An Interview with CEOs of Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons Hotels
By: Mike May, President of Brightspot Incentives & Events
Attention: meeting planners, DMCs, hotels, and service businesses – we have an MBA-caliber treat on some eye-opening secrets to success. The Southern Methodist University Executive Leadership Forum in Dallas, Texas recorded this guest lecture with two ultra-legends in the hospitality industry who shared their advice for implementing 5-star customer service in any business.
Horst Schulze and Isadore Sharp are the founders and past CEOs of, respectively, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. These gentlemen are widely credited with pioneering the luxury hotel market, and both are passionate evangelists for extraordinary customer service principles.
INTERVIEW WITH HORST & ISADORE
Dallas is home to SMU and a city where both brands have 5-star hotels. We sat down with Mr. Schulze and Mr. Sharp to discover how their customer service practices apply to the meetings and events industry. (Actually, the scheduling was too difficult to visit in person with these successful businessmen, so we used a little imagination for this fictional interview based on the best advice from their books. To learn more, see their books at the end of the interview.)
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Schulze and Mr. Sharp, thank you so very much for sharing your time. This is an amazing opportunity for our audience to learn valuable lessons about extraordinary customer service for any business.
ISADORE: We are friends. Please call me Isadore.
HORST: Yes, of course. Please call me Horst.
INTERVIEWER: Ok. Isadore and Horst, let’s start with brief bios of your successful careers.
INTERVIEWER: Isadore Sharp said “there was no vision, there was no grand dream,” reflecting on the 50 years since the first Four Seasons – a modest 125-room motor hotel – opened in downtown Toronto in 1961. Previously, Isadore worked with his father, Max Sharp, in the construction business after studying architecture in college. Today, he continues to serve as the Founder and Chairman of this fabulous hotel chain.
Horst Schulze joined The Ritz-Carlton as a charter member and VP of Operations in 1983. It was in those early years that he created the operating and service standards that have become world famous. He was appointed EVP in 1987 and President and COO from 1988 to 2001. Under his leadership, Ritz-Carlton was awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in both 1992 and 1999—the first and only hotel company to win the award. After Horst left Ritz-Carlton, he formed another luxury hotel brand, the Capella Hotel Group.
HORST: Issy, I am impressed you are still inspiring Four Seasons associates after 50 years. That is an incredible accomplishment in today’s business climate.
ISADORE: Thank you, Horst. And thank you to Brightspot Incentives & Events here in Dallas and SoolNua in Dublin for co-sponsoring today’s Executive Leadership Forum. Mike, you had a short drive to SMU! But Padraig, you had a very long flight! It is an honor to discuss our passion – extraordinary customer service – with your friends in the events industry.
PROCESS OR PEOPLE
INTERVIEWER: OK. Let’s start. We are striving to be passionate about customer service like each of you. What processes create extraordinary service? Or is it the people?
ISADORE: Our greatest asset, and the key to our success, is our people. We cannot mechanize service through rules or supervision. We need employees who are able and willing to respond on their own to whatever comes up. Employees who can spot, solve, and even anticipate problems. Our customer front-line employees are crucial. Our guests interact almost solely with 3-7 junior employees.
INTERVIEWER: So, it is people rather than process.
ISADORE: It is definitely people, but as leaders, we must articulate – not so much the process – but our core values.
It may seem obvious that in the hotel business because customer service is a primary objective. But, it is how that service is delivered that sets Four Seasons apart. One way to characterize Four Seasons service would be to call it – an exchange of mutual respect performed with an attitude of kindness.
INTERVIEWER: How do you hire employees with those skills, especially in this economy with low unemployment?
ISADORE: In hiring, we ask our general managers to give more weight to character and personality, than traditional resumes and technical expertise. We can upgrade skills with training, but no amount of training can change ingrained attitudes or create responsibility and initiative.
Our hiring is very lengthy and rigorous. We ask a lot of behavioral questions. And, we will not hire a person if we see a complacent “good enough” attitude.
THE GOLDEN RULE
INTERVIEWER: We want to get Horst’s thoughts in a minute. Isadore, one more question for you. I’ve heard about the Four Seasons Credo. What is it?
