TrustYou Top Interview: Share Guest Review Data with all Staff to Achieve Operational Efficiency

Founded in Osaka in 1973, I&F Building Corporation started its hotel business in the 1980s, when the company joined the Sunroute Hotel Chain. TrustYou’s Senior VP of Sales, Nao Shitara, interviewed Mr. Kuniharu Izumi, who took over the company from his father eight years ago. Mr. Izumi told us about the company management, employee training, and the importance of listening to the voices of the guests and the ones of frontline hotel employees.

Nao:  First of all, could you tell us about your company and yourself?

Kuniharu: Our company was established in 1973 and we will celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2023. My father founded a real estate management company and the company was mainly managing personal assets at that time. Later, in the 1980s, we entered the hotel business and joined the nationwide hotel chain, Sunroute Hotels, which was gaining momentum at the time.  First, we opened the Hotel Sunroute Umeda in Osaka prefecture and then the Hotel Sunroute Komatsu in Ishikawa Prefecture.

After the collapse of the bubble economy in Japan took place in the early 90s, our business was in a difficult situation. However, we survived, and now, we manage a total of six hotels and inns, including  Hotel Hanaan in Nikko, Hotel Binario Saga Arashiyama in Kyoto, Yusen no Yado Yuamu in Hyogo, and Hotel Grand Binario Komatsu in Ishikawa. 

It was eight years ago that I took over the family business as a President. In April 2019, our company left the Sunroute Hotel Chain, and we started our own brand, Binario Hotels & Resorts.

Nao: I’ve heard about this from you before, but you have a very unique personal background.

Kuniharu: I don’t think I am that unique. However, I have actually lived a life of frustration. When I was in high school, I had a dream of becoming a musician and I played instruments all the time in order to get into a music college. Although my parents were against that, I applied for music college, but in the end, the exam did not go well.

At that time, our company was running a hotel called San Remo in Las Vegas in the U.S. My father was the fourth Japanese to obtain a casino license from the state of Nevada and he was the first Japanese to l run the hotel business there. My father recommended that I come to Nevada and study at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). I had been resisting my father to go to music school, but I finally gave up and came to Las Vegas. However, as you know, it was in Las Vegas, the city of casinos, so I had a lot of fun while I was there.

I have never talked about this story but I had a girlfriend in my hometown of Kobe that I had been dating since high school and we had been in a long-distance relationship for four or five years while I was in the US. In 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit Japan, and after the earthquake, I lost contact with her and I became very scared.  This led me to leave my studies behind and return to Japan. I am glad that I returned to Japan at that time because she later became my wife.

Nao: That’s a wonderful story. It’s truly a great love story.

Kuniharu: No, not that beautiful. But if I hadn’t returned to Japan at that time, I don’t think I would have been able to get married to her. In this way, I had an unstable life when I was a student, and even after returning to Japan, I did not join my father’s company, I worked for another company.

Later, one of my father’s subordinates who had seen me work in Las Vegas, doing guided tours of the city for Japanese customers, remembered how I managed the customers.  He asked me if I would like to work as a restaurant manager when the Hotel Sunroute Kanku at the Kansai International Airport was opened. Then, I finally joined my father’s company.

At the time, the Japanese economy was in a downturn after the collapse of the bubble economy, and our company, as a real estate one, was in a difficult situation.  Also, our employees were in a gloomy state. Of course, everyone knew that I was the son of the president, but I was powerless at that time. Despite this, I wanted to change the atmosphere in the company, so I gradually began to think about what I could do to improve our company.

In the end, studying abroad in the U.S. was a good experience for me, and I came up with ideas based on American values and ways of doing things, which I gradually incorporated into the company, until now.

Nao: Your positive attitude of trying to improve the atmosphere in the company is the root of your management style, isn’t it?

Kuniharu: Let me tell you about a time when the company was suffering, but what was actually painful for me was that the employees were complaining about the company. They were also blaming the management, including the president and the managers. They were blaming things on someone else. It was the most painful thing for me to listen to them. However, I believe that the people who complain also have a hard time and they complain because of their earnestness. I also understood the management’s position since I was the son of the president. I just wanted to make our company a place where such complaints would not exist.

The management needs to make an effort to understand the employees and their families, including their values both in their life and career. On the other hand, the company needs to make sure that the employees understand the corporate values of what the company is trying to achieve and its goal.

Of course, it is impossible to understand each other completely, but I think the president and the rest of the management team should just focus internally on the company. The management team should focus on making the workplace comfortable for the employees to work and spend time.

Nao: Since Mr. Izumi is taking care of the company and your employees can concentrate on the customers and manage themselves to provide a good service. How did you create such a company culture?

Kuniharu: We have always been aware of the importance of customer feedback. We used to create a database of customer feedback in our information system and manually entered customers’ responses and comments from the OTA (mainly Rakuten and Jalan) and shared them internally for about 20 years. However, from the time we started the system, only negative reviews were often highlighted. Even though employees knew that it was important to look at negative customer comments, they felt unpleasant because it was like looking after the criminals or bad guys in our company.

When I look in the system, the number of positive comments posted by customers is much higher than the number of negative comments. I thought it was important to check the good comments, share them in our company to motivate the employees themselves to improve the shortcomings. At that time, I came across TrustYou, which collects customer feedback from so many different sources. Then, I reconfirmed that most of the feedback that comes in via TrustYou is positive.

