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Guest Post: Ritz-Carlton Customer Service Secrets

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is known worldwide for it’s “legendary service.” So much so, Apple uses the luxury hospitality brand as a model for its owner customer support traditions. Part of their success can be credited to one simple mantra – “Radar On – Antenna Up.” This means seeking out the customers unanticipated and unvoiced needs. This could be as simple as replacing an empty tube of toothpaste while a guest is out on business, or handing Roarie the stuffed Ritz-Carlton lion to an crying toddler.

These practices have not only increased word of mouth and brand loyalty. Ritz-Carlton also boasts among the best employee retention rates around. To create raving fans, they start with inciting brand enthusiasm from their team.

Recently, I sat down with Ritz-Carlton Vice President Diana Oreck to see if she could share any more secrets to the company’s customer service super sauce. She heads up the company’s executive training program, The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. Here is what she had to say:

The answers in this article have been modified from the original transcript of Diana Oreck’s interview with Software Advice.

Q: One of the Ritz-Carlton Gold Standards is “anticipate unexpressed needs.” Why is this important to customer service success and how do you train employees to recognize and act on unexpressed needs?

A: It’s very important because legendary service is about surprise and delight. It’s not robotic, it’s not scripted. And the way we teach it is through a class called “radar on, antenna up.” Golden nugget: You cannot give legendary service if you’re on autopilot. We have a daily lineup everyday in every [Ritz-Carlton] hotel around the world where we provide scenarios and discuss the best approach in the class. For example, we might go to a room and see you have one drop of toothpaste left in your toothpaste tube, so we are going to replace that tube of toothpaste without you asking and that’s a nice surprise when you return from business.

Q: What metrics or qualitative data does Ritz-Carlton use to measure customer service training success (How do you know it’s working)? How do you collect this data? 

A: Oh yes, we poll our guests once a month. The Gallup organization sends out a survey to 38 percent of guests that stayed the month before. It’s done randomly with the hope we will get 8-10 percent return. We live and die by that guest engagement number. This is the sum of responses to about 30 questions, including How likely is that guest to recommend Ritz Carlton? Were they delighted and satisfied with their stay? If there was a problem, did we take care of their problem? We know that if that guest engagement number goes up, we know that our training programs have been successful.

Q: Retention is a big issue for a lot of customer service teams. Is the same true for Ritz-Carlton? What does the company do to retain talent?

A: We’ve got a vast list. Rewards and recognition is huge. Ranging from our first class card, which is the most popular form of recognition at Ritz Carlton. It’s just a card that we give it to one another as a thanks. It can be peer to peer, peer to manager, employee to president, president to employee. And then we have things like birthdays, where we give gift certificates. Employees can become ‘five-star’ of the quarter. We don’t do employee of the month, because we find it’s much for meaningful if it’s the quarter. We are also one of the only hotel companies that still provide meals for their staff.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes companies make when training customer service staff?

A: They’re not being specific enough. They’ll say things like “Give great service.” Well that’s nice, but people need a road map. Never assume anything, make sure you have your service standards written down and allow people to observe you in action. Don’t assume that their mother or father, or previous employer taught them what really great service looks like. Have a written service strategy.

Q: What other successful customer service strategies have companies adopted by studying Ritz-Carlton?

A: It’s all about empowerment. The thing that our guests are most wowed about is that every single employee has $2,000 a day per guest to delight, or make it right. But we never use the money because that money is just symbolic. We are saying to our employees – we trust you. We select the best talent. Just help the guest. We do a lot of training around empowerment. So I would say this – you need to empower employees. You also need to make sure that you are inspiring employees to bring their passion to work everyday and to volunteer their best. And you do that by reinforcing their purpose, not their function.

About Diana Oreck: 

Diana leads The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center – a corporate university created to provide opportunities to leadership and learning professionals wanting to benchmark human resources, leadership, quality and training practices. The program has twice won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1992 and 1999. Diana has more than 30 years experience in hospitality and customer service expertise.

