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Five-star service

Features - Cover Story: Top 100, Industry News

When it came to improving its customer relations, Southern Botanical looked outside the industry for help.

Katie Tuttle | May 12, 2014

Southern Botanical | No. 52

When the team at Southern Botanical thought about a training system to achieve five-star service, the first thing that came to mind was hotels.

So, each year the Dallas-based company takes a four-day, three-night retreat to a hotel. While that may sound like a nice reward for staff, Southern Botanical includes a twist: The training is with the hotel staff.

“Every time we go, we do two different hotel types of training, so last time it was the valet and the housekeeping teams,” says Jim Cali, chief operating officer for Southern Botanical. “The valets led a presentation of their processes and tools ... the first person and last person to greet the client is the valet, so we learned what that is all about.”

How it started.

When Cali joined the company eight years ago, Southern Botanical had its customers split into three tiers: A, B and C, depending on what quality of work the customer wanted. All the employees were trained on how to give service to each tier, and customers paid a specific amount based on each tier. The company decided it wanted one level of service, and that’s where the hotel idea came in.

“We immediately chose the five-star service,” Cali says. “We kept all of our existing customers and all of a sudden started providing five-star service, even if they were paying for C. And then it was on our back, when it came to renewal, to continually get the price up until they were effectively paying for A, but we had to show value for A. … Our clients are the same clients that would stay in a five-star hotel and appreciate great client service.

“These hotels have been doing this much longer than we have and have valuable insights to share regarding how to wow the client, and keep them coming back for more.”

Cali says the training at hotels has been good for the company, because the hotels are continually willing to train and help.

“We’ve changed (hotels) every time,” he says. “We have been to the Four Seasons, Rough Creek Lodge, Ritz Carlton, St. Regis, Park Hyatt. …” Each hotel provides employees with different tips and techniques to ensure good client-facing, or interaction between clients and employees.

Cali says that although many companies out there can offer five-star service, a lot of them don’t provide direct interaction with the clients. Hotels do.

“The client-facing piece is probably the most important piece,” he says. “There’s a heck of a lot of client facing when it comes to hotels so that’s why we went in that direction.” For the first training retreat, Southern Botanical went to the Four Seasons.

“We challenged our sales team from the Four Seasons to show us one example of how their client experience differed from other hotel experiences,” Cali says. “So they challenged us to make a Four Seasons bed. What we found at this location was that a housekeeper could make a Four Seasons bed following an 18-point checklist and make it perfect 99 percent of the time, and that the supervisor of that housekeeper rarely had to quality check their work.

"On top of that, the housekeeper generally did not have to refer to the checklist once they were in their role for six weeks. How this example changed our team is remarkable. We illustrated to them that three to six men who were planting color beds in six steps were getting it right 50 percent of the time, and they had middle management supervision most of the time.”

Since then, Southern Botanical has adopted the “Four Seasons process” for its seasonal color installation crews. Supervisors detailed the existing process, making it more exact.

“Before we would instruct based on feel,” Cali says. “Meaning, plant between 12 and 18 inches. (We said) ‘Well, why don't we pick a number, not give a range for the answer.’ ”

With this change, the team gets it right 99 percent of the time, and without supervision, something which took three months from the initial change.

“After our first visit to the Four Seasons, we knew this (training) needed to continue,” Cali says.


Lessons learned

Ever since starting the hotel retreats, Southern Botanical has changed some of the ways it operates, and Jim Cali credits each hotel with playing a different role. Because each retreat is held at a different hotel, the Southern Botanical team is constantly learning new things specific to each location. “There are 50 things inside of this company that are different because of the hotels,” Cali says.

Here are a few things the company has picked up along the way:

  • St. Regis focuses on “anticipatory service,” which is proactive thinking on behalf of clients. Anticipate their needs and questions before the customer asks for them, and answer the questions before they are asked. “Doesn’t that sound so much better than proactivity?” he says. Ritz-Carlton uses the phrase “client mystique” when talking about customer relationship management, so now Southern Botanical does. All client data that the company captures is logged into the CRM. This includes data like color preferences for seasonal change out, birthdays, anniversaries, pet names and gate codes.
  • Southern Botanical adopted the idea of standard operating procedures (SOPs) and checklists from the Four Seasons. Southern Botanical uses SOPs for anything, ranging from planting trees to office duties. Employees also learned that SOPs and checklists are useless unless they’re where they need to be. “When they’re in your computer, they don’t do anything for you,” Cali says. “It also drives accountability because if you’ve got the steps in front of you, you’ll look at (each) step and sign off on it.”
  • The company learned from the Ritz-Carlton to let team members have a certain threshold of responsibility where they can do what’s right for the customer in the moment that it’s happening, and they don’t have to talk to someone first. For instance, if a client felt that the company was supposed to refresh all of the client’s mulch and Southern Botanical was only planning on refreshing some of the beds, the team member could satisy the client.
  • The Park Hyatt gave the company the idea of the five and 10 rule. If you’re within 10 feet of anybody, whether it’s clients, employees or strangers on the street, you have to acknowledge them, and if you’re within five feet you need to say hello. “That’s something so stupid and simple,” Cali says. “Don’t just be so focused and not realize that there are people around you.”
  • Each hotel has its own recovery process when something goes wrong – something as simple as housekeeping breaking a personal item to a major issues, such as a stolen item. After learning each hotel’s process, Southern Botanical is currently in the process of creating its own version for the company. “We will be defining this one during this year’s retreat,” Cali says.


Do it yourself.

If another company was interested in doing a similar style of retreat, Cali suggests sending out requests to hotels But whether you do the training at a hotel, another facility or just in your conference room, Cali says it’s important to approach it mindfully.

“We approach the retreat like we approach everything,” he says. “We make sure that the investment we’re making will provide the necessary return.

"I would look at putting together a budget of what you think is reasonable to spend on training and then determine how are you going to get that return.”

Keeping the tradition.

Cali says the company announces that year’s retreat location on the first 100 degree day in Dallas, “And the best part is that the spouses and significant others are just as excited to have that 100-degree day, too, since they join them on the retreat as well,” he says.

Attendees at the retreat are every member of the management team. Last year, 56 team members attended, 101 with significant others included. The team spends three mornings of training from 8 a.m. to noon. The afternoons can be used as free time. Employees are on their own for lunch, but everyone gets together for dinners.

Cali says training like this is really important for giving the best service you can. “How can you expect a team member to provide five-star service if they haven’t experienced it themselves?” he says. “We’ve been wowed and we’re now able to wow better.”