As president and founder of SGEi, Shane Green collaborates with his clients’ C-level executives to craft customer experience and employee engagement strategies that support brand promises. He leads SGEi’s team of operations, human resources, and training professionals: together, they inspire brands to deliver exceptional internal and external experiences that create brand advocates and loyal customers. He sat down to talk to us about the relationship between company culture and the guest experience.
Q: You’ve been in the hospitality business for a very long time, holding roles as manager, consultant, vice president, and now, finally, president and founder of your own company. What did you observe both throughout your career and in the market that compelled you to start SGEi?
I was working at the Ritz-Carlton and I already had this urge to create a company, so I sat down and said, “What can I create a company about?” It was obvious at the time that I was able to travel the world, and I had a really great operational background in hotels, and I could speak and actually deliver training. What I think compelled me most was that, at the Ritz-Carlton, we often got asked, “What’s the secret source?” People wanted to know how they got these raving fans and why their employees were so damn good. The reality is that they focus on some basic cultural fundamentals.
I saw a real opportunity to take those ideas and help other companies discover that for themselves. In the beginning, I thought I would just be helping startups and small companies that didn’t have the resources or infrastructure to do what the Ritz-Carlton can do. But lo and behold, as we’ve grown over the last 16 years, we found out there are big companies that need it just as well.
The customer experience is truly driven by the mindset and attitude — the culture — of the organization. That is the single most important thing. You cannot make somebody want to take care of your guests. You have to make them want to do it, and companies play a huge role in creating that want. That’s where we are today — we’re really focusing on teaching people about culture, but our ultimate goal is how to improve customer experience.
Q: SGEi is all about helping companies retool their culture to make it more appealing to employees. Why is company culture so important? How does improving internal culture affect the customer experience?
The customer experience is everything. I think we’re in the customer experience economy. If you experience an interaction as a customer, the behaviours and skills of the clerk you’re interacting with are all defined by their attitude, and their attitude is defined by the company’s culture. I think this is really important for organizations to understand. A company can advertise and market like mad about who they are and what they believe in, but in today’s world, it’s the people on the front line who are ultimately defining the reputation of the business. And the reputation of your business, let’s face it, is really the brand.
Q: You were the host of The Travel Channel’s Resort Rescue, in which you identify serious problems and help owners turn their businesses around. What are three major faux-pas you’ve encountered on Resort Rescue that hoteliers should avoid?
The first one is expertise. What was really obvious on the show was that there wasn’t an expertise in hoteliering. This is really important. You have to be an expert. If you’re going to put a stake in the ground and open your own business, you require that. We found that a lot of people had started it with this fantasy that it would be a nice retirement piece. They have this idea: “Hey, I’m great with guests, I’m great with people, I’m a relationship person, therefore I should run a hotel.” Hotels are extremely difficult. There are so many moving parts. So you have to remember there is a requirement that expertise is there.
The next one is delegation. You have to delegate. I had owners that were working around the clock. I think one couple that owned this hotel hadn’t had a vacation in 27 years. It’s just amazing to think about that. So, for your sanity and the success of your business, you have to be willing to delegate. You have to find good people and be willing to give them responsibility. If you’re not going to allow anyone else in your business to make decisions, then you’re going to be it. You’re going to be 24/7. But it doesn’t need to be that way, which is why delegation is critical.
I think the final one is partnership. It’s so critical today that hotels are partners in their communities with other brands and other organizations. I remember when I first started [in hotels], my general manager told to me, “Our goal is to keep our guests in the hotel as much as possible so they spend as much money as possible.” You know what, that doesn’t work today. People aren’t interested in that. The goal now is to really make experiences for guests and showcase as many elements of your neighbourhood as possible. Your hotel should be the center of your community. Teach some of these other businesses about customer experience and customer service. I think that’s where there’s a real opportunity. In today’s world, the guest wants to get into the local community. Look at Airbnb and how successful it’s become with the simple idea that you should connect to the locals. Well, I think hotels should be doing that, and they have the perfect opportunity and platform to do it because their hotels are already in play.
Q: You mentioned expertise. How would independent hoteliers acquire that expertise if they don’t already have it?
This is where you’ve got to go and get the right people on board. For the owner of a small hotel, one of your best investments will be to get a general manager that’s been there, done that. And at the end of the day, you never stop learning. As a hotelier, if you approach a larger hotel and ask for a walk behind the scenes, I think there’s a real opportunity for that. There are also a lot of conferences that you can engage in. There’s a lot of information online.
Q: Would you say that hotels have an advantage over Airbnb in creating local partnerships?
Absolutely. I think the hotel has a huge advantage over Airbnb. An Airbnb is a one-off home. It doesn’t have the resources a hotel does. It doesn’t have the economy of scale that a hotel does, and it probably doesn’t have the relationships. Therefore, hotels need to rethink a little bit about what its role is. A perfect example is when you go to a hotel and you say, “Hey, where’s the coffee shop?” A hotel that is engaged in its neighbourhood will send you to a local, artistic coffee shop where you get a really great cup of coffee, but more importantly, an experience. I think you’re seeing this shift. I think there are brands out there that are really understanding that this is critical to who they are and that this kind of partnership is not just an option anymore, it’s actually an important business strategy in how they think and operate.
