Kill the WOW and be Effortless Instead…

What is the most important question hoteliers should be asking themselves as they weigh how to differentiate in a sea of sameness? Most would think it’s about customer satisfaction. Many would drill down into issues related to their NPS (net promoter score). But new research from CEB has shown that the key question to ask is: How effortless is it to do business with your hotel? The predictive power of customer effort has proven to be strong. CEB found that of the customers who reported low effort, 94% expressed an intention to repurchase, and 88% said they would increase their spending. Only 1% said they would speak negatively about the company. Conversely, 81% of the customers who had a hard time solving their problems reported an intention to spread negative word of mouth. Today, effortless trumps “wow.”

I have been writing for HBR a few years on the subject of customer experience and there is an increasing focus on guest service as a key business differentiator. Those of us who have been in the industry for a while have seen our share of customer experience initiatives and improvement efforts. This topic isn’t new, but what makes it so hard?

Our Sameness

Our sameness is how Westin’s Heavenly® Bed or some version of it permeates nearly every brand in every category of our industry. Our sameness is how the Service Promise is as ubiquitous as the nightstand bible. They may have different covers on the outside, but once you open them up does the average layman know the difference? I can feel the marketers cringing. I can hear the gasps of the brand teams who’ve worked so hard relating your brands to your desired perceptions. I have to wonder if this nuance is observable to the average traveler.

Yes, we’ve created category distinctions. If we were being honest though, those are mostly driven by amenities versus guest service. For example, in shopping for Spring Break with little kids you don’t spend an extra $1,000 on your Disney resort for the service. You do it for the direct access to the parks and not wanting to be herded on and off the shuttle buses for three days. Okay, perhaps that specific example is unfair since there aren’t truly a lot of options to choose from eight weeks out.

A more realistic example is the business traveler shopping the full service category. We know from many years of research cleanliness, location and price are big factors in likelihood to return and recommend. Some are a bigger trump card than others. Assuming all those are relatively equal – and we know they undoubtedly are given our propensity to follow the leader – what does differentiate us?

Here is where guest service is vital. How do you best achieve it? Therein lies the problem. Guest service is defined by the customer – not by brand marketers or operations leaders. It is constantly moving and our responsibility is to try to keep up. For a long time, we’ve held the belief differentiated guest service required to creating memorable experiences for our guests. This was the way to differentiate and drive greater guest loyalty.

Memorable Experience

It is the idea of surprise and delight. Boardroom questions included: How do we better connect emotionally with our customers? How can we measure it and reward it through our quality assurance efforts? There were “guests of the day” programs. Room amenities in appreciation or just because to celebrate and surprise are most worthy guests. Our best efforts here were sporadic, often difficult to pull off, and costly. The inability to identify direct linkage to stay behaviors had these initiatives on the cutting room floor quickly.

Another valiant attempt at differentiating through guest service has played out over the last decade. Instead of going after creating memorable experiences for the pitfalls aforementioned, some hoteliers looked to boost their problem resolution efforts.

Problem Resolution

It was the idea perpetuated some years ago that after a service failure, if you recovered well, you could build greater loyalty than if no problem occurred. Much of that research has been demystified and shown to be a nearly impossible standard. Exceeding expectations in your service recovery is a very high bar. You should not anticipate your heroic recovery efforts will make up for mediocre guest service upfront.

On a side note, I am still waiting for our technology to catch up with the idea of quantifying our problem resolution efforts. Being able to understand how much we spend and what it delivers on long term value would better guide our decisions. We’d have a tool for operators to gauge what works, beyond the intuition and gut most rely on today.

As we weigh the options within guest services to differentiate I am struck most of our efforts focus on the notion of improvement. I joined The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC when we were still euphoric for winning the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Flash forward 20 years and I’ve spent my career in customer experience and employee engagement, ultimately in an attempt to drive loyalty. Is there anything new to say?

Good Enough

Often times, improvement was what many of my clients sought, outright. In fact, one client let ego get in the way of sound decisions. He mandated to his team their primary aim was to be #1 in a quarterly benchmarking study of like chains. They achieved the top ranking he so badly desired, but the brand lost money. A storied career was sullied.

