Creativity & Customer Service Excellence

'Hearst Castle'

16 January 2023
Effective Storytelling - Podcast
Short stories with key learning points for personal development and professional development. Often to make you smile, and always to make you think.
An excellent and powerful example of reversal, how changing the relationship between guides and customers generates a unique, memorable and superb customer experience.

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Some years ago I was on the West coast of America, driving from LA to San Fransisco, and decided to visit Hearst Castle, the legendary home of Howard Hughes.We had to book our visiting time in advance, and park some way from the Castle, where we were met by two guides, who would take us to the Castle by coach. There were about 20 of us in the visiting party, and the guides started their briefing by passing round brown paper bags, and insisting people put fruit, cigarettes and chewing gum into them. My thoughts at this stage were not particularly positive. I’m not fond of organised group tours – I much prefer to wander round in my own time and space. Things did not look good.We were taken by coach to the Castle, and as we offloaded, we stood in the main forecourt, and had a second briefing, which completely transformed my expectations.“Firstly”, said one guide,“about photographs…” (My heart sank. I love taking photos, and knew the Castle was very photogenic). “…take as many as you want, where you want, how you want.Because this Castle is so fantastic, all your photos will be great, and a great advert for us, to encourage others to visit…”“We’re here,” said the second guide,“to take you through the Castle, so you don’t miss anything. We’re also here to help in any way. We are not like typical guides elsewhere. We will not stop and say our piece in any of the rooms – but we will be happy to answer any questions you might have – in fact, that’s the only way you’ll get information from us. We’re pretty sure that between us, we know everything – everything – there is to know about this place, its history, its objects and its occupants. But you never know – you might catch us out…”And so off we went. Into the first room. Everyone gazed around, in silence. One guide was at the front of our group, and the other at the back.The one at the front said:“any questions?” Silence. So off we went to the next room….“Any questions?”. Silence.Then someone asked:“so, where are we now – and what was the previous room called?” – and we were off and running.The whole visit was a joy. Everyone got involved, asking all sorts of questions.As the tour progressed, the questions became less and less conventional – almost a contest to see just how much the two guides new. It was almost like a moving quiz show, with two ‘Mastermind’ experts whose specialist subject was ‘Hearst Castle and its times’. Two of my questions were:“is that centrepiece on the table silver?” (“yes – it’s Georgian, weighs 10 lbs, and was given to Howard Hughes as a gift by Winston Churchill”). “Who was the last person to sit here?” (“Charlie Chaplin, in 1943”)We all had a real blast.The tour was over in a twinkle of an eye, and is easily the standout tour of my life – so far.
The lesson for me was twofold. Firstly this was truly about putting the customer at the heart of the visitor experience. Secondly, it was also an example of creative thinking.

Great innovations have been made by reversing conventional logic.

There are several take aways from this story:

  • Creativity
  • Customer service excellence
  • Motivation
  • Change
  • Publicity


One of the key (and most successful) principles of creativity is reversal. Most toy dolls were once sold with a full set of costume changes; Barbie was the first to sell just the doll, with a separate set of optional clothing to be purchased separately; Domino’s was the first pizza chain to deliver to the customer; ships now have their cargo on stacked on the deck, in containers, rather than in a hold underneath the deck. And Hearst Castle reversed the normal visitor experience, by having the guides respond to questions, rather than deliver a script. This made the whole experience more interactive and interesting, and is the joint best experience I have ever had when joining a visitor group. The other exemplar of excellence? Visiting Chartres Cathedral as an 11-year old, where the tour guide didn’t explain how the cathedral was built – he demonstrated it, by getting the audience to be the roof; columns and buttresses, culminating in me dangling from the roofbeams! And again – another example of reversal – in this case, making the audience active, rather than passive.

Customer Service Excellence

The tour experience, as described, was the highlight, and created the lasting impression of customer service excellence. But there were other examples of excellence too…and again, a reversal. Instead of saying ‘no photographs please’, they encouraged everyone to take as many photos as possible, because they would certainly ‘sell’ the venue, whoever they were shown to. The tour had to be booked, and the size of each group was limited, and took place at a specific time, and was beautifully choreographed so that, although there were several tour parties ‘on site’ at the same time, our paths never crossed, so that throughout the tour it felt as though we were the only visitors getting the tour. And to me, this is customer service excellence in two ways: firstly, a strategic approach, so that everything is considered and integrated, so the customer journey is as integrated as possible. And secondly, the whole visit was framed from a ‘customer journey’ perspective; it was clear throughout that the whole design and experience had been based on answering this simple question: “what will delight the customer at this point?”


The two guides for my tour were phenomenal: they had an answer for every question asked; they clearly knew their stuff. And they seemed to genuinely love knowing it. Not in a ‘show off’ way, but simply by building a reputation of ‘being impressive’ – in this case, through knowledge. But they weren’t just dry reciters of facts and figures. They usually added interesting titbits and stories to embellish the question – which inevitably led to a follow up question. For example, when I asked about who the last person was to sit in that chair, others in the group asked about who else was in that meeting, and where they had sat, then someone asked about what they did after dinner…and so on and so on… And, without it ever being anything other than fun, it was clear that both the tour guides prided themselves on the quality and quantity of knowledge they had, and if one had answered, but the other had something to add, they would add it – so there was almost a friendly competition between the two guides. They were clearly motivated by knowledge, and the desire to pass it on in an entertaining way…


I was not the only one surprised by the way the tour was conducted. And because it was so different, and initially challenging, people were initially out of their comfort zone. No one wanted to be the first to ask a question – after all, that wasn’t their experience of touring museums. So this experience was a classic change: different from their norm, their expectations. But the guides persisted; they held the line. They explained that most people initially struggled because it was so unusual, then they said, q uite matter of factly, “OK, if there are no questions here, we’ll move on to the next room”. At that point someone said, “OK, before we do, I’d like to know…” – and we were off. The point here that if introducing change, you should expect discomfort, uncertainty and hesitation; by explaining that was typical, expected, and would become easier, the guides gave reassurance and confidence, without reverting to what was expected. In other words, they held their nerve – and of course, had plenty of previous experience to know just how to manage the change.


Hearst Castle is an amazing site – there are wow factors at every turn. It was visually stunning – so naturally photos will be a way of showing the venue, rather than trying to describe it. There was a shop, and you could buy postcards and photo books, but most people were happy taking their own photos – and throughout the tour, the guides would pause and say – “if anyone wants to take a photo at this point, please do” – and would make the time available for that – even pointing out the best angles for the best shot… Possibly the shop didn’t sell as many photos or postcards as it might have, but there’s no doubt that personalised photos from everyone in the group would be shared with family and friends, with perhaps more storytelling than would occur with anonymised and mass produced postcards.  

The whole visit was a joy... and is easily the standout tour of my life – so far.
Effective Storytelling - Podcast
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