The Value of Personalized Customer Service

In order to build relationships and create memorable moments for customers, you must move beyond thinking of customer service as simply transactional—and strive to personalize customer service. Transactional customer service may be friendly and welcoming, but without any personal or emotional connection with your customers, it will be difficult to build loyalty. Personalized customer service shows your clients that you recognize them, that you are listening and that you care.

One of the ways The Ritz-Carlton Destination Club personalizes service is to employ Member Experience Concierges (MEC) to choreograph its Members’ experience—including arrivals and departures. On any given day, an MEC could reply to as many as 30 emails—relating solely to pre-arrival communication. It is the responsibility of each Concierge to dig deep into these correspondences and seek out the “fine details” that will assist them in providing a surprise and delight to the Member and his / her family. The following story illustrates how an MEC can turn an email about logistics into memorable, personalized service.

Soccer and Sushi

At The Ritz-Carlton Club, St. Thomas, the MEC exchanged more than 20 emails with one family in particular. The MEC learned that this would be the family’s first vacation to St. Thomas as brand new Members. After building a strong rapport, the MEC learned that the family would be celebrating their son’s 9th birthday. The MEC sprang into action and offered her assistance in making this special occasion a lasting memory. The MEC found out from the dad that his son’s favorite sport was soccer and that the son played in a junior league outside of school.

The MEC found many ways to celebrate the 9-year-old’s birthday—from creating a personalized soccer tournament with the bellmen to acquiring his very own signed-by-the-team soccer ball. However, the MEC wanted to do more. In one email, the dad requested a dinner reservation at Buddha Sushi, a local Japanese restaurant on the island, which specializes in creative, intrinsic and unique sushi dishes. The MEC discovered that this was his son’s favorite type of food.

Thankfully, the MEC was a personal friend of the executive chef and was able to coordinate a special plate for the Birthday Boy. The son was blown away by the surprise; however, it was the entire family’s similar reaction that made it all worthwhile. Upon returning from dinner, the MEC received high praise from the family and especially from the Birthday Boy.

Empowerment Fosters Personalized Service

One of the Service Values at The Ritz-Carlton asks our employees—known as our Ladies and Gentlemen—to be “responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.” Because our Ladies and Gentlemen are empowered—they are better-equipped and inspired to deliver personalized service. They also understand the need for cultivating genuine, caring relationships that lead to loyalty and more importantly, trust. 

Servant Leadership: Empathy

Each month The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center (RCLC) asks leadership experts questions about servant leadership. Our topic for June is how servant leaders use empathy with employees. This month’s servant-leader experts are:

  • Abigail Marsh, Associate Professor of Psychology, Georgetown University
  • Mark Crowley, Workplace thought leader and author of Lead from the Heart

RCLC: What are some tactics you’ve used to understand employees who may be tougher to access?

Mark Crowley: Teams thrive on diversity — not uniformity — and leaders who understand this will intentionally hire people with varied backgrounds and personalities. Hiring an introverted chef or massage therapist, for example, might prove to be a very wise move!

The best advice I can give to any manager is that not everyone operates from the same map of the world as you do. Just because some employees quickly warm up to you shouldn’t lead you to think everyone will.

So if you find yourself struggling to connect with an employee, be patient with them — and yourself. Find ways to work closely with “tougher to access” employees; just spending one-on-one time with them can help build the trust that will help many of them to come out of their shell. I’ve also found that giving people space, and allowing them to come to you when they’re ready, leads to the most sustainable kind of trust you can ever imagine achieving.

RCLC: When leaders are empathetic, how can they manage an employee who might try to take advantage of a caring boss?

Abigail Marsh: Being caring doesn’t have to mean being an easy target. One of the oldest and most durable findings in psychology is that cooperative interpersonal relationships flourish when people adhere to what is called “the norm of reciprocity.” The norm requires that interpersonal encounters start from the assumption that both players are trustworthy actors who will help each other out when needed. But if either person violates the other’s trust, it is appropriate for there to be a consequence, such as the withdrawal of future trust or assistance. For example, an empathetic boss might offer the employee who has just experienced a distressing life event some extra time off. To foster a strong relationship, the employee might later reciprocate by contributing extra and unasked-for help on a project. Employees who ask for repeated favors without reciprocating should not be surprised to find their bosses less willing to extend assistance to them over time.

RCLC: What advice would you give to leaders who aren’t naturally empathetic or would like to express more empathy?

