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Four Seasons: the four pillars of success

The concept is simple: “a warm welcome, efficiency and intuitive, personalised service”. Yet few hotel chains can claim having as successful of a customer satisfaction programme as Four Seasons. How does one become a universal reference for quality and satisfaction in such a competitive sector as the hotel industry?

The company has quite a long history with quality standards. Four Seasons originally integrated a quality programme in 1982, and recently revamped it in 1999. Since customer demands are constantly changing, the programme is designed to standardise practices, yet also remain flexible and open to evolutions in the client mix and new demands. Each year, the quality criteria are reviewed and adjusted according to experience over the past year. Needless to say, re-evaluating quality criteria on a constant basis is a complicated process, but essential for the group’s success. It relies on several different tactics: in terms of establishing quality criteria, the group conducts studies and evaluations, such as focus groups made up of clients that most often frequent Four Seasons luxury hotels around the world. The group also works with an external company which conducts quality audits.Another aspect of the personalised service at Four Seasons is the “Angels” programme. For each client staying at the hotel for more than 5 days, a manager- level employee at the hotel is assigned as the client’s “Angel”, who is responsible for inviting the client for lunch or a drink in order to better understand his or her preferences, and ensuring the client’s satisfaction during his or her stay in general. For new clients, the “Angel” must obviously be fluent in the client’s native language, but once one becomes a regular customer, the “Angel” is assigned depending on his or her knowledge of the person. Any new quality initiatives or innovative ideas can be reviewed by all hotels in a “Best Practices” database, and by a quarterly newsletter distributed by the headquarters.The quality criteria are extremely important not only with respect to the clients, but also employees. If the group has been able to implement such a successful programme, it is largely due to the quality and development of its staff. Human resources initiatives are therefore at the forefront of internal quality standards. Four key elements are vital to Four Seasons’ human resources management: recruitment, training, communication/recognition and evolution.Recruitment at Four Seasons, regardless of hierarchical level, involves interviews with four different superior staff members. The method used, known as “Behavioural Interviewing”, is based first and foremost on the potential employee’s attitude and demeanour. During the interviews, candidates are asked to describe past experiences and how they reacted to them. Though professional experience is a major factor in recruitment, Four Seasons attaches more importance to the personalities of their potential employees, since a person can be trained but one cannot change how they are.As a result, Four Seasons tents to recruit the right “personalities”, then can train them to deliver the high level of quality that is expected. Each employee starts with 3 days of an orientation session before even beginning in his/her department, which focuses on the company, philosophy, operational principles, and a presentation by each service in the hotel. They also stay for a night in the hotel and use the different services so that they can experience what a guest’s stay is like. Afterwards, each employee is paired up with a “designated trainer”, who, along with the Director of that specific service, is responsible for training the new employee for a minimum of 3 weeks before he or she will be independently operational. The training, while on-site and hands-on, is based on a Standard Training Manual, specifically designed for each individual service. Operational Procedures and Quality Criteria are of utmost importance, and a check-list is provided so that the employee can track his or her progress during the training.While it is oftentimes observed that everything one learns in the first training sessions of a new job is forgotten, Four Seasons makes sure that its employees retain the invaluable information learned during this period. Each employee is regularly tested throughout their time with the company on the Culture of Service and Quality Criteria –the latter at least twice per month—and there are regular workshops to review these standards. Furthermore, each employee benefits from a minimum of 25 hours of training per year in order to develop their skills and learn new techniques or methodologies. These sessions can be taught by the hotel’s Direction or by an external trainer, and each employee’s training record is tracked so that the company knows what level of training each employee has attained and which courses they have taken.Of course, employees can be properly trained to perform their functions, but if they are not motivated, quality is not achieved. Four Seasons’ third pillar in their programme for employees is based on communication and recognition. Communication with employees is transparent, and participation of the employees themselves in decisions regarding the hotel is very important. Once a month, each service meets so that the Department Head can inform the employees of happenings in the hotel, and take any suggestions for improving client services, the work environment and the any other aspect of the hotel in general. Each hotel’s General Manager then holds a meeting where a representative from each department gather to give the employees’ feedback. The recommendations are then submitted to the hotel’s Executive Committee, which decides on the appropriate actions that should be taken. At the next month’s meeting between the General Manager and the employees, the General Manager is responsible for reporting on the decisions made by the Executive Committee, point-bypoint, as well as the actions taken and the timeframe for implementation. Every two months, the same is organised for the Supervisors and Managers of the hotel. The fact that employees participate actively and can share their ideas for improvement with the management gives them a sense of being recognised for their ideas and the quality of their work. Other important ways of motivating employees include rewarding an employee and a manager of the year with a plane ticket and a stay in the Four Seasons of their choice, staff soirees and regular events to receive feedback on staff well-being, and thank you letters from the General Manager sent to the employee’s home when a hotel client makes a favourable remark about the employee’s service.Finally, employee evolution is a key ingredient in ensuring quality service from staff at Four Seasons. This includes annual evaluations for all employees, and “succession planning” twice a year for managers in order to evaluate their performance and potential for development. There is also a mentoring programme, where each manager is assigned a member of the Executive Committee or an upper-level manager as a mentor throughout his or her career, whose job it is to foster a quality relationship and follow the evolution if his or her protégé. Evolution within the company is important, as is mobility. The company encourages international transfers, especially with a new hotel opening in a new destination, when there would be a large number of employees to train. With new hotel openings, all hotels are systematically solicited by Four Seasons headquarters to send employees, either on a long-term or a short-term basis, to help ensure integration of the Quality Criteria.Only once employees have the right attitude, are well trained and feel fulfilled in their professional lives can Four Seasons implement their award-winning quality programme at the service of the group’s clients. Obvious emphasis is placed on making sure that the rooms and public spaces of the hotel are kept tidy, which are inspected every day by senior staff and often the General Manager. Restaurants and snack bars are also inspected on a daily basis, as well as parts that are closed to the public, such as the kitchen and laundering facilities. Aside of making sure that the hotels are constantly in tip-top shape, the quality programme at Four Seasons rests upon two principles when it comes to client service: personalisation and consistency. Each morning, client profiles are reviewed so that staff is aware of VIPs and regular clients. Upon arrival, each client is greeted by name and personally escorted to his or her room by a staff member who speaks his or her native language, while VIPs and frequent clients are escorted by a senior manager, sometimes even the General Manager. Once inside the room, clients will find amenities which correspond with their particular situation –status, nationality and whether or not they are staying for business or with their families.Much emphasis is placed on making international guests feel comfortable, most notably Japanese, Russian and Middle Eastern clients. Amenities in the rooms cater to these different clients (green tea for Japanese clients, dried fruit for Middle Easterners…) and brochures and menus are translated in English, Japanese and Russian for the bar, restaurant, room service and even spa. Once a week, there is a cocktail in one of the suites or the salon, which enables staff to interact with guests and to gain valuable feedback. There is also a “Lobby Lizard” programme, where managers of the hotel are stationed in the reception area so that they can welcome guests and get to know frequent clients.Another aspect of the personalised service at Four Seasons is the “Angels” programme. For each client staying at the hotel for more than 5 days, a manager- level employee at the hotel is assigned as the client’s “Angel”, who is responsible for inviting the client for lunch or a drink in order to better understand his or her preferences, and ensuring the client’s satisfaction during his or her stay in general. For new clients, the “Angel” must obviously be fluent in the client’s native language, but once one becomes a regular customer, the “Angel” is assigned depending on his or her knowledge of the person. Any new quality initiatives or innovative ideas can be reviewed by all hotels in a “Best Practices” database, and by a quarterly newsletter distributed by the headquarters.

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