When Steve Jobs was designing the iconic Apple Stores some fifteen years back, for inspiration and ideas, he turned to an unlikely source: The Ritz Carlton Hotels. And he went on to incorporate Ritz Carlton’s famous “Three Steps of Service”  into Apple Stores’ service design.
After all, Ritz Carlton, the legendary hotel chain and two-time winner of the prestigious Malcom Baldrige award , literally defines “service excellence.” And so do some other leading organizations like Singapore Airlines, Zappos.com and FedEx.
These organizations have strategically cultivated a culture of service excellence, a formidable competitive advantage. They are the leaders in their respective and highly competitive industries, and it is no coincidence that they boast of a strong performance track record.
What’s the difference between organizations with a culture of service excellence and the rest? People in these organizations live service excellence. Everything they do is to further the goal of service excellence.
Both “culture” and “service excellence” are commonly used terms, but what is “culture of service excellence” in nutshell?
Culture of service excellence
Any organization that chooses service as its key differentiator and encourages behaviors facilitating extraordinary customer experience has a culture of service excellence.
A culture of service excellence emphasizes three core values:
Customer perspective and customer focus are a central viewpoint in such organizations.
One of the core values of Singapore Airlines (SIA) is “Customer First,” which states: “Our customers are foremost in our mind all the time. We go the extra mile to exceed their expectations.” SIA has made huge investments in initiatives like “Transforming Customer Service” and more recently, in “Customer Experience Management,” both aimed at understanding customer preferences in finer details to offer a highly personalized service.
Or consider one of the values at FedEx, simply called “Service,” which states: “Our absolutely, positively spirit puts our customers at the heart of everything we do.” This drives innovation at FedEx on one side and reliability on the other, all focused around customers.
Thus a culture of service excellence exhibits intense and committed focus on customers, and their needs and preferences. In fact, while ordinary organizations routinely fail to fulfill even the most basic and well-known customer expectations, service leaders are obsessed with customer-centricity to the point of anticipating--and preparing in advance to fulfill those needs.
Commitment to quality with attention to fine details
The organizations pursuing the never-ending journey of service excellence genuinely believe in delivering superior quality products and services.
In day-to-day business sense, quality is all about details, processes, standards, and highly trained and motivated people. These organizations are continuously improving every aspect of their customers’ experience and perception.
Consider again the Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) inflight service where the smallest detail matters, from greeting the passengers to helping them settle down to the menu to the variety and quality of food and drinks to the inflight entertainment—and going beyond the call of duty to assist passengers with special needs. This level of excellence in service delivery is achieved through systematically paying attention to the customer preferences and empowering staff to make decisions on the spot—all with the mission of delighting the customers.
Like SIA, Ritz drives quality excellence with tremendous rigor that involves setting up detailed objectives, processes, measurement & analytics and targeted training. It is this well-honed system called “behind the smiles” that frees up the employees to truly serve and delight guests. Bill Marriotts, Executive Chairman, Marriotts International, underscores this approach , when he says that a housekeeper, for instance, is trained to master 66 steps needed to make a perfect room at Ritz. He goes on to explain how there are standards for everything including recipes so that consistency (an important dimension of quality in a hotel chain) is achieved.
In essence, commitment to quality means that an organization first develops a clear understanding of what quality means in its business. And then goes on to create an ecosystem of policies, processes, training, etc. to encourage specific behaviors to achieve it.
Respect for individuals
The organizations with a culture of service excellence deeply care about their employees and basic human values.
Ritz Carlton, for instance, strongly believes that caring for its employees translates into the care they in turn provide to the guests. That’s why it is one of the very few companies in the world to give its employees a promise in writing, called “Putting our Ladies and Gentlemen First,” which is part of Ritz’s “Gold Standards.” The promise states, “Our Ladies and Gentlemen are the most important resource in our service commitment to our guests…The Ritz-Carlton fosters a work environment where diversity is valued, quality of life is enhanced and individual aspirations are fulfilled....” Many organizations claim to treat the employees as their most valuable resource, but giving a promise in writing takes the commitment to a whole new level.
Or consider “People” value at FedEx where not only it talks about a safe, inclusive and rewarding employee environment but also “where people have opportunities to grow and succeed.” This can be a tough commitment given the large workforce entrusted with plenty of manual work.
Heskett and colleagues at Harvard Business School , in a seminal work titled “Service Profit Chain” actually showed how employees play a key role in determining revenue growth and profitability in service organizations. They proposed that internal service quality (quality of services employees receive from the organization, such as, job design & latitude, recognition & reward systems, training, etc.) translates into external service quality that customers receive, and eventually into customer loyalty and profitability. Further, employee focus gets linked to higher productivity (thus lower costs), in a virtuous cycle.
There may be other important values, such as, teamwork or collaboration but the three core values—customer centricity, commitment to quality and respect for individuals--remain central to the culture of service excellence. Organizations with excellence service culture reflect them in how they recruit, train and motivate (reward).
If you are a service organization or an organization with service as a substantial component (e.g., car dealerships or retail outlets), it is worth reflecting on what kind of culture you have and what will it take to catch the trajectory of service excellence. It may be the most important move you could make towards profitability and leadership.
As the legendary Steve Jobs showed with his defining move to learn from Ritz Carlton, a culture of service excellence is rare, but replicable and rewarding.