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Hotel Breathes Life into Hospital's Customer Service

October 1, 1995
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Service, Featured Article
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You may never have stepped inside New York City's The Pierre hotel, but you certainly know it by reputation. The Grand Dame is quiet opulence. Plush lobby, imposing crystal chandeliers, handpainted ceilings that remind you of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Its elegant air and dignity create an exquisite setting. But whatever its physical beauty, the Four Seasons' Pierre is known for its customer service. Housekeepers help you before you even ask. Uniformed elevator operators offer you a smile. And the concierge may call you by name.

Not too far away on the upper East Side is another New York institution—the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Patients are known to pay hefty sums—nearly $2,000 for a private room—for the center's excellent health services. But if you were to view a hospital as a hotel for sick people, why couldn't the hospital's customer service become just as renown as its medical care? It can, thanks to the vision of Herbert Slotnick, a businessman who channeled a personal tragedy four years ago into a partnership between the two service-oriented institutions. Slotnick recognized that since both rely on frontline employees to satisfy their clients, The Pierre could help perform surgery on the hospital's customer-service operations.

Collaborations require vision.
The partnership between The Pierre and New York Hospital was born several years ago. People reverently recount the story. In 1991, Slotnick's wife was dying from cancer at New York Hospital. During her final days, he stayed at The Pierre. Every day he would travel the few miles from Fifth Avenue to the upper East Side to visit his wife. At night, he'd return to The Pierre, where he was greeted by name and served dinner in the Rotunda Room. He'd often listen to soft music to relax. The staff who knew him would inquire about his wife's condition. And each night Herbert Pliessnig, then the general manager of the hotel, would call to talk with him.

Each day, Slotnick returned to the hospital. Although he found the medical care to be excellent, he noticed the attention to personal service was in stark contrast to his nightly experience at The Pierre. Hospital employees might have been experts at what they did, but their training didn't seem to have emphasized hospitality.

Slotnick's experience—both the medical treatment his wife received at the hospital and the personal care he received at the hotel—convinced the businessman to do something significant for the hospital. In addition to a generous donation in his wife's honor, Slotnick brokered a collaboration between the two institutions to prove one thing: A hospital could provide its patients both high-caliber medical service and the kind of personal attention showered on guests at a first-class hotel like The Pierre.

"The way The Pierre approaches customer-service training was the best I'd seen because it could be very tailored to the task environment."

Slotnick then met Merife Hernandez, a one-woman dynamo who serves on the hospital's board of governors. Hernandez immediately recognized the brilliance of Slotnick's insight. She jumped on the idea of a business partnership. Having been hospitalized herself several years before Slotnick's wife, Hernandez had already felt the need to develop a hospital with a more hotel-like ambience. She started the Environment Committee—a group of decision makers that included the vice presidents, the management team and all of the department chiefs who were tasked with improving the patient's non-medical experience. Slotnick also introduced Hernandez to Pliessnig. Together they planted the seeds for the alliance.

Strange bedfellows? Not at all. Health care or hostelry—both require sound financial positions. Indeed, from 1988 to 1991, the hospital went from being $57 million in the red to being $2 million in the black. Hernandez immediately saw the bottom-line benefits of taking its customer service even more seriously. She pursued the partnership with the tenacity of a surgeon. "The beauty of the collaboration with The Pierre was its fantastic ideas on customer service and employee relations. How you treat your employees is how they in turn will treat the clients—as patients or guests." That includes empowering employees by having open-door management policies and by paying attention to employee and guest facilities, she says.

Isadore Sharp, chairman, president and CEO of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, also recognized the prospects of mutual gain. He later told a group of senior executives and physicians at the hospital that health care and hostelry are service industries operating in a highly competitive world that focuses on budgeting, market positioning and cost containment. And frontline personnel must provide excellent customer service.

