Customer Service Secrets From the Hospitality Industry

Take a cue from Richard Branson, Danny Meyer, the Ritz-Carlton, Tom Colicchio, and other customer service experts.

By Peter Economy

If there’s an industry that knows how to provide truly exceptional customer service, it’s the hospitality industry–the men and women who every day and night put heads in beds and food on the plates of millions of guests.

Says customer service expert Micah Solomon–author of the book, The Heart of Hospitality–“Whether your business is a retail bank, a car wash, or a SaaS startup (or, for that matter, The Apple Store, which lifted many innovations directly from the hospitality industry, including the Genius Bar, which is a direct knockoff of the concierge desk at a Ritz-Carlton hotel), you’ll find the customer service lessons of the hospitality industry apply.”

Here are five customer service lessons that Micah Solomon gathered from some of today’s most successful businesspeople.

  1. Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotels: Scripted customer service is the ultimate turnoff for today’s customers.

Today’s customers, including the important millennial demographic, demand a customer service style that feels authentic and unscripted. Legendary businessman Richard Branson has built his new Virgin Hotels brand expressly on this principle, avoiding what he calls “Stepford customer service”–the rigid, phony, scripted service style that today’s guests find to be such a turnoff.

  1. Legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer: Customers crave recognition and acknowledgement.

Danny Meyer is the restaurateur and hospitality legend whose every move–including the worldwide expansion of Shake Shack and the elimination of tipping at his restaurants–makes news. According to Meyer, the keys to his success are recognition and acknowledgement–making customers feel appreciated when they arrive, paid attention to while they’re at your establishment, missed when they’re gone, and welcomed back the next time.

  1. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company: It takes empowered employees to deliver great customer service.

Great hotels and restaurants empower their frontline employees to proactively fix customer problems without waiting on management approval. This employee empowerment–the permission to be creative, and even spend money, on behalf of customers, is a master stroke in hospitality. At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, even hourly employees have permission to spend up to $2,000 per guest to solve any problem or dissatisfaction that may arise, “without needing to ask permission, without needing to involve management or worry that they’re going too far,” as President and COO Herve Humler puts it.

  1. Top Chef judge & restaurateur Tom Colicchio: Great customer service depends on trait-based hiring

If you want to provide world-class customer service, you’ve got to hire the right people: employees with the necessary traits–empathy, warmth, and conscientiousness, to name a few. Says Tom Colicchio, the celebrity restaurateur and Top Chef judge, “We’re looking to find people who naturally enjoy this work. The best way I can describe the people we want is like this: There are some people who throw great dinner parties because they really want to take care of their guests, and there are other people who are lousy at it because everything is a chore–everything is a problem. We’re looking for that natural host, the person who is always looking to make people happy and who doesn’t find it to be a chore.”

  1. Five-Star chef and restaurateur Patrick O’Connell (The Inn at Little Washington): Build a culture of “yes.”

In a great hotel or restaurant, the entire organization strives to say “yes” to each guest, rather than figuring out ways to say “no,” or “sorry, not my department,” or “It doesn’t work that way around here.” Patrick O’Connell’s Inn at Little Washington is a double Five Star (per Forbes), double Five Diamond (per AAA) restaurant and inn where presidents, kings, and queens are known to dine. When Chef O’Connell trains his waitstaff, he tells them the story of the guest who asked “How big is the lobster?” and the server who answered, “How big would you like it to be?” O’Connell wants every employee to be comfortable using the customers’ wishes, not the stated capabilities of the restaurant, as the default framework within which to operate.

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