AJ Brooks of Tulane University: “Make it Personal”

Make it Personal. “Wow!” moments are inevitably going to look different for each individual guest. It is incumbent upon you to learn as much as you can about each guest in order to determine what their “Wow!” moment looks like. A leisure traveler might be particularly keen on a complimentary drink upon their arrival whereas […]

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Make it Personal. “Wow!” moments are inevitably going to look different for each individual guest. It is incumbent upon you to learn as much as you can about each guest in order to determine what their “Wow!” moment looks like. A leisure traveler might be particularly keen on a complimentary drink upon their arrival whereas a business traveler might like their specific coffee order delivered to their room at a particular time. The key here is to learn what makes people tick on an individual level and go out of your way to show them you’re listening.

As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing A.J. Brooks, Lecturer; Assistant Director of Entrepreneurial Hospitality, A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University.

AJ Brooks is a Lecturer in Finance and Management at the A. B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University. He is also Assistant Director for Entrepreneurial Hospitality and Real Estate Programs within the Freeman School. In addition to his work as an educator, Brooks has developed several real estate projects as the founder and CEO of Left Brick Capital, LLC, a privately owned real estate development company based in New Orleans. With a focus on urban infill and historic rehabilitation projects, Brooks specializes in incentive-based development and is responsible for placing over 30 million dollars in real estate assets in service over the course of his career. Prior to founding Left Brick, he worked as an asset manager at Gibbs Development and as a financial analyst at Stonehenge Capital. Brooks holds an MBA with a concentration in finance and specialization in energy from Tulane’s A. B. Freeman School of Business.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

It depends on how deep you want to go. I’m originally from the Midwest and graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in Communications. I went to school for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to escape the Midwest and head toward the mountains to ski, hike and explore the west, which I did, a lot. After graduation, I took a job under the Director of Marketing for IZZE Beverage Company, which was only a small startup at the time. I had the opportunity to grow with IZZE and experience the excitement of a startup environment and the power of a strong a brand. When they eventually sold to Pepsi in 2008, I decided to completely pivot my career from marketing to finance. I moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana where I worked as an analyst for Stonehenge Capital Company, a boutique finance firm which specialized in structured tax credit finance. It was here I fell in love with the rehabilitation of historic buildings, a practice which is commonly subsidized through the use of tax incentives. After graduating with an MBA from Tulane in 2012, I started working for a local New Orleans developer on some really fun projects, including the restoration of the historic Civic Theater and a warehouse apartment conversion. At this point I felt ready, for better or worse, to go out “on my own” and was able successfully purchase and completely renovate a 19th century Creole Townhouse into the 35-room boutique Catahoula Hotel.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I’ve made a lot of mistakes, some funny, others not so funny. When we were planning the Catahoula, it was apparent that space was going to be an issue. In order to reduce the room size, we decided to do things “European style” and removed all showers from the bathrooms and built them into the rooms themselves. While this looked pretty cool on a set of plans, some guests found the design consideration a little too intimate for their liking. I suppose the takeaway here is to never fear a little experimentation, but make sure you have a backup for those guests who may not be as adventuresome as others.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Is it too cliché to say my parents? My Mom has always been my cheerleader — pushing me and supporting me in pretty much anything I set my mind to. My Dad is shrewd and insightful. He brings me down to earth and is responsible for my measured level of humility. A third person (I’m really cheating now) would be my first real boss at IZZE, Lance Gentry. Lance, who passed away several years ago, lived and worked fearlessly. He never dismissed an opportunity and would always be the first to say, “let’s do it.” One summer shortly after college, I was at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with some friends when I got a call from Lance. After learning where I was, he told me to hold tight and that he was going to send some IZZE my way. A few hours later I got a call from a driver asking me to meet him outside the venue. For the next 3 hours, I must’ve sampled 60 cases of IZZE and eventually made it backstage to stock up the green room where I met the band members from Wilco. The story embodies the scrappy hustle Lance always exhibited and subsequently passed on to me. Staying alert and opportunistic are critical traits for anyone in business.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

The first answer that comes to mind is “competition.” In today’s landscape, your business is simply going to be left behind if you aren’t competing on customer experience. Goods and services have essentially become commoditized to the point where consumers have such vast choice in the “what, where, and when” of their purchasing decisions, that the only place left to compete is the customer’s perception of the brand experience. In essence, while price and product were the spheres of yesterday’s business battlefield, today’s brands battle for a customer’s time and loyalty. The means of waging that competition is founded in the curation of exceptional customer experience.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

