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Want Loyal Customers That Have to Tell Everyone About You? Be Unreasonably Hospitable

I believe that every person can achieve greatness when their environment works for them. We want to create environments in our companies that lead to delighted, loyal customers. Customers that are so enamored with us that they tell the whole world about us. Companies that can build this kind of reputation tend to get so much momentum behind them they can’t help but achieve escape velocity. They become so excellent that they compete in a league of their own.

Unfortunately, brands with that much loyalty are rare. Instead we’re much more likely to experience transactionality, apathy, and indifference. It’s so familiar we’ve come to expect it from everywhere. We’re used to seeing companies do the bare minimum, drag their feet, and treat people more like resources than human beings.

We can sense when we’re just an object to someone. Think of the last time you were at the DMV, had to call an insurance company, or go through a 20-step automated phone recording system just to talk to a real life person.

These dehumanizing experiences happen far to often happen and can make life feel dismal and bleak. The environments established by many organizations spread this pain to their employees, customers, and others they interact with. Fortunately, there is a way to remedy this. We can create environments of unreasonable hospitality that will astound our customers.

What is Unreasonable Hospitality?

Unreasonable Hospitality is both a formula and a book by Will Guidara explaining the things he did to convert the two-star brasserie Eleven Madison Park into the best restaurant in the world. In the book he outlines the two parts of Unreasonable Hospitality.

Unreasonableness

We often think of unreasonableness as a bad thing. Unreasonableness is associated with being demanding, stubborn, not listening, and treating people unkindly. Some leaders justify bad treatment, using the pursuit of excellence as an excuse to run over people. It’s a false dichotomy that expecting great results requires treating people badly. There is a balance. We can expect great results AND treat people extremely well.

No one who ever changed the game did so by being reasonable. Serena Williams. Walt Disney. Steve Jobs. Martin Scorsese. Prince. Look across every discipline, in every arena—sports, entertainment, design, technology, finance—you need to be unreasonable to see a world that doesn’t yet exist.

Will Guidara

Challenging the status quo, expecting great work, examining the details, and being ambitious are all requirements to accomplish remarkable things. Will Guidara does these things and applies them to making everyone around him feel good. When Will Guidara was contemplating ways to further improve his team’s and his guests’ experience someone would usually challenge him with “you’re being unreasonable” or “you’re being unrealistic”. For most people this would end the conversation, but for Will Guidara it became the start.

Hospitality

We tend to think of hotels and restaurants when we think of hospitality, however opportunities for hospitality exist in every business. Hospitality isn’t an industry. It is a choice we make to intentionally focus on how we make people feel, being thoughtful, and creating magic in their lives.

Getting the right plate to the right person at the right table is service. But genuinely engaging with the person you’re serving, so you can make an authentic connection—that’s hospitality.

Will Guidara

Hospitality isn’t just for our customers it’s also for our teams. Will Guidara makes it a fundamental piece of his company’s culture to “prioritize the people who worked there over everything else, including the guests and the investors.” He recognizes that you can treat your team well AND treat your customers well. One of his mentors Danny Meyer taught him to “hire great people, treat them well, and invest deeply into their personal and professional growth, and they would take great care of the customers.”

Matrix of Unreasonableness and Hospitality. Top right is magical, top left is unaccountable, bottom right is oppressive, bottom left is demoralizing
Matrix of company culture by Unreasonableness and Hospitality

What does Unreasonable Hospitality Look Like?

There are several ingredients for Unreasonable Hospitality. Including, but not limited to:

  • Intentionality
  • Awareness
  • Adaptability
  • Empowerment

Intentionality

Unreasonable hospitality requires being intentional about every decision and detail of a person’s experience. This includes both the obviously significant and the seemingly boring.

For example, at most restaurants there is a desk standing between you and the host when you first come in. The host asks your name, looks down at their computer, and then says to their teammate “take them to table 44”. We expect restaurant experiences to be like this and don’t think twice about it. At Eleven Madison Park they are intentional about every detail of this experience and ask “Why” to all of it. There is no physical barrier between you and the host when you enter. The host greets you by name and then they use sign language to communicate to someone hidden around the corner to learn what seat to take you to. They go to these unreasonable lengths to show you that you are their guest, that you matter, that you belong there, and that you are important. Contrast that with the transactionality of most dining experiences where you are just another customer.

Awareness

Unreasonable hospitality also requires being aware of people and how they are feeling. This means paying attention to another’s experience and being curious about it.

At Eleven Madison Park awareness is built into their culture. For example when a family from Spain was dining with them the children became very excited. These children had never seen snow before and there was a heavy snowfall that evening. Because the staff were paying attention to their guests they noticed the excitement and did something most would consider unreasonable. They sent someone to buy 4 sleds and had the family driven to Central Park to go sledding in the new snow.

