22 December 2009


Giggle, baby store, New York

"Oh my God, it has to snow today! I don't want to come in tomorrow."
"Maybe we can tell XX that the trains weren't working."
(From one sales person to another, while one was ringing up my purchase)

17 December 2009


"You know you've been in Asia a long time when
your service standards are raised and you start asking,
'do you have tripe?'"

15 December 2009

A Thousand Words

Departures Terminal, Venice Airport, Italy

Larger-than-life, an advertisement hanging above the security check-point.

11 December 2009

A Blissful Recovery

It was a close call, but Bliss came through. I had my first experience at the Bliss Spa in San Francisco with a facial. I was familiar with the particular treatment having had it for years with my regular esthetician in New York. At this point, I knew that it is the esthetician that makes all the difference for any spa treatment, regardless of the same services being offered across the country. But I thought that I'd try someone new, somewhere else.

Sadly, the hands of the esthetician were cautious and lacked confidence. She didn't seem to enjoy what she was doing while she talked about her commute to and from work. Three days later, I had an allergic reaction to the treatment. I called the spa and they promptly asked me to go in to take care of the inflammation. The same day.

This time, a seasoned esthetician took me in, her hands on a mission to cure and send me off the right way. And it was clear that she enjoyed and took pride in what she did. The manager of the spa came out to thank me for my patience and for coming back in. She had looked me up on their company-wide database and acknowledged in conversation that I had been a Bliss client since 1997. Between the manager, the gentleman who booked my same day appointment, and the esthetician, each utilized their personal and professional resources to win back a client.

One's tenure at Bliss doesn't guarantee talent nor expertise. People in this industry have to embrace the intricacies of care at this level of intimacy with clients. It requires a particular openness and surrendering to care-give in this way. And, managers need to detect this when hiring and training. As clients, we are completely vulnerable. Our faces are naked, awaiting a deep yet gentle cleaning. Awaiting sure, motherly hands to tell it, "I'll take care of you. And you, too, little black head."

In the end, as vulnerable as we are while lying on a table for over an hour, we can sense how much love really is in a labor of love.

07 December 2009


Ferry Plaza Seafood, San Francisco

"I'd like to try the Maine lobster sandwich and the avocado & shrimp salad."
"You'll only need one of these. It'll be too much with both."
"Just the lobster sandwich, then. Thanks."
(strangers keeping my gluttony at bay)

03 December 2009


Pulpo Restaurant, Amsterdam

It didn't take long for us to find our now-regular neighborhood dinner joint. Passing by, Pulpo was a plain-looking restaurant but what caught my eye was the tidy casualness of the place. Everything on the counters, tables and decorated windowsills were orderly. Upon entering for our first meal, we were enthusiastically greeted with: "Hi, I'm Robert. Welcome." That was the first of many evenings where we would spend, giving our kitchen a rest and our feet a pleasant, crisp walk.

We were seated by the window with a view of the outdoor diners and the roundabout that showcased a tram stop and plenty of passerby. Robert would continually, and jovially, embrace us whenever we went there. In fact, going there began reminding me of the "Cheer's" TV show theme song, "...where everybody knows your name."

Robert would be folding napkins before dinner service started, seating and setting, clearing, taking orders, and settling the bills during. It wasn't until one night that he was seated at a table with friends (it was late by then) that we witnessed them polish off a bottle of limoncello liquor. At first it was unsettling for me because he was on the clock and drinking. How was that charge going to be settled? What would the owner think?

He approached our table and we caught up with each other. We commented on how great it is to have locals come in regularly. I finally asked who the owner of the restaurant was and he shyly, timidly answered, "I am." I was shocked.

All of those times that we came in, he hustled and delivered like a sergeant, only warmer. I had thought that he was a manager! I was wrong. Pulpo was, and remains, his. Seeing an owner of any business dig in and work the trade is rare and commendable. He doesn't advertise that he's the owner because he doesn't feel it's important. One can also sense the camaraderie between him and his team. Robert comes from a family of restaurant owners and managers and he himself worked in various establishments in and out of Holland. His passion and discipline to get things done, and done well, are a testament to Pulpo's reputation with the locals and why I now refer to Pulpo as "Cheers."

