World-Class Courtesy

A Best Practices Report

A Report of the
National Performance Review
Vice President Al Gore


1. Creating World-Class Courtesy
  1.1 Cultural Climate
  1.2 Leadership
  1.3 Employee Empowerment
  1.4 Organizational Courtesy
  1.5 Training
  1.6 Hiring Techniques
  1.7 Performance Measures
  1.8 Seamless Service
  1.9 Discourteous Service
  1.10 Customer Loyalty

2. Implementing World-Class Courtesy
  2.1 Quick Tips For Improving Courtesy
  2.2 Developing Strategies for Implementing World-Class Courtesy
  2.3 Employee Courtesy Attitude Survey
  2.4 Organizational Self-Assessment on Courtesy
  2.5 Assessment Results
Selected Bibliography
  I. Report Design and Methodology
  II. Research Questionnaire


Study Partners
Defense Commissary Agency
Federal Express Corporation
GTE Directories Corporation
Portland VA Medical Center
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company
Social Security Administration
Ultimate Support Systems, Inc.
U.S. Department of Agriculture

Dan Curtis, National Performance Review
Wilett Bunton, National Performance Review
Linda Nivens, National Performance Review

M Scott Beck, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs
Norma Jo Greenlee, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Team Members
Robert H. Baker, Defense Commissary Agency
Kathleen Bailey, Environmental Protection Agency
Paul Dzierzynski, U. S. Patent and Trademark Office
Aldolphus Gaines, Office of the Inspector General,
Department of the Treasury
Brad Gee, Federal Aviation Agency
Karl Glasbrenner, Defense Intelligence Agency
Terrence Graham, Department of Veterans Affairs
Margaret West Guenther, U. S. Department of Education
Art Koines, Environmental Protection Agency
Sheldon Lehner, Immigration and Naturalization
Service, Department of Justice
Paige Lowther, Department of Veterans Affairs
Maynard Malabey, Social Security Administration
M. Neil Masson, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Stephen C. Moore, U. S. Department of Education
Patricia Novak, National Cemetery System,
Department of Veterans Affairs
Steve Randol, Defense Commissary Agency
Julie Spyres, Environmental Protection Agency

The study partners were selected because of their reputation for high quality customer service and their representation of a cross-section of industries. This report highlights commendable practices that have led to such customer satisfaction. The inclusion of the organizations listed in this report does not, however, constitute a general endorsement of any organization by either the National Performance Review or Vice President Al Gore.


The following organizations served as partners in our study of best practices in world-class courtesy. Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) operates a worldwide system of grocery stores committed to providing quality products at the lowest possible price to current and former members of the armed services and their families. The Agency's vision is "quality first, people always."

With more than 110,000 employees worldwide, Federal Express Corporation delivers more than 2 million packages to over 200 countries each business day. In 1990, Federal Express was honored with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Located in Dallas-Fort Worth, GTE Directories Corporation has published yellow pages since the 1940s. Today, GTE publishes more than 2,300 directories in 47 states and 15 countries, and employs more than 5,000 people. In 1994, GTE Directories was also honored with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Founded in 1901 in Seattle, Nordstrom is a family-owned company offering fashion apparel, shoes, and accessories. With 81 stores in 16 states, Nordstrom continues to be guided by its founder's commitment to "offer the customer the best possible service, selection, quality, and value."

Guided by the philosophy "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen," The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company operates 32 resorts worldwide and employs more than 14,000. In 1992, the Ritz-Carlton was honored with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

With 1,300 field offices and 37 telephone service centers, the Social Security Administration (SSA) delivers programs that provide continuing income to retirees, insurance payments to individuals with disabilities, and health benefits to older Americans. An independent agency since 1994, SSA is committed to "putting customers first."

Ultimate Support Systems of Fort Collins, Colorado, designs, builds, and sells durable, lightweight stands and other support equipment for musicians and biking enthusiasts worldwide.

USAA provides insurance and diversified financial services for current and former members of the armed forces. Headquartered in San Antonio, USAA was founded by a group of military officers. Today, USAA employees number 16,500 worldwide.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) mission is to ensure the well-being of Americans, especially with regard to commercial agriculture and sensible management of natural resources; families needing nutritional services; consumers dependent on a safe, affordable food

supply; and residents of depressed rural areas. USDA administers more than 200 programs and an annual budget of over $54 billion.

The Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, is a 482-bed research and teaching hospital committed to providing "services that match the best in business." More than 30,000 veterans received care at the facility in 1996 through outpatient visits and approximately 10,000 inpatient stays.


