FINDING TRAINING & KEEPING THE BEST SERVICE WORKERS The frontline workers who actually face your customers every day can make your business. They can break it too, despite the best intentions of top management.
By Ronald Henkoff REPORTER ASSOCIATE Ann Sample

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Pull up to the Marriott Hotel in Schaumburg, Illinois, and you'll find the red-blazered Tony Prsyszlak ready to help you with your luggage. But please don't call this gregarious 23-year-old a doorman. He is now a multitalented "guest service associate'' -- GSA, for short. Provided you've used a credit card to preregister over the telephone, Prsyszlak (pronounced Prush-lak), or one of his four GSA colleagues, can check you into the hotel, picking up your key and paperwork from a rack in the lobby and then escorting you directly to your room. Problems or requests Prsyszlak once referred to his supervisor or another department -- you asked for a king-bedded chamber with a commanding view but got a single overlooking the parking lot -- he can now handle himself. The five-year Marriott veteran can also arrange tickets to a play or a table at your favorite restaurant. Says Prsyszlak, a community college graduate who earns about $10 an hour (including tips): "I'm a bellman, a doorman, a front- desk clerk, and a concierge all rolled into one. I have more responsibilities. I feel better about my job, and the guest gets better service.'' At a time when service counts more than ever, companies are rediscovering the importance of the people who actually deliver it -- the tens of millions of sales clerks, waiters, travel agents, bank tellers, delivery men, telemarketing reps, and theme park attendants who staff the frontlines. These legions of customer-contact workers make up one of the fastest-growing -- and least appreciated -- segments of the U.S. labor force. Pressed to "delight'' their value-driven customers, companies are scrambling to hire, train, and hang on to ordinary mortals who can perform feats of extraordinary service. "It's not easy finding these people,'' says Chris Kerbow, a manager at the Schaumburg Marriott, which rejects 90% of all would- be guest service associates. "But we're willing to be patient. It's so critical to the success of the hotel that our associates be committed and enthusiastic.'' The prosperity of the entire economy hinges, to a growing extent, on how well companies like Marriott International (1993 revenues: $8.1 billion) manage their frontline workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects services, which now account for 74% of GDP and 79% of all employment, to be responsible for all net job growth in the next decade. The travel and hospitality industry alone already employs some 10.5 million people, 8% of the U.S. labor force. The occupations that will grow the most in the decade ahead, the BLS predicts, include food servers, retail sales clerks, truck drivers, child care workers, nursing aides, and janitors. To fill most of these slots, employers don't need workers with high levels of education, experience, or technical expertise. What they do need, in an era of flattened hierarchies and heightened expectations, is people who are resilient and resourceful, empathetic and enterprising, competent and creative -- a set of skills, in short, that they once demanded only of managers. Says Philip Varca, a ! University of Wyoming management professor who studies customer service: "We're in a period of rapid evolution. Companies that don't move in the right direction with their frontline workers won't be in business in the year 2000.'' Moving in the right direction means being extra careful in hiring workers, paying much more attention to matters of personality and psychology. It means investing employees with more authority, providing them with more training, and tying at least part of their pay to customer satisfaction. Marriott is redesigning virtually every job in its hotels, placing more workers in contact with more guests more of the time. Walt Disney World, founded by a man who believed in delight long before delight was cool, is stressing anew the importance of encouraging employees to connect emotionally with customers. Cadet Uniform Services, a small but rapidly expanding Canadian firm, has prospered by recruiting, and richly rewarding, delivery truck drivers who behave like entrepreneurs. Rosenbluth International, the nation's fourth- largest travel agency, unabashedly hires people on the basis of "niceness'' and then heretically -- and successfully -- pursues a policy of putting the customer second (and the employee first).