Pulpo Restaurant I www.restaurant-pulpo.nl I Willemsparkweg 87, Amsterdam I +31 (0)20 6760 700

01 December 2009


Horizon Air

"There is one spa lavatory at the front of the aircraft.
We recommend that you back yourself in."
(Flight attendant announcement)

30 November 2009

Working with a Little Tech Help

Yank Sing, San Francisco

A suited manager straightened chopsticks at a place setting while uniformed servers pushed dim sum carts and tidy runners delivered special orders on trays. It was like witnessing a choreographed dance. Each Yank Sing staff was equipped with an earpiece and radio to expedite orders to diners' tables. This was clearly not my grandmother's dim sum house.

A cart rolled up to my table which didn't have what I wanted. Instantly, the server spoke into her cuff and three minutes later, my pork buns arrived by tray. Steaming. She was like a security detail for dim sum.

Another server approached my table:
"This is our signature dish: pork soup dumplings."
"Thank you. I'll take one."
"Thank you. Enjoy."

Fluent in English, the Chinese staff were quick, friendly and happy to deliver whatever was on the tip of my palate. They all worked together. A united front. Selling with a smile. As new tables of guests were seated, carts of fresh dim sum and servers with special dishes surrounded the tables like bees to honey, moths to a flame. It was a glutton's fantasy. Nowadays, it is rare to find dim sum houses with push carts, even in Hong Kong.

There were a couple of dishes that I hadn't seen on a dim sum cart before this time: Chicken Lettuce Wrap and Peking Duck, both served and charged per serving. This was very convenient because typically the lettuce wrap is served for at least four and the duck is served whole. Yank Sing also offers a dim sum box to-go. Nice touch.

So with a little modern expediency and a team working tightly together, selling good product can be easy and enjoyable for all. The only regret I have is that I should have gone with someone other than myself.

Yank Sing I www.yanksing.com

22 November 2009


Apple Store Ginza, Tokyo

"Regarding your MacBook Air data transfer and hard drive replacement,
we were unable to save one song from your iTunes library.
We hope that this will be OK for you."
(Genius Bar)

11 November 2009

A Thousand Words

Chanel Boutique, Soho, New York

A print advertising window next to the store entrance,
with a spritz of condensation

10 November 2009


Anderson Bakery, San Francisco

"I have been craving for these (thick-cut, sliced bread) for so long. You have no idea!"
"Oh really? Why?......Are you pms-ing?"
"Uh..no..I usually crave something else when that happens."
"Oh, not me. I crave bread, always bread."

09 November 2009

Heart Care

The recently opened Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center was a sight for sore eyes and a calm for anxious nerves. It couldn't have been a more dignified experience for me as a family member of a patient's recent visit.

The marble-strewn entrance was like that of New York's Four Seasons hotel (I later confirmed that they share the same architecture firm). Behind the reception were two concierge-like staff dressed in smart, black suits. Energetic, polite and assertive (this was a hospital after all), they received me and my patient with warmth. For a moment, I thought we were checking in for a weekend getaway but the name tag being attached to my patient's wrist was a sure sign that we in fact were not. It was, thankfully, attached with a smile. We were then escorted together to the recovery room so that I'd be familiar with the day's procedure.

Upon my return to the five-story atrium waiting area, I was given a pager in case I would leave the area. With carefully appointed trees and bamboo planters, wireless internet access and an education resource center, why would I leave this place? A welcome bag/survival kit for me included a crossword puzzle book, a CD of relaxing music ("for the patient"), hand sanitizer and lip gloss. A food concession offered healthy snacks so I didn't need to trek to the main, subterranean cafeteria of the hospital. This department clearly takes bringing comfort and quietude seriously to those of us waiting and hoping for positive medical results and news.

I was updated regularly about my patient's status:
"She getting ready to go into the surgery room."
"She's doing fine and is heading to the recovery room."
"Please follow me. The surgeon would like to speak with you now."

There couldn't have been more hand-holding than what I was given.

The Heart Institute successfully merges generous personal attention, cardiac education and thoughtfully appointed surroundings. It was seamless. Sometimes, we need to be taken care of just as much as our patients do. All it takes is just a little heart.


04 November 2009

A Thousand Words

Parking sign, Treviso, Italy

One is required to pay for parking on weekdays, from 8:00 - 13:00 and 15:00 - 20:00
There is no need to pay if parked between 13:00 - 15:00
(There is no attendant during these hours)

The Passion for Perfection

There are few Michelin-starred restaurants in France whose cuisine is that of traditional of French cooking. There are even fewer whose chef personally markets in the mornings, runs a kitchen staff of Asian sou-chefs and overseas a dining room run by a three-man show.