Abigail Marsh: The crucial components of empathy are simple awareness of and caring about others’ emotional and mental states. Often when people are upset or in distress, simply acknowledging those feelings can make a difference. Something as simple as “I can see you are really upset,” or, “You seem worried — anything I can do to help?” can forge a connection because it demonstrates that the speaker understands and cares about how the listener is feeling. This is all that is meant by empathy. Recognizing others’ emotional states comes naturally to most people, as long as they take the time to pay attention to others’ emotional language and nonverbal cues. But even people who are less naturally in tune with others’ emotions can learn to pay deliberate attention to signs of distress like a furrowed brow, compressed lips, or a voice that sounds tenser and higher-pitched than usual.

Mark Crowley: Traditional leadership theory teaches us that expressions of empathy or compassion toward employees are characteristic of weak leaders — people who do not drive high performance.

So if we grew up working for bosses who rarely displayed thoughtfulness or intentional care in their interactions with workers, it’s not unreasonable that we would model that same behavior in how we manage our own teams.

But mounds of scientific research is now emerging that proves qualities like kindness, concern and empathy are actually leadership strengths — not weaknesses. The more human we are with people, in other words, the greater their engagement and commitment.

I mention this because I think what most of us really need is permission to display empathy with the people we manage — and to authentically demonstrate that we care about them personally and what’s going on in their lives. The evidence is clear that we are all wired as human beings to be empathetic, and only hold back because we think it’s inappropriate to display it in the workplace.

So if you need an incentive to show your people some empathy, know this: when you withhold it, people will see you as being a self-interested leader — and you’ll drive many people away.

RCLC: The Employee Promise at The Ritz-Carlton states that employees are our “most important resource.” How can leaders make employees feel genuinely cared for each day?

Abigail Marsh: People tend to feel cared for when they are cared for. Genuine caring is hard to fake. Genuinely caring people tend to prioritize the welfare of others, even others who are not personally close to them. They tend to assume that most people are doing their best and try to adopt an understanding approach even toward undesirable behavior. They pay attention when others are suffering or in distress and try to help or console them with words or gestures. Classic, caring gestures like a hand on the shoulder or an embrace are simple, ancient and powerful — even our chimpanzee cousins use them to console other members of their group. They work just as well with humans.

Mark Crowley: There’s a huge risk in saying (out loud) that employees are The Ritz- Carlton’s “most important resources” simply because there are so many ways the organization and its leaders can break that promise. And should employees ever come to believe that this pledge is in any way hollow or insincere, their trust in management will likely become irrecoverable.

So each day, managers have the opportunity — and the obligation — to intentionally make deposits into the emotional bank accounts (as Stephen Covey called them) of every person on their team. And some of the smallest gestures can have the biggest impact: Complimenting them for how they handled a difficult guest, thanking them for their initiative and cooperation with other employees, letting them leave work early on a day you know will greatly help them — giving them an unexpected and challenging assignment.

My advice: As best as you can, determine what your employees need in any given moment (e.g., encouragement, trust, patience or guidance) and give it to them. If you do, they’ll know you care. 

Significant Stat: Experiences Have a Long-Lasting Impact

39% continue to avoid vendors two or more years after a bad experience. (source)

Advice from Valori Borland, Corporate Director, Culture Transformation at The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center:

Customer service experiences have a long-lasting impact—especially bad ones. Consider the impact of service on the lifetime value of your customer. No organization can afford to lose a customer for any length of time. At The Ritz-Carlton, we know that when a guest reports a problem, the manner in which our employees—known as our Ladies and Gentlemen—handle and resolve the issue has a profound impact on a guest’s brand loyalty and future purchases. This is why we provide extensive training for our employees and why we empower them to ensure that every guest has an experience that reinforces their loyalty. One of our core Service Values states: “I own and immediately resolve guest problems.”  The key word is “immediately.” Interestingly, customer service experiences are judged more on the timeliness of the interaction than on the final outcome. 

Our Enrichment Courses immerse clients in The Ritz-Carlton ambience while offering philosophical and tactical service excellence knowledge. Please visit our Course Calendar to learn more about our upcoming courses and to register. 

Etiquette & Engagement: Patient

Imagine if every person acted like a lady or gentleman…..

Etiquette Tip: Ladies and gentlemen are patient when out in public.