FAR TOO MANY companies, however, continue to think of frontline employees as mindless drones. Says Harvard business school professor Leonard Schlesinger, co-author of The Real Heroes of Business, a recent book on superior service workers: "Most companies require little more than a pulse.'' And pay them little more than a pittance. One-fourth of all retail workers, for instance, have no health insurance, and 40% earn less than $14,764 per year, the official poverty level for a family of four. Yet companies call on these employees to perform monotonous, rigidly scripted tasks, all the while exhorting them to smile brightly and tell customers to have a nice day. Is it any wonder that they sound insincere? Or that they don't stick around? Annual employee turnover rates of 100% or more are common in many stores, hotels, and restaurants. Says Jeffrey Zornitsky, vice president of Abt Associates, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, research and consulting firm: "For the most part, service companies view frontline workers as a disposable resource rather than an economic resource.'' The cost of all this employee churning is mounting. Marriott International, which annually loses about 60% of the frontline staffers in its flagship Marriott Hotels, Resorts, and Suites division, estimates that it costs as much as $1,100 to recruit and train each replacement. The total bill runs into the millions each year. Says division human resources vice president Richard Bell- Irving: "When someone leaves, it messes up your employee teams, messes up your productivity, and messes up the service you provide to your guests.'' In a drive to stem turnover, improve service, and increase profits, Marriott Hotels has begun radically changing the way it hires, trains, and deploys frontline workers. When managers began examining exactly what waiters and waitresses did during the breakfast shift, for example, they discovered that servers were spending as much as 70% of their time not waiting on tables. Usually they were in the kitchen, picking up orders, making toast, or rummaging around in the freezer for new containers of orange juice -- leaving their miffed customers to wonder why on earth it was taking so long to get another cup of coffee. These days, servers in some Marriott hotels never enter the kitchen. The culinary staff takes care of all food preparation. When a meal is ready, the kitchen beeps the server (they all wear pagers), and a "runner'' delivers the food, which the server puts on the table. Says Chris Kerbow of the Schaumburg Marriott: "We've changed the job so a waitress can do what she's supposed to do, provide service to customers.'' As Marriott reshapes jobs, it is redefining the skills required of the people who do them. Take Tony Prsyszlak's responsibilities as part of the First Ten program, which the hotel management chain has been phasing in at its 250 U.S. hotels over the past year. The name stands for the often aggravating first ten minutes that guests spend trying to check in. Since most customers now preregister over the phone, they can bypass the front desk with its seemingly interminable queues. The front desk hasn't disappeared altogether. Nor have the teeth-gritting waits that can come from arriving at a hotel just as three busloads of veterinarians alight for their annual convention. But Marriott does say that guests now make it from curb to room in as little as three minutes, down from ten to 15 minutes under the old system. Superseding most of the clerks who formerly staffed the desk are guest service associates like Prsyszlak. Says human resources boss Bell-Irving: "We used to hire people who were good at the keyboard, good at processing information. Now we want associates who can look you in the eye, carry on a conversation, and work well under stress.'' To find such people, many Marriott hotels have sought help from computers. Visit the chain's hotel in downtown Denver and watch as a slender, serious woman sits down at a PC for 15 minutes to take a self-administered test on her qualifications to become a housekeeper.

Why, the computer asks, did you leave your last job? How would you rate your performance? How often do you get frustrated at work? How well do you get along with superiors? How would you rate your organizational skills? Do other people say you're flexible? To each question she types in a multiple-choice answer. She then leaves. The computer spews out not a verdict but a list of questions -- to be asked by the housekeeping supervisor at a subsequent interview. Why did the woman rate her organizational skills as only "average'' ? The printout also notes any time an applicant paused longer than usual to ponder a question, on the theory that hesitation is often the handmaiden of prevarication. The computer program, developed by Aspen Tree Software of Laramie, Wyoming, poses the sort of personally probing questions that managers often have trouble asking. It also seems to encourage candor. Says Denver Marriott human resources director Kent James: "They might tell me they intend to work here for three to five years, but they'll tell the computer they plan to leave after three months.''

