Roll Out the Blue Carpet How Ritz-Carlton can teach you to serve your customers better.
By Duff McDonald

(Business 2.0) – Last November, Bill Kapner, CEO of financial software provider Bigdough, checked into the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach, Fla. Before introducing himself, he was greeted--by name--at the front desk. Then a reception clerk asked, "Will you be having sushi tonight?" Thing is, Kapner never mentioned his fondness for Japanese cuisine. "I was wowed," he says.

It's that kind of service that makes companies worldwide strive to be "the Ritz-Carlton" of their industries. (An entrepreneur in Singapore wants to build "the Ritz-Carlton of self-storage.") Ritz-Carlton is the only service company to have won the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award twice--in 1992 and again in 1999 (one year after being acquired by Marriott). The chain placed first in guest satisfaction among luxury hotels in the most recent J.D. Power & Associates hotel survey--no small achievement, given its latest building spree: 23 hotels in the last 27 months.

Yet until a few years ago, being "Ritz-Carlton-like" was just a motivational simile. Then, in 2000, the company launched the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, where for about $2,000 a head, anyone can study the brand's cult of customer service. Housed in new corporate headquarters in Chevy Chase, Md., the center has addressed topics like "talent benchmarking" for more than 800 companies, including Fidelity Investments and Coca-Cola. Ken Yancey, CEO of the nonprofit small-business consultancy Score, says concepts he learned at the center, like "the three steps of service," apply directly to his business. "Hotels are about service to a client," he says. "And we are too."

It turns out, however, that you can learn a lot about great customer service from Ritz-Carlton even without attending the classes. In fact, the chain's "secrets" are entirely replicable by any company in any industry. That's not to say, however, that implementing them is easy. It takes undying commitment to the following six steps to become the Ritz-Carlton--of hospitality or anything else.

Make Customer Service an Elite Club

Thanks to a 13-year partnership with human-resources consultancy Talent Plus, Ritz-Carlton has devised a rigorous interview process to identify the empathetic, positive team players who, according to in-house statistics, become top performers. Job candidates face questions like "Do you wash your hands more or less than most people you know?" and "Were you closer to your mother or your father?" Executives say the interview is effective not only in picking great talent but also in conveying the message that working at Ritz-Carlton is a privilege. "It's kind of like joining the Yankees," says Dan Flannery, area general manager of Ritz-Carlton's New York City hotels, referring to the baseball team's legendary aura of exclusivity.

Once You Have the Right People, Indoctrinate Them

Ritz-Carlton spends about $5,000 to train each new hire. First is a two-day introduction to company values (it's all about the service), including the "credo" (again, service) and the 20 Ritz-Carlton "basics" (you got it, service: Basic 13 is "Never lose a guest"). Next comes a 21-day course focused on job responsibilities, such as a bellman's 28 steps to greeting a guest. Each employee carries a plastic card imprinted with the credo and the basics, as well as the "employee promise" and the three steps of service. Step 1: "A warm and sincere greeting. Use the guest's name, if and when possible." Tracy Butler Hamilton, a retired bond trader who's stayed at a Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta several times, recalls that the hotel's bartenders remembered not only her name but also the name and favorite drink of her brother, who would sometimes visit. "He wasn't even staying at the hotel," Hamilton says.

Treat Staffers the Way They Should Treat Customers

The Ritz-Carlton motto--"We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen"--might sound corny, but it's taken seriously. The company celebrates not just employee birthdays but also employment anniversaries. Regardless of position, every staff member can spend as much as $2,000 without management approval to resolve a guest's problem. Employees say the exemption lets them make a personal impact on a guest's experience, resulting in higher job satisfaction. The median annual nonmanagement turnover rate at luxury hotels is 44 percent; at Ritz-Carlton, it's only 25 percent.

Offer "Memorable" Service

"What others call complaints," says John Timmerman, VP for quality and productivity, "we call opportunities." A tired euphemism elsewhere, the idea is truly embraced at Ritz-Carlton. In February, an administrative assistant at Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia overheard a guest lamenting that he had forgotten to pack formal shoes and would have to wear hiking boots to an important meeting; early the next morning, she delivered to the awestruck man a new pair in his size and favorite color. (In a more intimate example, a housekeeper recently traded shoes with a woman who needed a different pair.) Leadership Center information and learning liaison Linda Conway says a stay during which a problem is resolved quickly and satisfactorily remains in a guest's mind longer than one in which there is no problem at all.

Talk About Values and Stoke Enthusiasm

Every day at the chain's 57 hotels, all 25,000 Ritz-Carlton employees participate in a 15-minute "lineup" to talk about one of the basics. The ritual makes Ritz-Carlton one of the few large companies that set aside time for a daily discussion of core values. In a recent lineup, Ike Koutrakos, executive sous chef at the chain's hotel in lower Manhattan, talked up his scrapbook of Ritz-Carlton press mentions. "It's definitely a little cultlike," says Laura Begley, style director at Travel & Leisure magazine. "But that stuff stays behind the scenes. Travelers just know they're getting great service."

Eschew Technology, Except Where It Improves Service

Other hotels may be experimenting with automated check-in kiosks, but not Ritz-Carlton. "Not in a million years," says Vivian Deuschl, the company's vice president for public relations. "We will not replace human service with machines."

Still, porters and doormen wear headsets, so when they spot your name on luggage tags, they can radio the information to the front desk. In addition, an in-house database called the Customer Loyalty Anticipation Satisfaction System stores guest preferences, such as whether an individual likes Seagram's ginger ale or Canada Dry. The software also alerts front-desk clerks when a guest who's stayed at other Ritz-Carltons has a habit of inquiring about the best sushi in town.

Duff McDonald is a freelance writer living in New York.