Q: Guest-facing technology is becoming ever more important in the hospitality industry, and some worry that it will alienate guests rather than connect them meaningfully with brands. What can hoteliers do to ensure that technology enhances rather than stifles the guest experience, all while reflecting the brand’s culture?
I see technology now as a critical partnership for hotels. In the past, hotels thought they had to be the experts at everything. It was a fallacy. It wasn’t true. We weren’t experts at spa and we weren’t necessarily the best restaurateurs. We were good at everything, but we weren’t great.
What you’re seeing now is a shift to partnering. You get the best restaurateur in there and let them put their restaurant in your hotel. It’s the same with the spas. I think the next step is now technology. To make sure technology is a part of your brand and that it really does enable experiences, you’ve got to work with experts as opposed to trying to do it yourself. It’s too complex.
The other thing I think is really interesting out there today is you’re seeing brands look at technology very differently. For the first time, you’re seeing a new set of hotels coming out that actually define their brand as being technology-focused. Technology has come so far that it’s actually allowing hotels to get back to their roots, which is having conversations, creating experiences, and connecting to the local neighbourhood.
Q: As a culture hacker, you say you can “reprogram outdated thinking, mindsets, values and beliefs” that hold organizations back. What are some of these outdated thoughts and beliefs, particularly in the hospitality industry? What can business owners do to start thinking in new ways?
People that are running hotels today are applying rules that made them successful with a whole group of travelers, employees, and markets that quite honestly are in such a different space and place compared to now. What guests wanted in the past is definitely not what they want today. So as hoteliers, we’ve got to research and connect. We have to get with the experts in the business who are doing great things and are connecting with new markets. I think that’s really critical.
I think the other thing is that we’ve got to stop complaining about Gen Y and Gen Z every two seconds, and start to learn how to adjust to them. They are not going away. Generation Y, in the next couple of years, becomes the largest group in the workforce. As the largest group in the workforce, they will now become our largest potential customers. And these Gen Zs are right behind them. So we need to start rethinking how we connect with our employees and the culture that we create, because what makes them excited about taking care of customers is different from when we started out in the business.
The reality today is that to make change and think differently, you’ve got to accept that you should be a little uncomfortable. Know that you don’t know everything. Know that we have these new generations that are truly different from us in certain ways, but particularly in how they work and what they want to experience, and that we need to be curious about them and connect with them.
And the other side is being excited about the possibilities. These changes are creating whole new markets and whole new brands that are built for the future. While it’s a little nerve-wracking, that tension creates curiosity, and then you put that entrepreneurial and business hat on and get really excited about what new opportunities these markets can bring.
Q: So many organizations seem to struggle with the task of creating an appealing company culture. Why is this? What does it take to build a culture that ensures an attractive experience not just for employees, but also for customers?
Let’s clarify what culture is. Culture is the mindset and attitude of your people. It’s how they feel about coming to work every day. That collective attitude or mindset really defines what your culture is. The question is not, “Do you have a culture?” Every company has a culture. The question is whether it’s the culture that you want. Is it the culture that is going to be able to deliver great guest experiences?
There are a number of mechanisms that influence how people feel when they come to work each day — the recognition program, the hiring process, the training program, the leadership. But the ground zero of your culture is your values. I see this as the biggest problem. A company will tell me that they have values, but quite honestly, it’s just a piece of paper that sits on the wall.
The reality is, the values need to come to life. What is a value? A value defines how to interact with the company, your peers, and your customers. Values define how to make decisions. My values should be what ground me and what guide me. That is such a powerful ideal, and it should be seen throughout the whole organization. In organizations where things start to go wrong, I can tell you, the values aren’t there.
If the values define how people interact, and then you put up all these supporting mechanisms around it, that is the best way to influence how people act every day. You can’t control people’s attitude with 100 percent clarity, but as Charles Swindoll said, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.” A lot of what an employee is feeling and doing every day is a response to how the organization supports its values.
Q: What are your top tips for providing guests with an exceptional experience?
Authenticity. Scripts are out. You’ve got to select real people that represent the neighbourhood and are invested in the community.
Connectivity. People are all about creating memories and moments, and if they happen, they want to share them with the world. You’ve got to make sure that connectivity is there, from connectivity to the wireless to the connectivity of their local neighbourhood.
Choice. Customers love convenience. They want things that are easy. They want simple choices, they want great choices. We have the responsibility to make that happen.
Transparency. A good example is minibars. I love what Virgin has done with their street-priced minibars. They’re basically just putting the same prices that you can get at the local supermarket in the minibar. This whole idea of marking things up 60 percent, I think that’s gone.
Wellness. Wellness has evolved so much that it’s not just about a spa or a fitness room anymore. Wellness is a really holistic approach to thinking about people’s lives. It involves helping people with stress. It’s about getting better sleep and eating better. I think it’s the largest growing growth segment in travel right now in the world.