About Ashley Furness:

Ashley is a CRM Market Analyst for Software Advice, where she writes about customer service, marketing and sales strategy. She has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has appeared in myriad publications including Inc., Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal. Before joining Software Advice in 2012, she worked in sales management and advertising. She is a University of Texas graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Customer service is not an option for medical and dental practices

Medical and dental practices should provide their patients with positive customer experiences; after all aren’t we as patients still consumers who pay for services rendered either through our insurance companies or directly out of our debit accounts? Once upon a time a patient would never think of questioning a physician’s rude bedside manner,  never twitch the slightest dissatisfaction when made to wait hours in an uncomfortable waiting room with outdated magazines, or even speak out when having to deal with a rude staff. Fortunately that has all changed. From digital signs on busy highways showing shortened waiting times in local emergency medical facilities to expedient office staff, the new faces of medical care seek customer loyalty by creating positive experiences.

From the moment a patient calls for an appointment, the expectation for services begins. How long does it take for someone to answer the phone, and are you put on hold for any extended amount of time? Does your call during office hours go to voice mail? Patient satisfaction begins with a member of the staff personally answering the phone. Why not stagger employee schedules so the heavy hours of phone contact – perhaps during lunch hour can reduce patient waiting time thus reducing frustration and anger? Even waiting rooms have come a long way. Straight back wooden chairs used to line the walls of doctor and dentist offices. Now comfortable furniture set in inviting waiting rooms with late edition magazines and soothing music welcome a patient and makes them immediately feel more comfortable and connected in what is now the competitive field of health care.

Physicians can build their own relationships with patients by knowing a patient’s history before entering the examination room, immediately inviting the patient to speak, and then reviewing their chart sitting in front of the patient with direct eye contact. Patients want to know the process, and as doctors and dentists whose positive interaction with patients develop, a new culture for the entire office revolves around making people feel important – not just a human body wearing a white paper gown.

Helping patients to navigate their way through the complexities of medical procedures and jargon, making available community resources convenient for patients, providing a list of support groups and helping patients find appropriate educational tools to aid in their own medical or dental care builds relationships and enhances the productivity of both physician and patient.

How customer service excels during disasters

With over two million customers without power because of Hurricane Sandy, is it within the realm of possibilities that we can expect customer service to even scratch the surface of what we need or what we want? The first priorities must be with emergency services; getting the hospitals back to their work of saving people, and getting emergency public service personnel back to their desks so they may begin the enormous task of helping us to put our lives back together again.

Speaking from a South Florida resident’s personal experience of having “hunkered down” for a hurricane or two, by no means should customer service be  overlooked or ignored. Of course, it’s not going to be the “wow” experience as far as comfort and convenience, but as neighborhood businesses reach out to help their communities, they are not only providing a service, they are building goodwill which will be remembered long after the boardwalks are rebuilt and our children are once again frolicking in the sand of Seaside Heights.

Even before Hurricane Sandy blew into town, retail stores were staying open late with emergency supplies such as batteries, water, and flashlights for last minute shoppers.  Maybe the lines were long, but few of us complained. We were just relieved the stores stayed open so we could have some light. These are the same people who left to go home right before the cancellation of  public transit. These were the same people who also have families and responsibilities of their own, but stayed on to help.

And then during the storm, could customer service ever be better or more efficient when 250 patients in serious medical need in a New York hospital had to be transferred because of a power outage? Ambulances from out of state miraculously appeared every four minutes as medical personnel brought patients out one by one to be transferred to another hospital. A surgical nurse sat on a gurney administering oxygen to a newborn while critical care patients were shielded by physicians, nurses, and support personnel – all to save lives.

But now it’s after the storm, and if it were only that easy to send 25 Jersey Power & Light Company trucks out to Seaside Heights, New Jersey to replace transformers and climb up poles to do some rewiring, life after Hurricane Sandy wouldn’t be looking so ominous. Now we have the help of businesses who are coming out to volunteer to help their neighbors cut tree limbs off of their homes, bring in fresh water, or help to find a child’s dog who wandered off during the confusion of the storm. It’s a time for businesses like Home Depot to offer the use of wet vacs and building supplies to help families get their homes back together again. Electricians, plumbers, and heavy equipment operators who reach out to their neighbors who offer discounts and also volunteer in their communities will far exceed the expectations of most people, but definitely be remembered in better times when neighbor Brad is ready to build an addition to his home or Traci is ready to remodel her kitchen.

