How Wegmans, Apple Store and Ritz-Carlton empower employees to offer best-in-class service

RCE blogger and author Carmine Gallo is president of Gallo Communications Group, a popular keynote speaker and author of "The Apple Experience."

Wegmans, The Apple Store and The Ritz-Carlton are considered customer service champions in their respective categories. These companies field calls daily from people eager to learn their secrets (Ritz-Carlton created a Leadership Center to teach its best practices). One simple secret behind their success is so simple, so basic, that most brands and businesses fail to grasp its importance. It's a fundamental principle that works for best-in-class brands in any industry. It's called "empowerment."

Wegmans core values 

I was recently invited to be the keynote speaker for the annual conference of the private label manufacturing association. The "store brands" category is a $90 billion industry. While doing research for the conference, Wegmans kept coming up as an example of a major supermarket chain at the top of its class in customer service. Wegmans media relations director, Jo Natale, told me that trust and empowerment are among Wegmans core values: "We empower our people to make decisions that improve their work and benefit out customers and our company."

Natale sent me several recent emails from happy Wegmans customers. Empowerment was a central theme. In one story a woman had to miss a family reunion in another state due to her work schedule. She called a Wegmans store near her parent’s house to order a cake and pay for it over the phone. Wegmans store policy is not to process payments over the phone. The employee did it anyway.

According to the customer’s email, "I wanted you to be aware that today two people saw the humanity and importance of people, not policy. Thank you for allowing your associates to use their decision-making ability and common sense to assist me. The request may have been small, but it means to the world to me to participate in a family celebration."

Apple Store employees turn customers into evangelists 

The Apple Store in San Jose, California, recently turned my brother from a customer into an evangelist. Due to a bad back, he had let his "One-to-One" training members lapse without renewing it (One to One is a series of personal in-store training sessions available upon the purchase of a Mac. It expires after one year. According to its terms and conditions, members have 30 days to renew it for another year). When my brother told the story to a customer service specialist the first thing the employee asked was, "How's your back now?" My brother was pleasantly surprised because he didn't think any employee would bother asking him about his health. After a short discussion the Apple specialist said, "I'd be happy to accommodate you," and allowed my brother to renew his membership without a hassle, even though he visited the store months after the 30-day window had ended. The specialist had technically violated store policy because he was empowered to do what is best for the customer.

A high-tech blogger recently interviewed me for a story on the Apple Store. He asked why Apple continues to be the most profitable retailer in America, yet few brands can replicate its success. I told him it takes courage to empower employees. Managers must hire friendly, passionate people, train them properly, and have the courage to trust them to make good decisions. Apple Store employees are instructed to enrich the lives of customers and to do what they believe is the right thing to do in every situation.

The Ritz-Carlton's $2,000 a day habit to win customer loyalty 

In my Apple Store research I learned that Apple benchmarked itself against another brand known for its customer service: The Ritz-Carlton. In a recent interview Diana Oreck of The Ritz-Carlton's Leadership Center says, "It's all about empowerment. The thing our guests are most wowed about is that every single employee has $2,000 a day per guest to delight or make it right…we are saying to our employees—we trust you."

My wife and I enjoyed a Ritz-Carlton experience this year. During one especially busy time at the hotel's restaurant, the waiter apologized for the wait, gave us complimentary appetizers, and paid for our desserts. When I asked him why he did so he said, "I'm empowered to keep my guests happy."

I recently circled back with a restaurant owner I featured in this Forbes article. I asked Edward Westmoreland how he empowered his staff. "I tell them, just give them the spoon."

"Give them the spoon?"

"Yes, when I took my daughter to an ice cream shop that we had gone to for three years, I asked for a long spoon instead of the short spoon for a cup of ice cream. They always obliged. But one day they didn’t. An employee said I’d have to pay ten cents for it. When I told her I never had to pay before, she turned to the manager who said, 'that's right, ten cents.' I left and never returned."

