Riffing Off The Ritz

By Jon McChesney and Chris Cantrell

It is well understood that quality customer service is of utmost importance in any business, and the delivery of recreation and parks services is certainly no exception. However, what too many agencies fail to recognize is customer satisfaction begins internally with the way staff members are treated. When a business treats employees well, logic suggests these employees react by giving positive customer service to patrons.


When you walk into a business, you can gain a quick understanding of how the staff perceives their treatment by the agency. How many times has a staff person ignored you or was grumpy? This does not give the customer a feeling that his or her business is important or needed. Employees are on the front lines of the company, the ones who directly interface with the public. However, how often are they treated as invaluable assets? Perhaps too often agencies have it backwards with those “behind the scenes” people who they are more important than anyone else. We call these folks managers!

A Formula For Success
There is, of course, a recurring misconception of customer service typified by the statement, “The customer is always right.” That statement fails to support staff members and suggests that regardless of the behavior of the customer, the employee is always wrong. In 21st-century lingo, the staff member is “thrown under the bus.”

Every stakeholder in an organization should be involved in customer service and marketing processes; even vendors can help marketing efforts if a relationship has been established. The same holds true for internal customers. Employees will help market a park and rec agency if they are:

1.       Trained
2.       Told how critically important their job is to the organization
3.       Treated like invaluable assets
4.       Informed about the marketing impact they can have.

Be sure to sprinkle in various incentives, and don’t lose sight of the need to create a fun work environment! The Ritz-Carlton has subscribed to such a formula for success. One of the authors had the privilege of being employed by the Ritz, and is providing a first-hand account of the experience (see sidebar).

Working at a Ritz-Carlton is an employment experience unlike any other. Guests stay at the hotel with the expectation that every detail will be observed and that they will be provided with the best service in the industry. All employees undergo an intensive 36-hour orientation. This training focuses on problem resolution, brand standards, and the Ritz Credo. The credo includes the motto, employee promise, three steps of service, and the service values. Does your park agency invest similarly in staff training? What is the process for handling customer complaints? Are maintenance personnel trained in customer service since they are front-line staff? What types of standards are employed to ensure that youth-sports league stakeholders are satisfied? Municipal park agencies hire many teenagers for direct service positions, yet are they trained in professionalism, customer service, and resolving disputes?

Define Your Creed
The Ritz Credo instills pride for the brand and pride in the level of service provided to guests. What is the creed of your agency—better known as your vision and mission? What are the priorities for the agency based on the most recent master plan? The Richmond, Ky., parks department printed a large poster of the top 10 priorities from its master plan for display in the conference room for all board members and other stakeholders to view regularly. As a department chair, I periodically include the vision and at least one core value on the faculty-meeting agenda as reminders. It is too easy to create these types of documents and rarely refer to them, much less use them to guide decision making.

One facet of the Ritz-Carlton is the level of staff empowerment. Each employee is charged with the task of making memorable experiences for guests; the brand allows each employee a budget of up to $2,000 to use in delighting guests. This empowers employees to take ownership of guest satisfaction, makes them feel valued and respected, and gives them the peace of mind knowing that they will be supported in their decision making. The message to public parks and recreation agencies is to empower staff to fix problems, deal with customer issues, and ultimately take ownership of the recreation experience. As you employ Generation Z staff, keep in mind the need to invest in training, especially in the areas of interpersonal and communication skills (Jacoby, 2015).

Motivationally Speaking 
Not only does the Ritz-Carlton brand empower and support its employees, but the hotel is constantly motivating them to go above and beyond. For example, there are daily lineups where shift supervisors inform employees of issues in the hotel, the service value of the day, and kudos to those who have been mentioned in guest surveys. Employees also have the opportunity to be entered in a drawing for $500 (given to eight employees every month) by having guests complete a gold-service-standard card. What types of staff motivation can you easily and cost-effectively employ at your recreation agency? Simple measures include staff recognition at every meeting, a bragging bulletin board, peer-recognition programs, simple verbal praise, and thank-you notes. Kouzes and Posner (2003) indicate that the most important non-financial award received at work is a simple thank you. Investing in recognition systems not only impacts staff motivation but can aid staff engagement. According to Gallup (2016), 51 percent of the workforce is not engaged, and “many employees who are not engaged want a reason to be inspired. They are the ’show me’ group that needs an extra push to perform at their best.” Further, the Millennial cohort is even more problematic, with only 29 percent reporting engagement at work.

While public agencies have limitations and cannot offer financial incentives like the Ritz for their staff members, they all can strive for excellence and continuous improvement. When we really believe in our services and the power of recreation to change lives and enhance quality of life, we can get past the tax-base, government mentality of mediocrity, meaning we don’t have to be outstanding since our funding is not contingent on performance. The exciting news for us in the recreation profession is that we are in the business of enriching the lives of our constituents, starting with internal customers!


Dr. Jon McChesney is a professor and chair for the Department of Recreation & Park Administration at Eastern Kentucky University. Reach him at Jon.Mcchesney@EKU.EDU.

Chris Cantrell is a Sales Manager with Mountain Home Stove and Fireplace. Reach him at cscantrell14@gmail.com.


A Personal Note
Working at Ritz-Carlton has forced me to change my perspective on a number of subjects, but most importantly the experience has completely reshaped my vision of what it means to provide good customer service. Working in the recreation field, I have learned that customer service is incredibly important; in fact, it can make or break an agency. I realize that the real key to customer service is to be genuine. Customers can tell when you are genuinely interested in meeting their needs, and it is this type of care that makes the biggest difference in creating real fans.