Bruce Himelstein is the Ritz-Carlton executive who transformed customer service for one of the world's most recognizable luxury brands, as featured prominently in the New York Times bestseller, The New Gold Standard.
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Service in Healthcare

The following is a partial transcript of Bruce’s Speech on “Service in Healthcare.”
Please check out his video below the transcript.


During my tenure at Ritz-Carlton, I received a call from the president of a hospital who had just seen me do an interview somewhere, and he said, “Will you meet me for lunch?”

Sure, he is the president of a hospital after all, so we meet for lunch. “I’ve got a real opportunity (for you) because I don’t like what’s happening in terms of our patient experience. I don’t like what I’m seeing regarding the service levels. I would love to learn from what you’re doing. Will you join the (hospital) board and help us understand customer service?”

My reaction was, “I cannot wait to call my wife.” I was just asked to sit in on a hospital board, are you kidding me? The guy that used to be a bellhop is being asked to sit on a hospital advisory board.

I let him know, I’m in. I couldn’t wait, what an honor.

He said “I’d like you to attend our quarterly strategic planning meetings. Our first meeting is in two weeks. Will you come?”

I was so excited, so proud, and couldn’t wait. I showed up an hour before the meeting and I walked the hospital. The reason I walked the hospital is an old hotel habit to gain insight and perspective.

When you have a client that’s coming for a wedding – or a meeting like this – and you know the planning committee will be at the hotel at 1 o’clock then you know they’re going to want to see the ballroom, some suites, the pool area, and they’re going to want to meet with the executive committee. Plus, you know they are considering four other hotels.

It’s a pretty hefty piece of business and you need to do whatever you can to earn their business so you walk the property before they come to make sure that the steps and the path that they take are perfect. You make sure there are no room service trays in the hall, there’s no garbage on the floor. Everything is as it should be, because that’s how they’re going to remember their decision making.

I did the same thing at the hospital, walking the long halls for an hour. By the end, I had a list of about 18-20 things, everything from a microwave oven or a toaster oven in the cafeteria that you wouldn’t put a piece of bread in, to the person at the front who is my first impression who had a stain on his shirt and he was supposed to be wearing a tie but the knot was down to his breastbone and he spoke broken English though I’m in Rockville, Maryland.

There was a seat, a comfortable seat in a waiting area, that had a notebook page with a sign on it that read “Do not take chair” with a piece of tape over it. I guess they had chair theft problems, I don’t know.  Then there was an empty phone bank where the payphones had been ripped out of the wall but the wires were still coming out.

I just gave you three examples but there were 20 of those things. I thought to myself, if they really want value for my participation on this board, they’re should take these elements seriously because if this is what a patient sees, what will they be thinking?

This is where you work. How can you not see this? Or do you see this but you just don’t pay attention to it because it’s not important to you?

So, I had not even been at the meeting yet but I now have this piece of paper in my pocket as we sit down. And I have to tell you, I don’t intimidate easily, but I was intimidated because I was the only non-medical person in the room. I had the head of oncology, the head of cardiology, and then here’s me, the hotel guy.

When the Hospital President introduced me after explaining my background, he said “The reason that Bruce is here (is because) there’s a whole level of service that I think we ought to start looking at as a hospital.”

The rest of the board gave me the RCA Victor dog look. You guys remember the RCA Victor? Some of you do, right? I received that look. Then a lot of arms starting folding, and I said to myself “Uh oh, this is going to be a challenge.”

That was my first meeting.

At the second meeting, I introduced a few of the elements that we hold dear at Ritz-Carlton in terms of service values. I said, “Let’s talk about these values and see if you feel that there are any implications or overlap.”

I’m going to share with you what I shared with them, the board of the hospital, at my second meeting, starting with our three steps of service.:

1. A warm and sincere greeting using the guest’s name
2. Anticipation and fulfillment
3. Then a fond farewell – a warm goodbye using the guest’s name.

Let’s go back to number one for a minute – a warm and sincere greeting.  Eight weeks ago, my mother in law had a heart issue and went to the hospital to have trans-aorta valve replacement done. She is eighty-three years old, and my wife and I took her to the hospital.  A very strong woman, but she was scared and nervous.  We walked into the hospital – she had her appointment – and we walked up to the area where we had to check in. The woman behind the check-in area said three words.

Anyone want to guess what the three words were?

“Fill this out.” Eighty-three, and scared. “Fill this out.” It’s not that she said anything wrong. There was just zero empathy. She just didn’t get what my mother in law was about to go through. She wasn’t in her head, she didn’t see it through her lens.

Back on the hospitality side, what we try to do is see situations through the customer’s lens, so when you approach the front desk of a hotel, there are two ways that you can be checked in.

The first way is you walk through the front door, you approach the desk, and I ask. “Name?” or “Next.”

That’s option one.

Option two, the door opens up, you’re walking across the lobby, I see you and I make eye contact with you and maybe I smile, and then you approach the desk and I say “Good morning, welcome to the hotel. How was your trip? Great. What’s your last name?”

Both will get the job done. Both will get you your room key. Both will get you to your room. The first one probably will check you in quicker because they’re more efficient, but the second one will get you in feeling better because they utilize empathy skills.

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