Employee Motivation the Ritz-Carlton Way

The upscale hotelier's staff meetings rely on techniques designed to engage staffers. Here's how you can incorporate them in your own shop

It didn't surprise me to find The Ritz-Carlton on BusinessWeek's 2008 Customer Service Champs ranking (BusinessWeek.com, 2/21/08). When I was researching inspiring leaders, I spent time with Ritz-Carlton President Simon Cooper, who discussed how his company strives to engage its staff to increase employee satisfaction and improve customer service. I saw his strategies in practice when I attended staff meetings run by managers at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton and described a few of them in a previous column (BusinessWeek.com, 2/13/07). Now, I've returned to my notes to expand on ways you can incorporate techniques from the upscale hotelier in your own company.

Share "wow stories." Every day, employees of every department in every Ritz-Carlton hotel around the world gather for a 15-minute staff meeting where they share "wow stories." These are true stories of employee heroics that go above and beyond conventional customer service expectations. In one, a hotel chef in Bali found special eggs and milk for a guest with food allergies in a small grocery store in another country and had them flown to the hotel. In another, a hotel's laundry service failed to remove a stain on a guest's suit before the guest left. The hotel manager flew to the guest's house and personally delivered a reimbursement check for the cost of the suit.

Telling stories in these pep talks accomplishes two goals. It reinforces a customer service skill the hotel is trying to encourage. Most important, it gives an employee "local fame." Employees want to be recognized in front of their peers. Giving them public recognition is a powerful motivator.

Demonstrate passion. Moods are contagious. Managers who walk around with a smile on their face and demonstrate passion for their jobs have an uplifting effect on others. I attended a staff meeting for housekeepers at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton one morning and discovered a group of employees whose happiness rivaled higher-paid employees in other professions. I quickly learned the enthusiasm started at the top. The supervisor was dressed impeccably in a three-button blue suit, white shirt, purple tie, and shined black shoes. His wardrobe communicated respect. "Good morning, everyone," he said enthusiastically. The housekeepers returned an energetic greeting. This manager was all smiles and showed respect for his team. He said they returned his commitment through their hard work.

Sell the benefit. In every daily staff meeting, Ritz-Carlton managers reinforce one of 12 service values all employees are expected to embody on the job. On the day I attended a meeting in San Francisco, the theme was service value No.2: "I am always responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests." The housekeepers were encouraged to discuss how this value applied to their daily tasks.

"What is an expressed wish?" the supervisor asked the group.

"If a guest asks for extra pillows," a woman said.

"That's exactly right," he said. "But it's the unexpressed wishes that create The Ritz-Carlton mystique," he continued, offering the example of a housekeeper who notices a champagne bottle sitting in melted ice and replaces the ice before being asked to do so. The question was then asked: "Why do we do it? Why do we go the extra mile?"

One housekeeper volunteered: "It offers a personal touch that shows we care."

"That's exactly right," another added. "It reflects our commitment to five-star service."

Employees need to understand how their daily actions have an impact the customer. Use staff meetings to make the connection.

Ask for feedback. Employees are encouraged to speak up during staff meetings. During a housekeeping meeting, the employees were debating the benefit of one cleaner over another. It seemed as they preferred the old product over a new one. At first glance, it was a rather mundane discussion. But I noticed something about their supervisor. He was listening intently, as if the discussion were the most important thing in his life at the moment: nodding, maintaining eye contact, and asking questions. He showed genuine interest in the topic. If it is important to his staff, it is important to him. "Why do you think you have earned so much respect from your staff?" I later asked. "Because I listen to their concerns," the supervisor said. "And they know I will follow up."

Praise effectively. Ritz-Carlton managers don't focus on what employees have done wrong but instead seek to help them improve on a given task. Supervisors use staff meetings to publicly praise employees. Criticism is done in private. One supervisor suggested sandwiching constructive criticism among the praise. "You did a great job this week cleaning the coffee pot," he would say, "but you're still struggling here. Let's work together on improving it." By offering the criticism in the middle of praise, he inspires his employees to exceed the expectations of the hotel's guests.

I chose to attend housekeeping meetings to make a key point: Motivation can and should take place everywhere within an organization. Simon Cooper cannot personally motivate each of his 35,000 employees worldwide, so it's up to his department managers to reinforce the brand and its values through daily interactions with their teams. Are your employees engaged? Are they inspired to follow your vision? Five-star service does not begin with them. It begins with you.

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