Sign above The Ritz arcade in London

Puttin’ on the Ritz – for everyone

The newsreader Justin Webb told an amusing story on BBC Radio 4 recently (starts 5 minutes in). He had apparently been brought up by his mother to believe that if you were to ask for anything in The Ritz in a suitably polite manner then – whether you were a guest or not – they would do it for you. One evening he was on his way to a corporate function, suitably smartly dressed, when he realised his top shirt button had come off. Not wishing to arrive looking unkempt he realised he was near the hotel and so went in and asked if it would be possible to replace the missing button. The hotel staff duly obliged and he was ushered into a side room where the shirt was swiftly restored to its former neatness.

As he was about to leave, Webb decided to try another request and asked that, as he was running late, could they possibly get a taxi? “No problem at all Mr Vine” they responded.

It’s the twist in this tale that I like: what starts out as a story about a certain type of upper-crust entitlement and superior customer service ends as a story about mistaken identity – the “Mr Vine” Justin Webb was mistaken for was Jeremy Vine, a better-known presenter at that time enjoying a high profile thanks to being on the Strictly Come Dancing TV show.

But the real point, for me, is that we don’t know whether The Ritz’s five star service story genuinely applies to everyone, or whether the staff were won over by Webb/Vine’s celebrity status. And that made me think that most organisations, implicitly or explicitly, discriminate against certain types of customers.

Now, obviously, it is basic business sense to identify the people who are most likely to want your products and services and then make those products and services attractive to them. We can also make some services available at extra cost – some airlines have been doing this for a number of years with fast check-in, seating selection and so forth common in budget airlines.

I’m not suggesting that anyone should abandon this basic business practice as that would be daft. But I think all organisations would benefit from questioning their unconscious biases within their customer service strategies. Justin Webb is a white, middle-class male with a fairly “posh” voice and – one would image – a confident demeanour that goes with a radio presenter’s job. Would the Ritz offer a similar service to someone who didn’t fit that description (or look like a more famous person)?

Let’s imagine that they do. In my thought experiment, a non-white, working class, twenty-something on their way to a major job interview makes a similar request. The Ritz obliges and, suitably smartened up, they land their job. Years later, having achieved a degree of material success as a result of this they always take their mother to tea at the Ritz as a birthday treat.

It’s an imagined scenario, but not an unlikely one in a broader context: treat all your customers as if they are deserving of five-star treatment and they will repay you with their loyalty.

And if your customer segmentation is narrowly defined, bear in mind that your potential future customers could well come from anywhere.

Image by Russ London, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

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