Granted, there are some differences in size, mission and accountability. For example, The Pierre employs 650 employees. The New York Hospital has more than 7,000 personnel. The former is a for-profit enterprise. The latter is a not-for-profit organization that provides health care for patients from all walks of life, including those who may not have the ability to pay. It also answers to OSHA and other government agencies, unlike the hotel, which operates with a freer hand. Nevertheless, "Both depend on our frontline people to satisfy our customers," says Sharp. So in order to facilitate the fruitful exchange, the next step was to bring in additional key players from both sides.

The Pierre offers a healthy tray of HR tips.
Shelley Komitor, former director of human resources at The Pierre (now at the Four Seasons New York), remembers when Pliessnig introduced the venture. "I thought it was a great idea," she says. "We discussed it among our division heads in public relations, rooms, and food and beverages. Then we decided to meet with our [hospital] counterparts." Komitor initially spoke on the phone with Regina Allen, vice president of human resources for the hospital. Both women agreed to hold a meeting at The Pierre to discuss the respective services. Representing The Pierre were Komitor, the employee relations manager and assistant director of HR. On the hospital side were Allen, the director of recruitment and director of training. "At that meeting, both sides spoke about our areas of expertise and what we do. We did most of the talking because [New York Hospital representatives] wanted to hear what we did," says Komitor. The discussion covered a lot of ground—including recruitment, training, employee relations and communication.

"The Pierre's focus on the employees is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you," says Allen. "So there's a natural tie between the two institutions in terms of how we regard our employees and our customers. They've been focused on customers longer than we have. And we had a lot to learn in that area. We've been focused on giving excellent patient care without the added piece that these [patients and visitors] are also our customers."

Before the four months of exchanges between HR and frontline employees proceeded, the hospital made its own diagnosis. It chose a few areas in which to stop doing business as usual and look at ways to improve its operations by adding a customer focus. Among the initial areas that worked together were the hospital admitting services and The Pierre's reservations and front desk. It was clear they had the most in common as the first point of contact.

John O'Brien, currently director of admitting at New York Hospital, was one of the individuals involved. "We spent a day with the director of guest relations, looking at the facility and talking to people at different stations—the cashier desk, reservations and check-out counter. As the director of guest relations explained her interaction with other aspects of the hotel, we could see obvious parallels in the basic principles. We are the meeters and the greeters, the first people patients see when they come into the hospital." Soon after that exchange, hotel housekeepers talked with hospital building-services supervisors. And The Pierre's executive chef visited the food and nutrition services director at the hospital.

The more O'Brien observed The Pierre's customer-service program, the more he began to adapt it to the hospital's needs. "The way [The Pierre] approaches customer-service training was the best I'd seen because it could be very tailored to the task environment," says O'Brien. "They have specific guidelines [and scripts] about what customer service means in the work people do day to day," he says. The hotel's approach, therefore, inspired the hospital to make some specific changes in its admitting and discharging procedures, employee-training program and hiring procedures.

"Speaking to peers who basically do the same things, but in such different environments and industries, was eye-opening. Yet we're still HR professionals."

For example, the housekeepers have continuous contact with customers and therefore are considered frontline employees. Previous to the collaboration, the hospital was structured so that after housekeepers finished cleaning a room, they would go to the unit clerk who would contact admitting. If the clerk was busy, it might take hours simply to contact admitting to notify the staff that the room was ready. Now, when the housekeeper finishes cleaning a room, he or she calls admitting directly to say that bed 318A is ready. The open-room notice enters the system immediately, and the next patient quickly is accommodated.

The hospital also streamlined the discharge process and created nurse managers who would be responsible for a wide range of duties on the floor. Frontline employees were taught that they should treat patients as they would want to be treated. For example, housekeepers knock on the door before entering. They introduce themselves by name and ask if it's a convenient time to clean the room. Escorts who take patients to the operating room introduce themselves, explain what they're doing and assure the patient that they have all the necessary charts and paperwork with them as they wheel the patient down the corridors.

Instead of a generic customer\service training program, the hospital now has specified training for distinct departments—for admitting representatives, reservations and pre-admitting representatives. For instance, the hospital has a chaplaincy service that reaches out to patients. One question in the admitting process is about religion. In the new customer-service packet for admitting personnel, a recommended script says, "On behalf of the hospital's chaplaincy service, which is here to meet the needs of our patients, would you like the chaplaincy to assist you in any way?" This takes the edge off the question: "What is your religion?"

