The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections has an image problem, and Frances Burns knows it.

Long lines. Rude workers. Inconsistent information.

"One of the criticisms we've heard is customers are made to feel like they are the problem when they come into L&I," said Burns, the agency's commissioner since July.

Enter the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. L.L.C.

"The first step of service starts the moment you make eye contact," instructs Elizabeth Mullins, a vice president and area general manager of the hotel company. "The image we portray is the image our guests take away from our hotel."

Such was some of the advice Mullins imparted yesterday to more than 40 L&I workers who spent their morning, not at their office desks or basement counters in the Municipal Services Building, but inside a posh conference room at the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia.

"We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen," Mullins said, repeating the hotel company's motto. L&I, she told the service representatives and supervisors seated in four rows before her, can do the very same.

The two-hour training session marked a new partnership between one of the world's premier companies for customer service - and a city agency reputed as being one of the worst.

The trick, Mullins said, is providing what customers want. "When someone comes to your organization, do you respect their time?" she said. "Ask yourself: Are you a customer's company?"

Burns would like L&I to be just that.

"I'm trying to change the culture here and how we perceive what our work really is," the commissioner said of her 300-employee agency.

At no cost to the city, the training is part of her broader effort to improve operations at an agency that Mayor Nutter, as a mayoral candidate, once pledged to "blow up."

Among the changes she has made: Service representatives are now called "customer-care employees." Also, the average wait time for license applicants has dropped sharply, from 82 minutes in February 2008 to 49 minutes last month. It was down even lower, to 14 minutes, in November, before other employees were being trained with those skills. In addition, a paper archive of 200,000 zoning files can now be viewed online.

L&I regulates business and residential properties through the issuance of zoning permits and licenses.

Involving the Ritz-Carlton in L&I's evolution was the idea of real estate executive Kenneth P. Balin, chairman of the Philadelphia district council of the Urban Land Institute, an influential, nonpartisan education and research organization.

"L&I was tagged by not just the mayor, but a lot of people, as being at the bottom end of the totem pole," he said. "It is easy to make them the whipping boy of a lot of things that have gone wrong."

Now, the agency has a new opportunity. "We here at L&I can be the leaders," Balin said, "in demonstrating the transformational change in the city that can happen."

In a few weeks, Ritz-Carlton staff will sit in on L&I management meetings, and vice versa, another part of the partnership program.

For now, though, city workers received general advice focusing on the benefits of actions both large and small, from anticipating a customer's needs - in the hotel's case, if a guest is obviously ill at check-in, send up some tea or soup - to repeating the guest's name when saying hello or goodbye.

Such tips sounded easy enough to some L&I workers, including Thomas McDade, director of enforcement and neighborhood services.

As he put it: "It's not a big deal to be a gentleman."