Courtesy among individuals and organizations has long been recognized in all major societies of the world as a sign of respect and civility. Even among parties with divergent points of view, think, for example, of the chambers of the United Nations­courteous behavior among individuals and countries sets a tone of mutual respect with which further productive dialog and successful outcomes may be achieved. In all its forms and styles, courtesy behavior, has been hailed by kings, presidents, and religious leaders as behavior that provides a foundation of good manners and goodwill­ and from which all other good things may follow.

Be ruthless with time and gracious with people.

SSA's Baltimore Teleservice Center


Many feel that changing organizational behaviors in the federal sector is not only possible, but essential. In today's business environment, government agencies, like organizations in the private sector, are subject to the forces of downsizing, customer satisfaction, customer retention, revenue loss, and streamlining of services. How customers are treated is often the difference between organizations that succeed and those that fail. Courtesy, and the behaviors involved in it are integral to achieving world-class recognition and customer satisfaction.


The National Performance Review and Executive Order 12862, along with the President's Management Council, have directed government agencies to look for smarter and better ways of doing business. The purpose of this report is to identify courtesy best practices in "best-in-class" organizations. The study team's working hypothesis was that courtesy, as perceived by the customer, is an integral component of customer satisfaction.

Based on this, the team developed a working definition of both courtesy and world-class courtesy.


The study team determined that courtesy, as an organizational objective, relates to the establishment, preservation, or improvement of relationships. We found that those behaviors associated with courtesy seemed to have more significance for organizational improvement when viewed within the larger context of customer service. Courtesy is generally a component within the customer service strategy of an organization, as well as a series of identifiable, measurable behaviors.

The team learned that an organization's values and actual behavior toward the customer and among its own employees are often different. To address this, the partners in this study tended to focus on both employee-to-employee courtesy as well as employee-to-customer courtesy.

We found throughout our research that employees who are highly valued and well-trained by their organizations provide a higher level of service to their customers. Whether it is a veteran applying for care in a Veterans Health Administration facility, a vacationer checking into a four-star hotel, a beneficiary contacting the Social Security Administration, or a family just entering a national forest, customers should expect their needs to be addressed both competently and courteously.

Courtesy: Using accepted and appropriate manners, as interpreted from the customer's perspective, to meet the expectations of the customer.

World-Class Courtesy: Using exceptional manners, as interpreted from the customer's perspective, to exceed the expectations of the customer.

Government agencies must do what many of America's best businesses have done: renew their focus on customers.

Al Gore


This report offers insight into how world-class companies use courtesy to improve customer satisfaction and their own bottom line. Each of the organizations studied exhibited the following characteristics:

  • The organization's cultural climate reflects a commitment to meeting and exceeding customer expectations.
  • Senior leaders demonstrate by example the organization's commitment to exceptional courtesy.
  • Employees are empowered to fully meet the needs of their customers.
  • Courtesy is practiced by everyone throughout the entire organization.
  • Specific and ongoing training in courtesy is provided.
  • Formal and informal screening techniques are used to hire employees with exceptional skills in courtesy.
  • The organization establishes systems to measure the value of its services to customers.
  • Services are provided seamlessly from the customer's perspective.
  • There is zero tolerance for discourteous service.
  • All the organizations found that courtesy improves customer loyalty.


Courtesy is expressed as a wide range of respectful behaviors and positive attitudes. Personal characteristics and behaviors that were repeatedly expressed by our partners as essential elements of courteous behavior are:

  • a willingness to discover opportunities to exceed the customer's expectations,
  • sincerity,
  • a friendly smile (even over the phone),
  • using the person's last name (unless the customer indicates otherwise),
  • a neat appearance,
  • proper use of the language,
  • exceptional listening skills (attentiveness),
  • a relaxed and natural tone of voice,
  • appropriate eye contact,
  • clear communication at the customer's comprehension level, and
  • knowledge about the product or service.


What must the government do to deliver world-class courtesy? The following sections provide information, best practices, and techniques to help you develop an organization that delivers world-class courtesy.

How customers are treated is often the difference between organizations that succeed and those that fail.


"Setting Customer Service Standards"

  • Identify customers who are, or should be, served by the agency.
  • Survey customers to determine the kind and quality of services they want and their level of satisfaction with existing services.
  • Post service standards and measure results against them.
  • Benchmark customer service standards against the best in business.
  • Survey front-line employees on barriers to, and ideas for, matching the best in business.
  • Provide customers with choices in both the sources of service and the means of delivery.
  • Make information, services, and complaint systems easily accessible.
  • Provide means to address customer complaints.
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