Westmoreland tells his staff, "Never, ever tell a guest that they you have to check with a manager. Just give them the spoon." They can, and should, discuss the event with a manager after the situation to learn how they should handle it next time. Westmoreland's staff has the courage to make decisions because their boss trusts them. Trust your team and empower them to what's right. If you do, you’ll outshine the competition. Take it away and your customer service will suffer.

(Photo of Wegmans by Matt Chan.)

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Shep Hyken
    Great article about how three icons in the customer service world empower employees.
  • Ted Verhagen
    No wonder why I shop with all 3
  • Jamie Carpenter
    Just have to say I haven't been impressed with Apple's email and phone customer support recently. I contacted them about a billing question, and though they did refund the suspicious charges, they disabled my Apple ID and then said they can't re-enable it through email - I have to call. I've tried calling a few times, but when I get switched from the automated service to a real person, the line goes dead. So I can't even update apps I already own, let alone purchase anything new from the App Store/iTunes until they fix the problem...which means they're losing out on some money - you'd think they would have bent the rules in this case...
  • Sunil Chandran
    I do not fully agree with everything that is said. I live in Bangalore and visited an apple store to extend my warranty by a year. I reached the store 5 days after the manufacturer warranty expired . I was turned away because I was 5 days late. I did not see any empowerment at work here.
  • Scottie Vosburgh
    We've been die hard Apple customers for years, I have completely lost count of the number of products we own... I will say I do notice a very clear difference since Steve's death. I just hope they will maintain their "edge" in both design and customer service. I'm afraid it may not happen, and that would make me sad.
  • John Rush
    I had an abysmal customer service experience in the Apple store at the Fashion Place Mall in Murray Utah . The Apple representative and the Manager did everything possible to discount my problem/ issue and distance themselves from any responsibility for product failure! No empowerment here, just excuses, impolite Management and unsatisfactory service-terrible customer service, a total failure!
  • Very Good Service Webmaster
    Great learning point to see that great customer service is achieved through employees empowerment. It is simple but effective, motivated employees will have much higher morale and deliver in front of the customer with greater enthusiasm.
  • Matus Choma
    Empowerment is a Must! However for an empowerment to bear its fruits one may be empowered only when her/his HRR quotient (attitude & aptitude) reaches certain level. In other words empowering an employee- "layabout" or even "thieve" will not work but cause trouble. Therefore retail managers and/ or owners must focus on developing their staff (as well as themselves) in order to be capable of being empowered. Before empowering anyone the questions managers must be asking themselves are: "How much empowerment is needed, Who can be empowered and When, ...etc.
  • Mun Dart Lai
    I believe this empowerment needs to be supported by a culture that values customer satisfaction, respect for others,and integrity. People who work in such an environment genuinely want to make their customers, colleagues and suppliers' day. There is thoughtfulness. Lots of smiles. But at the same time they understand it cannot be at the expense of respect and integrity. I recently encountered an episode in a restaurant where a manager had to call in security and tell a customer to leave because he continued to be vulgar, abusive, and even tempted the manager to beat him. I thought that was the right thing to do as he is respecting other customers and his staff(who were abused). And to build such a culture, an incident like this would be an opportunity for sharing and reinforcing the right values behind the empowerment.
  • catherine michot
    I do not recognise the Apple service you talk about. I can not tell you how horrible my expenriences were, yes sure, very nice people who tell you replace your apple product with a new apple product when it does not function any more ! No empowerment to be seen,friendliness yes, canibalism yes !
  • catherine michot
    great article yes, but i do not recognise the Apple emporwement. On 2 occasions I was told to replace my Apple device by buying a new one (2 devices 1 year old). friendly yes, canibalisme yes, empowerment no !
  • Troy Harness
    It is to bad that more businesses don't have this same philosophy. Instead they tend to micro-manage and don't even empower or listen to thier own front line managers. I would love to work for a company that accually would consider what I had to say as a manager, instead of only looking for reasons to blame management and associates for poor sales.
  • Shrirang Pol
    It's really very usefull & what I am seeking for to make customer delight
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