CHICAGO–The upscale condominiums atop some of the world’s most exclusive hotels are not the only homes driven by exceptional service.

The nation’s top home builders, including Pulte, the huge developer that guides Del Webb, have sought counsel from service-oriented leaders like Ritz Carlton in an attempt to corral loyalty and its incredibly powerful result – marketable referrals – to subdivisions and planned developments throughout the country.

“We are constantly looking for a ‘wow’ effect,” said Rob George, corporate director of the Ritz Carlton Hotel Co.’s training and development division. “We also know that today’s wow will be tomorrow’s norm.

“Remember we are all in the service business – whether it’s selling homes or laying carpet. Why not look at the companies that are best at what they do and take from them what they do best?”

George was the keynote speaker at the recent National Association of Home Builders Seniors’ Housing Symposium that attracted more than 800 members of the home-building industry who focus specifically on the 55-and-over market.

Ritz Carlton’s motto, “Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen,” carries a message of “who we are and how we should behave.” It also is part of the panache of The Ritz and a constant attempt to retain guests and nurture loyalty. The company’s guests are the last bastion of the group willing to proclaim, “I want somebody to do it for me.” Why not find out what they want, provide it for them and hope they come back with their family and friends?

According to George, changing to a resort attitude doesn’t cost very much.

Sheryl Palmer, who led Del Webb’s Arizona division before moving over to Nevada earlier this year, said her company approached Ritz Carlton 18 months ago when the home builder wanted to adopt a resort atmosphere for a 1,850-home community near Chandler, Ariz. The typical owner at Corte Bella has a net worth of $1 million, annual income of $100,000 and an average age of 62.

“We wanted to know more about specific expectations right from the start,” Palmer said. “This was going to be a resort-oriented community, so why not find how to execute from those that have been successful in the resort atmosphere?”

Service experts like George say providing homeowners with something extra, a gesture or amenity they did not expect, will not only lead to loyalty but also to priceless promotion. According to Ritz Carlton’s research, a five-percentage-point increase in customer loyalty could produce profit increases of 25 percent to 80 percent because of potential for peripheral services. In addition, the cost of attracting a new customer is 5 to 20 times greater than maintaining current customers.

“We’ve found through our research that 67 percent of customers leave because of an attitude of indifference on the part of a company employee,” George said. “That is something you can modify and do something about. So, we empowered every one of our employees.”

All Ritz Carlton employees are allowed to spend up to $2,000, without supervisor approval, to correct an error or satisfy a specific customer need. All employees are encouraged to create a “wow” experience geared to making a stay memorable.

For example, a guest asked a beach attendant to leave a chair on the sand late in the evening. He planned on asking his girlfriend to marry him under the bright stars and soaring moon. The attendant not only made arrangements for a special chair but also then purchased flowers and candles for the big night. He also folded a huge towel near the chair so the man would not get sand on his trousers when he popped the big question. When the couple eventually arrived, the attendant then rented a tuxedo and stood quietly in the background with champagne cooling in a silver ice bucket.

After a few examples, some builders began to explore the creative road. Why not give in-house designers a $2,000 pool of funds to spend on an amenity the buyer could not afford–a special planting, custom door mat, stocked freezer?

“You do everything you can to know what your customer wants,” George told the home builders. “We have a database of 1 million of our customers that includes specific requests and preferences we’ve experienced during their stays. Our guests, like yours, are buying a lifestyle, a feeling, an experience.

“If you give them what they want, they will come back and bring their friends.”

Tom Kelly’s new book “How a Second Home Can Be Your Best Investment” (McGraw-Hill, $16.95) was co-written with John Tuccillo, former chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, and is now available in local bookstores. Tom can be reached at news@tomkelly.com.

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