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What It Takes to Work Here: Ritz Carlton Hotels

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Does that guest prefer sparkling or still? You have to know -- without asking.

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There are ladies and gentlemen, and then there are Ladies and Gentlemen, as in Ritz-Carlton employees, the standard-bearers of the hotel chain's famed customer service.

The Ritz-Carlton, which operates 70 hotels around the world, consistently wins top honors for its customer service and employee training, including number eight on this year's Businessweek customer service list. It took the top spot in Training Magazine's Training Top 125 in 2007, and was admitted to the magazine's Hall of Fame in 2008. The Ritz-Carlton is also the only two-time winner of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, in 1999 and 1992, an award established by the US Commerce Department to recognize excellence in American companies.

So what does it take to work at The Ritz-Carlton? A lot. Only some 2% of applicants survive the vetting process to become a Ritz-Carlton Lady or Gentleman, says Judith Crutchfield, senior director of quality, who has been with the hotel company for 21 years, ever since she entered the company's management training program straight out of college. In evaluating an applicant, says Crutchfield, the company is less interested in luxury hospitality experience and most interested in one's attitude. The Ritz-Carlton looks for candidates who share the brand's standards and philosophy.

"We're really looking for an individual's natural talents," says Crutchfield." One of our doormen said it best: 'I can teach someone how to serve people but I can't teach them to love people.' "

Crutchfield's long service is an exception in the hotel industry but not at The Ritz-Carlton, where employees tend to stay put. "Typically in the hotel industry there's a high turnover, but I think we're unique that way. Our turnover is much lower than the norm."

Quality and customer service has been The Ritz-Carlton modus operandi since the first hotel opened in Boston in 1927, a licensee of the name, and modeled after the Hôtel Ritz in Paris and The Ritz Hotel in London, headed by famed hotelier Cesar Ritz whose attention to detail is legendary. Marriott International (MAR) bought the company in 1995.

Professor Liang Yu of the Tourism and Hospitality Management department at The George Washington University School of Business uses The Ritz-Carlton, along with competitors The Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental, as a teaching example in his classes. He explains that The Ritz-Carlton's training program is successful because it teaches that service is attitude. "The culture permeates through the organization."

Training starts on the employee's first day, says Crutchfield, with two days immersion into the hotel's philosophy and Gold Standards, and the hotel's customer service mission, including the 12 Service Values that all employees carry with them on a laminated card. (For example, number six on the list is, "I own and immediately resolve guest problems." Find the full dozen here.) Each new hire is then assigned a Learning Coach, a one-on-one trainer who teaches the technical part of the job, i.e., how to make beds or man the parking lot according to Ritz-Carlton standards. Then comes All Aboard, a problem resolution class that uses role-play to teach employees how to address customer service issues. Next up is Day 21, a follow-up orientation that seeks to meld the philosophical with the practical.

And that's just the first month.

Employees are also trained to use Mystique, a database program into which guest preferences are entered so that every Ritz-Carlton hotel will be aware of returning guests' tastes. In addition, every single employee is authorized to spend up to $2,000 without a manager's approval to satisfy a guest's requirements. And each shift begins with the Line Up, a compulsory 15-minute meeting for all employees, where events, both positive and less so, are discussed.

"Everybody in the organization understands that they're contributing and making a difference and they're creating The Ritz-Carlton guest for life," says Crutchfield.

Yu says that out of the top hotels, The Ritz-Carlton is the only one that asks guests questions about their emotion, attachment, and pride, and tallies the scores to quantify customers as fully engaged, moderately engaged, and not engaged. "All three luxury companies use outside contract consultants to do surveys for them, but the Ritz is the only one doing emotional engagement," says Yu.

The Ritz-Carlton puts a lot of store in its employees' ability to anticipate guests' wishes almost before the guests know themselves. Psychic ability is not required, however, because the Ladies and Gentlemen are trained to observe and respond. A guest likes their martini dry and stirred, not shaken? An employee will take note and enter it into Mystique, and the perfect martini will appear the next time that guest stays at a Ritz-Carlton property.

That obsession with pleasing guests was recently taken a step too far when an English family staying at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples asked to not be served by minorities, and that request was dutifully entered into the hotel's computer system. Now an employee is suing the hotel for discrimination.

Crutchfield explains their clients' loyalty. "Anybody can have a beautiful product," she says. "But what we hear from our guests over and over is that it's our Ladies and Gentlemen."

Do you have what it takes to become a Lady or Gentleman? Think hard, says Crutchfield. "It's not for everyone."

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