Keeping the Brand Sacred

Hospitality veteran tells how to build and maintain credibility

brand-storyTitle: Dan Normandin, Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta
Location: Atlanta
Age: 46
Power Play: Accountable for the people who manage and deliver the experience that defines a luxury brand

What’s your perception of the value and function of standards to a brand?

We have standards within Four Seasons to make sure the customer experiences the same high level of service at all times. We have learned that one of the most important things to our customers is no surprises. Hassle-free visits are very important, especially in this day and age as people are very strapped as a result of the economy. From an employee perspective, standards allow employees to learn and understand what the expectations are of our organization. It doesn’t stop them from going above and beyond a particular performance standard. Standards are a baseline for performance, it’s the very minimum that customers would expect us to perform and achieve for them.

In light of the economy, how have you adjusted business practices to preserve and build brand loyalty?

Discounting doesn’t give you more business. In this economy, we see that people that aren’t traveling simply aren’t traveling. To discount isn’t going to spur any new activity. We’re very confident in the service and product that we provide and that doesn’t change based on the strength or weakness of the economy. Consistency is key, especially in a market like this. for those customers that are investing in us, partnering with us in times like this, it’s more important than ever that they feel the same level of care, the same support that they would get at any other time. That does not mean that we have not had to respond to market conditions. The economy forces us to be more efficient, to share best practices, and to be better business people. You start to deconstruct your expenses to show a return from a customer services perspective, an employee relations perspective, or from a business profile perspective. As long as the service or product that you’re delivering satisfies one of those filters, stay confident keeping it in place.

Damage control is an uncomfortable but necessary process in rescuing a brand’s image. How do you handle complaints, mistakes, etc?

You can be forgiven once; if you don’t address a complaint then you lose that customer. We can never rely on the customer telling us there was a problem, that’s why it’s important to be intuitive.  You have to see the problem, even if the customer doesn’t perceive or report it as a problem. If there’s a stain on the carpet and the customer doesn’t notice or mention it, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a stain. We treat that as seriously as if a customer called. We respond with urgency and transparency, take care of the customer first, and then go back and assess whether it was a system issue, a training issue, or did we just make a mistake. All of our managers and employees are empowered to make decisions to take care of a customer right away if there is a complaint. They don’t have to say, “I have to ask the boss.” We trust our employees.

Identify one fear or habit a brand steward should discard and why?

Never be afraid to talk to your customers; you need to worry when you’re not talking to them. If you don’t stay close to them, you lose them. They are the only barometer you have in any business. If you are measuring your own success then you’re sticking your head in the sand.  If you’re not willing to listen because the message isn’t positive then you need to look in the mirror and ask, “Why am I in this business?”

This story originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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