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Published: Sunday, 7/23/2006

Service providers borrow hotels' welcoming touches

FROM BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
Complimentary fruit, bottled water, and a choice of coffees are part of the service at the Sylvania Township Lexus dealership. Complimentary fruit, bottled water, and a choice of coffees are part of the service at the Sylvania Township Lexus dealership.
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To make the car dealership he manages more inviting, Bill Morton recently added valet parking, fresh flowers in the showroom, and a marble floor in the restroom.

Customers picking up their serviced vehicles now find bottled water and Hershey's chocolate kisses in the cup holders "like when you go to a fine hotel and they turn down your bed at night," he said.

His inspiration: the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad, Calif., where he and other Lexus dealers got a behind-the-scenes tour last year.

"It really made you open your eyes as far as the future of customer service and guest engagement," said Mr. Morton, who manages Tom Williams Lexus in Irondale, Ala.

A growing number of companies in industries not known for great customer service - banks, hospitals, law firms, and car dealerships, to name a few - increasingly are turning to luxury hotels that pride themselves on service, like Four Seasons Hotels Inc. and Marriott International Inc.'s Ritz-Carlton chain.

Hotels like the Ritz-Carlton, in part sensing a business opportunity, started offering training classes several years ago after other companies sought help.

Many companies want to improve service and differentiate themselves from competitors. At car dealers, for instance, freebies like loaner cars have become the norm, so dealers are seeking hotel-service techniques to stand out, said Robert Palme, dealer communications manager at Lexus, which is owned by Toyota Motor Corp.

Mr. Morton said that since the service touches were added, sales are up about 20 percent.

Vera Frazier reads in the lounge as she waits for her car to be serviced at the Sylvania Township Lexus dealership. Vera Frazier reads in the lounge as she waits for her car to be serviced at the Sylvania Township Lexus dealership.
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They didn't get their training directly from hoteliers, but sales people at the Sylvania Township Jaguar/Land Rover dealership had two weeks of training that included making sure the customer doesn't feel pressured while at the dealership, said Victor Oraha, sales manager.

The customer waiting area at the Central Avenue dealership has fresh flowers, a variety of complimentary drinks and snacks, satellite television, and comfortable chairs and couches.

"These people can do business anywhere, so the more comfortable they are, the easier it is to make purchase decisions," Mr. Ohara said

At the Lexus dealership in Sylvania Township, general manag-er Hal Whitmire said staffers did not attend the sessions held by hoteliers, but customer service is upscale.

The dealership provides a lounge area that looks like a living room, with leather chairs and couches, a high-definition television, and a variety of magazines, as well as a refreshment area stocked at all times with bottled water, a dispenser that offers at least six selections of coffee, cappuccinos, and lattes, and a basket of fresh fruit.

"Our mission statement talks about treating our customers as if they were guests in our own homes," Mr. Whitmire said.

Making visitors feel comfortable has long been a staple of the hotel business.

At the Four Seasons' limited training sessions, topics include maintaining consistency throughout the properties (housekeepers have a 77-item checklist for readying guest rooms) and hiring staff with instincts for good service (at most Four Seasons hotels, one in 20 applicants is hired).

At the Four Seasons resort in Carlsbad last year, Lexus dealers talked to employees who handle laundry, landscaping, and valet parking and learned service secrets like "crunch" teams - administrative staff who pitch in to park cars, check in guests, or perform other tasks during busy periods.

For hotels, the training programs are an additional source of revenue and a way to lure new guests. The Ritz-Carlton class costs $1,700 per person. The company declined to disclose its annual revenue from the classes.

Ray Davis, chief executive officer of a West Coast banking company, said he got the idea to send employees to training sessions after his stays at Ritz-Carltons.

At the Central Park hotel, employees at the front desk mysteriously addressed him by name upon his arrival. (Bellmen look at guests' luggage tags and then use tiny, hidden radios to transmit the name to employees in the lobby and at the front desk.)

Those little things "make you stand up and go, 'Wow, these people are really good. We need to talk to them,' " he said.

Since 2003, Mr. Davis' company has sent employees to half-day training sessions taught by Ritz-Carlton employees, and tellers now place customers' cash on black wooden trays along with a silver chocolate coin embellished with the bank's logo.

Still, not all five-star hotel service tricks translate well for other industries.

After attending a symposium at the Ritz-Carlton Cleveland in March, 2005, John Levis, manager of cultural leadership at KeyCorp, started a weekly version of the Ritz's daily meeting for his team. He stopped the gathering after six months partly because it kept getting canceled.

Sometimes nothing more comes out of a training session other than a memorable experience. Commerce Bancorp Inc. sent 14 assistant managers from its New York-area branches in 2004 to a session, and one attendee, Susan Aminov, a 26-year-old assistant manager, said she didn't formally implement service tips at her branch.

But she enjoyed her first trip to a Ritz-Carlton, especially when she dropped her fork and five employees rushed to help. "We spoke about the Ritz for a while afterward," she said of her colleagues.

At Ritz-Carlton's most popular class, "Legendary Service," a full-day program, attendees learn how the hotel uses personality assessments to recruit the kind of employees who like to serve people, and how it offers cash incentives to employees who go above the call of duty for guests.

"Until you get happy employees, you're not going to make the leap to happy guests," Diana Oreck, a Ritz-Carlton vice president, told the seven attendees at a recent session - executives from a law firm, a private aviation-service provider, a hospice, and a manufacturer of therapeutic pools.

The program also divulged how the hotel allots employees as much as $2,000 a day per guest to solve problems without supervisor approval. An employee can adjust a guest's room-service bill, for instance, if the guest is unhappy with the meal.



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