ISADORE: Oh, yes! The most far-reaching decision I ever made was creating and then enforcing our credo. The Four Seasons Credo is the same as the golden rule in the Bible…
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Defining and enforcing this company culture was one of the key strategic decisions made in the formative years of our Four Seasons history. I sat down with our communications experts and wrote down the fundamentals of our culture, which is based on the Golden Rule – to treat others as you wish to be treated. A lot of companies talk about having a culture, but we knew we had to walk the talk if we expected it to thrive in our hotels. The Golden Rule is simple, memorable, and understandable.
INTERVIEWER: Isadore, I love the Golden Rule. Have you heard of the “Platinum Rule”?
ISADORE: (chuckles) Oh, I have. Please share it.
INTERVIEWER: The platinum rule is…
“Do unto others as THEY would have you do unto THEM.”
ISADORE: Yes, sir. Treat others the way they want to be treated.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Schulze. Excuse me, Horst. I heard you created a credo at The Ritz-Carlton too.
HORST: Yes. When we opened The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, in 1985, we mobilized our largest staff ever – probably close to 600 new employees. Our management team brainstormed how to condense our full-page mission statement to 3-4 sentences. I came up with the word “credo” because it is a Latin derivative meaning “I believe.” It is almost like the Pledge of Allegiance – but asking for a commitment to 3 core aspects of our culture.
INTERVIEWER: Horst, you got my attention! What is your credo?
HORST: It is a little longer than the Four Seasons Credo, but each of the three sentences is incredibly important.
The Ritz-Carlton 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.
INTERVIEWER: Wow! We could spend 5 minutes on each sentence. It has many powerful words – genuine care… the finest personal service… always… the unexpressed wishes and needs.
HORST: Like Issy’s short golden rule, we also had a short saying that became very famous. It is our short motto. It inspires the anticipatory service provided by all staff members. Even though I have moved on from The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, this little saying is still very special in my heart. The motto is…
“We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”
INTERVIEWER: Yes!! “Ladies and gentlemen” is a famous motto. It’s magical. And empowering. Brilliant!
HORST: I never viewed our hotel team as employees or associates or workers. They are “ladies and gentlemen.” Those titles instill character in each person. It says they are important. Whether it is a housekeeper or server or kitchen staff, calling them “ladies and gentlemen” signifies their dignity and value.
Could I share a short story on the origin of the motto?
INTERVIEWER: Of course.
HORST: When I was 14 years old, I started working in the hotel business as a busboy in Germany. My mother told me, “we could never go to this hotel; it is only for important people.” The general manager talked to my mother and me for 15 minutes. He also told me we could never be like their guests. “Don’t be jealous. This is for ladies and gentlemen – very important people.”
A few months later, I realized the maître d’ was just as important. He was a first-class professional. He created excellence for the guests. Then one year later, I enrolled in hotel school, and my teacher asked me to write a story describing my feelings about the hotel business. I wrote about the maître d’. I titled my essay “Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” So, his excellence inspired a very powerful motto!
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any practical tips to help our audience become better ladies and gentlemen?
HORST: Let me share our Three Steps of Service.
- A warm and sincere greeting. Use the guest’s name.
- Anticipation and fulfillment of each guest’s needs.
- Fond farewell. Give a warm good-bye and use the guest’s name.
INTERVIEWER: You have both touched on a massively important topic – the anticipation of each guest’s unexpressed needs that applies to the events industry.
HORST: Anticipating your guest’s needs is a simple, almost artistic, skill. One in which you listen and observe the guests’ habits while taking a genuine interest in their well-being. All of these together became our Mystique. The Mystique is not printed on the pocket cards, but it is important too.
INTERVIEWER: Horst, what is the pocket card?
HORST: Each of our ladies and gentlemen always carried their pocket card as part of their uniform. It is a trifold card with The Ritz-Carlton Credo, Motto, and Three Steps of Service.
HORST: Oh, yes! Always! Here is my very well-worn and aged pocket card. Even though I am retired, I keep it my inside suit pocket whenever I am speaking about my years leading The Ritz-Carlton. It reminds me to be a gentleman in all interactions.
INTERVIEWER: What is the mystique? I got distracted by the pocket card.
HORST: The Ritz-Carlton Mystique states: in order to create a memorable experience, a service provider has to connect with a guest’s individuality and deliver service customized to that guest’s preferences. We asked our ladies and gentlemen to learn how to read a guest – using observation, intuition, talents, and acquired skills.
