A traveler's reservations about daffy room service


August 15, 1994|By TOM PETERS

The 8 a.m. request seemed simple enough. I was arriving at the Washington hotel at 1 p.m. and needed a room then and for the night.

Night? Try nightmare.

The reservation person said my "early" arrival (4 p.m. is standard check-in time) meant I needed a "day room," 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's two departments." (As if I gave a tinker's damn about the hotel's org chart!) "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 tourist season and World Cup season in D.C. I wasn't sure my chances were that good. So, confused and defeated, I finally asked to talk to a manager. He managed to work things out for me and apologized 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, Scotland, the week before. I'd been ranting and raving 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 decentralized organizations?"

"Ah-ha," I almost shouted. "You don't! We're trying to nurture INconsistency, the kind of personalized response you'd get 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 carefully follow checklists.

But I'm afraid our TQM 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 D.C. to quit acting like a "reservation person."

I want her to be Chairwoman, Founder and CEO of Customer Care for anybody who calls. (Me, for one.)

I know (I'm an experienced traveler) 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 the hotel in D.C. (instead of the Four Seasons, where I normally stay), the staff was confronted with an opportunity: They had a chance to book a room for a day and a half (day room plus night room fees) and to make a friend, who just might be weaned from the Four Seasons long-term.

But, to do that, reservation clerks need an affinity for variation -- that is, for meeting my somewhat special (though hardly bizarre) needs.

Let's give my Edinburgh questioner his due, though. I'm not suggesting we just hire people and turn them loose.

I would train the bejesus out of that clerk-reservationist-CEO of Customer Care. Andersen Consulting spends 6 percent 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 training expenditures 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 CEO. Ever wonder, Ms. Business Owner, why employees don't go through the same sort of decision-making process you do? Usually it's not a lack of motivation; mostly it's a lack of data.

Finally, our reservationist-turned-CEO 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 cataloger J. Peterman 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 belabor 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.

Tom Peters is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-8200

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