Bonding with Customers: The Leadership Side

David P. Campbell, a co-author of the infamous Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory, once proposed camps for the children of world leaders located in the countries of their adversaries. The concept was, for example, senior Russian leaders would never launch an attack on the United States if their children were attending a U.S.-based camp. The subtheme was also that children would return home after camp reporting a vastly different assessment of "adversaries." Their "adversaries" would become valued pen pals, not just short-term memories.

Campbell viewed camps as a type of bonding agent. Bonding was a much deeper relationship feature than simply connecting or understanding or appreciating. We connect with folks in our neighborhood, but we bond with our close friends and family. What would bonding look like with customers? What would it be like to elevate valuing to its highest level? And what can leaders do to nurture a culture that supports bonding, not just connecting?

Bonding Up Close and Personal

Years ago, I worked with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and stayed at the Pentagon City, VA property near Reagan International Airport. The hotel is connected directly to the Fashion Centre, an upscale two-level mall. I met in the hotel bar with the general manager. A woman walked into the bar from the door to the mall. She was obviously a poor, street person who had accidentally wandered into the hotel. She appeared a bit stunned and lost. 

The general manager excused himself and walked over to help the woman. I expected him to escort her back into the mall, but he led her first to the lobby. He returned with her on his arm in a few minutes as he escorted her into the mall. Her Steinway smile lit up the bar as she passed through. When he returned to our table, I had to know what had just happened. 

"Even if she is not our registered guest," he told me, "If she walks through that door (he pointed toward the mall), she becomes our guest, and in her case, a lady. As a gentleman serving a lady, I wanted to share with her our beautiful hotel lobby." I objected a bit. "But you could have simply returned her to the mall and skipped the lobby." He paused and uttered profound clarity. "We are not here to give directions; we are here to bond with all we serve by giving them genuine care." 

What does bonding with customers look like? It means demonstrating obvious and genuine care. It means making the encounter all about your customer, not about you. And it means showing the highest respect for those you serve and the nobility of getting to serve them.

The Leader Side of Bonding

Horst Schulze, the founder of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, coined the phrase "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen" to describe the culture they strived to be. When I worked as a consultant with Horst, he took pride in characterizing what the phrase really meant. Ladies and gentlemen, not simply women and men, imply a higher, refined, and elegant side of serving. It suggests delivering service that reflects a gold standard, not just a "meets expectations" one. Horst would advise, "It also means how we treat our associates, not just our guests."

A. Create a Huggable Culture

"Don't ever hire someone you'd be reluctant to hug," a highly successful CEO shared with a group of new managers. This CEO was not speaking of the workplace as a country club or fraternity house. Nor was he advocating leaders be huggers. Some people are uncomfortable with public displays of affection. Instead, he was espousing a belief that greatness emanates from a culture of affiliation and affirmation. When people work around people they genuinely like and enjoy, that spills over in their dealings with customers and into the pride they show in their work.

B. Tell Stories of Bonding

Great leaders are storytellers. They recognize that traditions, values, and beliefs are communicated through anecdotes. While communication today is fast, furious, and often overheated through emails, the present atmosphere of a tribe and the future awareness of legacy are still both accomplished by retelling stories. Stories telegraph a set of norms unique to the organization. When Marriott managers tell of founder J. Willard Marriott noticing customers buying sandwiches at his restaurant near the D.C. airport to eat on the plane and then starting the first meal catering service to the airlines, they are really saying, "Take care of customers and look for opportunities to serve."

C. Deliver Extra Affirmation

Great leaders treat associates like royalty. Horst often spoke about the number one impact on guest relations being associate relations. "We teach new associates how to treat guests by the way we treat them." He constantly looked for opportunities to affirm, especially in public. He described associates to guests as if he were telling them about superstars. He remembered special days, celebrated small milestones, and demonstrated trust in associates. Even a housekeeper could spend up to $2000 to make sure a guest left happy.

Leaders set the tone of the organization. A significant part of their role is to inspire, instruct and affirm. In a word, they bond. The result is a competitive advantage others cannot replicate. "We are superior to the competition because we hire employees who work in an environment of belonging and purpose," says Horst Schulze. "We foster a climate where the employee can deliver what the customer wants. You cannot deliver what the customer wants by controlling the employee."

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