The disconnect is usually in implementation and execution. It is one thing to design a robust customer experience, it is quite another to widely and consistently apply it over time. Companies may realize the need for becoming experience-oriented and may even invest time and resources into planning. But the work doesn’t end at a three-point plan. Every member of the organization needs to buy-in to a customer-centric strategy and that takes active participation up and down the ladder. If the individuals in charge of executing the customer experience have no say in the planning process, it will be hard for them to take ownership of that experience and may even result in adverse outcomes. When it comes to success in customer experience, an egalitarian approach is far more beneficial than a top-down mandate.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Of course. As I mentioned before, in this landscape, a company simply cannot afford to not focus on the customer experience; the marketplace is simply too crowded and customer expectations are too high. I should note that quality customer experience is not only a top-line benefit. It is often accompanied by ancillary benefits such as reduced advertising budgets, higher employee satisfaction, and reduced turnover rates and less training costs. Furthermore, it is inherent that successful customer experiences reduce overall customer dissatisfaction, which in turn reduces the amount of time and resources needed to address customer complaints.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

I used to own a small neighborhood market in uptown New Orleans. On occasion I would jump behind the cash register in order to get to know my customers a bit more. There were several instances where a customer would leave an item and I’d either have to track them down on the street or remove the item from their final bill. Or I would take special note of an item that a customer couldn’t find and make sure it was on the next truck and call them when it arrived. Just little things that were outside the realm of expectation. More often than not, the customer on the receiving end would reply with a bit of shock at the extent I was willing to go to ensure they got what they needed. While these things may seem trivial and small, it worked to accomplish something far bigger: it illustrated to the customer, “I care about you,” and who doesn’t want to spend their limited time and hard-earned money with companies who really care?

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

The purpose here is not to simply win over customers, but to demonstrate as a leader to everyone in the organization that empathy is a key cultural tenet within the company. By treating our customers and our coworkers as “guests,” we go out of our way to afford them not only good service and respect, but hospitality.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

Lead by Example. Showing is always more powerful than telling when it comes to leadership. By actively demonstrating the behavior you expect to see from those you are leading, you achieve two things. One, you directly educate/train your staff on the correct means and methods of conducting the company’s business; and two, you reduce the organizational distance between you and your staff members, ideally leading to higher employee empowerment and satisfaction which tends to trickle down to the guests.

Make it Personal. “Wow!” moments are inevitably going to look different for each individual guest. It is incumbent upon you to learn as much as you can about each guest in order to determine what their “Wow!” moment looks like. A leisure traveler might be particularly keen on a complimentary drink upon their arrival whereas a business traveler might like their specific coffee order delivered to their room at a particular time. The key here is to learn what makes people tick on an individual level and go out of your way to show them you’re listening.

Lean into Mistakes. They are going happen and offering excuses is a waste of everyone’s time. Instead, use any mishap or communication breakdown as an excuse to go above and beyond. A personal note with a bottle of wine is almost always well received, but the more creative the better.

Subtlety speaks Volumes. The devil is in the details. A lot of goodwill is created when a guest ‘discovers’ a small nod to their well-being. As a parent of small children, I can’t tell you what a relief it is when a restaurant’s bathroom has a changing station with requisite supplies. Or when a hotel offers complimentary umbrellas and galoshes. The possibilities here are endless and often relatively affordable.

Empathy is Key. Again, the simple act of showing your customers you care can work toward deeper levels of trust and commitment. Placing yourself in their shoes and anticipating their wants and needs is one of the hallmarks of superior customer experiences. The best players in the hospitality industry have perfected this over time and we are now seeing companies from all sectors incorporating this strategy into their day-to-day operations. The pandemic has infinitely underscored this sentiment whereby companies and organizations all over the world are taking extreme measures to make sure their customers are safe. At this time in our shared human experience, a company that fails to proceed with some level of empathy is considered tone-deaf and irrelevant. Creative compassion will be at the vanguard of driving successful customer experience for the foreseeable future.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think we as a society need to rethink our priorities and place quality education at the top of the list. Education is the great equalizer and a highly educated civilization will inevitably work to help mitigate all of society’s problems. Teachers should receive more pay, students given more resources, and the notion that school eventually “ends” should be wholly dismissed. A curious population will breed innovation, inclusiveness, and ultimately, a better way of life. I feel like the human race has been operating at reduced capacity over the course of our existence, a culture that values education can unleash that extra capacity toward the benefit of all.

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