken more seriously, and large international chains like Marriott, Hyatt, & Accor have already begun dabbling in extended stay hotels, short-term rental markets, and private residence rentals.

It is for the hotel industry to take the bait and innovate. Today, one is seeing smaller uber-luxury hotels, with single-digit keys mushrooming up, to adapt to customer needs, accelerated by the pandemic. The ‘One Key Hotel service’ of Postcard Hotels allows one to book out any of their Goa hotels, to holiday in complete privacy with friends and family. One Key – and the entire hotel is yours. So why just book a room? Book the entire hotel, is their clarion call.

IHCL (Taj group of hotels) has emerged from its chrysalis over the past two decades. The turnaround, scripted by its recent and present leadership has converted what was once a traditionally run organization to a progressive hospitality outfit. Recently crowned the world’s strongest hotel brand by ‘Brand Finance,’ they have ventured into new age spaces with in-depth market study backed by its 115-year-old legacy. The company is creating experiences for guests through their newer brands like SeleQtions, amã Stays & Trails, Food trucks being launched in various cities, Qmin – their signature food delivery platform, etc.

Evolve Back Resorts recently ran an ingenious one-time, and time-bound coupon sale. Proffering up to 25% discount on its regular tariff, customers could redeem their purchase till Mar 2023, and even ask for the money back if they were unable to travel. This mopped up within a short period, a substantial chunk of their annual revenue, and more importantly, revived their cash flow. Such a model sits at the intersection of customer loyalty, revenue, and cash flow – guaranteeing business for as long as a customer is locked in – making the benefits of the model obvious.

A newer reference in the hotel trade for ‘Adapt or Perish,’  lies in Sustainability – the next big word in the industry. We will see more organizations looking to sustain the Environment, Communities, and Economy, aka – Planet, People, and Profit.

Hyatt’s ‘Environmental Sustainability Strategy’ and ‘Hyatt Thrive,’ along with Accor’s ‘Planet 21’ program are a testimony to efforts being made in this direction.

Changing regional dynamics and consumer behaviour in different cultures can make it tricky for even the biggest businesses to understand and adapt to. In that sense, the pandemic has been a unifier. If one is willing to keep customer’s needs and expectations at the apex, the rest ain’t rocket science!

This article has appeared in ET HOSPITALITY WORLD.COM Jul 2021

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The Catspaw Chronicles

Over a century ago, children’s author Aesop relates a fable of the monkey, the cat, and the chestnuts.

Once upon a time a Cat and a Monkey lived as pets in the same house. They were great friends and were constantly in all sorts of mischief together. What they seemed to think of more than anything else was to get something to eat, and it did not matter much to them how they got it.

One day they were sitting by the fire, watching some chestnuts roasting on the hearth. How to get them was the question.

“I would gladly get them,” said the cunning Monkey, “but you are much more skillful at such things than I am. Pull them out and I’ll divide them between us.”

Pussy stretched out her paw very carefully, pushed aside some of the cinders, and drew back her paw very quickly. Then she tried it again, this time pulling a chestnut half out of the fire. A third time and she drew out the chestnut. This performance she went through several times, each time singeing her paw severely. As fast as she pulled the chestnuts out of the fire, the Monkey ate them up.

Now the master came in and away scampered the rascals, Pussy Cat with a burnt paw and no chestnuts.

Therein originated the phrase “I was used as a catspaw.”

How often have you been used as a catspaw in your various jobs? As a General Manager, I was given to sign termination letters and file cases against various employees who had rubbed the owner on the wrong side. Sometimes I may not have agreed with the harsh step taken, but job insecurity may frankly have led me to comply – not my proudest moments for sure!

I was used as a catspaw!

We all have our values, our code of ethics, our ways of looking at life… yet moments arrive when we find ourselves being used as a catspaw.

You may relate to situations like these:

  • Your client gets a kick-ass deal out of you, promising you loads of business; only for you to find out later that future business prospects from this company are very low.
  • Your colleague convinces you against your better wishes to go along with their plans or ideas.
  • Your subordinate entices you into approving their leave with flimsy excuses, and you do so to gain their approval.
  • Your boss, or even colleague, gets you to do their work using flattery to keep you motivated…
  • Your boss takes your idea and implements it without giving you due credit.
  • Your superiors may be nice to you only because they need something from you, and not necessarily due to affection or care for you. If you are the front person for your company, oft and on, you could be told to misrepresent a situation, even though it may be against your ethical code.

All of the above may happen, but at a cost to you. Remember how pussy’s catspaw was singed while pulling out chestnuts from the fire for the monkey?

On the flip side, once we are done with admonishing the memories of our ill-users, for using us as a catspaw in the past – let us honestly look into the same past and acknowledge wherever we may have done likewise!

  • Have you ever sweet-talked your team members and cajoled them into putting in extra hours or effort into achieving what you know is your own Key Result Areas, and subsequently not rewarded them for the same? I have seen managers justifying this by saying that since they were never specifically rewarded when they had slogged for their growth, why should their subordinates expect any better?
  • A Salesperson over-promising and under-delivering. Is it possible that in such a situation, the client may feel that he has been used as a catspaw? Remember, the client’s performance rating in their own company is indirectly dependant on the services received from your contracted services. For, if delivery is not up to expectations (inflated by the salesperson at the time of making the sale), it is the booker who gets an earful from his company.
  • Examples abound of first-mover hotels that over-priced themselves due to their monopolistic or locational existence. However, the moment other options are available, the clients tend to move their business away to emerging hotels, as these clients may possibly be seething with indignation (like the proverbial singed cat), for being taken advantage of by the primary hotel in the past.
  • Even servers may use their guests as a catspaw. In a restaurant where the order taker, to fulfil his target, pushes an extensive menu selection, and succeeds in convincing the guest to order the same; the guest may eventually realise he/she has been had!
  • How often have we even used our boss as a catspaw to obtain our needs, regardless of the business need? Examples abound in planning for manning positions, leave planning, salary increments, budgeting, etc. While most owners are wary and discerning, every once in a while, one comes across a kindly owner accepting lower revenue budgets or higher cost budgets from the operator, only to discover that an opportunity to run a tight ship with much better profits, was missed.
  • And how about our treatment of the ubiquitous trainee? In my early days when I trained at Oberoi Hotels, Mumbai, in the IRD department (in-room dining), I was made to do IRD clearances twice in my shift, for the entire 23 floors (700 rooms) by a senior steward, who used to traipse off to the lockers for R&R, whilst I slogged away.

All of us know the phrase: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” If you are diligently following this ethic, chances are that you may not be amongst those who use others as a catspaw. And, in a utopian world, if everyone followed this principle, no one would ever be used as a catspaw!

However, the truth is that this catspaw adage will keep occurring. As a good manager, you need to guard yourself against using others, and conversely, be aware when you are being used. Your action thereafter needs to be based on each circumstance, keeping in mind that while you must certainly avoid using others as a catspaw, you may still be used as a catspaw by your superiors, peers, subordinates, or even your guests.

Awareness is crucial here… thereafter it is left to your emotional intelligence on how to react to the situation.

This article has appeared in ET HOSPITALITY WORLD.COM Jun 2021

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