Warner Consulting, Inc.

Solving customer complaints in a hotel - and in your business

Jay Warner
Warner Consulting, Inc.
Posted 9/28/04

Mr. Horst Schulze, Founding President of Ritz-Carlton & CEO, West Paces Hotels, spoke in Racine in July courtesy of All-Saints Healthcare. He told a story of complaints regarding slow room service and how they were eliminated through improved management methods that brought out the best in everyone.

In a hotel that he managed, half of all the customer complaints were for slow room service. In the past Mr. Schulze's management solution was to call in the department head responsible for room service and pound the table to show how important the issue was. The department head in turn would call on the subordinate responsible for room service and repeat the process. It kept everyone on his or her toes, and contributed to the 128% annual turnover among employees. But people still complained as much as before.

This time Mr. Schulze asked the kitchen staff to figure out why room service was slow. The kitchen staff -- the order taker, waiter, busboy, and cook -- discussed the entire process. They listed out the steps, from receipt of order through kitchen preparation and delivery to the room. Each step was quick except for the delivery. It often took the waiters 20 minutes to go from the kitchen to the room.

How could this be? The house engineering staff confirmed that the elevators were all working. Otis Elevator said the elevators could go from the bottom to the top floor in less than 160 seconds. Then some kitchen staff rode the elevators during the morning rush period and watched. They discovered that the houseman, who delivered linens to the maids, blocked the elevator doors with linen carts to expedite his linen deliveries. This effectively removed elevators from service just when they were needed.

The 'room service delay' team approached the house staff to see why they used the elevators so much. It turned out that there weren't enough linens to stock the beds plus laundry plus fresh supply, so the house staff had taken to 'stealing' it from other floors to get the needed linens.

Why weren't there enough linens to go around? During start up of this hotel senior management had curtailed the amount of linens as a cost saving measure. The effect of reduced linen inventory on room service was unknown until the kitchen staff discovered it.

Armed with this information, the kitchen staff went back to management to explain that lack of sufficient linen caused the room service delay. Management increased the linen supply, and customer complaints immediately dropped dramatically.

I've discussed this case with managers in other companies. They were glad Mr. Schulze was able to get the improvement, but they failed to understand how to translate this experience to their situations. We need to understand the common characteristics to this and similar cases of improvement.

* Want something different.

Mr. Schulze wanted fewer customer complaints. The previous management solution method had not worked, so something different in both management method and staff functioning was necessary.

* Respect everyone's contributions.

Mr. Schulze, CEO, charged the kitchen staff with finding the 'root cause,' whatever it might be.

* Recognize the system nature of all operations.

Mr. Schulze recognized that there was a system - the kitchen staff, the rules they followed and the activities they performed - that 'produced' room service. The kitchen staff used that system description to identify the root cause of delays and propose a solution.

* Measure something - something that you care about.

The team learned from each person directly involved, informally measuring the time for each step until they found the key delays.

* Use feedback to learn how the system works.

The team directly observed the step with the long delay until they understood what caused it.

* Go for it!

The team spent the time working through the details until they hit on the real reason for delays that was rooted in a different department and an unrelated management decision. Mr. Schulze was happy to make the adjustment necessary to eliminate room service delays.

* Honor tries; honor improvements over that.

This case focused on a major issue in hotels - customer complaints. I'm sure that Mr. Schulze publicly recognized the work of the team. Any manager who discovers teams as successful as this one surely wants more improvements. Recognition costs very little money and brings great rewards.

Comments, debates, and questions are welcome at quality@a2q.com.