Disasters have a long reputation of gouging people when they are at their neediest, and laws do exist which punish offenders, but at the end of the day it’s the community that comes together and helps to rebuild. For everyone involved in the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, we send our prayers and hope you continue to stay safe and far away from harm.

Building a better customer service experience with expert branding

We all know who our favorite designers are, our favorite beverages, and our favorite services. That doesn’t happen by chance, but rather this branding is the result of our own personal, repeated experiences and our perceptions of these products or services having been the best. Proceed one step further to find out that most of us stay with these particular brands because they provide us with reliability and quality. Let’s face it – we want customer service and quality products on our own terms, and if we don’t get it all the way we want it, we are likely to move on to another product or service who properly “wows” us.

Brands get turned into lifestyles. For instance, the universal perception of the Mercedes Benz is one of affluence. It makes little difference to a Mercedes Benz owner if a General Motors automobile’s price tag is higher, the consumer already believes their car is special and unique especially recognized in the customer service department where cappuccino machines and pastries are offered after a customer is greeted by name. It’s a time where customers are infinitely more demanding and want service on their own terms, and as they perceive service should be. Customer service comes with the ability to be humble; how can I provide exceptional customer service on my client’s own terms and make him feel like the center of the universe?

As we build our own brands, we need to help our customers and clients believe that what we offer is the best, because those who aren’t convinced that we don’t cater to their needs, desires and perhaps even some whims will purchase their next product elsewhere. If the next time a previous client decides to sell their home, we want to be the realtor they call because their last great experience with us helped to build our brand and boost customer loyalty.

So how do you build your brand and provide the best customer service experiences you can?

  • Do what you are passionate about and develop your passions to provide your customers with the best product or service. Don’t ever say or believe “whatever.”
  • Develop your talents. If you are new to the real estate industry, take advantage of every training course you can find. Find a mentor who you know is successful with the same core values as you.
  • Know your customers and find out what they need and how you can successfully help.

Competition is so fierce that it really is a customer’s world.  They want to be helped on their own terms and want you to make it easy and convenient. Customers want to find more time to have fun and spend more time with their family and friends instead of having to put in additional time trying to figure out how to install a cabinet, waiting in line at the post office to return a dress that didn’t fit, or having to repeatedly call a service company because the technician is more than two hours late for a house call. If you want that person who purchased a product from you to forever be loyal, then you need to constantly reassure them and convince them that you are the best of the best.

Providing the customer service that your customers deserve

Shopping for products and services are no longer defined by the hours between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. The Internet provides convenient and easy access to product information 24 hours a day. It makes research convenient and allows us to compare prices, services, and even to formulate questions we want answered by one of the many providers out there, but what about an organization’s customer service? How will they treat me, and what will they do to make sure my needs and my problems are solved?

My first impression of a company might very well be their website, whether I choose to shop online or visit the store at the mall in person. It’s quite often a personal decision, as some of us when shopping actually want to feel or try-on the merchandise, view the product personally, or on the other hand, for convenience sake be able to make an informed decision to order the product online. Regardless of how customers choose their shopping venues, outstanding customer service still sets organizations apart from their competition. Here are some time tested suggestions:

  • Business contact: Customers have grown weary of voicemail and automated responses. They want real people available to answer their questions in a timely manner whether it be by live-chat, phone, email or even giving out a cell phone number to contact someone who can help  solve their problem.
  • Convenience: Customers want their questions answered when they visit an organization’s web site or store, and that means a knowledgeable workforce with up-to-date information and employees who are experts in the products they sell or the services they provide. During peak business time, is there enough of a workforce to provide customers with personalized service?
  • Consistency: Can a customer count on an organization to deliver the same high quality service each time the customer contacts an organization? Whether the service or product is serviced via the Internet or in person, a customer wants to be able to count on a high level of service and an excellent product. That translates into customer service employees having the best training, knowing their product, and being able to give a customer accurate information as to competitor products and how they compare.
  • Courtesy: There should never be a rude employee.
  • Speed: The advantages of technology can provide quick delivery. Just those words “next day delivery” inspires that immediate gratification today’s customers expect. Organizations need to deliver faster than their competition.
  • Honesty: Never misrepresent anything to your customer. The high level of service a company provides makes the difference when it comes to customer retention and customer loyalty. The time honored “underpromise but overdeliver” sets the highest standards for outstanding customer service.
  • Appreciation: Remember to offer  “thank-you” after every sale and remember to show appreciation to customers by loyalty programs and special discounts. Keep in touch with clients with timely and helpful information which will benefit their lives or even by sending a birthday card to show that people really do matter.
  • Mobile Access: More people are using their smartphones to access mobile websites and are taking advantage of the conveniences provided as in making reservations or finding the best deals via one’s phone now. Keep a customer’s mobile experience positive; this trend is becoming more popular.