SELECTING EMPLOYEES who won't leave soon after they're hired is, in fact, one of Marriott's biggest concerns. Until recently, more than 40% of the new employees who left Marriott departed during the first three months on the job. That proportion is falling steadily, a trend Bell-Irving credits not just to the expanded use of Aspen Tree software but to a whole new approach to one of the most neglected areas of the employment experience -- orientation. Says he: "We used to have new associates come in, tell them about their benefit plans, then put them out in front of the customer and tell them to go for it.'' In the spirit of guilty until proven innocent, an associate's first three months on the job was known as "probation.'' Now all fresh recruits attend an eight-hour initial training session, the highlight of which is an elegant lunch, served by hotel veterans. To guide them through the next 90 days, each associate is assigned a mentor, known as a "buddy.'' Every member of the entering class attends refresher courses after the first and second months. Once the new hires reach day 90, the hotel treats the whole class of them to a banquet. Companies that excel at managing frontline workers understand that excellent service is more than just a transaction. It is an experience, one that ought to satisfy the employee as well as the customer. Observes Carla Paonessa, an Andersen Consulting partner in Chicago specializing in change management: "You cannot expect your employees to delight your customers unless you as an employer delight your employees.'' To do that, you must celebrate the emotional content of work. Few organizations understand this as well as Walt Disney World Resort. The 30,000-acre agglomeration of theme parks, hotels, restaurants, stores, conference centers, condominiums, and golf courses in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, has one of the largest concentrations of frontline customer-service workers on the planet. Of its 35,000 employees, some 20,000 have direct contact with guests. In the past decade more than 6,000 executives, most of them from outside the hospitality industry, have journeyed to the Magic Kingdom to attend seminars on the art of managing people effectively and affectively.

DISNEY BEGINS tugging on the heartstrings of employees even before they are hired. Think about the typical recruiting office in the hospitality industry -- a windowless cubbyhole in the sub-basement between the laundry and the boiler room. Then walk into Disney World's capacious "casting center," and you're in Wonderland. Well, not exactly, but the doorknobs on the entrance do replicate the nes Alice yanked during her adventures. Just inside the portals, perched on high pedestals, are statues of 15 mock-gilded Disney characters, including, of course, the world's most famous rodent. Ascend a gently sloping hallway, whose walls are decorated with whimsical murals, and you're in a vast anteroom where the centerpiece is the original model of Snow White's castle. Some 50,000 aspiring employees funnel through the Lake Buena Vista casting center every year, seeking jobs that start with pay as low as $5.95 per hour. (Disney's other theme parks, in California, Japan, and France, do their own hiring.) Eight thousand emerge as freshly minted food servers, parade marchers, souvenir sellers, bus drivers, room cleaners, and other assorted "cast members.'' What are Disney World's 40 interviewers -- all of whom started as frontline workers -- most interested in? Not cognitive ability. Only applicants seeking a job that involves handling cash take a simple math test. Says Duncan Dickson, director of casting: "We're looking for personality. We can train for skills. We want people who are enthusiastic, who have pride in their work, who can take charge of a situation without supervision.'' Like Marriott, Disney has overhauled its approach to orientation, putting less emphasis on policies and procedures and more on emotion. Traditions, the two-day initial training session attended by all new cast members, is part inculcation, part encounter group. Guided by two unfailingly upbeat cast members, neatly dressed neophytes seated at round tables in a small classroom discuss their earliest memories of Disney, their visions of great service, their understanding of teamwork. Next comes the movie, a panegyric to Walt Disney himself. The film depicts the founder as a creative risk taker who overcame setbacks (his first character, destined for obscurity, was named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit), believed in teamwork (he and brother Roy were partners), and preached the importance of exceeding the expectations of his guests. Yes, Walt actually embraced that concept, now being peddled as a new management mantra, way back in 1955. Trainer Robert Sias reminds the class that the entire Disney empire began with a mere mouse. He adds, "you never know when something seemingly insignificant out in the