World-Class Courtesy

A Best Practices Report

Go to the Introduction

Section 1.1


We will create a professional, secure, and healthy work environment that values diversity and fosters world-class courteous service for our customers and employees.

SSA Vision

A world-class organization's culture reflects its customer beliefs. In the broadest sense, the culture of an organization is interpreted by customers through both direct and indirect experiences. The overall quality of services provided tends to be defined by customers based on their cumulative experiences with the organization. For example, they notice the ease of parking and locating the proper office, or how attractive and clean the facility is, or how courteous and responsive the staff is to their questions. They especially notice how well employees and managers treat each other when they are not directly working with customers. For these reasons, the organizations studied emphasized the importance of viewing courtesy within the larger context of the organization's customer service culture. The partners in this study demonstrated that an organization's "cultural climate" is formed within a collective reservoir of the shared values, expectations, and commitments of their employees, managers, customers, and stakeholders. In each organization visited, the cultural climate reflected a commitment to meeting and exceeding customer expectations.

The organizations the study team visited also stressed that employees who worked in a nurturing environment and had the tools they needed to do their jobs were more courteous and helpful to their customers and fellow employees.

The employees at USAA work in a campus-like environment situated on 286 acres of rolling land, which provides a sense of space and tranquillity. Employees are provided with parking, fitness and recreation facilities, and many other employee benefits that enhance their cultural climate.

The corporate philosophy of Federal Express ­"People-Service-Profit"­teaches that if you take care of your employees, the employees will deliver a superior service which their customers reward.

Section 1.2


Any program of customer service and/or employee courtesy can succeed only when it has total commitment from the top of the organization.

Portland VA Medical Center

Senior leaders in world-class organizations demonstrate by example their organization's commitment to exceptional courtesy. It was apparent from listening to our partners that, although leadership styles vary, they all agreed that leaders are responsible for creating, communicating, exemplifying, and reinforcing the organization's commitment to courtesy.

The concept of "servant-leadership" was discussed by our partners as a highly effective means for ensuring that the needs of employees and customers are being met. This style of leadership, now practiced by many successful businesses, focuses on continually increasing the empowerment of employees. A servant-leader serves his or her employees by providing support needed for each person in the organization to grow both professionally and personally.

Senior leaders in the organizations visited strongly emphasized creating and sustaining a customer focus with clear values, high expectations, and exceptional courtesy. Leaders "walk the talk": They serve as examples of the organization's commitment to customers. They set the tone by displaying courteous and respectful behavior in all situations. And senior leaders provide timely, positive recognition when employees are found delivering exceptional, courteous service.

The CEO of The Ritz-Carlton conducts new employee orientation training during the opening of each new property. At DeCA, the Director speaks to every basic and advanced commissary management class to emphasize the mission and goals of the organization. The Director at the Portland VA Medical Center uses a portion of his time to personally meet and greet veterans applying for care; the owners of Nordstrom walk around the store chatting with the customers and employees­ and helping out where needed.

The leadership at SSA has developed a written national strategy and vision for improving courtesy. This vision has been taught to all SSA employees and has received recognition throughout the public and private sectors. It reads in part "To become courteous, qualified, professional, positive people dedicated to helping our customers with efficient and accurate service."

During our visit to Federal Express, the study team learned about its management development program known as LEAP (Leadership, Evaluation, and Awareness Process). LEAP stresses courtesy, individual consideration, and respect for others. Senior leadership fosters an organization with:

  • a clear customer focus,
  • customer-driven, decentralized decisionmaking;
  • quality and process improvement mechanisms; and
  • quick rewards for employee recognition.

Section 1.3


From the customer's perspective, the employee he or she is talking to is the organization!

"Courtesy without empowerment," noted the CEO of one of our study partners, "is doomed from the onset. Our employees cannot be expected to have greater accountability without greater authority." Thus, employees of world-class organizations are empowered to fully meet the needs of their customers. And, backing up their commitment to courtesy through employee empowerment, the partners in this study make sure that their employees have the tools, technology, and training they need to perform at the world-class level.

Empowerment means that each employee is given the responsibility, the training, and the full confidence of the organization to meet and exceed customers' expectations...often without any hand-offs to another employee. One manager described it this way: "We are so confident in our employees' abilities with customers that we take a relatively hands-off posture and often just sit back and watch our staff delight one customer after another."

The USAA staff is trained to handle every conceivable customer issue, request or complaint­by themselves­during the first interaction with the customer. Employees seeking greater responsibility and empowerment are identified and mentored.

