Luxury. The dark side is synonymous with opulence, vanity and gluttony. Luxury can also be associated with excellence, majesty and value. Using the handle to revere an automobile, abode, or aperitif implies a sense of sophistication and elegance. It is the choice of the rich and the aspiration of the wannabes. Technavio Research predicts the luxury market will reach $33 billion over the next five years. Luxury branding has captured the attention and budgets of countless companies striving to increase their market share in this lucrative segment.
“Luxury is fundamentally a state of mind,” says John Scott, former chairman of the Orient Express luxury passenger train. Above all, it is an expression of distinction reflecting acts that demonstrate refined craftsmanship, evident pride, superior training and perpetual attention to detail. And there are protocols that, if followed, help ensure the experience is distinguished for the discerning customer.
Luxury service protocols
Luxury service is not just the prerogative of an affluent customer, although that is usually the target market. Most wealthy customers can recognize the subtle hallmarks of luxurious quality – the gilding on a chair or the thread count on a sheet. But even the blue-collar man enjoying that special occasion he’s been saving for a long time at a fancy hotel can smell the luxury when he feels it, even if he can’t explain exactly why. Stroll through the lobby of The Raffles hotel in Singapore or hop on the Oriental Express train in Paris to Venice. You instantly know the setting is carefully crafted from a palace butler’s playbook.
It doesn’t mean a familiar joke or repeating pattern that typically governs most service experiences in the disciplined and scarred world of commerce. Luxury-seeking customers want unique, non-uniform products. “Luxury customers,” says James Brown, CEO of Brownstone Hotels & Resorts, “are looking for stimulation, not standardization.” Luxury customers avoid cookie-cutter experiences in a venue like a budget tour group. What features do customers call “a luxurious experience?
Here are five features that luxury-seeking customers expect.
Luxury service is magical and subtle
The Pebble Beach Lodge and their Golf Links near Monterey, California are carefully maintained after bedtime, so guests never see them being manicured. Hotel Las Brisas in Acapulco uses manual hedge trimmers and push mowers, so hotel guests never hear the unpleasant sounds of ongoing maintenance. Many Rolls-Royce dealerships use the same bull hide leather on their dealership chairs as in the vehicle; the table on which the new owners sign the papers is constructed with the same Malabar teak wood found on the dashboard of the vehicle.
Part of the magic of luxury service is that it arrives at the right time, never late or early. And it’s synced with other time-limited events that surround the experience. The wait time is choreographed to ensure that a customer never suffers their wait experience. The exotic Saison Restaurant in San Francisco, for example, serves diners the Chef’s Special Appetizer, a free side dish to help diners stay enthralled as their meal is prepared right before their eyes since the kitchen is at the center.
Luxury service invites experimentation
Customers looking for luxury services are not daredevils. Although they are thrill seekers, their propensity to take risks is born of upbringing. They are willing to trust the service provider to guide them through a new experience if they know there has been careful attention to quality and consistent attention to safety. Special knowledge opens up previously unknown perspectives and opportunities. This is not a path to “first on the block” bragging rights; it’s about elevating their lives.
“Today’s luxury explorers are looking for places with a personality that embraces their surroundings or tells a story,” said Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations. The Burj Al Arab in Dubai, which some rate as the best luxury hotel in the world, is also home to the Dubai Turtle Rehab Project, which released 1,600 sea turtles into the Arabian Sea. Shou Sugi Ban House Spa in Water Hill, New York, offers sound therapy with tuning forks and intuitive painting.
Luxury service is a unique sensory experience
A luxury service experience may use rare, unusual, or hard-to-obtain components. For example, order a fruit plate at Las Ventanas al Paraiso, a Rosewood hotel in Los Cabos, and you’ll likely find passion fruit included, single figs, or slices of cumquat. “When I find out we have a real music fan staying with us,” reports Steven Boggs, Director of International Guest Relations at the Beverly Hills Hotel, “I’ll take him up to the rooftop where he can recreate the photo hotel classic. The California Eagles album cover, which features the hotel’s signature facade.”
The spa at Cap Juluca Resort in Anguilla, BWI, not only mixes a particularly fragrant flower (like jasmine) into the oil used by the masseuse, but also places a small sprig at the bottom of the guest’s locker, so that the unique fragrance is “worn” by the client after leaving the spa. The spa at the Borgo Egnazia hotel near Bari, Italy, has an artist therapist, a psychologist-composer, a perfume master and a hairdresser on staff.
Luxury service is the pinnacle of comfort
A luxury service brings psychological comfort by being reliable and personalized. “Personal relationships with customers are what matter most to us. We have worked with some of our clients for 20, 30, even 40 years and have become their friends, confidants and trusted advisors,” says Richard Lambert, Senior Partner and Head of Sales for Burgess Yachts. “Some customers are on their fourth or fifth superyacht, and we have grown that business by delivering again and again. It’s not just about going above and beyond, but listening and giving to every customer the attention it deserves.”
Few organizations embed comfort into the tapestry of service like Steinway and Sons. “Buying a piano over $50,000 is rarely taken lightly,” says Steve Tunnell, retail sales manager, Steinway Hall in Dallas. “We help our customers discover that they are not only buying a beautiful piece of furniture, but investing in an important musical heritage. We try to make their experience with us comfortable by fulfilling their unspoken wishes. It means being both musician and psychologist.”
Luxury service is elegance without arrogance
Luxury service begins and ends with the “experience keeper,” that is, the server or service provider who demonstrates immense artistic pride. However, the server must also show deep respect for the customer. “Valuing transparency and honesty as your primary core beliefs equates to success in building long-term partnerships with our customer base,” says Heath Strayhan, managing director of Avondale Premier Collection in Dallas, sellers of brands like Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin. and Maserati.
Luxury service is the product of employee ingenuity. This customer-centric inventiveness comes from a lucid vision of distinction. He demands relentless high standards and imagines the customer experience as a 13, not just a ten on a ten point scale. It involves leaders who show employees the same respect they expect of them towards customers. And that requires leader-follower relationships that function as zealous partnerships in the pursuit of excellence.
“Wealthy clients expect skill and trust,” says Tom Berger, wealth management advisor and Senior Vice President of Merrill Lynch’s CBC Group. “If you have a culture of respect and partnership, those two characteristics are by-products felt by customers.” Where there is passion and courage to serve well, luxury service will emerge; where there is supportive leadership, luxury service will remain.