Last fall I had the privilege of talking with Vikram Oberoi, chief operating officer and joint managing director of the Oberoi Group, about how he maintains the Founder’s MentalitySM as the hotel group expands (it now has 22 hotels). I also mentioned that I would be staying at some Oberoi hotels during an upcoming vacation in India with my wife and promised to interview some of his managers about how they maintain the company’s Founder’s Mentality during such periods of high growth.
One of these conversations was with Poornima Bhambal at the Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur. The Oberoi Udaivilas sits on Lake Pichola, directly across from the City Palace of Udaipur. Udaipur itself is called the City of Lakes, and most Indians I talk to cite it as the most beautiful city in India. I can certainly understand why. Sitting in our room at Udaivilas and watching the sun set against the palace, we ranked Udaipur as the most beautiful city we’ve visited anywhere.
I met Poornima in a meeting room overlooking one of the dozen infinity pools on the hotel grounds. She explained that she came from a family of doctors—her parents and siblings are all doctors—and had surprised them by discovering her passion for hotel management. After completing a degree in hotel management in 2006, she worked for a hotel company in Jaipur and then joined the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur in 2008 as luxury experience manager. In 2012, she moved to the Oberoi Udaivilas. Today, she is the assistant manager, front office, with responsibility for reception, the lobby and reservations. “I am often the first place customers go if they have issues,” she said.
Poornima highlighted four ways the Oberoi Group maintains such high standards of customer service:
1. A service culture that starts at the top. “What surprised me most in joining the Oberoi Group was the service culture,” said Poornima. “Essentially, we try to say yes to our customers 99% of the time. We all believe that all our guests must leave the hotel happy, and as managers we have to live by example all the time. If tables need clearing up at the restaurant because guests are waiting, you’ll see our senior managers jumping in to help. When we have a big tour group check in, all of us take on porter duties or whatever is required to treat each guest individually.”
She elaborated: “Vincent Guironnet, who managed the Oberoi Rajvilas, in Jaipur, used to manage the phones when everyone else was called out to escort guests to the rooms. One time, as a junior manager, I asked him to do departure reconfirmations (to check when guests were leaving and make sure their bags were collected and transport arranged). He did it without question and thanked me for the initiative because it let me greet our guests. Our service culture starts at the top. I met Mr. Oberoi when he came to our hotel and I happened to be the one that gave him a cold towel. I’ve seen him dozens of times since, and he always remembers my name and enquires how I am. He’s role-modeling, and letting me know that everyone matters and every kindness is important. Our service culture starts at the top.”
2. An empowerment program that gets us all working together. Poornima explained that all employees are empowered to access small amounts of money to help guests in any way they see fit, and are encouraged to do so. For example: “One member of a group that was checking out of the Oberoi Rajvilas said they hadn’t yet tasted the famous lassi, a sweet yogurt drink with lots of dry fruit and cream that is common in north India,” Poornima said. “I called the chef during the very busy breakfast hour and asked if he could make some lassi before the guest had fully checked out. He was incredibly busy but managed to provide the drink for the full group, in takeaway cups, in seven minutes. They had the drink before they even signed the bill. It was such a simple thing, but meant the world to them. And I knew if I called Chef Chandraveer, he would figure out how to get the lassi to them, even though he works in a different department with its own goals and priorities. When it concerns our customers, we know that no one will say no.”
Says Poornima: “We love to surprise and delight guests with little gifts and niceties, and the empowerment program allows this to happen. My favorite story is from our housekeeper, Atul Sastry, who heard that a guest was coming in with a new baby. The baby’s name was a common boy’s name, so he prepared a lovely crib in the room all decorated in blue. When the new mother arrived in the room she was very happy, but confessed to the escort that the baby was a girl. The escort informed the housekeeper, who immediately went to the local market and bought pink material for the crib. When the mother came back to her room after lunch, the crib was redecorated. This meant the world to her, and he did it without thinking twice. That’s empowerment!”
3. Service built on the ability to anticipate—an ability that is strengthened through the sharing of best practices. “We are a big hotel group and we constantly share lessons,” Poornima explained. “The team here meets once a month and each department reports out on customer lessons. We learn patterns in terms of what customers want, and then we anticipate their needs. We try to tailor our service offering to our customers without them even knowing we’ve done it,” she said.
“Some nationalities demand fast service above all else. We know this and adjust. We supply dental and shaving kits to anyone upon request but know that some nationalities always ask for them. For those customers, we put them in the room in advance. Some nationalities that bring children expect 24-hour childcare for their family. We know this, so we don’t wait for them to ask; we simply offer it at check-in. We know in advance if some customers have had a long journey; for them, we make sure they are in their room within two minutes of arrival. Great customer service is not always about responding well to customer requests. Truly great service is about anticipating the requests and having the service there before the question is asked. One of our mottos is ‘Unless you put yourself in a guest’s shoes, you will never know.’”
4. We work hard to recover when things go wrong. I pressed Poornima about what happens when things go wrong, either because the hotel made a mistake or because the customer is just plain difficult. She explained that they have training classes for how to deal with difficult guests. They also discuss examples during daily and monthly meetings and recognize staff who have great stories.
“My most difficult story was with a guest where everything went wrong,” Poornima said. “This guest didn’t have a good start: He checked in and said that his travel agent had booked a lakeview room. The agent hadn’t, and we had no such room available. And then Murphy’s Law kicked in and his bags got delayed and something went wrong in the restaurant. He was unhappy—and we felt so bad. His family went down to dinner and he called me to complain—but during the conversation, it became clear that he wasn’t well. He was gulping for air. He said he was fine, but I didn’t feel right about it. I called the doctor and organized for an ambulance while my colleague rushed to his room and sat with him for an hour as he regained his breath and calmed down. I called his family back from dinner and informed them.”
Poornima continued her story: “When the doctor arrived, he said the guest was healthy, but suffering from stress. I told him it was my goal to end all his stress, and we set about doing everything we could to relax him, including bringing experts from the spa to help him with relaxation techniques. The next day he was transformed and thanked everyone on our staff for helping him. He was so unhappy and he became so happy because we never gave up. He was our responsibility, and his happiness was our job. In most cases, our customers are happy because we anticipate their needs, but sometimes, it is because we recover: We make mistakes, but then do all we can to make things right.”
And with that, we ended our interview. Poornima confided that she was anticipating a large bus of tired tourists and wanted to get them to their rooms as quickly as possible. And I was sure she was not alone—I was willing to bet the hotel’s general manager would be there handling bags or taking guest calls as well.
How do you keep the Founder’s Mentality alive and well as you scale? In terms of ruthless focus on the front line and developing customer advocacy, Poornima provided a pretty good list: It starts at the top, with every leader role-modeling the importance of customers and front line every day. It is about empowering your people to do the right thing for customers. It is about creating a learning organization based on anticipating customer needs and recovering well when things go wrong.
My experience at several Oberoi hotels (both as a vacationer and as a business traveler) confirms that the service culture is alive and well. My wife and I took a cooking class in the Oberoi kitchens. Above the fruit-washing sinks, there is a long list of kitchen values. The first of these seems to summarize the Oberoi service culture better than any other explanation I’ve seen. It reads, “Improve everything you touch.”