Much like the Platinum Rule, it really comes down to taking the focus off your needs and stepping into the shoes of the guest and anticipating their needs.
INTERVIEWER: Isadore, would you add anything to these Ritz gold standards?
ISADORE: It would be impossible to add or improve upon any service advice from Horst! Each of our organizations strive to build a culture of extraordinary service. In my book, I love this quote which summarizes what Horst and I built – excellence in service cannot be an event; it has to become a companywide habit.
DO and DON’T
INTERVIEWER: Gentlemen, let’s do a quick, lightning round of do’s and don’t’s. I will say a “don’t” – a common phrase of mediocre service – then, please change the mindset to a habit for extraordinary service.
ISADORE: We will try our best. You are putting us to the test.
HORST: Sir, please remember Isadore and I are now older gentlemen.
INTERVIEWER: What should we do if an employee says: “that’s not my job”?
ISADORE: For excellent service, the employee should say “how can I help?”
HORST: At Ritz-Carlton, we say “I own and immediately resolve guest problems.” This applies whether it is in your service area or not. Serving our guest needs is always our job.
INTERVIEWER: What if an employee says or thinks: “I don’t know.”
ISADORE: Rephrase their answer and action to: ”I will find out.”
INTERVIEWER: Horst, could you share a few “do’s”?
HORST: Here is a magnificent “do” that sets a positive tone for all ladies and gentlemen. Internally and externally. Smile! We are on stage. Always maintain positive eye contact.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, yes. Smile!
HORST: Here is another “smile” suggestion. When speaking on the phone, when answering the phone, or even on conference calls, sit straight in your chair and speak with a smile in your voice. Your attitude will become more positive, and the other party will sense it. And, always use the caller’s name and whenever possible, eliminate call transfers.
INTERVIEWER: Smile in your voice! Another great tip. How about one more quick tip?
HORST: Here is another empowering “do” that focuses on our appearance. Say to yourself: “I am proud of my professional appearance, language, and behavior.” Even in this current business environment of business casual or the more relaxed, smart casual. Business professionals can make extremely positive impressions by being well groomed and dressing a notch above expectations.
CORPORATE EVENTS ADVICE
INTERVIEWER: Could you each share one final suggestion on how those serving the corporate events industry today could elevate their customer service?
ISADORE: Both Horst and I talked about “anticipatory service.” I really like this phrase in Horst’s Three Steps of Service – “the anticipation of each guest’s needs” and his expansion of needs in his Credo to include “even the unexpressed wishes.” I wish as I was as smart as Horst to have written it first. (chuckles)
HORST: Thank you, Issy. I wish I had as many resorts in Hawaii getting the rates you get! (more chuckles)
ISADORE: On a serious note, I would summarize our interview with this – the #1 goal of excellent customer service is anticipating needs and even unexpressed wishes – and then delivering that service with personalized perfection. We can use everyone’s words and call it the Platinum Principles.
INTERVIEWER: Horst, final suggestion?
HORST: In the group event space, creating experiences is a major trend right now. The Ritz-Carlton hotels are empowered to create unique, memorable, and personal experiences. To illustrate, the ladies and gentlemen are authorized to spend up to $2,000 on each guest each day – using their individual judgment, without seeking permission from a supervisor. In the same way, the corporate events industry should strive to surprise and delight their customers with authentic, personalized, and excellent experiences.
INTERVIEWER: Gentlemen, thank you for your time. Your wisdom elevates the entire corporate events and incentive travel industry.
For our audience, you can obtain a comprehensive lesson on 5-star customer service worth thousands of dollars (or Euros!) for a mere exchange of a pair of $10 bills to read and apply the wisdom in our guest’s books – Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy by Isadore Sharp and The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company by Joseph Michelli.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike May, CMP, CITP, IP, is President and owner of Brightspot Incentives & Events in Dallas, TX. Incentive Magazine recognized Mike as one of the Top 25 Most Influential People in the Incentive Industry, and BizBash named him on its list of Top 500 in Events. Brightspot has won multiple Motivation Masters Awards from Incentive Magazine, and Meetings & Conventions recognized it on their list of the “Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry.”
Mike is a strong industry supporter serving as the 2018-2019 Chairman of the Trustees of the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) and frequent industry presenter. He is the author of 12.5 Steps to a Perfect Incentive Program, a comprehensive how-to guide filled with incentive tips, actionable advice, and industry research.