Sign up to our Newsletter

HMSHost: The ‘connection’ that powers customer service at airports

Susanne Axelsson
Susanne Axelsson
December 1, 2021
HMSHost: The ‘connection’ that powers customer service at airports
Joe spoke at our Global Frontline Experience Summit 2022 in an insightful mini-talk session. Listen in above. If you missed the summit, don't worry! All of the powerful sessions are available right here.

Listen to podcast episode 18 with Joe from HMS Host: 

With almost 40 years of retail brand experience leading some of the world’s most well-known and well-loved companies, including Blockbuster, Starbucks and Jamba Juice and now leading from behind the scenes as Chief Operating Officer for some of your favourite quick-stops at airports across the US, Joe Thornton knows that the fastest and most impactful way to make a difference to someone’s day, is to give them great service. 

In the food and service airport branches where fast food has to be even faster, a focus on excellence at the frontline is key. Here’s how Joe ensures his people’s insights are used to shape an even better future; how focussing on the right priorities and recognising the value in the work people love the most can alter your legacy; and how he keeps his teams motivated and encouraged. 

When your plans don’t ‘fly’… look for the opportunities

Let’s set the scene for Joe’s most recent role at HMS Hosts - the brand behind brands, responsible for operating many of the eateries and stores at airports and travel-stops, including Starbucks, Chick-fil-A and Chili’s. 

Joe had just taken some well-deserved time out, spent time writing his first book (and starting a second!) and reflected on what comes next – leading operations for around 1700 restaurants. He had an elaborate 100 day plan ready to execute, and on day two...the US shuts down. Covid had hit. After 10 days, he threw that same plan in the bin:

“I knew that it was going to be a different company...that when the pandemic ended, we would grow back differently. I had to restructure the field for the pandemic and now restructure it for the future. It was an opportunity to take forward the best of the culture of the business before the pandemic, but also take advantage of the things we wanted to do differently but didn’t, or couldn’t...”

For Joe, these decisions were shaped, in large, by the stories of the people on HMS Hosts’ frontline: 

“Once I could get on the road again, the very first associate I met was a gentleman who has been working at Chili's for 50 years. There are so many stories of people working 30-50 years in the company and in some cases in the same roles. For me, so much of my job is now being shaped by understanding who our people are, because they are the ones with the understanding of our customer needs, and how to build connections quickly in that travel environment.”

Chart your flight around what matters most

One of Joe’s favourite quotes is “Don't be upset by the results that you didn't get from the work that you didn't do.” This helps him to stay grounded in the right responsibilities and invest in the right areas.  

“Your legacy is set by the things that you talk about, not the things that you want to be important. So if your conversations are finance-led, that's the legacy you're leaving behind. But if you lead with service…”

(We know which of those legacies will be the most successful!)

Joe shares the perfect example:

“Many of us will remember the late fees at Blockbuster. Too many times, this small $2 fee was the cause of debate and dissatisfaction for customers and frontline teams. At the time, the business reported on stores that waived too many fees, creating a message that these payments were important – and more importantly – that making people pay them was more important than providing good service.”

“Chicken or fish?” Providing choice for the best recognition outcomes…

Throughout Joe’s interview, the importance of recognising the type of service you want to be known for comes through strongly.

The key here is to establish measurements for your top customer experience priorities, and benchmark those against the level of success you need. To really land those goals, bolt on recognition, and send a message company-wide on how important those experiences are to achieving success, both individually, and as a team.

“The Prize Patrol would surprise the stores that provided top service every month. We didn't show up because they had delivered great financials. It was because of guest experience, and that created a powerful message across the organisation.”

Joe also advocates for making sure recognition is as tailored as possible:  

“I’ve always asked my teams how they'd like to be recognised. Because intention doesn’t always come through the way you would like it to. There are those who love public recognition - a shout out in front of the team. Others prefer one-on-one recognition or monetary awards. I think it’s really important to be thoughtful about how recognition plays out.”

Encouraging your people to take to the sky...in their own way

Airports can be a stressful environment for a lot of HMS Hosts’ customers, which means that their members of staff have to be absolute pros at looking after customers when they are at their most rushed (and also least likely to be expecting a memorable moment…) Foundational to this ability, Joe explains, is curiosity. 

“People have to be really curious about other people, to work in a service environment. When passion and curiosity show up, that's when you’ll create experiences that stand out. When you really connect with someone, even if it's only for a few seconds, it's pretty amazing.”

He’s also an advocate for letting people choose their own flight path when it comes to their career - whether they are a high flyer, or enjoy gliding on ‘cruise control’, people often have their own intuitions on where they can add the most value…; 

“Sometimes you have to find people's strengths and allow those to be a strength for the organisation. I think sometimes, as leaders, we want people to climb up the ladder; to progress - but sometimes that might mean taking them out of the place where they add the most value - and where they’re happiest.” 

‘Janice’ is a perfect example of this. She is just one of the memorable employees that Joe has met on his travels. For almost 50 years, Janice has worked a small kiosk at her local airport and Joe loves to hear her tell amazing stories about her time working there, and about the people she serves. She hasn’t aspired to move up to manager and beyond, but she loves what she does. 

Which brings us back to that rush to the departure gate… 

We’ve all been there.. running through the airport, head in a pile of papers and passports, rushing to get to our destination. But even in these moments, life can be about the journey. There are thousands of frontline people at airports around the world who know how to land a smile every time; they know how you feel, and they are ready and waiting to show you that the day is going to be great… but at a pace, because they know you have a flight to catch! 

“It can be really difficult to smile at someone and then not have them smile back. It may not always change the trajectory of that person’s day, but there's a pretty good chance it'll get a little bit better.

So on your way to your connecting flight, don’t forget to make a connection!

Listen to podcast episode 18 with Joe from HMS Host: 

Susanne Axelsson

About the Author

Susanne Axelsson
Susanne is the Frontline Community Evangelist as well as the author and researcher for Frontline Magic Handbook. She believes happy customers are born out of great experiences. Great experiences are delivered by motivated frontline people.
Monthly Newsletters

Sign up to our monthly newsletter and don't miss out on new tools, content and other insights!