workplace is going to have an enormous impact on a guest.'' Sias recounts how he witnessed one of these "magic moments'' unfold on the grounds of the Disney-MGM Studios theme park. Emerging from the Chinese Theatre, a mother buys her young son a box of popcorn from an open-air stand. Seconds later, the lad, who looks to be about 4, trips and falls. The popcorn spills, the boy bawls, the mother screams. A costumed cast member on his way to another attraction happens by. Barely breaking stride, he scoops up the empty cardboard box, takes it to the popcorn stand for a refill, presents it to the shattered child, and continues on his way. By encouraging such spurts of spontaneity like this impromptu pas de deux involving the costumed character and the popcorn seller, Disney World tries to instill verve in jobs that are otherwise tightly regimented. The 36-page cast members' appearance guide, for example, includes excruciatingly detailed ukases on length and style of hair, color and quantity of cosmetics, and hues and textures of hosiery. This combination of precision and pixie dust produces results. Although revenue growth at all Disney resorts has slowed in recent years, 1993 receipts still reached $3.4 billion, more than treble their level a decade ago. Even the troubled Euro Disney, outside Paris, is inching toward recovery. Disney World, where the average age of cast members is 37, loses only about 15% of its frontline employees to attrition each year, compared with a rate of 60% for the hospitality industry as a whole. Why do so many cast members stay on? Wages are competitive, benefits are good, and opportunities for advancement abound. Disney acquires two-thirds of all salaried employees -- such as managers, designers, and marketers -- from within the company. But don't underestimate the power of sentiment. Listen to Ricky Anderson, 20, a host in Tomorrowland: "Sometimes, you get hot in your costume, you get fed up dealing with angry guests who are tired of waiting in line. But then a kid asks you a question, you answer it, and she breaks into a smile. You can make someone happy.'' Anderson, an intense, part-time college student who hopes to become an electrical engineer in Disney's "imagineering'' subsidiary, also treasures the times when the theme park hosts terminally ill children. Says he: "I realize that what I'm doing is actually important and not to be taken for granted.''

AS COMPANIES emphasize the emotional content of frontline jobs, they are delving ever deeper into the psychological makeup of the people they pick to fill them. Leading this Freudification of the frontline is a company whose name may surprise you -- Gallup. Certainly the Gallup Organization is better known for soliciting opinions than for selecting employees. But the polling firm has also built up a thriving business helping some of America's leading companies -- including Disney, Goodyear, Fidelity, ServiceMaster, Whirlpool, and even the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team -- identify the "life themes'' of prospective employees. Simply stated, the life-themes approach involves identifying a person's passions and then matching him to the right position. Looking for a bus driver? You need someone who has, since childhood, been obsessed with safety, the kind of fellow who won't rise from his chair without checking to make sure his shoes are still tied. Seeking a janitor? You clearly want a neatness fanatic like Felix Unger, not a slobbish oaf like his Odd Couple buddy, Oscar Madison. Explains Gallup chairman Donald Clifton, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology: "Everyone is born with unique characteristics that are reinforced and developed in the first year of life. By the time you reach age 20, your major life themes are pretty well set.''

Listen in as Larry Kolbush, a Gallup interview analyst in Lincoln, Nebraska, telephonically interrogates a young man in Baltimore who is vying to become a waiter at a major national hotel chain. Reading queries from a computer screen, Kolbush, 32, cheerily poses such thumb suckers as: "Do you have a bit of actor in you?'' and "Do you have an uncanny sense for making people feel good?'' When the applicant answers affirmatively, Kolbush asks him to provide examples. As the interview progresses, the nattily dressed Kolbush codes the applicant's responses into the computer. After the wannabe waitperson hangs up, Kolbush dryly observes: "As far as what the employer is looking for, he's a pretty good fit. But I've heard better.'' The candidate, Kolbush adds, was a bit weak on the Drive theme: "He didn't really own that.'' But, then, waiting tables requires less drive than, say, playing professional basketball does. Does psychologically pigeonholing potential employees really help you win basketball games? The Cleveland Cavaliers, who annually use Gallup to screen all eligible college players, have yet to win an NBA title. But they have improved their record. Pointing