According to Danny Meyer, hospitality is “the single most powerful business strategy that doesn’t get taught enough in business school.” While hospitality is obviously important to a great restaurant experience, I believe Danny was speaking more broadly. Hospitality is essential to all businesses, including our work as software designers and developers.
(Danny is CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) and is famous for founding Shake Shack, Gramercy Tavern, and Union Square Cafe, among many other successful restaurants. The quotes below are from a great talk Danny gave recently that I was fortunate to attend.)
I’d like to consider two questions: First, what does Danny mean by “hospitality,” and how do businesses provide it to their customers? Second, how does hospitality translate to a software development and design agency like Atomic Object?
How do businesses provide hospitality?
Hospitality is a feeling of dialog between your employees and your clients. Danny says, “if you feel like I am on your side, hospitality is present.” And, “if you feel like I did something for you, hospitality is present.”
Hospitality makes clients feel that a service has been customized for them. And it comes from the people you hire. Danny recommends hiring “49% for technical skills and 51% for emotional skills.” Technical skills are essential for chefs and sommeliers (and software developers) but they matter less than emotional skills.
When you hire people with a blend of technical and emotional skills, you get people with a high “hospitality quotient” (HQ). Danny looks for six traits in high-HQ people:
- Work Ethic
- Curious Intelligence
- Self Awareness and Integrity
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the above traits lead to success at a software company also. I see kindness reflected in how we treat each other and our clients. Optimism is manifested in our confidence that problems can be overcome with careful planning and execution.
One trait that stands out to me is the idea of “Curious Intelligence.” Curious intelligence is something that should be looked for during the hiring process. Having a passion for projects (technical or otherwise) outside of work is a great example of curious intelligence. The best developers and designers and delivery leads we have hired exhibit curious intelligence at work and in their personal lives.
Working with integrity and self-awareness feels like obvious pre-requisites for any role. Any reasonable person would say they work with integrity. I’ve found integrity is proven in the hard times, when things aren’t going well. Ask yourself how you think your employees would deal with a tough situation and how they would deliver bad news or admit to a mistake.
Emotional intelligence is often overlooked when hiring, especially for developers. The truth is, anyone can learn technical skills. Danny’s six traits are much harder to teach. A lack of those traits represents a serious misalignment with our company and a hiring mistake that needs to be corrected.
How can we bring hospitality to custom software development?
I think the hospitality concept describes a lot of what makes great software consultancies special. The shelf life of innovation is very short, and good ideas are copied. Danny correctly points out that hospitality is a strategic advantage that cannot be copied or stolen.
USHG restaurants aren’t solely known for creating the best and most innovative dishes. Similarly, a successful software consultancy’s competitive edge doesn’t lie in inventing new technologies and languages, publishing best-selling books or being renowned as the go-to experts in any one particular domain. Rather, the edge lies in the sum of technical/design skills plus the hospitality experience that is brought to clients being served.
Hospitality should be reflected throughout the project lifecycle:
- During the sales process: Including makers (designers and developers) in the up-front sales process. Give our honest opinions and provide transparent estimates and project plans. Recommend other companies to clients for whom you aren’t well suited.
- During the project kickoff: Tailor your kickoff activities for your project. Project kickoffs can be tiring and take a lot of everyone’s time. Carefully plan the kickoff agenda and timing to accommodate stakeholders and do the little, important things: ensure everyone attending has a clear workspace set aside for them, provide healthy food, plan for regular breaks and give out goodie bags.
- During the research, design and planning phase: Each custom software project is different. Work to fully understand and design software that can be implemented within a fixed budget that balances business needs with human interest. Human-centered design done well will inspire confidence that you and your client are partners in the project, and that you are not outside consultants trying to impose a predefined solution.
- While implementing the software: Provide regular scope and budget progress updates, work diligently to surface and mitigate risks, make pragmatic technical decisions with clients’ best interests in mind (even if it means selecting a less exciting but more mature solution). The agile process can make team progress easy to track and helps avoid bad surprises. Care deeply about quality and write automated tests, conduct code reviews, and carry out manual testing along the way.
- Wrapping up a project: At a minimum, spend time documenting the process to get a development environment up and running. If your client has their own development team, consider embedding one of them with your product team to smooth the handoff.
- After the project: Conduct post-project interviews with stakeholders to get candid feedback. Atomic asks clients to grade us on a 1-to-10 scale (the net promoter score) to measure satisfaction.
Danny Meyer’s thoughts on hospitality inspired me, and I saw a lot of similarities between his business and ours. I’m convinced hospitality is a strong competitive advantage and makes for between project outcomes. In the coming year, I’ll continue to think about ways we can be a more hospitality-oriented organization.