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Perfecting the warm welcome

31 October 2012

Simon Pratt, MD of Portico

‘London’s best kept secret’ is a cliché that Portico is keen to divest itself of, as its new MD Simon Pratt told Tim Fryer

As FM services go, ‘Front of house’ as a standalone function is a relative newcomer. Perhaps the subjective nature of how it can be rated has allowed it to slip under the radar and either being a service that has naturally continued as an in-house function or bundled together with a larger outsourcing contract.

Indeed, when the WSH group launched Portico eight years ago there was little competition in the market, whereas there are now around half a dozen big players competing in this expanding function. But how big is it? Portico is assisting BIFM in doing a survey to find this out but even the parameters are unclear. If the survey looks at Reception, does that include Switchboard or even meeting room management or related services? Time will tell what the survey reveals, but Pratt expects a figure of £200m - £250m to be a likely outcome. “The interesting thing is that the front of house hospitality sector is still a young market,” claimed Pratt. “It has always been done in house and what companies are realising more and more is that in order to get their moment of truth – their first impression – spot-on they need to engage with a specialist company to bring in a team of highly-engaged, trained and motivated individuals who love giving great service.”

The services in question, as far as the Portico portfolio is concerned, comprises Reception management, Meeting room co-ordination, Switchboard and Helpdesk operation, Front of house consultancy service and Concierge services.

There is an interesting balance in how these services are viewed. For some such intangibles would be seen as an easy target of where cost savings could be made. Alternatively, there is an age-old argument that recession is outsourcing’s best friend from a bottom-line economic perspective, and also that in austere times then everybody has to work harder to be better than the competition. Pratt particularly is seeing evidence of the latter: “It is interesting that companies recognise that they have got to get their front of house right. When they go and visit other companies they realise that they are missing an opportunity to be at the cutting edge. They want us to take their existing team, because that is what we do as well as put our team into their operation, and turn them into something that gives clients, as well as internal customers, that great sense of welcome that feels and looks slick. But equally it always has to be at the right price.”

Recruitment and training
Pratt recognises that the core asset is the people whom he employs. “Its all about getting the recruitment and selection right from the off and that is something I have been a believer of for many years,” said Pratt. “You have got to recruit on personality and you have got to recruit on attitude. The rest you can train. We have got a superb HR team at Portico. Sue Carroll, our head of HR is exceptional. She is creative and she is intuitive. When we have recruited we put these people through an induction at our training academy - I have been through part of that already and it really is sensational

“Our Portico Training Academy is linked to our Investors in People Gold Accreditation that we achieved about two years ago, which only 270 companies in the UK achieved – something we are very proud of. What this all means is that it attracts talent without having to look too hard for it. We get a lot of enquiries, around 20 a day, from people looking to work for Portico. They want to be respected for what they do, they want to be trained and given a succession plan that will help them to continue to develop further and realise their true potential. There have been some great success stories even in the short space of time I have been leading the team. One example is Hanna Barrett at Cheviot – manager at one of our client sites. She was promoted in my second week to become Assistant Client Services Manager and a Trainer - and she really is a great trainer. So we have someone with a dual role and by tapping into her core skills she is doing something she loves and as she gets great pleasure in doing it, she is motivated. It’s a win-win.”

“These are exciting times. We have got some sensational people and with the set up we have we are genuinely placed to make a real difference to the marketplace. We have got the training and structure in place and we care and are passionate about what we do, and that is about recruitment selection and developing a culture that people buy into.”

Keeping to the contract
But while the overall impact may be positive, a contract needs its SLAs to measure it. Can such a subjective service be adequately defined and therefore adhered to? “It can be,” commented Pratt. “Good service is often somebody’s perception of what they think of as good service, but there are certain tangible elements within good service like eye contact, a sincere smile, a warm welcome that is from the heart for example that isn’t staged or faked. You literally have a KPI that says ‘did the receptionist stand up, look you in the eye and welcome you with a sincere smile?’