to a stack of studies, chairman Clifton, who has reached the thematically mature age of 70, claims that Gallup hiring techniques produce higher-selling salespeople, better-cleaning hotel maids, and quicker-fingered supermarket checkout clerks. Gallup's selection business has grown at an average annual rate of 30% since 1969. Last year it accounted for one-fourth of the privately held firm's $100 million in revenues. But not all companies need clever consultants or fancy software to recruit and manage outstanding frontline employees. Nor must they be part of a Marriott-style empire or have a legendary Disney-like founder. Even a business as seemingly mundane and unattractive as taking in another company's dirty laundry can be a font of frontline innovation. Cadet Uniform Services, which outfits the employees of some of North America's leading corporations, owes much of its success to the way it picks employees -- and to the way it pays them. The Toronto company, whose 1993 revenues reached $23 million, was one of five certificate-of-merit winners last year in the Awards for Business Excellence, the Canadian equivalent of the Baldrige. One of Cadet's secret weapons is personnel director Nada Cian, a recruiter who never stops recruiting. Shopping one morning in a neighborhood supermarket, Cian, 52, a garrulous native of Croatia, noticed a cheery employee carefully stacking apples in a pyramid. After a brief encounter, Cian determined that the man was obsessively neat, exceedingly proud of his work, physically fit, and exceptionally friendly -- even in the early hours of the day. He was, in short, a perfect candidate to deliver Cadet uniforms, a job that involves rising every day at 4 a.m., carefully managing inventories, lugging heavy bags of soiled clothes, and joyfully interacting with customers. Later, after a series of interviews with Cian and other Cadet managers, the company hired not only the apple stacker, but also his equally ebullient wife. Cian, who has been with Cadet for 27 years, manages to preinspect even those job candidates who walk in off the street. From her large-windowed office overlooking Cadet's parking lot, she secretly assesses their bearing and demeanor. Do they stop to check that their hair is combed and their clothes are neat? Do they walk quickly and purposefully? Or do they amble back to the car several times to fetch something they forgot? Says Cian: "I'm looking for someone with a positive attitude, someone who wants to work, who's ready to work.''After the interview she accompanies all candidates back to their cars, not just to be polite, but to covertly check out the cleanliness of their vehicles. None of this would matter much if the Cadet were hiring people simply to drive trucks, deliver clean uniforms, and pick up dirty ones. But Cadet's concept of "customer service representatives," as the drivers are known, extends much further. They are mini-entrepreneurs who design their own routes and manage their own accounts and, to a large extent, determine the size of their own paychecks. Put your stereotypical view of truck drivers aside and meet Roosevelt Michelin, 34, a Cadet customer service representative (or CSR) for the past five years. The soft-spoken, mustachioed Michelin holds a diploma in computer programming from a three-year polytechnical school and is pursuing a degree in psychology. He spends most of his nine-hour day, which starts at 6 a.m., delivering and collecting uniforms and courting new customers. Every afternoon he works the phone, handling requests and complaints from his clients. Says he: "What I like about this job is the rapport you get to build with customers. You become their focal point." Then there is the pay -- about $40,000 per year, nearly twice the industry average. Also the chance for promotion. Nearly every executive at the rapidly expanding Cadet started as a CSR, including Quentin Wahl, 48, the maverick mountain-climbing and bicycle-riding CEO, who has run the family-held company since 1972. Cadet ties compensation almost entirely to measures of customer satisfaction. Lose a customer on your watch and your salary sinks. Says CEO Wahl: "So many companies tell you how important their customers are, but hardly anyone actually pays their employees for satisfying them.'' Ernie Garcia, 26, a high school dropout with an engaging smile and a self- deprecating wit, has been a customer service rep for just over two years. Since he began, he has managed to double his pay to about $37,000 a year. Says Garcia, an immigrant from Portugal (Cadet's work force includes 46 ethnic groups) who was recruited by the eagle-eyed Cian: "This pay system brings out the best in us. And Cadet wins because we perform at our peak.'' Cadet, whose annual growth has averaged 22% for the past 20 years, has double-digit gross profit margins that exceed the industry norm. Once Cadet gains a customer, he tends to stay. The annual defection rate is less than 1%. Employees don't