In the small town of La Turbie, wedged between Eze and Monte Carlo on the French Riviera, Hostellerie Jerome welcomes seasoned and adventurous diners into a world of subtle charm and high cuisine. The restaurant is part of a hotel, both of which are housed in a former convent. Wood panels remain and are balanced with crisp white linens and water color paintings of flowers and fruits on the vaulted ceilings and menus.

A trio of French waitstaff wear multiple hats, from host to translator and sommelier as well as server and clearer all evening long with a smile. What I noticed immediately was our server's enthusiasm for being there, entertaining us while taking care of us. It was intoxicating. He spoke of Chef Cirino's dedication: early to rise, last to rest. That he had a manic passion in the way he lived and worked. I could see that our waiter's admiration was filled with inspiration. Before I could jokingly ask, "so, what don't you like about Chef?" we heard shouting coming through the kitchen door. It was the chef.

Roughly translated into a PG version, and with laughter throughout the dining room, the chef was angry that the sauce was taking too long. Only in France! And that was for us, the patrons! This was the moment where the chef's passion met madness. I would take it any day for the exquisitely prepared and decadent dinner we indulged in.

Upon leaving the restaurant, I looked into the kitchen through a small glass window. The chef was a vision. A conductor, face and body taught with precision, leading his orchestra through a furious symphony. It was clear that the passion from the top engages and draws each of us in and why shouldn't it? We should so lucky to be inspired everyday.

Hostellerie Jerome, 20 rue Comte de Cessole, 06320 La Turbie, France; +33 4 92 41 51 51

30 October 2009

Gucci's Latest Epiphany

Through an article in the fashion trade Women's Wear Daily (WWD), Gucci America, Inc. president, Daniella Vitale, announced several new initiatives for their operations: elevate the customer experience in their stores, bring greater job satisfaction to their employees by recognizing good work on multiple levels, increase efficient service, offer the same level of service to all customers no matter how much they spend, and strengthen communications to consumers about the brand.

Gucci arrived at this juncture with the help of the consulting firm, Millward Brown. Together, they studied the business from 2008 through the beginning of 2009. By investing in a consulting firm, this seems to imply that Gucci doesn't trust their own organization or lack one to investigate and resolve fundamental issues internally.

The overall conclusion of improving customer service is only one of two cornerstones in retail businesses, the other is the product. Gucci is a luxury brand. But luxury is not just about driving customer service and communication. Luxury is about the highest quality of product, a product that is difficult to find and attain due to pricing, and a product that is ultimately superfluous.

Vitale states: "[The customer experience is] the single most important driver of business." If this is the case, then Gucci is a marketing-driven business, much like a high street or commodity brand.

The most important driver of a business should ultimately be the product, driven not by customers but by a brand's own employees. Investment of time and long term commitment in these will deliver the authenticity that customers will continue to come back for. Millward Brown may think otherwise.

28 October 2009

A Thousand Words

Raffles L'Ermitage Hotel, Beverly Hills, California

"This room is reserved for non-smokers"
(Courtesy note placed in an ashtray)

20 October 2009

A Thousand Words

J. Crew, Westfield San Francisco Centre

(What's left for company XYZ?)

18 October 2009


Cecconi's West Hollywood, Los Angeles

"Could you accommodate us tonight at 8:00p?"
"We actually can. We're opening up our private Butterfly Room.
It has a multi-million dollar Damien Hirst artwork in it!"
(the former restaurant at this location hung a Francis Bacon painting)

A Thousand Words

Hotel snack shop, San Francisco

14 October 2009

"Perfect Delivery"

Every business should have a worst case scenario handbook for employees to reach for in moments of crisis or emergency. Consider it the "Trouble Shooting" section of electronic equipment manuals. Not only would one have been necessary for the Delta Airlines staff at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, but the Holy Grail for the Delta staff at JFK International Airport in New York.

Las Vegas, 9:00a: There was a flood of hungover and post-trade show passengers waiting to check-in with no discernible lines to abide by. A Delta greeter appeared like she had given up on finding any solution to assist the passengers and the counter staff. Instead of organizing the masses, she walked back and forth, unraveling into a heap of helplessness. We were checked-in, only barely.

