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The Ritz-Carlton Experience: It ’s all in the Implementation

There are some books that you have to read more than once. The New Gold Standard by Joseph Michelli is definitely one of these. This book gives an inside look into how the Ritz-Carlton has built and maintains its global, top-drawer, brand status. While browsing through the pearls in the book a second time, I decided to go one step further by taking my own inside look – into The Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur. By the time I left, I was convinced that what was written in the book was for real.

My appointment with the GM of The Ritz-Carlton, Steve Cokkinias was set for 3pm. I arrived at the lobby of the hotel and was given a friendly greeting by four or five Ladies and Gentlemen. (If you are employed by the hotel, you are referred to as “Ladies and Gentlemen.”) Good start. Nice welcome. I told the Gentleman at reception that I was early and would wait in the reception. He soon came over, called me by name and suggested that I wait in the comfortable lobby lounge. Okay, two out of two. I have had two moments of truth with Ritz-Carlton Ladies and Gentlemen, and both of them were winners – they focused on me and made me feel good.

As I was preparing for my interview in the lounge, another of the Ladies and Gentlemen, Hadryl, came to my table. I wanted to get a quick insight into the hotel from an employee before the interview started. I asked him what it was like to work at the hotel. Hadryl then enthusiastically told me how good it was to work at The Ritz-Carlton. He explained that working at the hotel had been good for his personal development. The line-up process (be patient, I will tell you what this is shortly!) is motivational for employees. Reflecting on his words, one of the key building blocks to engaging your customers through the brand experience is to engage your employees to deliver the brand experience. So far, so good. three out of three.

Steve Cokkinias is a tall, affable American. He has been living in Kuala Lumpur for six years. Having learnt to speak Bahasa Malaysia, he does not have any intention of leaving in the near future! But what struck me most about Steve was that he personifies everything that you read about The Ritz-Carlton. He is passionate about the brand. He is passionate about his people – his Ladies and Gentlemen. And he is passionate about delivering the unique Ritz-Carlton brand experience to the hotel’s guests. “I see my role as being a socket that people can plug into when they need a boost,” he said with an enthusiasm that I can see is virally contagious!

I told Steve that I was interested in the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that produced the world class Ritz-Carlton customer experience. He told me that there are no secrets. Many companies visit to find out what Ritz-Carlton does to create the Ritz-Carlton “Mystique” – the emotional engagement of customers, the creation of memories that will last for years. “We have our Credo, our Motto and our Values. Many try to copy our Credo Card. But it is all in the implementation,” he said. There was no smugness about this statement. It was simply a fact. Implementation is where the battle of business is being fought and won. Statistics show that 70 to 90 percent of companies are less than satisfied with the quality of their implementation. It seems that The Ritz-Carlton is one of the minority that has cracked the implementation code.

The Ritz-Carlton Gold Standards create the foundation stone, the cultural glue, for the delivery of the hotel’s unique guest experience. Each Lady and Gentleman carries a credit-sized fold out, four paneleight sided card, the Credo Card. The Ritz-Carlton Credo defines the guest experience in three simple sentences. The first sentence says, ‘The Ritz-Carlton is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission’. The other sentences focus on personal service, a warm, relaxed and yet refined ambience, instilling well-being and fulfilling even the unexpressed wishes and needs of guests. You will notice one thing about how The Ritz-Carlton defines the guest experience – it’s all about how the hotel wants guests to feel. There are two sides to the brand experience – the functional side (the nice rooms and fluffy towels) and the emotional experience. The Ritz-Carlton aims directly for the heart, recognising that the functional side needs to be spot on as well.

The Ritz-Carlton’s Motto, at first, seems as if it was developed by Shakespeare himself. It says, “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen”. Steve explained, “The Motto elevates the profession. It defines the important role that everyone plays. Every Lady and Gentleman is an important spoke in the wheel.” Shakespeare could not have expressed it better to employees himself!