The USAA employee "Pride Principles" include:

  • Exceed customer expectations.
  • Live the "golden rule"...courtesy is modeled by organizational leaders. Everyone in management, from the CEO to front-line supervisors, is dedicated to treating employees and each other with respect.
  • Be a leader.
  • Participate and contribute.
  • Work as a team.
  • Share knowledge.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Listen and communicate.

The employees at The Ritz-Carlton are empowered to use their own good judgment in doing "whatever it takes" to ensure a customer's satisfaction. This often involves committing some portion of the company's resources without permission from anyone. Each employee can: (1) "move heaven and earth" to satisfy a customer, (2) contact appropriate employees to solve a problem swiftly, and (3) spend up to $2,000 in order to satisfy a guest.

Nordstrom has empowered its employees to do whatever is needed to satisfy and exceed customer needs and expectations. Employees serve their customers as if they are running their own personal business.

Customer service representatives at Federal Express are empowered to make on-the-spot adjustments to customer accounts up to $100, send gifts of apology, and give a $100 cash or credit refund at their discretion.

Employees of the Ultimate Support System, Inc., have full authority to do whatever it takes to satisfy customers. Once an employee takes a customer's call, he or she oversees the action from start to finish until the customer is completely satisfied. Ultimate Support System's "best in business" reputation among working musicians across the country bears out its commitment to customer service.

Section 1.4


Treat everyone as you would like to be treated.

Courtesy is practiced by everyone throughout the world-class organization, and courteous behavior is viewed as underpinning every interaction. In customer-driven companies, courtesy among employees is as important as courtesy to customers. In fact, our findings indicated that organizations that practice world-class courtesy extend the concept of courtesy not only to customers and employees, but to all stakeholders in the organization, including the community at large. In this study, we learned that courtesy among employees at all levels in the organization is as important as the provision of courtesy to the customers. Moreover, this courtesy is the very basis of customer courtesy. Employees treated internally with respect and honor will most often give that same treatment to customers.

The Ritz-Carlton's motto is "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." This concept is entrenched in The Ritz-Carlton philosophy and can be seen throughout the organization. Employees are treated like customers. The heart of The Ritz-Carlton is the common area, where the employees take their breaks and their training, and which serves as the hub of the hotel. This area is as spotless as the main hotel, and every employee is courteous and respectful to his or her counterparts regardless of position in the organization. The managers all eat with the staff in a cafeteria provided to them free of charge. The food served to the employees is the same food served to the customers in the main dining rooms.

GTE Directories Corporation told the study team that quality improvements or customer satisfaction is only sustainable and continuous when employees are highly motivated, informed, involved, and satisfied with their work environment. These employees treat each other with courtesy and respect in an environment based on a win-win philosophy.

Section 1.5


Training is not an expense but an investment.

GTE Directories Corporation

World-class organizations provide specific and ongoing training in courtesy. Best-in-class businesses or agencies use effective training protocols to ensure that their customer service goals are achieved. The organizations we visited used a number of innovative training approaches to ensure that employees were prepared to provide exceptional levels of courtesy and caring to their customers. Most included training in courtesy during their new employee orientation. Several had specialized programs that focused on those employees with direct customer impact duties. Role playing was often used to demonstrate what exceptional courtesy looked like while giving the participants a chance to assess their own unique styles of working with the customer.

All the organizations studied expressed the importance of continuous training. The message from these organizations is that their best asset is a trained employee.

The Portland VA Medical Center provides all its employees training in value-added service. This training, taught by medical center staff, emphasizes that service excellence is an organizationwide commitment that focuses all the organization's resources to one end: customer satisfaction. Within the training is a section on Courtesy and Value-Added Behaviors which covers: courtesy skills related to greeting and acknowledging patients and their families; special send-off skills when a patient is discharged; and showing appreciation for patients, families, and staff.

Be faithful to your job and co-workers by being on time, starting promptly, and doing your share of the work. Treat each other with respect, both as human beings and co-workers. Refrain from bickering, gossip, and horseplay.

USAA Code of Conduct

DeCA employees are offered sensitivity training, tapes, and films all aimed at improving courtesy and customer satisfaction.

Employees of The Ritz-Carlton are trained to be aware of language and cultural differences that could hinder communication. All new employees attend a two-day orientation that stresses courtesy and customer service. The company dedicates 80 percent of its training budget to improving customer courtesy and provides over 100 hours of training to each employee.