Imagine how important, special, and belonged that family must have felt. To connect with people on that level there are some questions Will Guidara asks:

How do you make the people who work for you and the people you serve feel seen and valued? How do you give them a sense of belonging? How do you make them feel part of something bigger than themselves? How do you make them feel welcome?

Continually asking these questions by baking them into our daily work goes a long way towards building our awareness and making strong connections with our team and customers.

Adaptability

For awareness to make an impact, we also have to be flexible and willing to address the things that we notice in the experiences of others. This can mean doing things that are both unconventional as well as unreasonable.

A favorite example from Eleven Madison Park is when a group of foodies were touring New York restaurants with Eleven Madison Park being their final stop. Will Guidara overheard them musing over the culinary delights they had experienced with their only regret being they hadn’t tried a New York street hot dog. Most people might overhear a conversation like that, smile in amusement, and then carry on with their work. Instead, Will Guidara ran down the street, bought a street hot dog, and convinced his world famous chef to plate it in a four-star way. When the guests received it their minds were blown. They couldn’t believe it. They each said it was the highlight of their entire trip to New York.

Empowerment

In order to have magical experiences be pervasive and recurring, the entire team has to be working on it together. The entire team needs to be aligned with the vision of unreasonable hospitality and they also need the power to execute it. Team members need to be given a great deal of trust, ownership, and creative autonomy to do extraordinary things. No single person has the time or ability to do every job exceptionally. It takes humility and patience for leaders to give their teams enough power make every part of the company great.

At Eleven Madison Park this manifests in the form of an ownership program. Will Guidara gives full responsibility to various members of his team to run a particular aspect of the business. An owner for each beverage category, an owner for tableware, an owner for the reception office. There is no requirement of seniority or experience. Team members volunteer and only need curiosity and early signs of passion.

Ownership over a part of the business includes ownership of a budget, purchasing power, and decision making power. This makes the ownership real and not just “lip service”. In order to give real ownership, leaders have to accept that there will be an initial investment to realize the long-term gains. A young, 22-year-old, that’s fresh out of school and is now completely in charge of one of Eleven Madison Parks’ beverage programs needs mentoring, guardrails, and quality feedback. This requires sacrifice on the part of management. It will take them time, money, and patience to setup some structure and let someone make mistakes.

Real empowerment pays off and has for Eleven Madison Park. Ownership is spread throughout the organization, allowing people to focus more deeply on a single area to make it as unreasonably hospitable as possible.

What Gets in the Way?

Having an unreasonably hospitable work environment sounds fantastic. The benefits of “finding and retaining great talent, turning customers into raving fans, or increasing your profitability” are incredibly appealing. So why isn’t everyone doing it? There are several reasons:

  • Money
  • Silence
  • Fear of Being Taken Advantage of
  • Focusing on Other Things

Money

Many organizations don’t even begin to consider the concept of unreasonable hospitality because “it’s just not practical” or “we can’t afford it”. They believe that you must choose between making a profit OR being incredibly hospitable. Running a business can be very difficult and money is a serious concern that needs to be managed well. Is there a way to balance the two concerns? Can we treat our team and our customers with unreasonable hospitality AND still make a profit? I believe the answer is yes and that unreasonable hospitality will improve our ability to make a profit rather than hinder it.

If it’s true that we can have both, the question then becomes HOW? What are the real world things we can do to have both unreasonable hospitality AND run a successful business?

It Doesn’t Have be Expensive

We may not look for ways to be hospitable because we assume it requires large, expensive gifts or time commitments. I like the way Will Guidara puts it: “People often confuse hospitality with luxury” “Luxury means just giving more; hospitality means being more thoughtful”. When Will Guidara elated his guests by serving them a New York street hot dog, it only cost him two dollars. He didn’t break the bank to create a magical experience. He was thoughtful and paid attention.

The 95 / 5 Rule

Sometimes the thoughtful thing we want to do to WOW someone is expensive. We can still be fiscally responsible AND delight people with luxury by following what Will Guidara calls the “95 / 5 Rule”.

Manage 95 percent of your business down to the penny; spend the last 5 percent “foolishly.”

Will Guidara works hard to avoid expensive personnel turnover and overtime so that a few times a year he can lavish his team with over-the-top staff parties. When he worked at the Museum of Modern Art he managed 95% of his budget with great care, getting steep discounts from vendors, monitoring inventory closely, getting some equipment for free. This allowed him to splurge on some gelato spoons from Italy that were so intricate that guests couldn’t help but stare at them in amazement.

Running a tight business so that we can use 5% of the budget to dazzle people with something unexpectedly luxurious, creates magical moments that people won’t forget.

Save on Advertising

Treating people extremely well, with great intention and thoughtfulness, leaves an impression on people that they can’t help but share with others. There are companies that do this and as a result don’t have to spend money on advertising, which allows them to further invest money into treating people well.