This led us to consider whether it would be possible to send TrustYou’s alert emails to all employees, so that posted comments will be automatically forwarded from TrustYou. We created a group email address for the distribution of the alert emails and started to forward them to all the employees of the properties.

This pushed them to show both d and negative reviews. By doing this, they can recognize how well they are being evaluated too. I think this initiative has been a great success.

Nao: It’s great that you send the alert emails to all the employees. I think sending to “all” is the key, as most people tend to distribute only to upper management staff.

Kuniharu: Actually, at first, the system administrator was against the idea because of the limited capacity of the server. The head of the marketing department asked me, “The system administrator says you can’t do that, but why do you want to do this?”.

Nao: It’s good that everyone is sharing the same information. I can tell that everyone has a sense of unity as an employee of the company and also the employees will know that the management team is sincere to the customers.

Kuniharu: In the past, for part-time employees who didn’t have their email account, we would print out the positive reviews on paper and post them next to their time cards. Recently, we started to use a chat application called Slack, so we set up a specific channel in Slack and made it possible to send TrustYou alert emails to it.  Now, part-timers can use Slack on their PCs and smartphones, so we are able to eliminate the information gap among the employees. Sometimes staff members receive praise directly from guests by name, so we wanted to show positive customer reviews to the person in charge and all employees.

Nao: How was the response from your employees?

Kuniharu:  Slack has emoji and you can add your emotions, so we can easily respond to the shared reviews. Even when we receive negative reviews, we can comment with cute emojis.  Our internal communication has become milder.

Nao: I see, it has become more casual compared to before.

Kuniharu: Yes. Also, not all the comments posted by guests are correct and perfect, and the values of the people who post them often differ from us, so I think we should not be emotional about it. It is good for the staff in charge to take the negative comments seriously, but it’s a bad idea to chase him/her down internally.

Also, I don’t think there is any employee in our company who does not take the negative reviews seriously. If they do not take any further action based on negative reviews, it would be the responsibility of the management who hired them. If the reasons for not reacting are such as a lack of skills, the staff must think about how to improve their skills on their own.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think of TrustYou as a system that supports our employees, teaching their customer service manners, as if they were our trainers. Of course, it is the guests or customers beyond TrustYou who are actually supporting us, but I think that TrustYou is the one connecting us with them.

Nao: Thank you very much. One of the key points is that both the frontline and management use TrustYou data as a common language.

Kuniharu: We have also heard from the frontline employees that it made their job easier because they no longer need to report to me about the part of the facility that needs to be repaired (e.g., peeling wallpaper, air conditioning problems). In the past, if repairs were needed, I had to report to management the number of complaints from guests such as the air conditioner not working. Now, we keep track of such information through the reviews collected by TrustYou. Now our employees tell us, “Aren’t you reading the guest reviews all the time?. Therefore, the management team can no longer make excuses.

Nao: So you can communicate with your employees through the data?

Kuniharu: Yes. As for me, I want the frontline employees to be able to concentrate on the customers as much as possible.

Furthermore, I would like to introduce another way of using TrustYou that I have been thinking about recently. As you know, COVID-19 has made our operations difficult, from a financial standpoint. We are spending more time having conversations with financial institutions compared to before. When we have a meeting with banks, we show the TrustYou score on each of our facilities and we have included both the negative and the positive reviews in the presentation documents. The financial institutions find it easier to understand the value of our company and our capabilities as a hotel management company.  

Nao: I think you can do this because it has become a habit for our management team to listen to the voices of our customers.

Kuniharu: Yes. We can cut and paste a part of the TrustYou report and use it as one of our management data.

There is one more episode I would like to share with you. The other day at a board meeting, my father, who is the chairman of the board, said, “I don’t trust in TrustYou. He continued, “It seems to have too many good things written about our hotels.” I was a bit confused by his comment.  However, I took it more positively that my father wanted to give me a precaution as a former president, not to praise ourselves (not to become too confident in ourselves) by receiving good comments from the customers.

Nao: That’s a good story. The reason why there are so many good comments about your hotel is because your employees enjoy working. As we say, “A good CS comes from good ES.”

Kuniharu: Online reviews are very useful to check our cost performance, isn’t it? Whether the customer is hesitant to pay or willing to pay, is reflected in the review score. That is why we tell our employees, “Our hotels don’t have to be high-grade. If our hotel facility is luxurious, there is always a price for the guests to pay. I tell the employees, let’s become a hotel of “high-quality” and not aim to be high-grade.

Also, we believe that our quality should exceed the customer’s expectations. We should be elegant in some way. It may be a facility, a way of providing services, or an environment, but we should not do something against social morals as well. If the management can show that our company is a right place that does not betray people and properly rewards their employees, I believe that the quality as a company will rise.

It doesn’t matter if you charge 5,000 yen, 4,000 yen, or even 3,000 yen per night to a guest. We need to aim a little higher than the quality that our guests are expecting. I think it is important to create such high-quality accommodation facilities. 

Last but not least, we are that kind of company.

Nao: Thank you very much for sharing your valuable story with us today.

From left:  Hotel Binario Umeda, Hotel Hanaan, Yusen no Yado Yuamu 

Profile of Kuniharu Izumi

President of I&F Building Corporation. 

Born in Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture in 1970. After joining the company, he started as a restaurant staff member and worked his way up to restaurant manager, banquet manager, wedding manager, and various other hotel positions. His hobbies include listening to classical music, golf, and photography.