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.

Our Ladies and Gentlemen: Bob Kharazmi

Bob Kharazmi, Global Officer, Worldwide Operations at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C. sits down with The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center (RCLC) to share his thoughts on employees and mentoring. Mr. Kharazmi has worked at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company over three decades. Throughout his career, he has devoted time to asking employees about their career goals and future with the organization.

RCLC: Why should leaders mentor employees?

Mr. Kharazmi: When anyone looks back on his or her career, the biggest accomplishment he or she will see is how many lives they impacted in a positive way. That is the best reward we can have. We always get promotions, new job titles and even different jobs. Those things come and go, but what stays is the positive impact that we have made in the lives of other people. That’s what mentoring really means to me and that’s why I truly love mentoring.

RCLC: What makes someone a good mentor?

Mr. Kharazmi: Mentoring becomes successful when people see that you genuinely care. You create relationships with employees when you acknowledge them for doing the right things as opposed to catching them when they do something wrong. This creates trust, and employees become more comfortable with you. They are less concerned about their failure, and they share their wins with you. They become so close to you that you can help and guide them. You become a nurturing person in their life who facilitates progress.

RCLC: How do leaders have time to connect with employees?

Mr. Kharazmi: What is priority for a leader? The first and most important priority for a leader is his or her people. No matter where we want to go—no matter what our belief is—no matter what our destination is—we are not going to go alone. We are going with our employees, our Ladies and Gentlemen. So we have to make this a top priority. We have to take time to spend one-on-one time—either in person or over the phone. We have to make sure that we are staying in touch with them.

If you segregate yourself from your employees and focus only on strategy, you can go wrong—because the strategy that you put together needs to bubble up from your people. Any strategy that is developed needs to translate into action, and the action will need to be executed by your people. So leaders cannot create strategies in isolation. They need to interact with employees to create good strategies.

You must also understand the burden of execution. You might not roll up your sleeves every day and do what your employees do. But you have to know what they do. You have to know the burden of doing it. There can’t be total separation between the people making the decisions and the people who have to execute those decisions.

A lot of companies have great strategies. If you look at the airlines in the United States, they have the right leadership in their organizations. They have great strategies. But when you look at the execution part—the service part, you see a lot of complaining about the lack of care. I strongly believe that leadership is not involved in the day-to-day execution. They sit in their offices and put plans together, but they are unaware of how it gets done. You have to connect the dots. You can’t just send the email and define your strategy without knowing how it gets done. If employees don’t buy in, then strategies will not get done.

RCLC: Do you lose your edge as an authority figure when you mentor and bond with employees?

Mr. Kharazmi: Absolutely not. The 20th century is gone. There was a day when there was a hierarchy between executives, management and employees. There were so many different layers. That is gone. The 21st century is a horizontal line. Any organization should have an environment where leadership is accessible. There should be togetherness. It’s no longer the leaders demanding, “Go do this.” Instead we should be collaborating, and leaders should be saying, “Let’s go together to get this done.”

People do not come to work to do something wrong. They don’t leave their homes and think, “Today I’m going to really mess up a service.” The intention is never to make a mistake. No one—not even a disengaged employee—has in mind, “I’m going to do wrong today.” They come to do something right, but they don’t get guided on how to do it. They just need to be guided and that’s the leader’s role.

A leader can be an executive or vice president of the regional office or a leader can work in room service, the front office or as restaurant manager. All leaders need to guide their people, show them how to do their best and how to create excellence. Leaders will get the best out of their people when they guide them.

RCLC: Have you ever experienced employees who are intimidated by you because you are an important person within the company?

Mr. Kharazmi: I believe our employees are more important than I am. I really believe that. If I can’t make it to work, meetings get rescheduled. But if a server doesn’t show up in the restaurant, then there’s a problem because there’s no one there to serve the guests. When it comes to serving the guests, our employees are more important than I am.

If you create a good relationship, if you are humble, if you are a servant leader, then any nervousness goes away very quickly and people feel comfortable with you. It goes back to trust. When people trust you, then they establish a relationship with you. They speak freely with you. When you are transparent, then you get respect. When you uphold your promises and extend trust, you create an environment where people can be open and discuss their issues with you.

RCLC: At The Ritz-Carlton, people are a higher priority than profits. How can a company be profitable but make people a priority?

