The human touch – more human, less machine

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Written by Matt Bolton-Alarcón on 18 March 2015

I was once having a behind-the-scenes tour of the Four Seasons hotel group, which is much famed for having an incredible culture for service. In fact, their company mission is ‘To treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself” and that evidently lives and breathes throughout their business. They have very high standards for how to change a bedroom, how to serve a cocktail and in other areas, but the difference between them and other hotel groups, is the way they weave personal touches in to their service. They recruit people based on their attitude and behaviour over and above their skillsets and what it says on their CVs. They also have a nice (if somewhat ‘American’) phrase which they use: “We Can’t Teach You What Mama Ought To” – it is this that distills their difference down to their high standard of etiquette, both front of house and behind the scenes. 

Etiquette is vital in the hotel sector but simple human touches and good manners could vastly improve the culture of any business. It seems like common sense but simple human etiquette is often overlooked. The machine of work, the need to follow process and move projects on often means that we forget the vital human dynamics. Forget them at your peril though because, as we all know, it’s people and their engagement that can make or break a business. So, why don’t we just spend a moment thinking about personal touches and why don’t we all ‘up’ our own etiquette levels?

I can offer you two contrasting examples of how etiquette features at work. Firstly, an old boss of mine in media, who I respected enormously, used to grab me for some intense meetings to talk about marketing. He was extremely passionate about it and I believed him until on a couple of occasions he answered his phone mid-meeting. It was his slightly demanding commercial director, who had a mini crisis with a client. Now on both occasions that it happed it was about 10 minutes from wrapping up the meeting. I am a pragmatic, reasonable person who in fact was often asked by the same commercial director to help out with client issues. The question is though, if the MD had just said to him “Can I call you back in 10 minutes?” or even said to me “Matt, I’m really sorry but can I take this?”, I might have believed that he gave a damn about marketing. Answering his phone gave me an altogether different impression.

A few years later, I worked with another MD who was all about etiquette. Once a year we had to deliver something way beyond our physical resource. It involved organising a giant Party in the Park event involving 70,000 people. It was televised, live on radio and covered by the press yet we only had a team of three people to put it on. We used to work every single day for about eight weeks. We would have our girlfriends, boyfriends, pals, even clients working behind the scenes at the event walking round with walkie talkies. Pulling it off was a serious achievement but we always managed it. After the event on the Sunday, my boss would say: “Don’t come in tomorrow until 12” and then when I arrived at my desk there was a bottle of bubbly and a card that read “You did great”. The whole office gave a big round of applause. On the Sunday I was thinking “I’m exhausted. Why didn’t she just give me the whole day on Monday off?” but then I realised that it was because she had adopted the same philosophy of the Four Seasons and given the personal touch to her appreciation. She knew that I would love to bask in the glory for a little while and she was right!

In both these scenarios I took my bosses for granted and assumed that they were either ‘great’ or ‘ok’. I now look back and realise that I was happy to give boss no.2 a lot more because of the personal touches she adopted as part of her management style.

This application of etiquette shows up in business so much. For example, you’ve flown all day to arrive at a conference and then you are whisked straight in to a barrage of Powerpoint presentations before you’ve even had a chance to freshen up. Or the meeting you are in where the leader doesn’t introduce you to the six people you don’t know in the room. Or you go to see a client and they don’t offer you a drink . . . the thinking, presumably, being that you’re just a supplier! It’s the little things that people notice and appreciate, it’s basic human etiquette and you don’t have to score off the scale on emotional intelligence to spot these things.   

So, as a leader, what simple, every-day low cost things can you do to get more from your people?

1. When you meet with anybody in your office or out in a cafe, treat them like a guest coming into your house. Give them your full attention from the moment they arrive.

2. Hide away any technology. If you look remotely distracted by the iPhone on the table it immediately gives the impression that the rest of the world is more important than they are.

3. Tune up your selective attention to moments where people do great work and when you spot them, spend a minute mentioning why it was so great. It will look like you care and demonstrate that you have an eye on quality.

4. Always be conscious of environment. If you’re having a meeting and it feels cramped, or too formal, do something about it.  Move things around, just as you would if you had friends for dinner.

5. Be a touch more human and a touch less machine. You’ll see how much more people will be prepared to give you.  


Matt Bolton-Alarcón is a partner at Upping Your Elvis. He can be contacted at


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