One example of this is Zappos. Zappos is an online shoe retailer. What sets them apart and gives them a competitive advantage is their unreasonably hospitable customer service. They made an intentional decision about how they would do customer service:

“Our philosophy has been that most of the money we might ordinarily have spent on advertising should be invested in customer service, so that our customers will do the marketing for us through word of mouth”.

Tony Hsieh

I’ve never seen an advertisement for Zappos and yet I know about them and have purchased shoes from them. I only heard about them because of friends and family that raved about them.

Zappos made a commitment to unreasonable hospitality and centered their business on it. Their former CEO said “If we were serious about building our brand around being the best in customer service, customer service had to be the whole company, not just a single department.” This manifests in the way their team treats people:

When one of our reps found out that because of a death in the family, a loyal customer had forgotten to mail back a pair of shoes she’d planned to return, the rep sent her flowers; now she’s a customer for life.

Tony Hsieh

Who does that? Zappos customer service reps have helped people find pizza places, spent hours with a single customer, sent handwritten notes, and more. These are things most people would consider unreasonable AND hospitable. As a result Zappos has a strong competitive advantage, has been ranked one of the top 100 companies to work for, and experienced a very lucrative acquisition.

Silence

It’s very difficult for companies to develop the level of trust, skill, and purpose necessary for a team to challenge each other. Challenging people, disagreement, feedback, and tension are necessary elements to achieve excellence. When teams don’t feel safe, communicate ineffectively, or feel unmotivated they stay silent. They don’t talk about hard issues. They don’t challenge the status quo. They don’t ask “WHY”.

When teams are silent, unreasonable levels of hospitality are unachievable. The right questions won’t be asked. The team won’t grow. Efforts will be scattered instead of focused on the same goal.

Remedying silence in an organization is a big topic. The short answer is that it requires balance, a clear vision, an environment of trust, feedback skills, motivated people, and more.

Fear of Being Taken Advantage of

We sometimes avoid focusing on hospitality because we fear we will give too much and be taken advantage of. We fear our own needs will be neglected, leaving us depleted. Hospitality is, after all, a form of service. It implies a focus outward, rather than inward. Being taken advantage of is a real thing that happens, for individuals as well as organizations. It feels horrible and warrants fear.

While being unreasonably hospitable does require a focus on others, it also requires a focus inward. Like many things it requires balance. It is actually a requirement of unreasonable hospitality to focus inward. If the people in the organization, and the organization itself, aren’t healthy and well taken care of, they will not have the strength to deliver a truly exceptional experience.

Will Guidara spends the majority of his book talking about how he takes care of his team. This makes it applicable to a much wider audience and it also reinforces how critical it is to take care of the inside if you want to make a difference on the outside. He makes it clear helping others feel important does not mean letting others hurt you:

The customer isn’t always right, and it’s unhealthy for everyone if you don’t have clear and enforced boundaries for yourself and your staff as to what is unacceptable behavior. The line is bright: abuse should not and cannot be tolerated, period.

Will Guidara

Focusing on Other Things

Leading a team or organization is hard and there are many things to do. It’s incredibly difficult not to be swept up by all the urgent tasks that need doing. If we are not intentional enough we won’t be able to overcome our default behaviors enough to create unreasonable hospitality in our teams. Instead we’ll focus on the things that are more common: being better than our competitors, looking good to shareholders, getting more market share, maximizing profits, putting out fires, creating new features, etc. These things need to be done and if we want to do them in an unreasonably hospitable way they have to take lower priority.

Unreasonable hospitality is not the norm in the world. It’s rare and unfamiliar to most, which means it requires extra focus and dedication. It has to constantly be top of mind and permeate the organization. This requires leaders to be clear and deliberate about the language they use to share their vision.

Language is how you give intention to your intuition and how you share your vision with others. Language is how you create a culture.

Will Guidara

Repetition is also required for unreasonable hospitality to thrive. Taking the time to create a clear vision statement that is concise enough to be remembered helps with this. Once the vision is clear and memorable it needs to be referenced routinely and frequently.

Quote by Adam Grant that “good communication requires repetition”

Every Business Can Practice Unreasonable Hospitality

Every business can be in the hospitality business if they choose to be. As Will Guidara puts it:

Whether a company has made the choice to put their team and their customers at the center of every decision will be what separates the great ones from the pack.

We can choose to be intentional and look closely for ways to connect with people through our work. We can be more aware, more thoughtful, more flexible no matter what role we’re in. We can ask “WHY”, challenge the status quo, and encourage others to do the same. This will benefit us and the people we interact with. Like Will Guidara says “It feels great to make other people feel good.”

Leave a comment about companies you’ve seen practicing unreasonable hospitality and the impact it’s had. What did they do and how did they do it?

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