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Five Steps to Reaping Rewards of a Strong Service Culture

“If you don’t get culture right, nothing else matters.”

John Taft, CEO, RBC Wealth Management

The word “culture” has many meanings. For most people, it refers to a community’s shared tastes and values, including things like social norms, music choices, food and fashion preferences, sports loyalties, religious beliefs, and many other mores and customs. Sometimes communities with a shared culture are specific to one particular location; sometimes they exist in many places at once. But regardless of where or what they are, the bonds of culture are powerful and help define who we are both as individuals and human societies.

Private clubs have cultures, too. They encompass a set of shared values, goals, and practices that permeate everything that happens at a club, and determine whether it’s a success or failure.

A club’s culture can serve as a competitive advantage, or it can hamper its ability to compete and thrive.

That’s why it’s extraordinarily important for every club to:

  • take an honest look at its cultural values

  • understand its constructive and destructive elements

  • commit to building a strong service-oriented approach that attracts and retains satisfied members and top-quality employees.

So how do you know what your culture is?

Some of the elements of culture are invisible—they’re a set of attitudes, values, mindsets, and ways of thinking held both by managers and employees. They become visible and tangible when put into practice. Then, a club’s culture is right there in the open for all to see.

The outward expression of your club’s culture is seen daily in the words your employees use when they speak to members or each other; the degree to which details are attended to; the quality of signage and the cleanliness of both public and behind-the-scenes spaces; the care taken with key service opportunities, whether in the dining room or on the golf course: the respect accorded others, even under challenging circumstances. It’s all of that and much more.

What culture is not is just a beautiful logo or a florid mission statement. As Professor Edgar Schein of MIT’s Sloan School of Management wrote, “If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.”

A strong service culture begins with a well-crafted strategic plan that reflects club values. That’s essential, but it’s not enough. Cultural norms must come off the page and move onto the floor. Leaders establish the principles and strategies that guide club behaviors, but if those attitudes and actions aren’t incorporated every single day in the countless interactions, subtle and unsubtle, direct and indirect, between and among your managers, staff, members, and guests, your club will not thrive.

You should have a clear understanding of the nature of your club’s culture because, after all, your members definitely do. They see it, hear it, feel it, and taste it every time they visit. You never want to be in the position where your members know more about you than you do. Plato had it right: Know thyself!

There are many ways to assess your club’s culture. Begin by just looking around. Observe honestly.

  • How do your employees look and act?

  • What words do they use with members and each other?

  • Do members of your team go out of their way to help each other?

  • Do they willingly cooperate for the greater good?

  • Is cleanliness on display, even in back-of-the-house areas?

  • How do your managers interact with their subordinates, and do they hire with values in mind?

  • Are even difficult situations handled gracefully and with a smile?

Since we’re turning to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks here, it’s a smart idea to heed the words of Epictetus, who said, “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Good managers know he was right.

It’s also obviously important to have a clear idea of how your members perceive your club’s culture of service. Surveys, comment cards, direct feedback to staff, and clear, open lines of communication from members to management are all valuable tools. Watch for canaries in the coal mine: are member referrals up or down? Are retention metrics strong or weak? And, of course, you should be using all social media tools to interact with members, but you also should be monitoring mentions of your club on all online outlets. Find as many ways as possible to see your club through the eyes of your members.

The good news is that culture is learned—by both managers and staff alike. That means that it can always be improved. All clubs have the potential for greatness. It starts with thoughtful planning, requires constant training and re-training, and demands unwavering reinforcement every single day.

Think of the development of your club’s culture like your chef thinks of an infusion. Herbs and spices are added to permeate a liquid. Eventually, the herbs are removed and are invisible to the eater, but their taste and aroma remain. The quality of your club’s culture depends on the quality of the ingredients your members and guests never see: a clear statement of values, comprehensive training, and disciplined implementation. Club culture is an infusion of values that permeates everything.

How do you get to greatness? Long experience has taught us that no matter what kind of private club you are, the five building blocks of a strong club culture are always the same:

  • Celebrate successes: Celebrate those who go above and beyond. Create “hero stories” that can be shared and emulated; they become the legends upon which culture is built. Remember: Success begets success.

  • Learn from failures: Know that feedback is a gift, even if it’s negative. Failure can help you pinpoint weak spots, allowing you the opportunity to improve continuously.

  • Foster responsibility and accountability: Use the “coach” approach. Put together the best team you can. Develop your team’s strengths. Insist on group and individual accountability. “Coach” every day. Know that discipline holds the team together, but that dignity and pride keeps them there.

  • Provide dynamic and engaged leadership: Be the change you want to see. Model behavior. Use your senses to understand your club – see, feel, touch, smell, hear. As Steve Jobs said, “A leader leads by example, whether he intends to or not.”

  • Live your values: Align your culture with your operations and strategic plans. Plan well. Hire right. Train frequently. Leaders must match words and deeds. The club must always match the reality of service delivery with the aspirations of service standards.

John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” That’s true, of course. Sometimes the quiet, small actions managers and staff take without being asked, or out of a deeply felt sense of obligation to the well-being of the club or each other, are the best markers of a truly great club culture.

You’ll know you’ve succeeded in infusing your cultural values when your managers and staff do incredible things without being asked or when they think no one is watching. But it’s also true that in the world of private clubs, the simple fact is that everyone is always watching.

Your club’s culture is on display all the time. Member expectations are high. Demands are great. The good news is that you have it in your power to reap the rewards that come from a service culture that ensures that those expectations are always met—and constantly exceeded. The time to start is now.


Get the details about our "Creating a Strong Service Culture" management training program by clicking here.


RCS Hospitality Group offers a host of training sessions geared toward helping managers understand, create, and foster a strong service culture, as well as award-winning staff training to ensure that every member of your team is prepared to put your club’s values are into action every moment of every day. Contact us at 623.322.0773, or at, for more information on how we can help you turn your customers into “raving fans.”

#employeetraining #training #clubmanagement #customerservice #credo #HR #clubservice #stafftraining #memberservice #empoweremployees #competitiveadvantage #hospitality

Whitney Reid Pennell
 Founder & President

Whitney Reid Pennell is the founder and president of the award-winning RCS Hospitality Group (formerly Reid Consulting Services). She is a published author and widely praised seminar leader, with over 20 years of club operations management and consulting experience. 

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