5-star service

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I just returned from a practice-management meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, Fla. It was our 20th gathering, and we wanted it to be special, which is why we chose a Ritz-Carlton hotel. Everyone knows the Ritz represents the gold standard of service in the hotel industry. How do they achieve this lofty goal?

I JUST RETURNED FROM A PRACTICE-management meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, Fla. It was our 20th gathering, and we wanted it to be special, which is why we chose a Ritz-Carlton hotel. Everyone knows the Ritz represents the gold standard of service in the hotel industry. How do they achieve this lofty goal?

For starters, the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island sets itself apart with beautiful facilities and immaculate grounds. But above all else, its team consistently offers five-star service. Over the days of our retreat, I saw many examples of this great service ethic, but let me tell you just two stories.

Each team member makes a difference

Here's the first: One of our attendees was in the ladies room and was impressed with its cleanliness and smell. When she left, the attendee saw a hotel employee and asked if she knew what was used for odor control in the restroom. (Granted, only a practice manager would ask this question.)

Addressing customer service gone wrong

The hotel employee wasn't sure, but said if the guest didn't mind waiting, she'd find out. The employee handed the guest a newspaper (because she was going to have to wait), and radioed housekeeping. Within three minutes, someone from housekeeping arrived, told the guest what potpourri was used in the restrooms, and gave her a complimentary bag.

Now my second story: On Saturday, our group was having lunch in the courtyard. My table was talking about how great the hotel was and, in particular, about the customer service.

Right about then, a waitress walked by, and I asked if I might speak with her. Now, remember, she was in the middle of serving lunch, but she said, "Certainly," and stopped what she was doing to talk to me.

I told her we were discussing the great service at the hotel and asked how much training she'd received. She said she received two weeks of training before she could interact with a guest and receives continuous in-service training. Then she handed me a card from her pocket and said, "This is what we live by at the Ritz."

The card included the Ritz-Carlton Credo, the Three Steps of Service, and the Ritz-Carlton Basics, which is a list of the company's expectations of its employees. When I asked the waitress if I could get a copy of the card, she said, "Please take mine; it would be my pleasure." My table was left in awe of both the waitress and her training.

Training is the key

As I said, I could go on and on with stories, but the real question to me is how does the hotel chain get its staff to offer such service? And why can't we accomplish the same in our veterinary practices? The answers: Employees at the Ritz Carlton are provided with a two-week training program before they're even allowed to interact with guests. They're trained on the "Ritz-Carlton way" and, of course, customer service. And I believe we can take a similar approach and achieve similar service.

The card that the waitress showed me gives the essence of what drives the Ritz-Carlton. For example, their credo states: The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission. We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed yet refined ambience. The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.

Every employee carries this fold-out card at all times. And they live by the words. When the waitress handed me her card, it was worn and obviously referred to often. She was clearly proud of her work and the hotel.

Making the jump is up to you

Of course, to achieve a Ritz-Carlton level of service in a veterinary practice, you'd have to really commit to this goal. You'd need to develop, maintain, and follow through with training programs. And yes, that's a serious investment. But just think what two weeks of training for a new hire could do for your practice. If you could elevate the quality of customer service, reduce staff turnover, and improve employee morale, what would that be worth?

Naturally, this initial training needs to be followed with in-service meetings and annual re-training. But you have the potential to develop a culture of excellence in your practice, like Ritz-Carlton has done in its hotels.

I know some practice managers who attended our meeting have already modified the Ritz-Carlton card for their practice. Inspired, I did the same. Another practice planned a hospital-wide retreat at a Ritz-Carlton hotel so the entire team could see firsthand the type of customer service the practice aspires to.

Hitting the mark

These are only first steps. You still must teach team members to deliver great service and monitor the results. But now your team knows what you expect and where to begin.

If you've seen me speak on this topic, you may have heard me say I feel the key to success is to "love your clients and their pets and care for them so well that they don't wish to leave your practice for fear of a harsher world outside your doors." Well, I must tell you, I didn't want to leave the Ritz-Carlton—for fear of a harsher world outside.

Mark Opperman

Editor's note: What does your practice do to provide five-star service? Share your thoughts with other veterinarians and staff members online at www.VetMedTeam.com.

Hospital Management Editor Mark Opperman is a certified veterinary practice manager and owner of VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo. Send your comments to ve@advanstar.com.

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