When you think of luxury hotels, a few brands come to mind. Among them is the Ritz-Carlton (MAR). The hotel has established a worldwide reputation for treating guests like royalty. Walk into any Ritz-Carlton hotel in the world and you will be greeted by a staff that works at making customer service an art. Every employee, from the valet to the front desk attendant to the waiter to the housekeeper, is warm, friendly, gracious, courteous, and genuinely seems eager to make sure your stay is a memorable one.
As I learned recently during an interview with Ritz-Carlton president and chief operating officer Simon Cooper, the company's mystique relies primarily on the Ritz-Carlton's 35,000 employees who create "unique and memorable" experiences for their guests. According to Cooper, "It's all about people. Nobody has an emotional experience with a thing. We're appealing to emotions." The goal, Cooper says, is to develop such a strong emotional engagement between the hotels' staff and their guests that "a guest will not consider staying anywhere else, if they have an option."
Living the Service Values
Every manager and front-line employee of the Ritz-Carlton carries a laminated card with 12 service values guidelines that are intended to help employees create the mystique that attracts luxury travelers. For example: I build strong relationships and create Ritz-Carlton guests for life (No. 1), or: I am proud of my professional appearance, language, and behavior (No. 10). The Ritz-Carlton is not alone in creating rules or guidelines to keep employees focused on the company's values and mission, but the Ritz-Carlton does stand apart in how it reinforces those values with every employee, every day.
Each day at every Ritz-Carlton around the world, employees from every department gather for a 15-minute meeting, known as a "lineup," to review guest experiences, resolve issues, and discuss ways to improve service. These lineups are unlike most meetings held on any given day in most corporations. Once basic housekeeping items are out of the way, most of the rest of the time is spent reinforcing one of the 12 service values. How is it done? By employing the most powerful communications technique available: storytelling.
Telling Wow Stories
Stories have the power to inspire, motivate, and reinforce a company's culture, vision, and values. During the lineup, someone reads what is known as the "wow story" of the day. The same story is shared across hotels in 21 countries, so a waiter in Boston will hear the same story as a concierge in Bali; a housekeeper in Shanghai will hear the same story as a doorman in Hong Kong. The stories single out a staff person who went above and beyond—offering exemplary service to help create the mystique that turns luxury travelers into repeat guests.
The stories are amazing. One family staying at the Ritz-Carlton, Bali, had carried specialized eggs and milk for their son who suffered from food allergies. Upon arrival, they saw that the eggs had broken and the milk had soured. The Ritz-Carlton manager and dining staff searched the town but could not find the appropriate items. But the executive chef at this particular resort remembered a store in Singapore that sold them. He contacted his mother-in-law, and asked that she buy the products and fly to Bali to deliver them, which she agreed to do. Of course the family was delighted. After an experience like that, do you think this particular family would even consider staying somewhere else?
The stories have two purposes: First, to recognize an employee's commitment in front of his or her peers and second, to reinforce a service value. In the above case, the Bali story was intended to reinforce service value No. 7: Use teamwork to meet the individual needs of our guests. According to Cooper, "It's the best way to communicate what we expect from our ladies and gentlemen around the world. Every story reinforces the actions we are looking for and demonstrates how each and every person in our organization contributes to our service values."
Experiencing a Lineup
After my interview with Cooper, I observed two lineups—a general one and a more specialized meeting for the housekeeping staff on the morning shift. What struck me about both was the enthusiasm. These men and women had far more energy and excitement than I have observed among employees at many other companies. Employees were eager to discuss the stories, the service values, and how they can do better at incorporating those service values in their roles. The stories were used as teaching tools.
Now do the math. Two 15-minute lineups across 61 hotels, 365 days a year. The hotel is literally offering thousands of hours of training to its employees. No amount of training would be effective, however, without making an emotional and memorable connection with the trainees. Sharing cultural stories is the best way to do it. The Ritz-Carlton does this each day.
In his book on leadership analysis, Leading Minds (HarperCollins, 1996), author Howard Gardner writes, "Stories speak to both parts of the human mind—its reason and emotion." Stories, he says, "constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader's literary arsenal."
Take a cue from the Ritz-Carlton and use stories to improve your service across all levels of your organization.