Defining Service - Why Is it So Important.
By Chris Longstreet
Monday, 30th January 2006
We walked into a bagel shop to get a coffee and a soda. We chatted as we waited in line. We skipped the order taker and went to the cashier. We got our coffee and large soda. The total bill? $3.36. We handed the cashier $5 and were working at getting 36¢ to eliminate having more change in our pockets. The cashier then boldly stated, "You aren't going to make that hard for me?"  I was shocked. How would getting her 36¢ make her job harder? How rude could she have been?

It was 6:45 am and I pulled up to a Burger King to eat breakfast. I went to the door and it was locked. Drive through was open and people were being served there. So, reluctantly, I got in my car and went to the drive through. I asked if the dining room was open. Through the speaker, I heard, "Well, we've been really busy so far this morning and I forgot to open the doors." I drove around and parked again. The door was open. I went to the counter and waited two minutes for the manager to acknowledge me and take my order. There was no "good morning" greeting. There was no apology. There was no acknowledgement of an error. I felt like I was inconveniencing him for asking him to open the door and he made me feel that I was bothering him for actually wanting to come in, order breakfast, and  pay for it.

Why is Great Service So Hard to Find Today?

Why is great service so hard to find? Why can we tell story after story of bad service but can't really come up with examples of good service? If we all say we agree with giving great service to our guests, why is it so hard to find? Consider the following reasons.

First, great service is not expected and in many cases, we are unfamiliar to it. We dine at restaurants because we like the food. We return to hotels because of the facilities and amenities. I ask college students to define service and visit three restaurants and evaluate the service they receive. Some struggle with the definitions because they really don't know what to look for because they haven't been taught it or experienced it all that often. And, because we don't know what good service looks and feels like, many employees are attempting to service our guests and doing a poor job at it in the process. They don't know what good service is because they haven't experienced it and we haven't told them what it really looks like.

Second, good service is not rewarded effectively. In performance evaluations, great service is many times passed over because we assume good service is given. Compensation systems rarely reward great service givers and thus it is not a highly valued attribute. When is that last time you saw an employee give great service and recognized them for it? Are you even looking for it? If our reward systems do not place a high value on service, it is unlikely that we will see it happen on the front line.

But the biggest reason in my opinion that we have such a hard time finding great service today is that we don't define exactly what great guest service is. We want great service and we want our people providing great service. We promise 100% satisfaction to our guests. As Ari Weinsweig states in Zingerman's Guide to Giving Great Service, "If you don't know the rules of the service game you are playing, it doesn't really matter how much you care or how hard you try – you aren't going to succeed. If we want our staff to win the game of great service, we have to teach them how to play. We have to define great service for them if we want them to have a chance to deliver it."1

Defining Great Service

Great organizations – hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, or companies – that provide great service have learned the value of defining exactly what guest service means to their organization. Giving great service can be incorporated to every part of the organization: give great service to our guests, to those we work with, and even to our community.

Ritz Carlton sets an example of what defining great service means. Their motto is "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." Their definition of service includes three basic steps:2

1.   A warm and sincere greeting. Use the guest name, if and when possible.

2.   Anticipation and compliance with guest needs.

3.   Fond farewell - give them a warm good-bye and use their names, if and when possible.

That is a clear definition of service! Ritz Carlton expands on these steps with their "20 Basics" which include such items as:

  • Each employee is empowered. For example, when a guest has a problem or needs something special you should break away from your regular duties, address and resolve the issue.
  • To provide the finest personal service for our guests, each employee is responsible for identifying and recording individual guest preferences.
  • Never lose a guest. Instant guest pacification is the responsibility of each employee. Whoever receives a complaint will own it, resolve it to the guest's satisfaction and record it.
  • "Smile - we are on stage." Always maintain positive eye contact. Use the proper vocabulary with our guests. (Use words like - "Good Morning," "Certainly," "I'll be happy to," and "My pleasure.")
  • Escort guests rather than pointing out directions to another area of the Hotel.
Zingerman's, a deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and recently named "the coolest small company in America" by Inc. Magazine, provides their recipe this way:3



  • An inspiring, strategically sound and clearly documented vision for great service
  • Strong, service oriented leadership
  • Clean and well communicated expectations
  • Good training to share those expectations and to let people practice
  • Giving staff the authorization to take action to make great service a reality
  • Positive recognition and reward for great service givers

1.       Figure out what your customer wants.

2.       Get it for them accurately, politely and enthusiastically.

3.       Go the extra mile for the customer.

How To Define Service

Define what service means to your hotel, your restaurant or to your company.  Consider the following steps as you develop your organization's definition of service:

1.   To define it, actually sit down and write out what it means. Get together with fellow managers and employees and develop agreement in your own recipe for providing great service.

2.   Start by figuring out what the guest wants when they visit. Ask them if you have to. Look at the entire guest experience from the moment they enter to the departure and potential follow-up communication.

3.   Create specific examples of what service looks and feels like. During a seminar presentation in Phoenix, Arizona, I had one hotel general manager stand and explain that she has a 10-foot rule. Whenever a guest comes within 10-feet of an employee, it is the employee's duty to acknowledge the guest in some fashion. Another general manager stated how they require all employees who are in the guestroom hallways to get out of the way of approaching guests. "The guest owns the hallway – they paid for it," was the comment and the employees were required to move carts out of the way and greet the guest as they passed.

4.   Write everything out clearly and succinctly. Make it clear to all employees what is expected of them from a service and overall guest experience perspective.

1     Weinzwieg, Ari (2004). Zingerman's Guide to Giving Great Service. New York: Hyperion.
2     Information retrieved from http://www.ritzcarlton.com/corporate/about_us/gold_standards.asp on January 17, 2006.
3      Weinzwieg, Ari (2004). Zingerman's Guide to Giving Great Service. New York: Hyperion.

Chris Longstreet is President & CEO of the Society for Hospitality Management.  He also serves as a visiting instructor for the Hospitality & Tourism Management Program at Grand Valley State University.  For more information, visit the SHM website at www.hospitalitysociety.org or contact Chris at

© Society for Hospitality Management, January 2006

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