The holiday season is a time of giving, goodwill and cheer. However, it is also a time of searching desperately for parking spaces, working your way through crowds while hunting for that perfect present, standing in long lines while you wait for service and racing to social functions while trying to fit in all the obligations of work, family and friends. Often the joy of the season can be eclipsed by feelings of fatigue and frustration, but a true lady or gentleman practices patience. When you express patience, you can view a long line as an opportunity to smile at others, text an old friend to let them know you care or spend the time thinking about your gratitude list. Rather than succumbing to a “bah humbug” mentality, you can help preserve holiday cheer by being patient and kind. Patience is particularly important for anyone who works in customer service. Keeping your composure as you help frustrated or upset customers is critical. Without patience, the employees of The Ritz-Carlton—known as our Ladies and Gentlemen—would be unable to provide the “warm, relaxed, yet refined ambiance,” which our Credo requires. Expressing patience is also a great way to show your customers that you genuinely care about them and that you appreciate their business.

The motto of The Ritz-Carlton is “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” This motto sets a tone of goodwill and grace for all.

Etiquette & Engagement: Gratitude

Imagine if every person acted like a lady or gentleman…..

Etiquette Tip: Ladies and gentlemen have an attitude of gratitude.

No matter what is going on in your personal life or your workday, a lady or gentleman can always find a way to express gratitude. Expressing gratitude to your customers is particularly important. At The Ritz-Carlton, we dedicate a full week, known as Global Customer Appreciation Week, to recognizing our key accounts, top customers and global partners. In 2014, our global sales staff reached out to thousands of customers, hosted them at special events and attended thousands of in-person meetings. Events included luncheons, evening receptions and several exceptional experiences. For example, in Hong Kong, the team hosted a private viewing party of a documentary about Hong Kong. Their top clients not only had the privilege of attending the film’s first showing in Asia, but also had the opportunity to meet the film’s director during an exclusive viewing party and cocktail reception. In-person meetings were also opportunities to make meaningful connections. In past years a small team that set up a meeting with a client in Kansas City decided to turn the upcoming meeting into a “Happy Hour.” They recreated the famed guacamologist presentation from The Ritz-Carlton, Dallas and spent the meeting time getting to know their client better. Setting aside dedicated time to express gratitude to clients is valuable, but when you combine that with getting to know your customers better, you’re able to express personalized appreciation throughout the year. 

The motto of The Ritz-Carlton is “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” This motto sets a tone of goodwill and grace for all.

Significant Stat: Leaders are Disengaged

Only 35% of managers in the United States are engaged in their jobs. (source)

Advice from Jeff Hargett, Senior Director, Culture Transformation at The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center:

If only 35% of your Managers are engaged in their job, what are the remaining 65% doing? 51% of those leaders are disengaged (lukewarm at best) and 14% are actively disengaged (giving your customers and employees the cold shoulder as they push them toward the exit). This study from Gallup as documented by Amy Adkins also shares how this affects companies financially. It is in the billions (that’s with a “B”) each year.

At The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, we are all about engagement, both customer and employee. It is imperative that leaders are engaged because part of their role is to engage their teams. When a manager has “checked out,” it is much easier for an employee to follow suit. Oftentimes when we see leaders who are disengaged, we find there is confusion around their responsibilities, their purpose, the expectations of their leader and most importantly, a feeling that no one cares. Ms. Adkins shares some great insight as to how an organization can help a leader be more engaged:

  • Clear and consistent communication around the progress of the company – what we’ve accomplished and where we are going;
  • Focus on learning and growing – when we stop learning, we become stagnant and disengaged; and,
  • Emphasize Strengths – going to work every day to do what you love and are passionate about allows a leader to find new ways to stay engaged.

When customers become disengaged with a company, it is probably because they feel the company doesn’t care about them any longer. Interestingly, leaders have that same feeling, “If they don’t care, why should I?” 

The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center offers advisory services, courses and presentations to organizations that wish to benchmark the award-winning business practices of The Ritz-Carlton. Your organization can learn about The Ritz-Carlton methodology for customer service, employee engagement and leadership development. We also guide organizations through a multi-step process in order to achieve sustainable culture transformation.

Etiquette & Engagement: Empathy

Imagine if every person acted like a lady or gentleman….

Etiquette Tip: Ladies and gentlemen are empathetic when serving others.

