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Security as customer service: Why not recruit guards from the hospitality sector?

Monday, May 14, 2012

On May 1, I visited the Comcast Center in Philadelphia—the first skyscraper completed since 9/11—and was able to learn more about its security program. The visit was part of the ASIS media tour, which I and several other security industry journalists attended.

I wrote about the challenge of managing tenant perceptions that skyscrapers are unsafe places to work in my article, "Securing the Comcast Center." But there were other interesting elements to the Comcast Center's security program I want to address in this blog post.

Liberty Property Trust, the building's owner, and Comcast, which leases 94 percent of its 1.2 million sq. ft. of office space, took an interesting approach to its security guards before the building officially opened in 2008.

Jim Birch, Liberty Property's security director for the building, said it began with "a vision" for the Comcast Center to be more than just an office building. "We wanted it to be a destination," he said. So offering world-class customer service became their mantra. "We thought that when somebody enters this building it should be like entering a five-star hotel."

Since security officers are the first people building tenants and guests come into contact with, they would be the ones offering the five-star customer service. With that goal in mind, Birch, Comcast, and the security guard provider, Allied Barton, decided to recruit from a non-traditional place: The hospitality sector.

They went to a job fair at Temple University's School of Tourism and Hospitality Management—"we got some very quizzical looks from some of the hospitality seniors there," Birch said—and also approached Philadelphia's concierge association, pitching the job of security guard as a viable, and perhaps more exciting, alternative to working in a hotel. What they were looking for were intelligent people with a predisposition to being friendly, and those who place an importance on good customer service. "We can teach security," Birch said. "But we can't teach people to be happy."

In the end, Liberty Property's first contingent of what Birch calls "security ambassadors"—there were 30 of them—was equally split between people with security or law enforcement experience and those without. Liberty Property also hired a consultant from Disney and employees of the Ritz Carleton and Four Seasons to provide 40 hours of customer service training for the security team.

Turnover has been low, Birch said, and Mark Farrell, Comcast's CSO, said the efforts, including paying the ambassadors a premium, had paid off. "The ROI worked well," Farrell said. Though separate, Liberty Property's security team and Comcast's security team are both populated by Allied Barton and are "seamless," Birch said.

The day I visited, Birch had to leave the tour early to monitor some nearby Occupy protesters who had earlier tried to disrupt operations at a nearby Wells Fargo building. Protesters had targeted the Comcast Center in November, sitting down in the lobby, so Birch had put a plan in place in case it was targeted again. On this day, Birch put the lobby on lockdown, which reduces the number of entrances and requires a Liberty Trust ambassador to be posted at the remaining entrances to permit access only to those with proper credentials. As Birch's security team moved outside to create a perimeter and to manage access at the doors, Farrell's Comcast team came to the lobby in support. After ushering the reporters off, Farrell left to go meet Birch outside and gather intelligence on the situation.