Ritz-Carlton co-founder Horst Schulze: 'Excellence wins' -- How to keep your customers (in any industry)

The instant I say “customer service,” business leaders nod their heads in agreement. “Oh yes, customer service is very important. We need to provide good customer service.”

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But I fully believe the term is not well understood. If you ask even the leaders of “service companies” such as banks or hotels to define customer service, they mumble generalities. I have repeatedly asked these leaders, “How do you teach service? What is your process?” only to find that they have few specific answers.

No matter what field you’re in, I can guarantee (after processing thousands of customer comments) that the people you serve want three main things.

First, they want a product or service or other output with no defects.

Let’s say you’re selling them a bottle of water. They want the water to be absolutely pure — no little “floaties” swimming around. They also want the bottle to be leak-proof. They want to know they can trust this purchase 100 percent.

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When I talk about defects, I’m thinking not just of physical defects — say, a sticky door or a noisy toilet. I’m also including process or system defects — the kind of thing that leads customers to say, “Hey, I never got my receipt,” or “Where’s my suitcase? I have to be dressed for a banquet in three hours!”

Second, the people we serve want timeliness.

They don’t want to have to stand or sit around waiting for you. If they’re eating in a restaurant and their meal comes out absolutely perfect and tasty (no defects), but it took forty-five minutes to be served, they’re going to be unhappy, regardless of how delicious the meal is.

If someone calls your customer service line and is put on hold for ten minutes, it won’t matter if the agent is totally smart and competent to solve their issue. The customer is going to be so ticked off that they will hardly notice.

If someone calls your customer service line and is put on hold for ten minutes, it won’t matter if the agent is totally smart and competent to solve their issue. The customer is going to be so ticked off that they will hardly notice.

Finally, they want the person with whom they’re dealing to be nice to them.

They want to sense a caring attitude. In fact, this third desire is greater than the first two combined. It can atone for other shortfalls.

I have actually heard restaurant customers say, “I had a problem with the food—but the waiter did such a great job, and the chef even came out to my table and apologized. So it all turned out fine.”

I was in Chicago once to speak to the executive team of a certain bank. The afternoon before, I decided to check out their operation. I walked into this massive institution in the downtown Loop area and gazed at the impressive marble pillars. The whole ambience exuded wealth.

I took my place in line and waited to be called. When I finally got to the head of the line, what did I hear?

“Next!” a young woman’s voice rang out.

I approached her station and said, “I’d like to change this fifty-dollar bill.”

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Without a smile or any word, she took my money and did what I asked. In rapid fire, she counted out my change aloud: “Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, forty-five, fifty. NEXT!” I took my handful of bills and scooted away.

Had the bank teller delivered a product with no defects? Yes. She gave me the correct amount of money. And all the bills were genuine; none were counterfeit.

Had she done this in a timely manner? Yes. Our whole exchange took less than sixty seconds.

Had she shown any hint of relating to me as a human being or caring about me? No.

I told this story to the bank executives the next morning. Then I asked, “What industry are you in? Surely the service industry! You don’t manufacture any money; the U.S. Mint does that part. All you do is handle other people’s money, right?” They begrudgingly nodded their heads.

I made some more remarks and then said, “When I entered your bank yesterday, I assure you I did not feel like I was being served.”

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If you think customer service is merely a desk in the back corner of the store (or a call center cubicle in faraway India, where a polite young man or woman with a thick accent reads from a script while trying to solve your problem), you have sorely shortchanged the concept.

Too many people think customer service starts after a complaint has been voiced. Somebody has gotten upset about something, and the point of customer service is to try to calm them down.

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But that’s far from the truth. Customer service starts the instant you make contact with an individual.

Taken from Excellence Wins by Horst SchulzeCopyright © 2019 by Horst Schultze. Used by permission of Zondervan.

Mr. Schulze's professional life began more than 65 years ago as a server's assistant in a German resort town. Throughout the years he worked for both Hilton Hotels and Hyatt Hotels Corporation before becoming one of the founding members of The Ritz Carlton Hotel Company in 1983. There Mr. Schulze created the operating and service standards that have become world famous.