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The Ritz Carlton effect: Why businesses need to empower employees

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Musician Dave Carroll, angered at United Airlines for rejecting his damage claim after its baggage handlers broke his guitar, created a YouTube video entitled “United Breaks Guitars.” Needless to say, some 15,531,631 have watched the negative take on the brand. The list of examples of such “creative” complaints being viewed by millions in the social media sphere is endless, and with mobiles now being permanent fixtures to our bodies, can instantly inflict lasting brand damage. As such, now more than ever, customer service should be the most important factor for all businesses. 

Well, the management fad of the millennium seems to be employee “engagement” – a concept that has been marketed as the one metric for improving everything from employee retention to customer service. And while freeing employees to experiment, make high-profile decisions on the fly and to effectively speak for the organisation in public is not something most firms are accustomed to doing, it’s been used by some of the companies best-known for great customer service.

For example, when you call Zappos for advice on an order, you won’t get rushed off the call because agents are empowered to spend as much of their time as needed to create a great experience. In one extreme example, the retailer set a new record with a call that lasted over ten hours – they talked about Las Vegas and clothes before it ended in the sale of Ugg boots. 

When it comes to customer service, however, no one does it quite like the Ritz Carlton. Employees are trained to anticipate the unexpressed wishes of their guests. In a room-service visit it’s not uncommon for a waiter to tilt the TV in the direction of the guest and place the remote control on the service tray. It also goes a step further by empowering employees to spend up to $2,000 to delight a guest – not just to fix problems. 

This is a concept that many firms should take note of – not particularly the offering of money, but allowing staff to work magic and make it an unforgettable experience. Knowing that your business probably doesn’t have a $2,000 per-incident budget for service recovery, it’s important to focus on how you can use the same principle to your advantage. And it all begins by embracing the idea of fostering relationships with customers – that’s where true loyalty will come from.

The culinary team at the hotel, for example, once had an upcoming wedding for a Russian family. The executive chef and specialty chef wanted to create an authentic Russian menu for the bride, so when she came to the hotel for a tasting she was happily surprised. However, the executive chef could tell she was not entirely satisfied, and so spoke to her about her favourite dishes. After finding out that all of them were prepared by her grandmother, they asked if it would be possible to visit her grandmother and learn the recipes directly from her. 

Another example is when a large group stayed over at the hotel on the Club Level. For many of these guests, this was their first visit to China, and most were particularly curious in how dumplings were made. The guest recognition manager took the initiative to organise a home-style dumpling class, whereby the team could take the guests through the entire process step-by-step. 

Similarly, Virgin America is well-known for its exceptional customer service.

Learn more about Branson’s view on employee autonomy on the next page…

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