Gregg Michel Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007
Gregg Michel faced a universal challenge after being tapped in 2001 by Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha to become president of Crystal Cruises, the American arm of the Japanese shipping giant’s luxury cruise division. The Crystal brand was, by that time, well-established, and as an employee of Crystal since its inception in 1988, Michel was in as good a position as anyone to preserve the brand. The challenge was maintaining the consistency of the company’s service to its guests while avoiding stagnation. To do so, Michel has helped foster a culture built on innovation that, at the same time, upholds the standard Crystal has set for itself by promoting two-way communication. With a worldwide staff of nearly 2,000 employees, Crystal helped NYK’s cruise division, which also includes a Japan-based line, post revenue of approximately $370 million in 2006. Smart Business spoke with Michel about the importance of avoiding complacency and delivering on your promises.

Maintain consistency. When walls build and the communication breaks down, you lose the consistency in your product.

Consistency is everything. Consistency is your brand, so you don’t deliver on your promise, because that’s what your brand is at the end of the day, a promise to your market. From a human aspect, when walls start building, there are morale situations, so you lose control of your product and you’re not keeping your promise to your guests.

On your employee side, when these walls start to build you don’t have to be a psychologist to know that when people start having pent-up problems, they grow and they become larger than what they should.

Listen. Communication is also listening. Listening to your constituencies is very important. It’s better to be interested than interesting. Consistency and execution are very important in our business, and that’s a big challenge. You have to communicate, and you have to keep the communication lines open and available to your employees. It requires an open line of communication both ways, outbound and inbound.

People have to feel free and comfortable about asking questions or having input. If something’s not working on our vessels, we need to hear about it regardless of how great an idea we thought it was or how much we researched it. We have to constantly be communicating with our staff on board, and that requires not only me but our department heads getting out to the ships.

We have formal meetings where management here from corporate spends time with management on the ships — we call them voyage meetings — and that’s our idea on maintaining consistency on what is essentially a worldwide operation.

Lead by example and share positive feedback. When you’re communicating with the guests and you’re showing your employees you’re listening to the guests, it emphasizes how important the guest is. We’re in the luxury service business, and setting that kind of example really emphasizes to the entire organization how important our guests are.

You lead by example, so you have to have a passion for your product and a passion for what you do, and if you show that and you exemplify that, that goes a long way in communicating the goals to the company.

You have to set an environment of excellence and make sure that everyone is working toward the same goal. Again, it’s communication and reinforcing your goals. What happens is you let people share in the positive feedback.

Share the good things. In our case, we’ve been very fortunate to have been voted the world’s best cruise line several years in a row, and that motivates people. If you provide a great product or a great service and you get great feedback from the marketplace or from your guests, you share that with your employees.

I can’t tell you how motivated and how happy our employees are when there’s positive feedback, whether it’s in a formal survey, or whether it’s from our guests. Sharing the letters that come in from our guests in communications to our employees is very important, so it’s this communication line and letting them know how great of a job they’re doing. That goes an enormous distance.

You have to have all the basics. You have to compensate your people and you have to provide incentives for them from a monetary standpoint, but what really makes this thing work is the sharing of the positive feedback and letting them know just how great they are.

Avoid complacency. We feel we’re an innovative product, and that may seem questionable because we’re a cruise line and we have a basic platform, which is the ship. But it’s our service, it’s our choices and it’s our quality and the activities that we offer our guests on board the ships that we are constantly looking at.

Whether it’s bringing in new partners, whether it’s coming up with new ideas, it’s constant innovation and it’s communicating and having everyone on the same line.

Notwithstanding externalities beyond your control, the most likely thing to lead a company to fail is complacency or becoming over-confident. You always have to stay on the edge.

You always have to be trying to come up with new products and new services, and even if you come up with things that don’t work, maybe you come up with something that never even gets to the customer, if you become complacent, it leads to failure. It can be a slow failure, but it certainly leads to long-term failure.

You have to give people a chance to be involved in this innovation, and you have to keep the communication line open both ways. If you’re showing what you’re passions are and you’re excited and enthusiastic, and you allow people to be successful and participate in that process, you’re going to have motivated people.

HOW TO REACH: Crystal Cruises,