Sanovia Gross takes part in Bozzuto Group’s “boot camp” for concierges. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)

An irate “resident” approached Daniel Sticco demanding action from the concierge at the Apartments at CityCenter. She was having a party that night and her refrigerator had stopped working.

Sticco calmly apologized, made a phone call to the maintenance staff, offered solutions such as having another refrigerator delivered and ice brought to her apartment, and then made sure everything was done to her satisfaction.

The “resident” was Shani Harrison, a concierge at 909 Capital Yards, who along with Sticco was participating in a role-playing exercise as part of a day-long training program by the Bozzuto Group.

At a time when businesses are still trying to regain their footing after the recession, companies such as the Bozzuto Group are betting that good customer service will have a positive effect on their bottom line. And they’re willing to spend resources on training employees on the best ways to interact with their customers and potential customers.

“The return is evidenced in buildings that are fully occupied with residents who are happy living in them,” Julie A. Smith, president of Bozzuto Management Co., wrote in an e-mail. “We can easily connect what we invest in all of our employee trainings by operating well-run buildings that received consistent and positive resident reviews and by the number of incoming residents who are a result of their referrals.”

Dennis Campbell, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, has made customer service a central part of his research. According to Campbell, there are many theories about why companies are choosing to invest in customer service. Some are realizing they may have cut back too far during the recession and are now losing market share because customers are complaining. With competition increasing in most industries, customer service can be a way to differentiate a company from a competitor. And it’s not just businesses in the service industry that are paying attention to it.

“You see investment in service happening in lots of places where you wouldn’t expect to see it, even manufacturing firms, firms that supply retail, are starting to think about the customer experience,” Campbell said.

Competing for tenants

Greenbelt-based Bozzuto, a company that manages more than 150 apartment buildings along the East Coast, sees its front desk workers as the face of its buildings, the problem solvers, but also part of its brand. Besides giving them a fancy title, the company trains them to do more than just hand out packages and process service requests. From tickets to a ballgame to reservations at a restaurant to picking up dry cleaning, no request is too trivial for a concierge. One concierge kept a resident’s pet at his home for three weeks when the tenant had to leave town unexpectedly to care for an ill relative.

“We don’t say no to things,” said Clark Pritchett, general manager at the Apartments at CityCenter.

The concierge training is in addition to other training they receive, including an eight-hour orientation and an eight-hour “Bozzuto Basics” class. They also do online training. Steven Fretwell, director of learning and development, who came to the Bozzuto Group after working at Marriott and Ritz Carlton, developed the concierge training about a year ago. He eventually wants the concierges to undergo a total of 40 hours of training.

“I think we’ve gotten our money’s worth if these people understand how important they are to our brand and to our residents,” Fretwell said.

As the apartment industry moves toward offering more services, it is only natural that the high-end buildings are opting for amenities common in high-end hotels. Customer service can be a way for apartment buildings to distinguish themselves and pry tenants away from competitors.

Campbell has found through his research on customer loyalty that high-end customers are the first to leave when their expectations are not being met.

“Customers are sorting based on their preferences for price and service quality,” Campbell said. “Price-conscious customers, they’re not interested in paying more for better service. They’re not wooed when high-end challengers enter the market. On the other end, when [a competitor] with higher service levels comes in, some of [a company’s] customers are underserved and they’re going to flee for those high-end competitors ... Firms really need to understand where they’re playing on that continuum in their markets.”

Bozzuto seems intent on setting the bar high. On a recent Monday, Wais Khairzada, corporate resident services manager, taught a class of 10 — four women and six men. Khairzada, who also has a hotel background, noted that the participants had a total of more than 150 years customer service experience.

“Most of the training you have heard about it,” he said. “What we will do here is show you a Bozzuto way of doing it.”

He then told the story of how UCLA basketball coach John Wooden made his players learn how to tie their shoes at the first practice. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to tie their shoes. He wanted to make sure they knew how to do it the UCLA way.

“You can always tell a Bozzuto property because it smells the same, down to the scents that they have,” said Harry McNeil, a concierge at 77 H. “If you’re looking for scissors, they’re all in the exact same place. Once you’re trained at one property, you can work at any of them because it’s really that detailed.”

Attention to detail

This is not a class that teaches people how to smile and be friendly. The people Bozzuto has hired for these jobs already have that in their DNA. Instead, the focus is on their brand of aggressive hospitality. Concierges are expected to know their neighborhoods, to network with restaurants and shops and to plan events for their residents. (They never use the word tenant, only resident. They also don’t call it a unit, but an apartment.)

Concierges are told how to dress. They don’t have uniforms but they are expected to wear “power suits.” The style guide includes rules on the length of men’s pants and the type of shoes women can wear. For example, plain ballet flats are a no-no. The shoes must have some embellishment, such as a bow or buckle.

“There’s a message here that we want to promote,” Sticco said. “There’s a feeling we want to promote. There’s a smell that we want to promote. There’s an entire experience that we’re trying to bring together, and that has to be brought from the top down.”

One of concierge’s roles is arranging the move-in gifts for residents. Bozzuto provides residents small tokens to welcome them to their new home — a card signed by the entire staff, a sponge, dish detergent, paper towels, a reusable water bottle and a travel mug in the kitchen, candy, granola bar and a bottle of water in the refrigerator, a box of detergent on top of the dryer, toys for their pets and bath products, a robe and a rubber duckie in the bathroom. At CityCenter, the move-in gifts also include a drink box from Cuba Libre — two shots of rum, a bottle of Coke, a lime and a highball glass — and a chocolate bar from CoCo Sala with an Apartments at CityCenter logo.

“We give them a sense of home,” said Sanovia Gross, a CityCenter concierge.

As Bozzuto stakes its reputation on customer service, the company needs to guard against complacency should competitors try to match its offerings.

“When you start to compete on service, customer expectations matter,” Campbell said. “It’s not just, ‘Are you performing well relative to your own benchmarks?’ Your benchmarks better be set based on what your customers expect.”

Disney and Ritz Carlton are often held up as models for customer service, but Campbell warns against using their practices as templates. He cites the example of Southwest Airlines, which ranks high on customer satisfaction but is no-frills.

“Companies need to start with their customers and work backward,” Campbell said, “not just seek to emulate what Disney or Ritz Carlton does.”