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The Secret of Ritz-Carlton's Success

On a spring morning in downtown Manhattan, nine new employees of the Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park, gather in the Liberty Room for the start of orientation. Like freshmen on their first day, they exchange nervous smiles over coffee and Danish. Cher's turn-of-the-millennium pop anthem, "Believe," pipes out of the Bose speakers: "But I know that I'll get through this / 'Cuz I know that I am strong."

Jeff Hargett, director of training and development for the property, is all smiles as he asks and answers his own questions. Q: "What do we mean by 'extraordinary service?' " A: "When someone goes out of their way to help."

Among his batch of protégés is server Tom Hafner, who has spent the past four years singing standards on cruise ships. Steward Kwaku Poku hails from Ghana and dreams of being a professional soccer player. Front desk clerk and recent college graduate José Guismondi previously worked at the Grand Floridian in Disney World.

Hargett explains that no matter what they've been hired to do or where they come from, they are all part of the Ritz-Carlton family, and their opinions matter: "We respect you. We embrace your ideas," he says. He adds the mantra popularized by former Ritz-Carlton president Horst Schulze: "We are not servants. We are service professionals."

Sound bites, maybe, but all this embracing seems to work; check out this year's World's Best Service results. In fact, so effective is Ritz-Carlton's training that investment banks, eyewear manufacturers, car dealers, and hospitals have all hired the company's Learning Institute in California to improve their service standards.

Throughout the day, the trainees sit up straight, taking it all in: the five Gold Standards, one Company Credo, 20 Ritz-Carlton Basics. When Hargett pops in the grooming video, one cook-to-be is dismayed at the prospect of shaving his beard. But in Ritz-Carlton land, beards are a no-no. Hair can be dyed, but only in colors that occur naturally. Each day, before leaving the locker room, employees must stop in front of the full-length mirror. Arrows on it point everywhere on the body, from the shoes, to the name tag, to the smile. Remember Basic No. 14: Smile—we are onstage.

Between the initial two-day orientation, the follow-up on the 21st day, and the departmental certification, Ritz-Carlton employees undergo roughly 400 hours of instruction during their first year on the job. They get it from all directions. Just today, the general manager urges them to "own" and resolve all guests' problems, whatever they may be. The finance department insists that employees watch the valuables.

"See these cobalt blue glasses?This china?The silver?It all comes from Germany and it's very expensive, so don't break it," says director of finance Roberto Ortiz, echoing Basic No. 20, Protect the company's assets. "You treat these things nicely, you provide world-class service, and I can charge more money. Guests will leave happy, broke, and without a single complaint."

Hargett, for his part, has a softer message: "It's not important that you do everything perfectly. I'm much more concerned that you have empathy. I cannot teach you how to care."

Bar hostess Agnieszka Nowak, recently arrived from Warsaw, doesn't have to be taught to care. It's in her blood. "When I was in school, we had to write down our dreams. It was sad, because we knew they'd never come true," she says. "But now mine has. Maybe after a few years I will become manager. Maybe one day I will open a Ritz-Carlton in Poland."

—Paula Szuchman

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