And a  part of customer service that never grows old, but keeps people coming back for more is an organization’s ability to add value to a customer’s experience at no extra cost. For instance, a pool company offering to install an extra light to make the aesthetics more appealing at no extra charge, a service company offering to provide an extra service  for no additional charge, or that thoughtful  hotel employee offering a tired traveler a glass of cold lemonade are just the little things that keep customers coming back.

Work on customer loyalty to build business

There’s more to sustaining and building a business than just providing products or services. Our competitors are always within inches of grabbing our customers and clients with a better presentation, a better product, or a better service. It’s not about just selling; it’s about presenting our best employees and our sales teams who possess not only positive attitudes, but who are attentive listeners and problem solvers.

So how do we build and maintain customer loyalty? We all know to keep accurate records of our clients’ purchases, their history, and their buying trends, but making improvements and constantly staying in touch can make a profound impression on any client. In the age of advanced media choices, use email, blogging, and twitter to a company’s advantage. Even negative feedback can help to bring about customer loyalty. When a product fails or a service isn’t to a customer’s satisfaction, a company’s reputation is out there “laying on the line.” Use negative experiences to revamp procedures, update products, improve services, and help a customer find the best and most efficient solution to their complaint. Those are the customers you will have dazzled with your customer commitment, and in essence these are the very same people who will be your walking billboards for loyalty and attracting new customers.

Always strive to improve your customers’ lives; in other words “own” the customer. Here are some suggestions to build customer loyalty:

  • Always make sure customers receive prompt responses to their complaints or negative comments. Make sure the mistake isn’t repeated.
  • Survey customer satisfaction and encourage feedback by surveys, polls, emails, and personal correspondence if needed.
  • Offer reward programs for loyal customers. Businesses can offer special preview days, exclusive discounts, or prizes appropriate to the product or service offered.
  • Provide genuinely useful information to your buyers and clients. Newsletters, timely advice on update of products, as well as information about recalls and discounts will keep customers focused and satisfied that the organization they deal with really cares about them and is just not out there to make a sale.
  • Never take a client for granted and how a business acts before the sale, during the sale, and after the sale are all indicators how a client or customer will feel when the time comes to use your business again.
  • Make customer feedback a priority. Show how improvements have been made. Accept positive feedback graciously, change negative feedback to show improvements, and constantly watch out for new trends to make every customer confident that you are there for them.
  • Reward key employees and staff who have gone above and beyond for their customers. Use financial rewards, promotions, prizes, and peer recognition to congratulate the best and inspire those who have yet to achieve their full potential.

Customer loyalty may at times seem like a daunting task, but in an economy where only the strongest and the best survive, shouldn’t we all remember to place our customers at the very top of the list?

The need to improve customer service in our schools

A Florida teenager was absent from school for an extended period of time because of a life-threatening illness. Her mother continuously asked the school for the student’s make-up work, however the replies were sporadic, and by the end of the school year the student was informed she had to make up her junior year credits during her senior year. The Orange County, Fla. student dropped out of the public high school and finished her senior year in another county at a vocational school.

School districts are obligated to deliver good customer service.  Every employee should be trained in customer service;  monitored and evaluated with the ultimate purpose of improving student achievement, school culture, and in the positive development of teaching and learning relationships. So what do we mean by this? Beginning with the Superintendent and the Board, customer relationships with parents and students should be approachable and reliable. Classroom teachers should have comprehensive management plans to increase communications with parents and students. Secretaries, bus drivers, custodians, coaches, and other staff will have been trained in the development of interpersonal relationships and monitored accordingly.

