Back end or Heart of House?

Writer William Gibson once famously said that the ‘The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ I worry more that the past is here—it’s just so evenly distributed that we can’t get to the future.

— Paul Kedrosky

A few years ago, we facilitated an event with a group of luxury car dealers in a Four Seasons hotel. They were all the owners or General Managers of the dealerships: wealthy, shrewd businesspeople with a track record of success going back a decade or more. They had come to the event to learn from other luxury and service businesses. They were exposed to world-class stimuli over the two days: leading-edge technology retailing, high-end customer service, the latest and greatest in travel and hospitality. And yet one of the most illuminating conversations came after a visit to the laundry.

The trip was a part of a tour through the departments of the hotel: Room Service, Front Desk, Gardening, and so on. We met and spoke with Four Seasons’ staff in each area. And then we came to the laundry. If you have ever spent any time in a hotel laundry, you will know it is not an exciting environment, in the conventional sense of the word. Typically hot, short of natural light, and full of damp, drying linen, it is a place that owes more to perspiration than inspiration. And yet the young man who stood on a chair to talk to the dealers about working in that Four Seasons laundry radiated enthusiasm and commitment; for twenty minutes he made it sound like the most important and fulfilling job in the world. We were rapt.

The visit over, we went upstairs to discuss the tour, and what we had learned. And the first question from one of the dealers was about the laundry. He had been very taken by the young man we’d met there, the dealer said. In his business, the stars (or quarterbacks as he called them) were the salespeople on the showroom floor. They got the big bucks, wore the good suits, “because they are the people who make sure we hit our numbers with the quality of customer engagement that we have become famous for.” And yet he also had a group of people at the back end of the business servicing the cars, valeting, and washing them, who did not seem to be nearly as evangelical as that young man. How, the dealer asked, could he get his back end to be as motivated and engaged as that? The relevant department head from the Four Seasons, a well-built man called Bob, stepped forward. “I’ll tell you what a back end is,” said Bob, and he pointed to his own behind: “That’s a back end. Here we call those people our Heart of House.” And that means you think of them very differently, he went on: if you think of them as Heart of House, then they are really important to you. You know their names and their children’s names. You know what’s going on in their lives. You know their birthdays. You go and talk to them twice a day. “How often,” he asked the dealer, “do you walk over to your service area and talk to your people there?” Once or twice a week, the dealer said. “There you go,” said Bob. “If you called them Heart of House you’d literally change the way you walked, as well as the way you thought. You’d be over there twice a day, asking them how you could all make the service experience better. They’d have a completely different relationship with what they did.” They’d become, in other words, our young evangelist in the laundry.

– A Beautiful Constraint: How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business by Adam Morgan, Mark Barden

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