Mr. Kharazmi: Profit is a by-product of having a great concept and having great employees to put the concept in place. Profit truly is a by-product. In our organization, we always, always, always have tried from day one to make sure that we live our value system. What is our value system? Our gold standards. Our gold standards put people first because it is the people who achieve our goal of creating a hotel company where service is our highest mission.

The founders of The Ritz-Carlton Company never intended to create just another hotel company—because there were already a lot of hotel companies out there. Their desire was to have a hotel company that redefined service and provided service in a way that had never been experienced by anyone. They developed the three steps of service and put systems in place that drive guest engagement. The Ritz-Carlton was developed out of this passion for service excellence. That passion has been kept alive and continues even today. 

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.

Our Ladies and Gentlemen: Kelly Steward

Kelly StewardEach month, The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center (RCLC) features an interview with an employee — 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 Kelly A. Steward, General Manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland.

RCLC: Why did you choose to work in the hotel industry?

Ms. Steward: I have always loved taking care of people. As a young girl, I liked to help my grandmother cook and assisted my family when they would have get-togethers. My memories of my youth include watching The Love Boat on TV. My friends said I reminded them of the cruise director, Julie McCoy. I took this as a compliment as she was the character who assisted everyone and ensured guests had fun.

RCLC: Tell me about your first job in a hotel.

Ms. Steward: In college, I worked for a limited-service hotel as a front office agent, a bartender and an assistant manager, among other positions. I was fortunate to become a General Manager upon earning my Hospitality degree from The Ohio State University. As the General Manager of a limited service hotel, I always wanted to go above and beyond what was expected by welcoming guests into their “home away from home” and having special touches by leaving notes and chocolates.

RCLC: Why did you join The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company?

Ms. StewardWhen my friends and I were on vacation in Florida, we watched The Ritz-Carlton, Naples being constructed. Over time, I saw this magical hotel receive many accolades. I would read about the resort in Condé Nast Magazine and wanted to be part of this 5-Star, 5-Diamond hotel. I was at a point in my life where I wanted a new challenge and so I applied for a job at the hotel. I have always been someone who strives for excellence in my life and during the interview process, I met other professionals who had the same passion as mine. I wanted to work with them and learn from them.

RCLC: What position did you have there?

Ms. StewardThey created a new position — Guest Services Manager. My position was to welcome our guests into the beautiful resort and make them feel special. I loved this, as the team of doormen, bellmen, valet and concierge that I supported were the first and lasting impression of the hotel. It was so exhilarating. We were considered the “nerve center” of the resort.

RCLC: Why have you continued to work for The Ritz-Carlton for almost 14 years?

Ms. Steward: I cannot imagine being with any other company as this is an amazing organization to be a part of. I love the training the company provides and the attention to detail. As a General Manager, I enjoy being with our Ladies and Gentlemen and leading by example. A fundamental part of our culture is our philosophy, and I am very passionate about the service we provide our guests.

RCLC: Do you have an example where an employee embodied what The Ritz-Carlton is known for in delivering service excellence?

Ms. Steward: A few weeks ago, a room attendant was vacuuming a guest’s room when a phone charger was accidentally caught in the vacuum. The room attendant empowered herself to write a personal note of apology as well as purchase a new charger for the guest. The guest was so touched by this genuine gesture that he called me to say how impressed he was by this act of kindness. We recognize and celebrate our Ladies and Gentlemen who take it upon themselves to provide this level of service excellence.

RCLC: What do you see as your main role as General Manager?

Ms. Steward: My role is to be a multi-faceted ambassador of the brand. I relish my responsibility of representing The Ritz-Carlton in the most positive way to our guests, our team of Ladies and Gentlemen, our ownership and our community.

RCLC: What do you value most about working within The Ritz-Carlton culture?

Ms. Steward: I believe it is the positive culture that allows all to be empowered and to create exceptional experiences for our guests. The Ritz-Carlton culture also includes building strong relationships with internal and external guests. I am honored to work with a company that is so deeply rooted in our philosophy and values and fulfill its promises to its guests and employees.

RCLC: As an Ambassador for The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center you speak to other business leaders who want to deliver outstanding customer service. How do you help them achieve greatness in their companies?

Ms. StewardI am relentless in sharing our world-class culture and the pursuit of excellence. The message that I deliver is one that inspires others to think about how they make people feel and the difference they can make professionally and personally.