“We survey customers as well. Either they survey us and the market together with the agreed KPIs, or we bring in ITS Incognito, which is an independent survey company, and they will go and do an independent mystery shopper. We will have it set up so that they go in once a month or once a quarter and they will do an audit on the standards of the reception or switchboard ormaybe a client lounge that we looki after. Making sure that we are doing what we said we would do. You get to hear it very quickly from the client, and that is all about maintaining an open and trusted relationship – whether or not you are doing a good job, whether or not they are happy. You hope to get the good feedback, but very rarely are you told you are doing a great job, yet you soon know when your not! Its how you promptly and decisively deal with that that is important.”

Creating a favourable first impression is not always just about that winning and welcoming smile. The building, the foyer and even the smell all play a part in forming opinions. Pratt said: “Ultimately it is all about people - my philosophy is that through them we will succeed. But along with them come a number of add-on services that are close to my heart given my property background. First thing is to give clients a team and give them a look – we don’t have our own Portico look, every client has a bespoke look. Then there is the space, the external space – I call it the kerb appeal before you actually get in the building. This can be the planting, the windows, the door furniture, quality of maintenance and of course the meet-and-greet etc. And then you get into the lobby itself and you are looking at how to create some sort of wow!-factor. I am already consulting with a number of developers and giving them advice on what they should do in their residential operations because that is where we are looking to diversify into steadily – to create this opulent, luxurious space that will enhance the whole service and environment Putting flowers in reception for example. Langham hotels are a good example, they put orange essence into their air system and that becomes part of their brand. It is a sensory detail but you notice it when you go into their space. People then link a particular smell with that building or company.

“I recently did a tour of one of our client buildings after we successfully renewed the contract and I looked at all sorts of things. One of them was the front desk that had probably been there for 20 years. Designs have moved on and front desks are a bit softer, present less of a barrier and allow the team to be elevated and move around it – sit on a higher stool or they stand and they have a pod rather than a huge slab of marble. So we gave thatadvice to our client to have a think about.”

The client Pratt refers to was actually Portico’s second client and has just renewed its contract for a further three to five year. The company’s first client is a well know bank (the name of which we cannot disclose) and still remains on the client list that now numbers 42. Predominantly these are in London but some of the 90 or so sites include locations in Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Cambridge, Bristol, Birmingham and others. Recent successes with law firms have also be supplemented with a move into the world of media and entertainment. .

Typically a new client will have an in-house team and under TUPE regulations an instant change of service becomes a challenge. Pratt explained: “That is a challenge that we are very much alive to. What we do is we delicately handle that TUPE process from the onset and agree the steps with our client. We then engage with the team, and we hold their hand and smartly manage that whole TUPE transfer process throughout the 28-day consultation process, so that they come out the other side feeling reassured that Portico is professional, knows what it is doing and has got the employees best interests at heart. Also that it can offer opportunities that otherwise would never have been offered if the service had remained in-house. There wouldn’t have been any opportunity to do any NVQ’s, go to Portico’s bespoke training academy or the Institute of Learning Management qualifications, which some may or may not want to get involved with.

Taking it to the extreme, do some clients contact Portico when they have developed a dysfunctional reception area and are looking for a way to ‘manage out of it’? “They can do – and they have,” admitted Pratt. “We can make some quite robust suggestions of what they can do to change but ultimately they have to make that choice. It could be that certain individuals just can’t make it and they need to make a commercial decision based on how they want to resolve it. But most of the time we will take on the challenge.”

Going forward
“It is a tough market at the moment and for the short term I see it getting tougher,” concluded Pratt. “But that is an opportunity for us. We have adapted to that, we are not trying to be greedy, we realise we have to be better than our competitors by continuing to deliver “best in market services” and that margins have to be tighter. Hopefully when times get better we can look to improve on those margins, but at the moment we as a team are all totally dedicated and committed to growing Portico, – that is a five to ten year plan and we will do it at a smart rate to make sure we don’t over-stretch ourselves and we will continue to work tirelessly to keep our clients happy and satisfied”.

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