Embedding customer service stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 6, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

A company that values customer service should be teeming with customer service stories. But what do you do if this is not the case? The Ritz-Carlton has developed a narrative-based approach for ensuring customer service is in the minds of all their people. It was described in this Business Week article but I first discovered it reading Maxwell and Dickman’s The Elements of Persuasion. This is what the Ritz-Carlton has done.

Everyone in the company is encouraged to submit stories of RC people going above and beyond. Each week a story is selected and sent out to all the RC hotels around the world and this story is read out at the Line Up meetings, the gathering of staff before starting a shift. Here’s an example of one of these stories as told by Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman, which RC call their WOW stories.

Like a lot of good stories, it starts on a dark and windy night. In this case, a blustery February when the downstairs bar that Fran tends was largely deserted. “The only one in the room was an older gentlemen, the sort of executive that has been drinking the same scotch for the last fifty years.” A young, good-looking couple–we’ll call them Dick and Jane– came in dressed in laua shirts despite the weather and ordered mai tais. They seemed a little morose, but Fran is the sort of bartender who can get anyone to open up, and soon they told their story. Dick and Jane had just been married. They had always planned to honeymoon at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, Hawaii. In fact, they had a reservation already booked for six months in the future, but Dick had just been diagnosed with cancer–a particularly nasty form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma–so they pushed the date forward and were in L.A. for chemotherapy. This might be as close to Hawaii as they ever got, so they were bravely trying to make the most of it. When Fran tells the story, at this point her eyes take on that slightly stunned look that comes to cancer patients as they struggle to find the right balance between hope and denial. Obviously, the couple’s story touched her deeply.

Fran got someone to cover the bar and sprang into action. She found Don Quimby, the manager on duty and together they went to the banquet hall prop room and collected anything that reminded them of Hawaii–a fishing net, a collection of starfish and seashells, a poster of Hawaiian hula dancers at a luau–and quickly gave the couple’s room a make over. They even filled a cooler with sand and stuck in a sign that read “Dick and Jane’s Private Beach.” Then Don found an electronic key from the Ritz at Kapalua that a previous guest had left behind by mistake and reprogrammed it so it worked on Dick and Jane’s room door. Don put on a Hawaiian shirt and went out to deliver this new key to them. He led them to their “new Hawaiian Honeymoon Suite,” where a complimentary bottle of Champaign was waiting. And for the next three days staff of the hotel did everything it could think of to make the couple feel like they were on a Hawaiian honeymoon of a lifetime.

Three times a week staff recount WOW stories in the Line Ups, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Each time a WOW story is told it triggers a conversation about what everyone sees as significant in the story and often prompts the retelling of other stories of things that have happened in their own hotel. So rather than receive a corporate directive on how to behave staff vicariously experience behaviour that everyone recognises as exemplary.

You receive a $100 if your story is selected and at the end of the year there is a competition to select the top 10 stories.

This approach has many of the features of Most Significant Change except that the conversation around the stories happens at the coal face rather than among the decision makers. Mind you, someone in HQ is selecting the stories and this process could be expanded to include a MSC style selection process with the decision makers.

If done well your organisation would definitely be teeming with values in action stories.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Paul Stewart says:

    Great example Shawn. Interesting, this type of approach is core to our TeamTalk process (similar to the ‘line-up’ but on a weekly basis) that we have implemented with our banking clients. Its been interesting to see how quickly this has started to shift the service cultures. The process of sharing Wow (success) stories obviously helps raise organisational self-esteem, and also provides new insights for the teams. However, the benefits of encouraging staff to seek out Wow stories is often less well recognised. At a conscious level, it raises their awareness of what is happening around them, and at a sub-conscious level, it can shape behaviour in the moment as they recognise an opportunity to mvoe it from a ‘good’ story to a ‘wow’ story.

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