The Credo card also defines the three steps of service, broadly in terms of 1. Warm and sincere greeting and using the customer’s name; 2. Anticipating and fulfilling each guest’s needs; and 3. Fond warm farewell, using the guest’s name. Steve gave insight to the third step, “It’s not uncommon for companies to aim to give a warm welcome. It’s just as important that they be sent off in a warm, memorable way as well. Most companies miss this.” Great learning point, I think to myself. The Credo Card outlines the hotel’s twelve Service Values. These are action-oriented sentences such as, “I own and immediately resolve guest problems.” Finally, the Employee Promise, states that the Ladies and Gentlemen are the most important resource in the hotel’s service commitment to guests. It also commits to nurturing the talent of each individual, for the benefit of the individual and the company. Now for the one million dollar question: How does the Ritz-Carlton go from words on a credit card size piece of paper in everyone’s wallets to real action?

“It’s all about our people,” Steve explained. The hotel engages in a rigorous process to assure itself that it is hiring people who are able to deliver the Ritz- Carlton brand philosophy, its Gold Standards. This involves behaviouralbased interview questions and four interviews. “We are looking for a particular type of talent – people who can put a smile on other people’s faces, people with caring characteristics as part of their fabric. These are not teachable characteristics,” he said. Only one in 10 people that actually get an interview are selected for a job at the hotel.

It is clear that part of the art of implementation is a willingness to invest time – much more time than most companies would spend-to-hire customer facing staff. In fact, The Ritz-Carlton invests a lot in its Ladies and Gentlemen. There is a two day orientation program for new starters, 21 days on-the-job training, and there is a meeting with the employee at day 365 of his or her employment. At this meeting, there is a reality check where the hotel asks the employee how things are going compared to the Employee Promise. The hotel allocates 100 hours of training time per employee. The Ritz-Carlton Gold Standards are weaved into many of the training courses.

Now here is a question for you: How often do people in your company talk about the unique experience that you want to deliver to customers? (I am assuming, of course, that you have defined your unique experience!) Many companies relegate this to the occasional training session. But not so at The Ritz-Carlton. The single biggest time investment that the hotel makes to implement its brand experience is through the daily “line-up.” This is a 15 to 20 minute, daily pre-shift meeting where people in every Ritz-Carlton hotel around the world – from the President down - gather to talk about The Ritz-Carlton experience. Line up is run by the manager or supervisor of the section. The aim is to create conversations and to share stories of how the Gold Standards can be applied, and have been applied by Ladies and Gentlemen not only in the hotel, but in other Ritz-Carlton hotels around the world. The format starts with a quote for the day, and then one of the Gold Standards is highlighted for discussion. The third element plugs Ladies and Gentlemen into the bigger picture such as new openings, what is happening elsewhere in the company and even how design affects the customer experience. The final part of the process is operational, so that employees know what events are being held, any people of note in attendance and repeat customers.

Line-up certainly involves a substantial investment of time. Twenty minutes a day translates to 384 hours per employee per year, based on a 6 day week! I asked Steve how he would respond to companies that say, “How can we find 20 minutes a day?” Steve’s quick reply was, “The cliché answer would be “how can you afford not to find the time?” At a more practical level, when an employee joins a company that has been doing this for 27 years, it is difficult to question the brand culture and the importance of line-up.”

A key challenge for any company seeking to shape its culture is embodied in three letters: BAU – business as usual. The Ritz-Carlton is as busy as any organisation in Malaysia. Line up has become BAU. It is a part of the culture. It is therefore not a matter of not having the time. It’s about understanding the importance of focusing on the most important part of the business – people and customers – and making the investment of 20 minutes a day a priority.

The goal of operational maximization is customer-centricity. Customer-centricity involves more than segmented customer service. It also involves leadership and change management, R&D/product development and pricing. One overlooked area is compensation and pricing. Unless the organization, and especially the sales force, is compensated based on retention and customer profitability, they will continue to concentrate on acquisition, inevitably resulting in the 20% (or greater) customer churn that steals profitability.

