The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. was founded on principles of superlative service. More than 23,500 employees deliver that service at 43 hotels worldwide, and each receives 120 hours of training annually. One piece of training makes employees front-line decision makers. "If an employee receives a complaint, they own the complaint," says Theo Gilbert-Jamison, training and development vice president at the company's Atlanta headquarters. "We empower our employees up to $2,000 to do whatever they need to do to satisfy the customer."

The strategy has spurred many a solution to delight guests -- driving three hours to return a set of golf clubs, floating a guest $4,000 when his credit card was rejected. These anecdotes become part of each hotel's Monday morning "Wow" stories.

"We're not trying to throw money at a customer," says Gilbert-Jamison, "because our customers, a lot of times, don't necessarily want the money. They want the problem rectified." In training, employees are taught not just to satisfy guests but to spark loyalty. "We're always shooting for zero defects," Gilbert-Jamison says. "In the event a guest doesn't have a flawless day, we train employees how to recover."

"In most cases, if the issue is resolved at the point of contact with the guest, it usually costs the hotel significantly less than if the issue goes all the way up to the general manager," adds the training and development vice president.

Having the power to satisfy the customer increases morale, especially because employees know they can resolve an issue without suffering repercussions or discipline.

"Organizations think empowerment means you just let loose and you let them do it," Gilbert-Jamison says. "We believe you train and develop them, say this is the standard and this is how you do it, but you have some discretion. Then employees feel they are part of the organization as opposed to just working for it."

Contractors are among those who have taken the company's $950-per-person, day-and-a-half class, "Legendary Service at the Ritz-Carlton." For information on the Ritz class, call (404) 237-5500 and ask for the Leadership Center. Lodging isn't included in the price.