SSA telephone service representatives receive two months of training in telephone courtesy, presentation skills, dealing with difficult customers, equipment and computers, technical job aspects, image and self-projection, conflict resolution, active listening, and handling customer complaints. They also are given a courtesy handbook designed by SSA, Courtesy in the Workplace, and can view an SSA-produced video on courtesy.

USDA is currently training 225 facilitators to roll out a customized courtesy training program to 40,000 employees across the nation.

GTE Directories Corporation believes that training is not an expense, but an investment. It designed and offers a two-day orientation on quality customer care, which is given weekly or upon request. This course covers all customer service topics, including telephone techniques and handling customers effectively.

One training department at Federal Express has been dedicated to educating employees about courteous behavior. Employees dealing with the public receive six weeks of training on interacting with customers.

Section 1.6


World-class organizations use formal and informal screening techniques to hire employees with exceptional skills in courtesy. People seeking employment with any of our study partners will find the hiring process both fascinating and thorough. Interviews with structured feedback from up to 10 different people are not uncommon in organizations with outstanding reputations for courtesy. Some use formal testing such as the Myers-Briggs Personality Style Inventory, while others have developed a rigorous screening and interview process to select those employees who now possess or who have the potential to develop exceptional customer service skills. Across the board, the message was "hire right" to ensure high levels of exceptional courtesy and overall service excellence.

Our partners all agreed that it is important to hire people who already have a predisposition to service excellence. Organizations with reputations for world-class courtesy stress the importance of finding and hiring individuals who already have strong customer service skills. Combined with proper training, these strong skills become exceptional skills.

The patient representative positions at the Portland VA Medical Center are filled based on the candidate's proven record of successful customer relations. In addition to the skills and knowledge needed about the clinical management system at Portland, the final success of the patient representative lies with his or her ability to see creative options for problem solving. The Portland patient rep calls this type of problem solving "thinking outside the box."

USAA's hiring practices ensure that employees have the qualifications and background needed to support a courteous environment. The hiring standards require that service representatives be college graduates (internal candidates excepted), take a specialized skills and aptitude test, and participate in a series of interviews.

Nordstrom believes there is no mystery to its outstanding reputation for customer service. Its approach is simply to hire "nice" people. Combining nice folks with Nordstrom customer service training guarantees that customers will be treated with courtesy, sensitivity, and respect.

SSA, in hiring field office representatives, looks for candidates with outstanding interpersonal skills, compassion, and an ability to grow and learn. To be hired, applicants must participate in a panel interview and role play for the prospective job. SSA knows that the first contact a customer might have with the agency is during a telephone call to its 1-800 number. The service representatives the agency hires therefore must be dynamic, sensitive, and well-informed.

The Ritz-Carlton has taken a very proactive role in making sure it hires the right people for the right job. It created a standard for hiring for each position in its organization. It implemented a "character trait recruiting" program which reduces service variability among employees, acts as an aid to productivity, and has reduced turnover by 50 percent. Once applicants complete the initial screening, it is not unusual for them to complete several more interviews before being selected.

Section 1.7


First, measure and assess customer expectations for courtesy, then systematically work toward exceeding their expectations.

Ultimate Support Systems, Inc.

Courtesy is measurable. Our partners all had systems for measuring courtesy within the context of their customer service initiatives. Measuring courtesy with any degree of accuracy requires capturing information on the perceptions of the customer following an interaction with a member of the organization. To understand the significance of that perception, the organization needs to know the customer's expectations prior to that transaction. This requires that the organization use focus groups, complaint data, or other tools to assess the expectations of their customers.

Each organization determined acceptable outcomes by first learning what their customers expected. Focus groups and customer surveys were used by some partners, but the most prevalent method of determining customer expectations was to talk to the customers. Employees at all levels were encouraged to ask customers how services offered were meeting their expectations and what suggestions they had for improving those services. As a mid-level supervisor stated, "there is no substitute for getting the customer's perspective on things first hand."

USDA's Forest Service created and uses customer surveys and personal inquiries. Every visitor to a national park is given a customer survey card upon exiting.

Since 1991, the GTE Directories Corporation has used its Customer Satisfaction Measurement Program to collect and analyze data on customers' perceptions on courtesy, value, and other expected customer services. This program provides a mechanism for the company to listen to its customers; anticipate their needs; and respond with appropriate products, services, processes, and improvements.

So Ultimate Support Systems, Inc., can improve services wherever possible, it collects and records all customer feedback on its products as well as on staff behaviors, including courtesy. The information collected is then used for continual improvement within the company.