To empathize is to perceive the situation as the guest, patient or customer does. See it as they do, hear it as they do, feel it as they do and truly understand their experience. The light bulb is burned out, there is noise coming from the room next door, the heat is not working: we sincerely apologize as we know the frustration of not being able to see in a dark room, listen to a meeting when there’s a loud group next door or feel comfortable when it’s too cold. We empathize and because of this, we employ an earnest and understanding tone as we move forward to resolve your issue. We will replace the light bulb and repair the heat right away and leave a gracious note from our engineering team. We will manage the noise that hinders your productivity. We will do whatever it takes to fulfill our mission through true empathy with our guests. By showing empathy, our Ladies and Gentlemen deliver gracious and thoughtful service to each other and our guests and that drives customer and employee engagement. 

The motto of The Ritz-Carlton is “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” This motto sets a tone of goodwill and grace for all.

Our Ladies and Gentlemen: Abner Nelms, The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead

Each month, The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center (RCLC) features an interview with an employee—also known as a Lady or Gentleman of The Ritz-Carlton—in order to share an insider’s view of the organization. This month’s interview is with Abner Nelms, 34-year veteran Doorman and Driver at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead in Atlanta.

RCLC: Please talk a little about your role with our organization and how long you’ve been with The Ritz-Carlton.

Mr. Nelms: I have been at The Ritz-Carlton since January 1984—that’s over 31 years. I work in guest services and have for my whole career here. I’ve worked inside as a bellman, but most of my career was working as a doorman up front. Most recently, in addition to working as a doorman, I’ve worked as a driver.

RCLC: Can you share why you’ve chosen to work at The Ritz-Carlton for so long? What do you enjoy about working here?

Mr. Nelms: Well, there are a lot of things I enjoy about working here! If I go back in time, I was one of the first people to be hired. The neat thing about our property is that it’s the first Ritz-Carlton to open in the modern brand—so it was really an honor and it was exciting. It’s good to be part of the beginning of something—especially something that’s so successful because back then, we only had two hotels in the whole company. At that time, I had worked for other hotel properties, small properties, but you know when The Ritz-Carlton came along, it was like something I had always dreamed of working for—a real, “first class,” luxury hotel. So I think I was just at the right place at the right time. Other opportunities have come up, but when you’re working for the best hotel company in the business at that time, probably in the world, I never thought about leaving—at least not to go to work for another hotel.

RCLC: What do you value about the culture of The Ritz-Carlton?

Mr. Nelms: I would have to say that all the things that the company has put in place: Gold Standards, all our Service Values and everything. I was in my thirties when I started working for the company, and I’m in my sixties now. When I think back, I see that the culture has taught us how to be gentlemen, how to behave.

RCLC: What does customer service mean to you?

Mr. Nelms: What does customer service mean? Wow, it means a lot of things! I feel that customer service is serving a customer or guest in the manner that they want to be served, that they want to be taken care of. I say that because I have been in some customer service situations where it didn’t go well, and when you’re in a customer service business, you’re well aware of when you’re not getting good customer service. Right? So that’s what it means—taking care of a customer the way they want to be taken care of.

RCLC: Have you built relationships with customers throughout the years?

Mr. Nelms: Most definitely! At The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, we’ve been there so long, not only have we built long-term relationships with the guests, but we’ve built long-term relationships with their children. Sometimes I’ll see a long-term guest that is arriving and being taken care of and the person that is taking care of them might not recognize them, and then they’ll ask them a question like “have you ever stayed here before?” and if I get the chance, I’ll always go over and greet them myself, recognize them and then introduce them to the employee that doesn’t recognize them. I kind of tease them, and I introduce them as a “Charter Member.” “Oh yeah, Mr. Johnson, he’s a Charter Member, he’s part of the beginning!” We do have a lot of guests that have been staying with us for the entire time. It’s always fun because it gives me the opportunity to connect with that guest, that long-term guest.

RCLC: Are there any memorable customer experiences (WOW moments) that you would like to share?