RCLC: Similar to The Love Boat, it sounds like you are leading customers on a journey to service excellence.

Ms. StewardYes, delivering on our philosophy ensures our success. It is all about the genuine care that we consistently deliver and how we provide remarkable memories for our guests. It is a meaningful journey.  

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.

Our Ladies and Gentlemen: Allison Sitch

Allison SitchEach month, The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center (RCLC) features an interview with an employee — 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 Allison Sitch. A self-described, “straight shooter” who appreciates hard news stories over fluff, Ms. Sitch hasn’t always fit the mold of a corporate public relations executive. Yet she’s risen to the top of the PR industry while working for hotels in the United Arab Emirates, China, Europe and now as Vice President, Global Public Relations, based at The Ritz-Carlton headquarters in the United States.

RCLC: How did you become involved in Public Relations for the hospitality industry?

Ms. Sitch: In the early 1990s, I was a hotelier working in the food and beverage department of a hotel in the Middle East when the Gulf War broke out. As a result of the war, the hotel began to struggle financially, which meant personnel cuts. Fortunately I was spared as my General Manager asked me to transition to the Public Relations Department. It was there that I learned the business of promoting hotels through the media, and I found I had a passion for it!

RCLC: When did you join The Ritz-Carlton, and what is it that you value most about their culture?

Ms. Sitch: After I gained experience in public relations, I joined The Ritz-Carlton in 1999 as we opened our hotel in Dubai. Today, 15 years into my career with this brand, what I love about working for Ritz-Carlton is the sense of belonging to an organization that genuinely cares about its people and its guests. I truly enjoy working for an organization so focused on service excellence and always striving to do something better.

RCLC: Please describe your work as a media specialist.

Ms. Sitch: The most important part of my role is to protect the reputation of The Ritz-Carlton. Public Relations isn’t all about getting media hits and dealing with a crisis. It’s making sure people correctly translate what The Ritz-Carlton stands for and how it can be a part of your life. Secondly, the primary objective for The Ritz-Carlton in the social space is to strengthen the level of engagement for current guests and also to develop a love for our brand among aspirational consumers. To do that I focus the teams efforts on crafting the right messages, for the right people, on the right channels. We are an organization founded on the concept of individualized service — we pay attention to the details. Our communications strategy is no different.

RCLC: What advancements has The Ritz-Carlton made within the digital landscape?

Ms. Sitch:  In April 2009, we started working with social media — on Facebook and on Twitter. In fact, I remember a night that I anxiously sat up waiting until 2:30 AM for our fan count to click from 999 to 1000. Today The Ritz-Carlton has over 2.5 million fans on 12 channels, three of which are Mandarin. Our Facebook engagement is at 8.4%, which outperforms the industry average of 5.04%, and The Ritz-Carlton was ranked #1 by two independent studies on engagement in social platforms in the hotel category; Shareablee in January and Engagement Labs in August.

RCLC: How do you ensure your connection with customers is of value to them as well as for the company?

Ms. Sitch:  We have multiple social media platforms on which we connect with consumers. However each channel has been designed with a very different purpose – to participate in conversation and add value to multiple people with various interests. We measure the level of engagement that they have with our content to ensure they feel connected to what we are doing. In addition, we’ve deployed media specialists around the world to keep our finger on the pulse so we can understand consumers and the geographic and cultural sensitivities in various regions. That helps us with our positioning strategies and the ability to message and converse in-language and in relevant ways.

RCLC: How do you incorporate The Ritz-Carlton customer service principles into social media messaging?

Ms. Sitch: It’s all about connecting and engaging with consumers. The customer wants to know there’s a human on the other end of the digital line. The DNA of the company is centered around being of service and so the ability to interact through social media is a gift because it enables us to stay connected and converse the same way we would in person.

RCLC: Can you share an example of how that plays out?

Ms. Sitch: People are reaching out to us ahead of a visit to a hotel or destination asking our advice and recommendations, they share their photos during a stay and then their memories after they have departed. We take a real interest in the meaningful journeys they experience with us and the world of travel that we are able to help them experience. 

On Monday, April 13, 2015, Ms. Sitch will be a member of The Ritz-Carlton Executive Panel at the Symposium: Your Journey to Service Excellence in Dallas. Enroll before December 31, 2014, and take advantage of early bird pricing.