New York, 6:00p: Half of the passengers' baggage didn't appear on the baggage claim carousel after an hour of waiting. Mine included. The belt continued to run empty, giving us false hope that they would suddenly, miraculously appear. For the next two hours we shuttled between the carousel and the Delta baggage service office, at first asking for, and then furiously demanding, an explanation and a solution.

The two customer service reps fed us illogical explanations because, as we later surmised, they didn't want us to complete and claim form that soon. To have fifty passengers' bags delivered the following day is a decent size additional cost for the airline. So, between informing us that the conveyor belt was broken while another flight's baggage was being deployed on the same carousel and that it will take an hour for one of them to go out to the tarmac to personally check on the situation, they took three hours to finally offer to complete the loss baggage claim form. And, aren't only planes allowed on the tarmacs anyway?

Peaceful and expedient resolution can be this simple:
"In case of delayed or lost baggage:
1) Take one hour maximum to confirm and/or determine loss.
2) Assist passengers in completing our Lost Baggage Claim Form and reassure them that you, and Delta, will do your best to have their bags delivered to them the following day.
3) Apologize for the inconvenience and thank them for their patience."

Passengers don't want to be lied to. It just aggravates the situation. I received by bag the following morning, intact and still locked. It would have been nice to have my three hours perfectly delivered to me as well.

09 October 2009


Ralph Lauren boutique, San Francisco

"There's a private event this evening."
(6:30p on a Thursday; Store closes at 7:00p)
"I'd like to shop. Can you let me in for just 10 minutes?"
"No, it's a private party."

Jean Georges, North of the Border

Jean Georges, self-proclaimed "formidable restauranteur," progressively functions as a licensor of his brand with one recent opening, Market by Jean Georges, in the stunning and new Shangri-La Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia.

I've been to many of his restaurants and they have always delivered when they opened. But then the downside of such collaborations rears its head. Market by Jean Georges is an endeavor backed by the Shangri-La Hotel, from the build out to the employee paychecks. Jean Georges, with his reputed star-power and track record with his namesake restaurant, brings the brand, concept, recipes, and some operational pointers.

Does this formula guarantee a quality dining experience that will capture a loyal clientele needed to sustain the business beyond the flow of the hotel guests? I say it doesn't because the most crucial variable of these partnerships is the staffing. No star of any business can change the course steered by poor service.

When I called for a reservation, I was greeted with a projection of exclusivity and snobbery. After some smooth talking on my end (why me?), I managed to secure a reservation. Upon my arrival, my party and I were greeted by hostesses new on the job and a dining room half occupied. We were asked to wait. Once we were seated I pulled out the guns.

"I'm visiting from New York and am a regular at Jean Georges and his restaurants there. How long have you been opened?" The tide changed so dramatically that I was embarrassed for the head hostess and two managers who soon after interrupted our meal to introduce themselves to us.

The telephone reservationist for any restaurant has the second most important responsibility to the Chef. To field and fulfill requests while introducing the tone and mood of the brand, their job is ultimately to sell as many unreserved seats as possible. It's a balancing act not for the faint at heart. So buckle up and get the training and hiring right because this poor reflection is on Jean Georges and the Shangri-La Hotel.

06 October 2009


Central Station Ticket Office, Amsterdam

"Two tickets to Antwerp, please."
"That will be 78 Euro."
"Are they 37 Euro each?"
(the online booking price)
"Something like that."

30 September 2009

The End of An Era, or Two, or Three...

The Dorchester Collection, the global hotel group invested by The Sultan of Brunei, completed the purchase of the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles, California. It was yet another diamond in the crown of their collection.

The hotel will be closing today for a two-year renovation project of the property. With a long and illustrious history, updating the rooms, plumbing, restaurants and grounds are welcome. But it has also been confirmed that all of the staff will be fired without guarantee of rehiring upon completion.

What has made the Hotel Bel Air what it was and what it is today is the unparalleled professionalism and discretion of a staff that is equally a family unto themselves as they are to returning guests. Without them, the hotel will lack the enchantment it speaks of and the feeling of home away from home that guests refer to it as. Almost all of the staff have devoted decades of their careers there and not one advertises himself as an actor, which in Los Angeles is a rarity.

