Employee empowerment and training makes for excellent customer service.

The more I travel, the more astonishing it is when I find outstanding customer service. If someone is pleasant to me, I am usually delighted, and don't expect much more. On a recent trip, however, I had an extraordinary customer service experience. It was a simple interaction, but the good feelings it inspired stuck with me for days. That's a solid indication that I should write about it. So, here goes:

I was staying at a run-of-the-mill Radisson Hotel. The décor was a bit outdated. The carpets were a touch worn. Overall, the hotel facilities were just so-so.

It was the people who made me pay attention, and one person in particular.

The employees were Mid-Western friendly. That's always pleasant. Whenever I was in the elevator with a hotel employee, he or she always held the door open for me, and insisted that I exit first. A small, polite gesture. I took note of how accommodating and kind the employees were - from the bellman to the front desk clerk to the young lady who delivered my room service coffee. Very nice.

I requested a ride to the airport when I was checking out. A valet appeared and loaded my suitcases into the hotel van. He introduced himself as Michael, and helped me load myself into the van. Off we went.

Now, consider that I was staying at a hotel Radisson. We were less than 10 minutes from the hotel to the curb-side check-in at the airport. During this short ride, Michael made a stunning impression on me.

I noticed a little pin on his jacket. It was no more than an inch long. It said, in script, "Yes, I Can." I love that expression. I use it as a chant in some of my seminars, as a positive reminder of personal responsibility and drive. I asked Michael about the pin.

His chest swelled as he answered, "This pin means that I can handle any problem concerning any guest at our hotel. I can do whatever it takes to solve their problem. So, no matter what happens, I can make it all better."

"That's pretty cool," I replied. "Does everyone at your hotel have that degree of authority and responsibility?"

"No, you have to go through the 'Yes, I Can' class," he explained. "It's a three-day course they put on at the hotel. We practiced ways to solve problems, and what we would do to help guests in different situations. It was actually a lot of fun."

"Suppose I was unhappy with my room?" I prompted.

"I'd switch rooms for you, if that would help. I could even give you a full refund on your room, if it that's what it would take to make you feel better," he responded without missing a beat.

"Very good! Michael, tell me about a recent experience you've had putting your 'Yes, I Can' abilities to the test," I asked.

"I haven't had the opportunity, yet," Michael said simply. "I just graduated from the course last week. We do a good job around here, so there aren't many complaints. But if something comes up, I can take care of it. Yes, I can!"

I was struck by his enthusiasm. I told him that he appeared to be pretty pleased with the Radisson.

"I really like it here. I try to do a good job." Then, he added proudly, "Last month, I was the Employee of the Month. That means I am in the running for Employee of the Year. If I win, I'll take my son with me on a cruise." He had it all worked out already.

We arrived at the airport, and Michael hoisted my bags over to the Sky Cap. We shook hands and parted ways. I was left considering how easy it really is to make people feel good about their jobs: show them what to do, how to do it and why. Then, let them do it.

The Purpose Of Training

You've heard the objection, "What if I train my employees, and they leave?" The classic comeback is, "What if you don't train them and they stay?" Never forget that the point of training is to help someone do a specific job better - measurably better.

Certainly some training is necessary to do any job. Technical training, sales training and customer service training should be part of your overall employee development package.

You have a responsibility to pass on the technical knowledge of this fine trade. Plumbers protect the health and safety of society. What are you doing to make sure that knowledge is passed on? Technical training for skilled positions must be mandatory.

You should offer sales training to your sales team so they and you can make more money. Absolutely. In fact, helping people make money is a philanthropic gesture.

Offer classes in customer service skills to each person who comes in contact with your customers. Most people don't learn manners and good service skills anymore. If Mama didn't teach them, well, you can. These are empowering skills.

And, yes, an employee can graduate from a pricey formal training program and put in his or her notice the next day. That's the breaks. That's a part of the business game. Stuff happens. People quit. But don't let it discourage you.

As an owner or manager of your small shop, what could be more important than helping people get better? Not just at the job, but at life?

Starting today, take a broader, higher view of your role as trainer. Become obsessed with the personal development of the people who work for you. Become a developer of people. In addition to basic technical, sales and customer service skills training, add these courses to your company's class list:

Advanced Skills Training

For those interested, offer skills classes in the finer points of the craft of plumbing and heating. Go beyond the basics. Delve into sophisticated radiant heat, water treatment, indoor air quality, whatever turns you on. You may find a lucrative new niche business while you are at it. The true technical wizards at your company will love this.

Get-Out-Of-Debt 101

Have you stood by silently while a seriously in-debt employee brags about buying a new boat - with a credit card? Offer a class in basic money management. Use the classic "The Richest Man in Babylon" for the textbook. In the book, author George Clason lays out a simple system for reducing and eliminating debt. And he teaches the system through a series of stories. Once a week, get together for a book group. Assign a chapter or a few pages, and then discuss the lessons in class.

Investing 101

Do you have a 401K or SEP plan as a retirement fund benefit? Good. You should! Now, talk to your representative at the managing investment company. Ask him or her to select a fun and enthusiastic person at their company to visit with your employees about the stock market, about mutual funds and about the miracle of compounding. This kind of training can be terrific or dull depending on the presenter. Find someone passionate about investing and teaching.

First Aid & CPR

The American Red Cross is a good place to start. Find out what it takes to put on a basic emergency response class at your shop. Invite employees and their families to participate. Have them bring the "Bloodmobile" and invite those interested to donate blood.

Language Classes

The United States has been a melting pot of cultures since white settlers stole it from the Native Americans hundreds of years ago. Our government is not without serious faults, but those who move here from terribly violent and oppressive countries truly appreciate the opportunities it provides. Open your workplace to culturally diverse employees. Teach English, and learn the other languages that your employees bring to your company.

Start A Reading Group

Select books from a wide range of topics from business to history to philosophy to gardening to classic literature. Read sections aloud. Write quotes or book passages on the dry erase board in your training room. Ask people for their reactions and opinions.

Think your shop is too small to offer these courses? Keep it simple. Commit to your own learning, and share your developing knowledge with others at your company. I know from experience that the best way to learn something is to teach it.

Pay your employees to attend these classes. However, don't force them to go. Make minimum levels of performance and production mandatory, but don't make the training mandatory. Good people want to improve. Make the classes optional.

Consider Michael. Whatever happened in that classroom over the course of three days had a profound impact on him. He emerged convinced that he could turn dissatisfied customers into happy guests. And he felt the unconditional support of his supervisors. Michael grew as a person as a result of that training, and that environment. Perhaps not every "Yes, I Can" graduate is so positively impacted. That's the breaks. But there are Michaels in this world, thank goodness.

Someday, for whatever reason, Michael might leave the Radisson. But he will take those skills with him. Wherever he goes, he will make the world a brighter, better place. The Radisson can take a little bit of credit for that. Michael, of course, can take the lion's share.

A side benefit: If you commit to personal development this way, well, your good employees aren't going to leave. As long as you pay them what they are worth as well. No one could pry them from you with a crow bar.

Can you make the commitment to be a developer of people? Of course. Say it with me, "Yes, I CAN!"