by Edgar Sanchez

Learn Customer Service Principles from the Ritz

Aug 28, 20076 mins
IT Leadership

Three rules for ideal customer service.

The hours were long, and the work was hard. Attention to detail was very important. Our clients paid a lot for our services and they knew it. They expected the best from us.

They expected us to know their names, their favorite things—even their allergies. The customer never had to ask for something twice. Anticipating their needs always meant extra points! In fact, when we knew one of our best clients was coming over, we knew exactly where to seat him, if he preferred bottled or tap water and whether or not we should let our senior manager know so he could come over and greet him personally. Those were the days when customer service mattered. Quality management (QM) wasn’t just jargon but was part of every step in the process. You could literally live it. Those were my good old days bussing tables at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago.

What Is Customer Service?

The best customer service and QM training I ever got was at the Ritz. This is not to diminish the training I’ve received at my various employers, but not many companies take customer service and QM very seriously. Consider The Home Depot, for example. Its mantra sounds wonderful: “You can do it. We can help!” Really? Does the Home Depot CEO really believe that? Is it a big secret that finding help at any of their stores is close to impossible? To quote Seinfeld’s Baboo, “Show me people! Where are people? I see no people.”

What Is Quality Management?

QM is a bit trickier than customer service to get right. This is because humans are part of the process. We make mistakes. This is not an excuse but rather a reminder to be detail oriented. A few weeks back, I bought a backyard play set. I hired a group of people to pick it up and put it together for me. Unfortunately they couldn’t put it together because the instructions manual was missing. How could this be? How can a factory line put more than 100 hardware parts inside the box but forget to include the setup instructions?

QM by itself does not get us much. Not unless it is part of a broader customer-savvy culture. Customers are the key. They pay the bills and they know it. They want the best from us, and we should give it to them.

I offer you three lessons learned from my days as a busboy.

Don’t Forget the Instructions: Back to the Basics

The Ritz understood customer service. The moment a customer stepped into the dining room, he was greeted with a smile and, “Good evening.” If he were underdressed, a jacket was at arm’s length. If she were eating alone, a magazine, newspaper or manager visit was always available. The customer knew he was our raison d’etre. Is this the philosophy of your help desk? Or are you just a blur in a line of people? Do you really exist? Is your laptop a figment of your imagination? According to Descartes, if you think you are real you must exist, even though the help desk seems oblivious to this fact. But it is not the company’s philosophy that matters; it is your own personal beliefs: Do you screen your phone calls? How soon do you reply to e-mails? Do you greet people as you walk down the hallway? Or are they invisible?

Understand Your Role, and Love It!

Large enterprises have diversified workforces and they benefit from various skills and personalities. However, a large workforce can become unmanageable if the leaders are far removed from the day-to-day operations. At the Ritz, the general manager was often a guest at the dinning room. Not only that, our senior manager was always around to say hi to us, or to greet a client or two. Though the added pressure of his presence kept us on our toes, we knew our jobs. We had been trained and equipped with the right tools. We also knew our place in the entire picture. And though we were just the busboys, our job was very important: We gave the client the first impression of the rest of their evening: cordial, professional and honest. Part of that was we knew how to say “I don’t know.”

Learn How to Say “I Don’t Know”

Have you ever asked the busboy how a dish is cooked? “Excuse me, do you know if the venison is cooked with garlic?” What you might expect is an “I don’t think so,” or the classic, “I don’t know.” But you won’t get this at the Ritz. There you get the right answer: “Let me check with the chef.” Unfortunately, checking with the “chef” has been replaced with passing the buck and wishy-washy answers. What ever happened to ownership? What ever happened to, “Let me find out for you”? One of my biggest pet peeves is asking someone a question and getting the “I think…” answer. If you don’t know, just say so. If I asked your name, would you reply, “I think it is Ed”? Please don’t think. Know or find out.

Customer service and QM are dependent on three basic points: Care for your customers, know your role and learn how to say I don’t know. A training program that develops these three skills is a must-have. We didn’t have a corporate training program for busboys, but we were trained in the basics. That is, our jobs were not just cleaning the tables and keeping coffee cups filled. Our jobs were to make people feel at home, relaxed, comfortable and taken care of. This is where many companies fail. They put all their efforts into deliverables, budgets and investor equity. They create mantras and make posters. Yet they forget the basics: the people and the relationships. Visit your favorite restaurant and pay close attention to the busboys. Aren’t they great?

Edgar I. Sanchez is a senior infrastructure design specialist.