Customer Experience Makes the Difference

In this post, I’m going to dip my toes into the world of customer experience (CX). This isn’t a subject I’ve written about before, but a recent sub-optimal hotel experience during a trip to Belgium has prompted this analysis.

Whilst this story does not relate specifically to technology, great customer experience is something that all businesses should pursue, whether technical or not in nature.

Our story

Back in early December, my wife and I booked a two night city break to Bruges (Belgium), to return for the third time to what will remain an unnamed hotel, a hotel that continued to rank amongst our top five hotels in the world. To beat those New Year blues, we’d been looking to go away sooner, but delayed until the beginning of February due to the hotel having no availability for the entire month of January. With no specific explanation — within the online booking engine — for the complete lack of availability in January, it was natural to assume they were just fully booked.

A few days prior to our trip, my wife noticed on their website an explanation for the January blackout — turns out they were shutting the hotel for refurbishment. But, no worries, as the work would be over ready for our arrival.

On arrival at the hotel, it was immediately obvious that the work had not been completed — there were decorators inside and out, hammers banging, paint pots piled up in the hallways. During check-in, the desk staff made no reference to the refurbishment work that was going on around us, and we were eventually shown to our room.

To a backing track of relentless hammering outside the window, my wife asked our room escort about the Wellness Centre — the pool, jacuzzi, sauna etc. being one of the considerable advantages of this particular hotel. It was at this point that a member of staff finally acknowledged what was going on around us and this included breaking the news that the Wellness Centre was out of use. It turned out the refurbishment work had overrun (no s**t, Sherlock) and was expected to carry on for a further week.

Following a fairly short discussion, my wife and I concluded that we should move to a different hotel. Why?

The hotel failed at every possible opportunity to acknowledge the problem

The hotel had at least three clear opportunities to proactively acknowledge the problem:

  • At the point of booking — they could have at least warned of the potential risk of overrun
  • In the days leading up to our arrival — a simple email would have been courteous
  • On arrival — they could have immediately apologised at check-in and offered solutions

The most damning thing is that we ultimately had to prise an apology out of the staff. If I’d been managing the hotel, I’d have personally welcomed every arriving guest, explained the issue and discussed ways to minimise the disappointment for them. It’s a customer experience disaster that we were left to realise what was going on before the staff acknowledged it.

The hotel had devised no proactive mitigation plan

What’s pretty clear is that the hotel staff, as a team, had failed to prepare for the fallout. Let’s be honest, it’s not difficult to predict that refurbishment works will overrun — not only should the hotel manager have prepared a mitigation plan, but that plan should have been communicated clearly to every member of staff.

They should have been ready for every single pre-booked guest arrival and had devised an individual, tailored mitigation solution for each one. This plan could have been communicated to the guest(s), at best, prior to arrival, and, at worst, immediately on arrival at the reception desk.

A great manager would have got every member of staff into a room, rallied the troops and ensured each team member was fully prepared to execute the mitigation plan. Unfortunately, the staff at our hotel seemed as bemused as we did, and this was extremely disappointing.

What can be learned?

So, given the clumsy nature of their handling of the situation, we checked ourselves out the hotel and found ourselves a room elsewhere (the first time we’ve ever done that). The hotel that we’d previously held so dear to our hearts, had undone years of customer loyalty development in a single day. As it turns out, we shouldn’t have ignored the fact they’d tumbled down the TripAdvisor rankings in the past few years — the warning signs were there.

Still, there’s a good chance we’d have forgiven them if they’d demonstrated a desire to minimise our disappointment — we’d probably have stayed where we were. Instead, not only are we unlikely to ever go back, but we’re now unlikely to recommend anyone else to stay there either (and they’ve had guests in the past directly off the back of our recommendations).

The lessons that can be learned from this experience are hardly original:

A good product is worth little without great customer service

The tangible product — ignoring the fact that some of it wasn’t available at the time — was seemingly unchanged. This is still a fabulous looking boutique hotel, in a fabulous location. The rooms are beautiful and the breakfasts fantastic. But, that just isn’t enough without delightful customer service to go along with it.

Never ever ever think your tangible product will make up for lapses in customer service. There’s no difference between product and service — your product includes the service.

Don’t rest on your laurels

You can’t rely on your customers’ loyalty through past experience. Just because you’ve won their loyalty in the past, it doesn’t mean you can screw up in the present. Loyalty is a pretty fickle concept and, if you mess with your customers, they’ll look elsewhere for a better all round experience.

Customer service is the most important differentiator

As a market becomes more and more competitive, the opportunities to differentiate on your tangible product are reduced — it’s not always easy to create a truly original product. So, whilst your competitors continue to iterate blindly on their tangible product, spread your resources to accommodate improving all round customer experience. Service your customers in delightful ways, and they’ll keep on coming back to you for more. Do not underestimate your ability to differentiate yourself through great service.

Make the difference

As stated at the beginning of this post, customer experience is important for every business — little or large, technical or non-technical.

Great customer experience makes the difference, so make it your difference.