My brother Tony and his family were wowed when they stayed at The Ritz-Carlton in December. Tony was given an embroidered cap with his initials on it by one of the Gentlemen who works in the gym. Their pillow slips had Tony’s initials embroidered on them. I asked Steve how common these surprises were. He explained that Ladies and Gentlemen were empowered to spend up to RM2,000 to satisfy a guest without having to consult their supervisors. “Birthday cakes and balloons are arranged weekly for guests. If we notice that there is something special – a birthday, an anniversary - then something will be arranged for the guest,” he explained. And it goes further than birthday cakes. Steve told me that the hotel had guests who had their honeymoon in the hotel. One year later, on their first anniversary, they were sent a CD with music and photos of their stay at The Ritz-Carlton. That would be a huge WOW! in anyone’s books.

But isn’t the hotel concerned about the costs incurred to “Wow” customers? Steve quickly replied, “We don’t think like that. We measure the ROI coming from a loyal guest over many years.” The Ritz-Carlton is certainly a very commercial organisation. It appreciates that happy customers spend more money. What is notable to me is that, unlike most organisations, it measures ROI over a period of years rather than over shorter time frames.

The hotel recognises its people in various ways. There are cards with the words, “First Class” printed on them. These cards can be given to anyone in the hotel. “It’s about finding someone doing something great. The cards are delivered in person. I know of people who have kept their First Class cards in a shoebox for 10 years. It means a lot to personally receive a card,” Steve explained.

The company has ‘Lightening Strike’ awards for extraordinary service and ‘Five Star Employee’ awards for employee of the quarter. This includes a dinner and certificates for the top five. One practice that I found interesting was that managers stand up and tell everyone else why certificates were given to their people. Nice touch.

Steve had to rush off to his weekly GM’s Round Table meeting. This meeting gives eight people from around the hotel (a different group each week) the opportunity to give Steve and the HR Manager feedback on how things are going and to make suggestions for improvement. At a recent meeting, a butler had told him that there are hooks for guest laundry in the butler pantries in the main hotel tower, but no hooks in the Residences tower. Clean laundry was therefore hung on door knobs and other less-than-convenient places behind the scenes on the guest floors, when an immediate delivery to the Residences suites was not possible. As a result of this suggestion, the hotel ordered and installed 30 clothes hooks which were installed on each floor in the butler pantries of the Residences tower. “Employees find it motivating when their ideas are implemented,” he said. From my own experience of really good leaders, employees appreciate quick action, rather than leaders who are “mirror-men” who say “they will look into it”. Action speaks louder than words!

The hotel is definitely not the biggest, nor the flashiest in town. It doesn’t aim to be. It doesn’t try to compete on these tangibles. Rather, it competes on something more timeless – creating experiences and memories for life for guests in a home away from home environment. And, in the process, they build a following of loyal guests who are proud to be associated with The Ritz-Carlton.

And, based on customer letters, it is the experience that counts the most. “Our customers don’t write to us to tell us how happy they are with our beds with seven pillows, or tell us that they felt like they were showering in a rain-forest after being under our 10 inch diameter shower heads. They always talk about the personal experience that they have had. I have had guests ask for the 10th floor because Ayu is the butler on that floor. With one guest, it was because Ayu remembered his favourite tea. Have you ever heard of people who ask for specific floors because of the hotel staff? It happens here,” he explained proudly.

By the end of the interview, I could appreciate the richness of the cultural fabric that The Ritz-Carlton has woven. The Ritz-Carlton creates a direct line of sight between its Ladies and Gentlemen and the guest experience. As Steve has indicated, it is all about people - from the President down. And, if I may add, it is all about focusing on the organisation walking the talk, and being prepared to invest in its most important assets – its people.

George Aveling, Group CEO and International Partner of TMI Consultancy and TACK International. TMI Consultancy helps companies deliver great customer service experiences. You can email George on george@ tmimalaysia Check out TMI on


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