Corporate Culture: Customer service is ingrained in Kohler’s culture

On a recent visit to The American Club in Kohler with my wife for the Thanksgiving holiday, I discovered something amazing: No matter which Kohler property, restaurant or store you visit, the level of service is consistently high.

Knowing how the level of service can vary greatly among groups of retail stores or restaurant chains because of their employee composition and leadership, I was struck by the consistency at each Kohler facility. Every server, bellman, valet, desk person, sales person, spa technician or maid had the same response when asked a question. The answer was “Yes, how can I help you?” or “Let me see what I can do to solve that problem.” I never heard “no” from anyone who worked at their facilities.

After a day of exceptional service, I talked to one of their spa technicians and inquired about their orientation and training program. The answer was simple: they are trained when they are hired and reinforcement training is performed each year. They are immediately informed of any customer feedback by their supervisors.

After this initial conversation, I decided to dig deeper into this cultural phenomenon and see what lessons could be learned. I contacted Christine Loose, resident manager of The American Club and the Inn on Woodlake.

Kohler has a program titled, “Hospitality by Design.” Each letter in the word “design” defines a desired behavior as follows:

Demonstrate a positive attitude

Engage with the heart

Seize opportunities to make a difference

Inform and inspire

Give and be your best

Notice and recognize others

This program has produced a relentless spirit among the employees, and they are encouraged at all times to think “five star.” This phrase relates to the Forbes magazine rating scale, which are assigned to hotels and restaurants.

Each employee is provided with a pocket card to remind them the Hospitality by Design goals. Each year at their annual review, their performance is measured against these standards. There are daily line-ups in each department or store to reinforce these standards and encourage employees to constantly do their best.

Any positive feedback or coachable moments are done in private. When a problem is observed, there is an immediate correction, so that a coachable moment is not missed.

Employees are permitted to coach their managers and other executives. For example, an employee pulled Christine aside one morning and informed her that she had a run in her stocking. Christine immediately thanked the employee and went to her office and changed her nylons.

Christine issues “hospitality bucks” to employees who have received a positive peer review, observed doing something special by a supervisor or have been mentioned positively in a survey or on a feedback card. These bucks can be used at any Kohler facility or store for merchandise or a service.

Kohler provides ongoing training to all of their employees, even if there is a low probability that they would interact with a guest. They even go as far as training the staff that maintains the golf courses. They are constantly adding classes that will close any identified gaps in service.

When a problem does occur, they focus on recovery. For example, when we were there, we had a problem with the shower. The fixture was leaking. I called the front desk, reported the problem and they stated that they would immediately fix the shower. We went to lunch and when we returned the shower problem was solved and there were four chocolate-covered strawberries on the writing desk waiting for us.

When I shared this example with Christine, she responded with, “It’s all about being creative and providing an experience or a memory.” They like to surprise their guests with a dessert or an appetizer. The response time is shortened by the fact that employees are empowered to solve problems when they are identified. They intend to further empower their employees in the future.

I asked Christine how they find these exceptional employees. She responded by saying when they interview potential employees, they look for behaviors, rather than experience. Interesting enough, they see their process as an audition, not an interview. Each applicant is subjected to multiple auditions, comparable to speed dating. This permits them to identify potential employees who demonstrate the desired behaviors, which would strengthen their culture.

After speaking with Christine, I asked myself what is the lesson we can learn from their world-class service culture. The lesson is that a successful customer service program has a number of important components, the screening, hiring and training of employees who have the behaviors necessary to participate and support the vision of their employer. Training cannot be a onetime event. It needs to be ongoing and there needs to be a two-way street. Feedback needs to flow from the supervisor to the employee and from the employee back to the supervisor.

These teachable moments are critical to the program’s success and continuity. Every employer can increase their level of customer service by designing a program that meets both the needs of their clients and their employees. Remember, there need to be rewards for positive behaviors and corrections when the behaviors deviate from the established norm. I believe the coachable moments are opportunities that cannot be missed if your program is going to be a success.

By the way, Christine eventually surprised me. No strawberries, but she informed me that she was one of my students at Keller Graduate School in the 1990s.

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