Another scripted scenario is how to deal with conflict and angry customers. O'Brien added this section to every training packet because no one knows who will be the first person to encounter an angry patient. The script suggestions might not solve the problem entirely, but they help the employee point the customer in the right direction. Before, the employee would have said, "You're going to have to talk to my supervisor." Now, says O'Brien, the employee tries to diffuse the situation and is encouraged to ask, "Can I do something to help you?" If the answer is yes, the employees are empowered to do it. "If it's beyond their scope, they can figure out who's the appropriate person and take the patient to that person."

Customer-service training at the hospital today is a mixture of lecture, question-and-answer sessions and role playing. It involves roughly three one-hour sessions in a group, and an additional individual half-hour with a supervisor who explains the material provided in the department-specific packets. Then, there's informal follow-up.

In addition, training is on a departmental level. New-hires receive a customer-service training program and packet as well as the general orientation program. This approach has been a factor in the whopping patient-satisfaction ratings for the admitting department. A 1995 patient survey indicates a satisfaction rate of 98%.

Such high ratings are attributable to the hospital's training from The Pierre, which hires for attitude and conducts several interviews in which managers look for 30-second impact. This means that within 30 seconds, the potential employee must have made a personal connection. Was the applicant smiling, friendly and a people-person? In fact, The Pierre's owner, the Four Seasons, has been known to interview as many as 50,000 applicants for 400 positions. And typically, it schedules up to five interviews with some individuals.

Of greatest importance is a customer-service orientation. "We've strengthened the customer-service aspect since we've started the alliance with The Pierre," says Allen. Because the hospital is heavily regulated, applicants must undergo thorough background checks anyway. But now, telephone reference calls concentrate on a person's attitude. "We focus on attitude with specific examples—asking how a person would handle a difficult customer or respond when asked to do something that was beyond the scope of one's job," says Allen. And although it doesn't primarily focus on technical skills, the hospital usually does have two interviews in which managers evaluate these skills. Allen explains, "We're doing more selective hiring as a result." By placing the right person in the right job, the hospital is taking a more proactive approach toward its customer service.

A win-win partnership.
Although The Pierre provided most of the training, it also benefited from the collaboration. "In every interaction we had, we were learning so much about each other," says Komitor. "Speaking to peers who basically do the same things, but in such different environments and industries, was eye-opening. Yet, we're still HR professionals who work with the same concepts," she says. And as is often the case when you're teaching someone, you gain a greater awareness of yourself. That was certainly true of the staff at The Pierre. "Seeing how we could help [New York Hospital] brought about a sense of purpose and rededication to the [hotel's] philosophy," says Didier LeCalvez, current general manager who also was involved in the training. "When you show people how to do something, you look at your own process."

What's more, promises Hernandez, "Once we get up to snuff, there are a lot of things we can actually do for The Pierre." The hospital is talking about helping the hotel serve spa cuisine with the input of Dr. Richard Rivin, chairman of the department of nutrition. Also, there's the possibility of working together to provide some health-care services to The Pierre employees. Most significantly, they're creating a Diagnostic Association, in which both sides work together so that people from everywhere in the world can come to the New York Hospital for a complete health checkup (much as people do at the Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic) and spend their evenings at The Pierre. All three ideas would benefit both organizations, which is the essence of a successful alliance.

"Furthermore, you have to know your needs," says Hernandez. "If you need help with financial processes, you go to an accounting firm. Our big need was for hotel-type services. We knew The Pierre's reputation." So, the match has to be excellent in terms of need and expertise. But the most important characteristic of a successful alliance, she says, is that "the people have to be predisposed to the idea. You have to hit it lucky with the personal relationships."

And where is Slotnick these days? Serving on the New York Hospital's board of governors' special committee on hospital environment—creating more legends in the Big Apple.

Personnel Journal, October 1995, Vol. 74, No. 10, pp. 118-127.

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