Mr. Nelms: There are so many! Immediately when I think about WOW stories, I feel like I’m the one that was probably WOWed by the person I was taking care of. One moment comes to mind: a lot of people who come to our hotel are here on business, and they never get a chance to really get outside of the Buckhead area. Sometimes they think that that’s all Atlanta, right? Just that concrete area. We have the Atlanta History Center and that brings people to Buckhead, so these guests I was driving did break away long enough to go see the History Center. On the way back, I said to them “if you have a moment, I’ll take a little scenic route that will take us back to the hotel. It will only take us 10-15 minutes,” they wanted to do that—so I showed them the neighborhood that they never had a chance to see. They talked about it, and they were so excited because they had read about it in books and saw pictures in magazines. We have an area, the West Paces Ferry area, where our Governor’s Mansion is, as well as a lot of antebellum homes and properties with rolling hills and magnolia trees. There’s a particular mansion where parts of Gone with the Wind were filmed. I was just amazed at how excited they were about it. So it really made me feel good, and they didn’t even really know about that part of our town—so that’s probably the most memorable. I enjoy doing that, introducing people to things like The Swann House, the most photographed house in Atlanta. I think I was just as WOWed as they were. They WOWed me!

RCLC: Have you had to deal with upset customers? If so, any advice on the best way to handle this?

Mr. Nelms: Like we were saying about what customer service means, the best way to handle an upset guest is first of all to listen, empathize and see what their problem is. Especially to listen, you have to let them vent, let them get it all out and then be thinking, anticipating, what you can do to help. Then I will ask them, “what can I do to help in this situation?” I’ve been in that situation before, and fortunately, I’ve had the resources to help people. We’ve had situations when people’s limousine transportation didn’t show up, and they were stressed out so we were able to put them in our vehicle and take them to their appointment—even though it was outside of the usual area where we typically go. They’re always wild about that.

RCLC: What are a few of the customer service lessons you’ve learned over the last three decades?

Mr. Nelms: You have to listen to people—listen to them and remain pleasant. Don’t allow yourself to get upset since a lot of times we deal with so many different kinds of personalities. Sometimes when people are upset, they want you to get upset. That’s the most important thing I have learned to do is to listen and then be thinking how you can assist them. “What can I do to make this better?” That’s what people want to hear in a customer service situation. 

The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center offers advisory services, courses and presentations to organizations that wish to benchmark the award-winning business practices of The Ritz-Carlton. Your organization can learn about The Ritz-Carlton methodology for customer service, employee engagement and leadership development. We also guide organizations through a multi-step process in order to achieve sustainable culture transformation.

Inspired Thinking: Give 100 Percent

“The average person puts only 25% of his energy and ability into his work. The world takes off its hat to those who put in more than 50% of their capacity and stands on its head for those few and far between souls who devote 100%.” – Andrew Carnegie, Founder of the Carnegie Steel Company 

The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center:

Creating lasting relationships requires one to be genuine, present and to have his/her “radar-on, antenna up” 100% of the time. Just like in everyday life, business relies on the strength of relationships. Each guest interaction must build upon the relationship—whether it is a warm welcome to a long-time customer, recovery from a guest incident, a small gesture to surprise and delight your customer or a fond farewell to a new customer whom you hope to see again very soon. When you invest 100% of your energy and ability in providing a first-class customer experience, nothing will stand in your way to accomplish what you wish to provide each guest, each day. At The Ritz-Carlton, we believe in being “on stage” when we interact with our guests. This means 100% focus on their experience and creating a memory that stays with them long after they leave. Does your team give 100 percent? 

The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center offers advisory services, courses and presentations to organizations that wish to benchmark the award-winning business practices of The Ritz-Carlton. Your organization can learn about The Ritz-Carlton methodology for customer service, employee engagement and leadership development. Join us at our Symposium: Your Journey to Service Excellence. We also guide organizations through a multi-step process in order to achieve sustainable culture transformation. 

Inspired Thinking: Customer Expectations

“Setting customer expectations at a level that is aligned with consistently deliverable levels of customer service requires that your whole staff, from product development to marketing, works in harmony with your brand image.” – Richard Branson, English businessman

The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center:

Superior customer or patient experiences can only be fulfilled when your entire organization is committed to service excellence. Without the buy-in of every employee, your service risks being inconsistent and could potentially disappoint your customers or patients. Leaders can foster an environment of service excellence by:

  1. Ensuring employees understand that customers are the highest priority
  2. Providing written service guidelines so employees know what is expected of them
  3. Offering training and modeling to employees to improve service skills
  4. Empowering employees to fulfill the expressed and unexpressed needs of customers and patients
  5. Asking for feedback from customers and patients to determine if service is meeting expectations

Leaders at The Ritz-Carlton spend many hours focusing on discussions around our guest experience and how we all as a team can improve to consistently align performance (and culture, too) with the reputation of our brand.  How does your organization work together to focus on customer needs?