The Customer Service Evaluation System developed by DeCA is used to survey 70,000 patrons in over 300 commissaries. The agency has also activated a customer hotline and an employee action line so customers and employees can lodge complaints, make suggestions, or express their satisfaction.

The Portland VA Medical Center uses a variety of tools to measure customer satisfaction. These include direct lines for customers and employees and several different types of surveys­for example, the National VA Customer Feedback Survey, the ONE-VA Employee Survey, and numerous hospital-based surveys.

SSA uses several different instruments to ask customers what is important to them and how well SSA is doing. These include:

  • regional and local customer comment cards,
  • national Office of the Inspector General customer satisfaction surveys,
  • courtesy self-assessment surveys,
  • exit and entrance surveys, and
  • customer focus groups.

USAA not only uses repeated written surveys, customer meetings, and focus groups, but takes it all one step farther by contacting customers who have canceled their policies. The information gathered from these interviews is used to continuously improve customer service.

In order to stay on top, companies need to have a clear understanding of their customers' needs and expectations. The Ritz-Carlton does­by using extensive research tools, focus groups, information gathered through employees' daily contact with customers, and from guest and travel planner satisfaction systems. The company also makes it simple for customers to voice their needs and expectations by having available:

  • customer service managers 24 hours a day,
  • customer comment cards,
  • toll free numbers, and
  • an automated system used by employees to capture guest information.

Section 1.8


Customers expect pleasantness and courtesy when they deal with you­ but they also expect results.

Forest Service
Customer Service Pledge
  • Visitors will always be welcomed with prompt and courteous service.
  • Our offices, worksites, and visitor centers will open at times convenient to our customers.
  • Customers will receive the services and information they request, or we will explain why we cannot meet the request.
  • Customers will be fully informed of the procedures required for grants, agreements, contracts, and permits; and we will respond in a timely manner.
  • Customers will be asked regularly to help us improve our services and business practices.
  • Our facilities will be safe, clean, attractive, and informative.
  • Our facilities and programs will be accessible to persons of all ages and abilities.

Courtesy is a major contributor in providing seamless service to customers. Seamless service implies no "hand-offs," or at least the appearance, from the customer's perspective, of no hand-offs. In fact, hand-offs normally do occur even in the best companies or agencies but the difference lies in how they are done.

Our partners understand the importance of reducing the number of employees with whom customers must speak before they receive the service they want. Important strategies include the development and use of toll-free numbers and centralized customer assistance centers. These services are widely publicized to customers to promote their use and ensure "one-stop shopping" and seamless service. As an example, one of our partners routinely gets questions from its guests regarding the location of certain areas within the facility. The response to these requests (hand-offs) is to first answer the customer's questions courteously , and then to escort them personally to the location they requested. That's seamless service.

With the introduction of high technology, employees at USAA can access the customer's full history from their computer workstations during the first contact. They then can answer the customer's questions with a touch of a button.

The saying "When you see a problem, you own it" is followed by all employees at The Ritz-Carlton. If a customer stops an employee and asks a question, that employees is responsible for finding out the answer for that customer.

The Portland VA Medical Center's goal is to be known as the most caring and courteous medical center in the community. All facilities, equipment, and organizational policies and procedures are redesigned as needed to remove obstacles to the patient's ability to receive quality health care and superior personal service.

At DeCA, the experience of shopping for food has been taken to a new level. All employees are instructed to follow through on any questions asked by their customers. If a customer asks for the location of an item, the DeCA employee is to escort that customer to the item and, if necessary, help retrieve it. DeCA also has Customer Service Support Teams present at all times to help customers with their needs. These team members are dressed in special outfits so customers can find them easily.

The SSA field offices are, to a large extent, run by the employees. They know how to please their customers, and they have the ability and tools to make all decisions necessary for their jobs. SSA has also created a world-class call center with its 1-800 number. This center completes 80 percent of all calls the first time.
Some Ritz-Carlton Basics
  • All employees will know the needs of their internal and external customers.
  • Each employee will continuously identify defects.
  • Any employee who receives a customer complaint "owns" the complaint.
  • React quickly to correct the problem.
  • Smile-Always maintain positive eye contact. Use the proper vocabulary with our guests.
  • Escort guests rather than pointing out directions to another area of the hotel.
  • Be knowledgeable of hotel information.

Section 1.9


In world-class organizations, there is no tolerance whatsoever for discourteous service. That's because, of the three most important elements of customer service­timeliness, quality, and courtesy­only discourteousness will cause customers to go elsewhere, regardless of the timeliness or quality of service provided.