The Dorchester Collection website promotes: "It's not just our hotels, it's our staff that make Dorchester Collection legendary." This is most certainly accurate about this hotel, so why not keep them on?

The valet team, on the front lines of the brand as well as the hotel, don't just park cars. They vehemently protect the privacy of guests by strategically fending off paparazzi who park 24 hours a day across the street from the entrance. They have their own cues to prepare for reclusive celebrities without disrupting the beauty of an arrival and bittersweet departures. The Concierge treat each guest as one's own; the attentive front desk receptionists add to the special occasion of a stay; the porters know the ins and outs, and ups and downs, with insurmountable discretion; the restaurant team knows that distance and attention are simultaneously possible; and overall the grounds keepers, pool attendants, housekeeping, security, catering, special events and boutique managers live their professions with passion and dignity. Let us also not forget the executive office which has managed to keep the General Managers intact and on time for the ticking of the hotel.

All of these people honed years of experience and precision at the highest level. Their support of the uniqueness of the Hotel Bel Air cannot be learned overnight. The recently appointed General Manager stated in a press release:"Our guests absolutely love this hotel, it is a home away from home for many and our vision for the newly renovated Hotel Bel Air is to create somewhere that will enchant both local residents and international travelers alike."

Guests love this hotel because the staff perpetuates their vision of uniqueness.

It's not an easy task to renovate such a property while meeting the bottom line as well as negotiating with the California labor unions, probably one of the strongest in the country. I only hope that the Hotel Bel Air will not be returned an empty glass castle on Stone Canyon for that will certainly not be "honouring the individuality and heritage of this iconic hotel."


Puccini Chocolate Shop, Amsterdam

"Do you sell these chocolates in 100 gram bags? I think that these are 200 grams."
"No, we don't. We'd need another shop to hold so many of those bags."
(The chocolates were priced per 100 grams)

28 September 2009

Not a Flight of Fancy, but a Flight of Discontent

Is it worth it that the Italian government negotiated with private entrepreneurs to succumb to the entitled moaning of Alitalia staff to save the airline from inevitable bankruptcy?

The one plus hour flight into Milan Linate this July was as if I were walking down the spiral stairs in Purgatory, but my experience wasn’t as poetic.

The flight attendants, one a disheveled brunette who looked like she just awoke, barely greeted us as we came aboard, almost missed my hand when passing me my cup of water, and threw down packets of biscotti on my trade table as well as those of my row mates. The attendants simply didn’t want to be on this flight. In addition, the trade table was dirty, replete of biscotti crumbs from the last passenger, not to mention the head rest that smelled.

The most amusing part of the flight was when the pilot in his thick Italian accent thanked us for our cooperation as we were delayed at the gate. However, he instead said, “thank you for your creation.”

Alitalia Airlines’s corporate brand webpage declares: "Our commitment is to provide top quality ground services and onboard services so that every travel experience has that distinctive touch of Italian style."

I appreciate the complexities that airline businesses are faced with. But I also recognize that training and personnel come first, maybe even before mission statements are posted for the public...and investors.

24 September 2009


Harrod's Department Store, London
"Excuse me, where is the men's department?"
(wearing camoflage pants and a T-shirt)
"Casual or suiting, sir?"
"Suiting. Thank you."

12 September 2009

About SOS

I am a traveler, culinary sniffer and willing customer of all services imagined. I have come to realize that the people who perform these services make or break the deal, not only the product at hand. Thanks to the elitist flag-waving sales girl at Gucci, I didn't blow thousands of dollars there. Thanks to the specialty butcher, I devoured plenty of grass fed beef from Wyoming.

Subtleties of Service is about how people in the service industries can greatly affect our shopping, dining, traveling, and daily experiences as well as how they can affect the brands they represent and the products they sell. The relationship between the customer and the service provider is no longer simply transactional.

We come across these people everyday. They are on the front lines of capturing our attention and loyalty. They are responsible for selling the philosophy of a brand, perpetuating its public perception, and persuading us to buy into what they are hawking. They can also turn the tide from success to failure in the way they greet the customer, stand, and deliver.

We desire more than ever the packaged experience as well as the product. Some are well trained while others are naturals. And the more subtle they are at succeeding, they have mastered what I call the Subtleties of Service.

By representing the customer, I offer unbiased observations and a critical eye on the efficiency and discretion, aesthetic and function, and culture and tradition that affect service.

Marisa Ma