Specifically schools regarded as providing excellent customer service have researched their competition and studied trends in education across the nation. For instance, staff handbooks should now include time limits for all school personnel to respond to voice mails and parent schoolwork requests. As in any organization whose customer service procedures are honed to being efficient, all emails should be responded to within 24 hours during the workweek. Letters should be answered within a five-day period. The school should provide a welcoming environment with signs directing new students, guests, and vendors to the appropriate offices. All visitors should be greeted within minutes of their arrival and directed to the appropriate person for the assistance needed.

Public perception garners an even higher opinion for schools. What do we do well and how can we improve the caliber of our schools need to be highlighted? How does one school compare to the nearest competition and how can we show improvement with the information collected? School districts can survey parents and students for suggestions. The best schools consistently work on their “first impressions.”

From being more flexible in arranging parent-teacher conferences from immediately before or after school in order that more parents can actively participate in their children’s educational and social needs, to arriving at a school and standing at the counter and immediately being recognized and helped are customer service standards that each school district should embrace. It’s the caring leaders of today who are making the difference in the leaders of tomorrow, and why shouldn’t students model themselves after the outstanding examples of respect and leadership?

How ramping up customer service is paying off for Home Depot

Years ago when contractors were so busy building houses, supply giant Home Depot paid a lot more attention to the builders than to the do-it-yourself home owners. After all, the economy was booming and a realtor could scarcely keep any home inventory available for new buyers, and so the prices kept climbing while customers lined up at the cash registers. But then the economic bliss balloon burst, contractors removed their magnetic signs from their trucks, and people once again began to pay more attention to their budgets; thus a new chapter in do-it-yourself home improvements was reborn.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times told the story of a 53 year-old Burbank postal clerk woman who decided to do some home improvements to upgrade her bedroom. Off to Home Depot she went, and much to her pleasant surprise was greeted with immediate attention. In fact, the woman stated she was asked by three different orange-aproned  associates if she needed any help. The same good news emerged about Lowe’s. Whereas the smaller Ace Hardware organization who has always been customer-centric towards the homeowner and known for their exceptional customer service, the larger companies have now joined in to improve their own customer service scores.

Home Depot scored an overall ranking of 95.81 – ranking number 30 out of 553 companies that have a Customer Service Scoreboard rating. Both Home Depot and Lowe’s sales, profits, and shopper satisfaction scores increased; Home Depot stock shares rose 74 percent while Lowe’s stock shares rose 35 percent.

So what are these home improvement giants doing to improve their customer service? Well-trained employees who have relevant information from their own experiences and who are given the advantages of the latest learning resources add to the value of a customer experience. Inexperienced employees are trained and empowered to make customers happy. Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot owes the success of the organization to the thorough knowledge of trusting business relationships and excellent customer service.

Perhaps the most famous story of Blank’s commitment to customer service and its vital importance began when the company was still quite young. An older woman walked into one of the Home Depot stores and wanted to return four tires. Home Depot never dealt in tires, but the woman insisted she purchased the tires through Home Depot. Blank refunded the woman the money for the tires:

“Refund the woman all of her money for the four tires. Although those tires weren’t sold to her by Home Depot, her satisfaction of returning those tires is worth the life-long customer relationship that we will create with her,” stated Blank after speaking to the confused employee who didn’t know what to say to the determined woman.

Those four tires still hang above the door in one of the Atlanta Home Depot stores. And then there’s more to pleasing customers. When someone walks in who doesn’t know the difference between a round wire nail, an oval wire nail or a brad, experienced people in home improvements are there to help. Managers, assistant managers and department heads are all included in training programs, and these are the people out on the floor who help customers find what they need, but also help to determine whether it’s really what they need.

And with the latest innovative ways to help and reach customers using WiFi computer services in stores, improving do-it-yourself instructions, YouTube videos and workshops, Facebook, and the photo sharing of Pinterest replacing catalogs and brochures, customers have at their fingertips more conveniences and tons of helpful information to make those home projects turn out as if they were done professionally.

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