leave, either. Turnover is a low 7%. Says Wahl, who is a U.S. citizen: "The jobs we do aren't so special. The pay is good, but it's not great. The main thing we have to sell to employees is the culture of the organization.'' When it comes to the importance of organizational culture for frontline workers, the man who wrote the book -- or at least one of the books -- is Hal Rosenbluth. Co-author of The Customer Comes Second and Other Secrets of Exceptional Service, he is president and chief executive of Rosenbluth International, a Philadelphia travel-management company with 3,000 employees, 825 offices, and close to $2 billion in annual revenues in the U.S. Rosenbluth, who heads a family-owned firm that was founded by his great- grandfather in 1892, prizes one quality above all others when assessing current and prospective employees: "It doesn't matter what your resume says. % The main prerequisite is that you're nice.'' Yes, nice. Rosenbluth's philosophy, simple to state but devilishly difficult to execute, goes like this: Hire nice people, treat them well, encourage them to bind emotionally with the company, train them continuously, and equip them with the best technology. Then the customers and profits will follow -- a formula that has worked enormously well, although the company did run into some turbulence this year when the continuing slump in business travel forced it to lay off 217 employees, the first furloughs in its history. The fresh-faced Rosenbluth, who has four children and looks younger than his 42 years, periodically invites employees (known, naturally, as associates) to express their feelings by drawing with crayons. Rosenbluth uses these works, which arrive via interoffice mail, to ferret out hidden morale problems. He has discovered that some employees are more willing to describe their gripes in pictures rather than words. To become a Rosenbluth associate who deals directly with customers, you need not have a high school diploma or any experience within the industry. But it does help if you've played on a volleyball team or cared for a sick relative. Just ask some of the 160 Rosenbluth associates who toil at the reservation and service center in Linton, North Dakota, a farm town, far from anywhere, that has a population of 1,800 and a Main Street that could have been painted by Edward Hopper. Customer service specialist Jan Fransen, 44, seems to have walked straight out of a country-and-western song. Before she joined Rosenbluth in 1988 as a $5-an-hour data-entry clerk, Fransen, the divorced mother of a teenage daughter, had worked as a farmer, a trucker, a secretary, and an etcher of decorative glass. Now she spends her days in front of a computer wearing a telephone headset dealing with other people's problems -- a customer who got a full-size instead of a midsize car or a window seat instead of an aisle seat. Fransen dearly values the skills she has acquired -- operating computers, tracking down information, negotiating with strangers. Says she: "I feel I've bettered myself. I think from here I could go almost anywhere.'' Perhaps she could. As the economic importance of service grows ever stronger, so too should the value of frontline workers -- people like Tony Prsyszlak, Ernie Garcia, Ricky Anderson, and Jan Fransen. For now, companies smart enough and picky enough to seek these people out will find them. But the supply is limited. Says Joseph Pine, a Ridgefield, Connecticut, management consultant and author of a book called Mass Customization: "People with creativity are going to be at a premium. There will be a lot of people for whom it is difficult to make a transition, just as there is in every epochal shift in the economy.''

DON'T COUNT on the nation's beleaguered education system to help workers make that transition any easier. The qualities companies seek in their frontline employees -- enthusiasm, empathy, and tolerance for stress -- are not on the curriculum in most schools. Says Phil Varca of the University of Wyoming: "The skills we're talking about are areas the schools don't even think about.'' And recruiting the right people is but one part of the challenge. Says Donald Clifton of Gallup: "If you hire talented people and treat them badly, they'll screw things up for you. They'll slow you down and be rude to customers. Talented people don't necessarily do better unless you manage them well.'' Celebrate frontline workers. Hire them wisely, train them abundantly, and pay them fairly. Play a wise and good Balanchine: The folks on stage can dance and delight, but it is the people who guide and manage them who must set the piece in motion.


-- Delve into the psychological makeup of applicants to match their passions with the task.

-- Uncover and emphasize the emotional content of service jobs. -- Make orientation meaningful and fun. It's your first -- and best -- shot to inculcate excellence. -- Redesign work so that superior service satisfies both the employee and the customer.