Consider, for example, where hospitality (hotels, resorts, restaurants) and hospitals (and similar healthcare institutions) converge and where they part ways. Hospitals and hospitality should have a lot in common; the two words even come from the same Latin root. [I have a foot in each of these worlds, as a patient experience consultant and a hospitality consultant and speaker.]  But it’s also clear that the two diverge, by mission and by essence; hospitals are examples of “enforced hospitality” (you go to the hospital because you need to, rather than on a lark), while the service provided by the hospitality industry is more discretionary. Yes, their customers need a bed, and yes, they need to eat, but the element of choice, and of positive desire, is much higher here.

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How broad and deep does this split need to be? The way I see it, the deeper the split–the more that smiles and comfort on the one hand, or systems and outcomes on the other, is disregarded and left to languish–the worse news it is for either type of institution. While the hospitality industry generally excels at getting the soft stuff right–the warm welcomes, the anticipatory and empathetic customer service–hospitals and other healthcare providers and medical institutions are traditionally focused on outcomes. Yet, rather than expecting or promoting a sharp dichotomy, allowing these two disciplines to meet near the middle affords the best chance for an institution and its customers/patients/guests to thrive.

Bringing a hospitality approach to hospitals

To wit: Cleveland Clinic was long known for positive medical outcomes (the systems part of the systems/smiles equation) when Toby Cosgrove, Cleveland Clinic’s CEO, started to focus on the soft stuff, the hospitality or “smiles” aspect, of the hospital experience. By humanizing Cleveland Clinic’s scheduling and discharge processes and improving wait times, the physical environment, and other such “soft” aspects, the institution was able to move from an average rating on patient satisfaction (and average patient satisfaction, when you’re a hospital, is synonymous with loathsome) to being within the top 8% in satisfaction out of 4,600 institutions surveyed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), as Cosgrove’s then-lieutenant, James Merlino, has noted in Harvard Business Review.

Some years back, a well-known hospitality company realized that although they were getting high marks in customer satisfaction, a full 25% of the guests who stayed at its hotels would experience a defect in the course of their visit; their properties were only getting high marks because of how they handled service recovery when these defects occurred–the empathy and apologies and champagne and upgrades. Instead of living with the defects or even (as a few insiders joked) increasing the number of defects—intentionally coding guestroom key cards to not work, for example, so that a splendid recovery was necessary—hotel executives began to benchmark industries, such as manufacturing, that had low and carefully-tracked levels of defects. As a result, the hotel company was able to drive its own defects to a lower level than they had previously considered to be realistic.


Systems and smiles: the success of every business depends on both.  If you run a car repair business, customers want polite service, a comfortable waiting area, and potable coffee–but they also want their engine trouble diagnosed correctly.  If you manage a cruise ship, you need an engaging crew and enjoyable on-board activities, but you also need to maintain your lifeboats.

Which area–systems or smiles–needs the most improvement at your business? It’s an important question, and your customers are depending on you to figure it out.