Walking the Talk

In mid-September, Starwood Hotels and Resorts' CEO Barry Sternlicht stood before a large crowd in New York City's Bryant Park, joined by actor Harry Anderson (from TV's Night Court) and former Mayor Ed Koch. At the duo's prompting, Sternlicht raised his right hand and recited a pledge aimed at future guests of Sheraton Hotels and Resorts: that their experiences in every Sheraton would be perfect, or else they'd receive a discount on their stay.

Sure, it was a p.r. stunt of the highest order - when was the last time anyone saw Sternlicht making beds or carting luggage? - but the message was clear: Sheraton's Service Promise guaranteed a quality of service that would be better and consistent, or else. Beyond the spectacle was the fact that all Sheraton employees, from the executives in corporate headquarters to the bellhops at each property, received dozens of hours of additional customer-service training.

In the soggy economy, hotel chains have had to slash costs. Problem is, they've done it to the point where many travelers have noticed a substantial slip in customer service. So it's not surprising that some hotels chains are formally - and publicly - rededicating themselves to customer service.

The Next Wave of Service

Sheraton's customer-service promise, implemented across its 200 North American properties, goes beyond employee training. The brand has implemented technology that tracks any service deficiency the minute it surfaces, identifies patterns and response times across properties, and adjusts training programs quickly. "If a guest calls because he's missing a bar of soap, someone delivers the soap right away, and the incident is recorded electronically." says Norman MacLeod, executive vice president for Sheraton. "But even if we bring the soap 15 seconds later, the guest receives 500 Starwood points or 15 dollars off the room rate."

What's more, each property now has a "service champion," a specialist who educates and reinforces specific customer-service ideals among front-line employees. The central theme of the service champion's message is what MacLeod calls "proactive hospitality." "Now our people ask, 'How is your stay? Is there anything you need?' And everyone is empowered to take control of a guest problem and do what they must to solve it quickly."

Another brand that's making a public statement is InterContinental. In September, the chain rolled out a series of service initiatives across all 140 properties; the foremost one is the additional 40 hours of customer-service training all InterContinental employees have received over the past six months, based on feedback from customer surveys and other research. "We tried to get our arms around what is most relevant to our customers," says Jeff Senior, brand vice president. "They see the hospitality industry evolving, and they wanted us to step up."

Senior notes that the training is heavy on both customer profiles and competitor profiles so that employees "are able to empathize with our customers, and find out which behaviors most satisfy them within our brand and within competing brands," he says. "Now, our people understand why a particular service function is important." He adds that the training most often uses role-plays rather than lecture, to create a "memory" for employees to draw upon when interacting with customers.

In addition, Senior says that "we're focusing on making sure resolution is done in a meaningful way. When you realize that one dissatisfied customer tells 10 people, and requires 12 very satisfied guests to offset, you have to deliver service right the first time. And on rare occasions when you stumble, you'd better act fast and perfectly." Finally, secret shoppers will find their way through all 140 properties to make quality and standards evaluations, just as within the prestigious Four Seasons brand.

In fact, much of the hospitality business seeks to emulate more aspects of the acknowledged gold standards of service: the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton brands. John Young, executive vice president, human resources for Toronto-based Four Seasons, says ,"All our people can take actions so that a customer doesn't walk away from them unhappy. It's far better to address a problem quickly, even at higher cost, than to delay by referring it upwards." Employees at both brands receive over 100 training hours in their first year. Four Seasons requires an additional 40 hours per year; Ritz-Carlton does not require a set amount each year, but conducts recertification testing of all staff every 12 months. "We have to train to this extent because our brand is hinged squarely on service," says Young.