It's 1997. Neil Diamond is touring Australia and, in the middle of the night, picks up the phone to complain about his room in the famed Ritz Carlton hotel in Sydney's chic Double Bay. Kristen Marsh, then Associate Director of Marketing for the hotel, took that call and sorted out the problem.
Then once the star had left town, she quit her job and went to Italy for a year to recuperate.
"He was exceptionally demanding," Marsh recalls. "He would call at 3:00am and want the beds changed."
Diamond wasn't the only demanding client Marsh helped. Madonna was another guest at the hotel, and numerous other visitors also had particular requirements. Marsh's method for meeting their needs was meticulous preparation.
"You need to know what guests like before they arrive," she says. "Some would not have plastic bins in their room: they wanted metal." By working to discover those proclivities before they visited the hotel, Marsh felt she would delight guests when they arrived and also head off the need for 3:00am phone calls.
Those insights stayed with her in Italy and, on her return, quickly proved to be relevant to her newly chosen career: commercial property management. "Real estate is not hugely customer focused," Marsh says. "Agents are renowned for not returning calls. The ethics I had learned in hospitality seemed hugely relevant."
Starting from scratch
But while Marsh had ideas about the kind of service she wanted to offer, she had little experience, so was forced to start near the bottom. "I knew the director of [real estate firm] Chestertons and begged him for a job. He said the company did not have an industrial department in southern Sydney. I volunteered to start it." The first step in that venture was to gather data and systems to capture it. "Straight away I set up systems: we did files for every client and property. Then I did not talk to anyone for six months, but walked around the area and wrote down the name of every tenant." The data Marsh collected enabled her to start to tailor communications with clients and property owners, and quickly brought success.
"I was offered the position to look after industrial for the Parramatta office, and then ran the whole commercial division. We took the systems from the South Sydney region and started a cross fl ow of information. Any sales business is very protective: people don't share information with colleagues or with other offices. I said that if we share with other offices we will be far more powerful, because if a client called our Parramatta office that colleague would know I had spoken to him yesterday," and a better experience would be the result.
"We went from an industry that is all about greed and competition, but learned that all of a sudden you can become more powerful and successful because you share information that would never be shared in the past."
Out on her own
At this point, Marsh took time out to start a family. Blessed with a baby that gave her plenty of night-time rest, she started to think about her own real estate business.
"The biggest thing I wanted to bring to it was respect," she says. "That was something I felt was lacking: respect for clients, respect for other employees. It was the most important thing, because when you build on respect, you end up having a fun time at work."
"I think a lot of the time real estate agents have a bad reputation: we get mentioned along with lawyers or insurance agents."
"I decided we would have the best brand, the best-trained people in the industry and that whether we are dealing with clients or other agents it should be a pleasure to deal with us."
That aim, she says, was fuelled by her experience working with the likes of Neil Diamond and the knowledge that good preparation and attention to small details creates the best customer experience.
People, not properties
"The company is about the people, not the property," she says. "It's about getting the service and that is based on hospitality."
Marsh has therefore devised small elements of Billicorp's style that make customers feel welcome. "We have clearly defined timeframes in terms of when to return a call. I say 'show up, front up.' So we pick up the phone instead of sending an email, we always answer in three rings with a smile because clients think if you cannot answer the phone in three rings you cannot do anything else."
She also spends a lot of time training staff, and relies heavily on graduate recruitment to find the people the business needs.
"I feel I have become a foster mother," Marsh says. "It takes a year to train someone," with much of the time spent familiarising new hires with the areas in which they will work, the properties it contains and the clientele.
"It is a lot for young people to take on: they are dealing with multi-million dollar properties," Marsh says. But the long process is worth it, she says, for the chance to train people in her hospitality-led practices.
"I have never employed someone who has come from another real estate agency. That way I can train them the Billicorp way."
And that way is, above all, focused on teamwork. "We have no hierarchy. Some people say Generation Y are lazy. But we have had incredible success with Generation Y hires because if they see someone doing something, they decide to get in and do it themselves. Otherwise they say 'I went to university, why should I lick stamps?'"
Another essential element of Billicorps' approach is Marsh's insistence that while an hospitable business wins clients, the most pleasing experience of all is delivering the right outcome to clients.
"If you do not know the information, clients will shut the door," she says. "You have got to know your market inside out."
"It's the point of difference."
Billicorp has therefore made an unusually large investment in information technology so it can collect information about properties, their owners, tenants and their needs.
"It is very costly providing this kind of service," Marsh says. "But we can get a property in an afternoon and match it to a client straight away. We can also save money by investing heavily in IT not advertising."
"It doesn't mean higher margins but we do have good repeat business: we have very loyal clients who have been with us 15 years."