customer service

Sandals: Perfecting Customer Service

"The customer is always right" is the phrase coined by 19th Century British magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge that regulates business functions across industries. Whether internal or external; large or small, the concept of customer satisfaction is a universal metric by which success or failure can be measured. Recently, I was treated to otherworldly customer service while on vacation with my wife in Jamaica.

Sandals Resorts International, which is widely recognized as one of the better resort operators in the luxury tourism space, prides itself on offering its clients worry-free experiences that allow for the complete disconnection from daily concerns most people deal with on a regular basis. And the closely-held company's values serve as a blueprint to show employees how to achieve business success by applying high-level customer service principles (see the Sandals Corporate University training program). However, not every organization is able to boast consistent growth in repeat business simply by "following instructions" on how to treat customers.

View from the Terrace at Sandals Royal Plantation Resort in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

View from the Terrace at Sandals Royal Plantation Resort in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

While in Jamaica last week, I met Arnold Nugent, General Manager of Sandals Royal Plantation Resort in Ocho Rios. Mr. Nugent has a staff of nearly 250 people for a resort with little more than 70 rooms. Virtually all of the employees - ranging in experience from two weeks to over a decade - hail from Jamaica and often have never left the island nation. Yet, the noticeably professional way in which every person we encountered delivered service really surprised me; particularly when comparing such client-focused service to experiences I've had in the United States and other countries.

I wanted to understand what Mr. Nugent's "secret" is to consistently provide such team-focused customer service across the board. And he was kind enough to spend some time with me to talk about his approach to leadership success.

"It is really all about the people we bring onboard," he said. "We give people an opportunity to show their potential and if I see the potential in someone, I will try my best to put them in a situation to be successful."

Royal Plantation, a perennial top perform amongst all the Sandals properties, offers high-quality hospitality training one would expect from a luxury resort. But, what I found unique is that general managers of properties are given significant autonomy to achieve the daily, weekly and monthly goals Sandals demands of its 16 resorts. And talking with Mr. Nugent, it is clear that he has an approach that is designed to get the most out of everyone that steps foot onto the Royal Plantation property.

"We work hard to find people who want to be the best," Nugent said.

And it shows.

Some of the key leadership traits that I gleaned from our experience with Royal Plantation that could be helpful to other leaders include:

  • Systematic Recruitment Process: Mr. Nugent told me that he has a rigorous approach to hiring. He gives people a chance to do well. But in order to pass the first test, he has a set of assessment criteria that he uses to be predictive of a candidate's success.

  • Belief in the Potential of People: It was clear from talking with staff from virtually every department at the resort that Mr. Nugent believes in everyone that he has hired. He practices a level of engagement that focuses on both compassion and clarity of goals.

  • Importance of Variety: Given the pool of potential employees in this part of Jamaica, Mr. Nugent can't just rely on skills listed on a CV to determine who will make a strong employee. He appears to be looking for people who are willing to do every and all jobs at the resort. My understanding is that he rotates people frequently to provide experience and test candidate's adaptability as he assesses leadership potential in his staff.

  • Promotion of Pride: A native of Jamaica, Mr. Nugent is immensely proud of his country and his culture. When identifying potential leaders on his staff, he takes care to look out for the candidates that carry themselves in a way that projects pride and confidence. These attributes are important when trying to market an unique experience for clients that often come from places that aren't familiar with the culture of the Caribbean.

  • Customer Focus: The experience that Royal Plantation offers both its clients and its staff is that of a wholly unique pampering that is provided in a completely authentic and cheery way. Getting staff to not just be responsive to customer needs, but anticipate their wants, comes with experience that Mr. Nugent has. And he is clearly passing it along to his staff, as the vast majority of employees use subtle yet specific techniques to understand the profiles of their guests over a short period of time.

The result of these and many other techniques applied by Mr. Nugent and his staff is that Royal Plantation is the standard that virtually all other Sandals properties (as well as other non-Sandals resorts) are trying to emulate. At OVP Management Consulting Group Inc., we believe these are five keys to customer success that all businesses can learn from.


Now, we don't have specific financial results to compare, as Sandals is a closely-held operation. Nevertheless, it is clear to me as a repeat customer that their approach to customer service is having some impact on sales. And if nothing else, an unofficial survey of some of the guests that were at the resort with us, shows that most everyone we encountered signed up for future visits before heading home!

"We are really proud of the reputation we've developed here at the Royal Plantation," said Nugent. "We know others are trying to understand what we're doing, which is why we have to continue to be innovative."