“The customer is still always right”

No matter how big your company gets, the most important thing is people, according to Booking.com’s Gillian Tans

When she joined Booking.com in 2002, it was a small startup based in a residential flat in Amsterdam. Now, Gillian Tans is responsible for an 8,000-strong team at an accommodation-booking business that’s become a global household name. Chances are, if you’ve booked a hotel online at some point in the past few years, she’s helped you do it.

Start with your customer “The customer is at the centre of everything. I have a background in the hotel industry and I appreciate just how important customers are and how important it is to meet their expectations. In many ways, I advocate traditional customer-service values. As a company, you might want to offer one thing, but the customer wants another. Guess what? It’s you who has to adapt.”

Be a people person “I once had a difficult meeting with a large partner of ours, who gave me a stern lecture that ended with him moaning that I hadn’t even given him a free [branded] pen. When I got back, I sent him 1,000 pens for all the times I’d missed. He really appreciated this and also liked my humour. This made the partnership a lot better.”

Listen to your data “In my industry, if you follow data, you will always make the right decisions. So, in the past, we thought we understood what our customers wanted, but the data often showed us our opinion didn’t count. So, while we might think businesspeople want to know how far a hotel is from the airport, the data from our site showed that what they’re really interested in is the quality of the wi-fi.”

Pick your moment “The nature of our business is that it’s dynamic. The internet and how people use it changes all the time, so you have to constantly update and evolve. The challenge comes from knowing when to invest and when to wait. Take mobile technology: many companies went into it too soon, before the public appetite was there. We waited until people were using it before we struck and then we worked hard to became leaders.”

Everybody makes mistakes “I have made many mistakes – we all have. We invested heavily in certain markets and then found there was no appetite for them. However, when we make a mistake, we change, we learn and we try again. It’s all valid and it helps us do better in future.”

Empower your team “You cannot be everywhere in the world at once. Two years ago, we started to build a new regional structure and – since I’m a control freak – it was hard not to get involved in every single detail. But, in my position, I have to look at the key areas and focus on where people really need help.”

Think local “We’re a global business, and when we were scaling up we quickly learned that it’s best to build one simple core product and then tweak it according to individual markets. In fact, different nations have surprisingly similar tastes and only relatively minor preferences emerge. For example, the French find it important to look at what sort of breakfast is on offer.”

Apply your insight “When Booking.com started, there was a feeling that the company could be built from an Excel file. That, as an internet based business, we could do it all by computer. Because of my background, I knew very well that staff at hotels are not sitting behind computers, but are busy with customers. So, we invested in people on the ground to go and meet with and help our hotel partners.”

Take the rough… “The first European office was in Barcelona. As a new company, we had no money, so we had to rent an apartment building to use as offices. It wasn’t ideal and, in fact, I had to stay there for a week or two every month, so we turned a spare bathroom into a bedroom. The staff thought I was mad, but it had to be done.”

…with the smooth “A nice part of the job is making sure that I always go out to lunch or dinner with the teams when I travel to our offices. I believe it’s very important to spend this time with people and to celebrate our success together.”

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: http://www.ink-live.com/emagazines/easyjet-inflight