Our partners clearly emphasized that discourteous behavior is every employee's responsibility and must be addressed immediately. While intentional discourtesy is rare, behavior perceived as discourteous by the customer is more prevalent­ and perception, to the customer, is reality. World-class organizations need a "zero tolerance" policy for discourteous behavior. Such a policy should be supported by clear and timely processes that can either retrain or remove the employee from a customer service role. Remember: For every customer who complains directly to management, there are at least 10 more who complain to their friends and associates. The damage done to an organization by discourteous behavior is thus severe and lasting. Discourteous behavior will, of itself, cause customers to make choices detrimental to an organization's success. Even if the services provided cannot be easily obtained elsewhere, the organization's reputation­and, ultimately, its survival­are endangered by unresolved discourtesy to customers.

Everyone experiences an occasional bad day. In world-class organizations, though, employees work hard to keep a bad day from leading to discourteous behavior toward customers and co-workers. These employees and their organizations also know the importance of a sincere apology. They listen attentively to dissatisfied customers and continue working with a customer until his or her problem is addressed. Most importantly, complaints are tracked and analyzed, and lead to decisions that improve customer service.
DeCA Customer Bill of Rights

Our customers have the right to:
Article I. Professional, courteous service.
Article II. A clean, pleasant store.
Article III. Fresh, high-quality merchandise.
Article IV. Well-stocked shelves.
Article V. The best possible prices.
Article VI. Quick, efficient checkout.

Section 1.10


Growth through 100% customer satisfaction.

GTE Vision

The distinct message from each and every one of our partners is that courtesy increases customer loyalty. Our findings show that customers of both business and government expect courteous treatment. Customer loyalty expressed by visitors comes from experiences that are truly exceptional and seamless. Getting to this level of courtesy­ and staying there­is what this report is all about. Customer loyalty is critical to the survival of all organizations. We learned that customer loyalty is significantly increased only when courtesy is exceptional. Customers interviewed during the study team's site visits described exceptional courtesy in a variety of ways:
  • "The employees here treat me as an individual."
  • "They look me right in the eye when they talk to me."
  • "Once they meet you, they call you by your name from then on."
  • "They always seem glad to see me."
  • "They always have time for me; I never feel rushed."
  • "Employees here give me the impression they can personally address any problem I may have."
  • "These folks are very interested in my opinion about what kind of job they are doing and how they can make things better."
  • "I've actually seen how my opinion makes a difference here...they don't just listen, they act."
  • "No matter who I talk to, I'm treated with the same respect and courtesy."
  • "These people really seem to enjoy what they're doing!"

Exceptional courtesy is often that which is provided in a random and unexpected way so that it surprises and delights the customer. A classic example by The Ritz-Carlton to providing exceptional service is to capture and use customer data to anticipate customer needs. This means, for example, that a frequent guest returning to the hotel will find a special gift in the room such as a refrigerator filled with his or her most frequently requested beverage or snack.

100% customer satisfaction after every transaction.

Federal Express Motto

Many people have heard the story of the woman who was helped by Nordstrom employees with her flat tire in front of their store. The Nordstrom employees saw an opportunity to provide exceptional service and were empowered to act on it.

At Social Security, exceptional courtesy is the standard. It has developed the following pledge:

  • We will provide service through knowledgeable employees who will treat you with courtesy, dignity, and respect every time you do business with us.
  • We will provide you with our best estimate of the time needed to complete your request and fully explain any delays.
  • We will make sure our offices are safe and pleasant, and our services are accessible.
  • When you make an appointment, we will serve you within 10 minutes of the scheduled time.

Customer courtesy is an important part of DeCA's strategic plan. Employees are projecting more courtesy, and customers are noticing and appreciating it.

Thus, last December, a major in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, working with the 416th Flight Test Squadron, was shopping for the first time at the Edwards Air Force Base, California, commissary. Upon checking out, he discovered he could not use his European credit card to pay his grocery bill. The DeCA cashier volunteered to write a personal check to cover the major's total amount of purchase, $273.

When the major repaid the debt the next day, he also expressed his appreciation for the outstanding service and trust he had been extended as a customer. His parting comments were: "It's good to know America still has outstanding people."

Navigation Bar For NPR site Back To The NPR Main Page Search the NPR Site NPR Initiatives Links to Other Reinvention Web Sites Reinvention Tools Frequently Asked Questions NPR Speeches NPR News Releases