First the obvious, guest service and the desire to differentiate on customer experience cannot outweigh our fiscal responsibilities. I am a realist. When we talk about differentiating in a world of sameness, there has to be something we strive for beyond indeterminate improvement for guest service’s sake alone.

Perhaps the answer lies in a piece of CEB research first publicized in the Harvard Business Review in July-August 2010, Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers. The headline? “To really win loyalty, forget the bells and whistles and just solve their problems.” Now, granted this research was with 75,000 customers interacting with contact center representatives or using self-service channels. Over the top efforts made little difference to customer loyalty… which, if you have been paying attention, is in total agreement with my years of research on problem resolution. What is there to learned?

Stop trying so hard. Make it easy. Change the emphasis of your customer service interactions and initiatives. Instead of looking at improvement as the innocuous, untenable behemoth it often presents itself as, start evaluating your guest service with a new filter – being effortless.

Effortless Experience

Remove obstacles. Minimize customer effort. It’s similar to the old story of trying to cancel internet or cable services and they won’t let you go easily. We’ve all been there. Don’t hide information, i.e., how to talk to a live human being who can be empowered to do something. Yes, Expedia. I’m talking to you. Look at how many of your customers have moved their conversations with you into social platforms. That wasn’t because we as an industry forced them into it. It’s because they know they can get a faster response to a brand through that medium than others. Shame on us.

Looking at your mobile strategies, are you dialing it up on how to make the customer experience effortless? I have to go to my PC to book a multi-city trip on USAirways. Why? I haven’t the foggiest, but luckily for them I have had such a poor experience elsewhere I haven’t even tested the option to do these more complicated trips via another channel’s mobile website or app.gerhard01151a

Effortless can apply in so many parts of the customer journey. The one top of mind for me today centers on our industry’s foray into enhancing branded apps. This is a channel you cannot afford to get wrong. Or, you’ll pay dearly.

According to Statistica, the number of predicted mobile app downloads worldwide is staggering.

What makes this number even more difficult as we compete for customer real estate on their smart device are the various studies on usage. One by Comupware in 2013 found anywhere from 80-90% of all downloaded apps are used once and then eventually deleted by the user!

As we move to keyless check-in via our device, it has to be about more than the gadget or novelty of the service. Personalization of the guest experience is critical; the focus here needs to be effortless. If the guest gets to the room and the “key” doesn’t work, what then? And what other features do we need to include to minimize customer effort while balancing our needs?

CEB’s research gives us some guiding principles. First, don’t just resolve the current issue – head off the next one. Consider the relationship between customer issues as is highlighted in this review of a 4-star hotel on Tripadvisor:

“Let me preface this by saying that I realize that most of what I’ll write are all very small, nit picky things. If it was just one or two, I wouldn’t mention them, but they added up to a stay that was a little disappointing, especially for a 4-star hotel. Probably the biggest issue was the bathroom locks, which can be a bit tricky for children. Our 10-year-old son locked himself in the bathroom for a few minutes when he tried to lock it and then the pin fell out. The maintenance man was very nice, but he noted that this isn’t the first time this has happened. Could be a bigger issue for smaller children, especially. The phones seem to not work as they should. Every time I pushed the “Guest Service” button, it went to voice mail so I always dialed the operator. And when I dialed the number for express checkout, I got a busy signal. I went to the front desk to check out and was debating what to say when the person asked how my stay was…but they never asked how my stay was. Just a short thank you and that was that. And I found the pillows to be flat. Again, I realize these are all very small things, but they added up.”

Problematic bathroom door locks. Various issues with the phones. Aren’t these red flags that should have prompted the hotelier to ward off future issues?

Second, consider the emotional side of customer interactions. I believe this is why customer journey mapping and intentional experience design have become so popular of late. What is the long-lasting impression we’re leaving with even things as simple as the words we use. There are prevalent examples in the media about words that trigger negative reactions, i.e. “can’t,” “won’t,” and “don’t.” With simple reminders to our teams, especially our frontline guest service folks, we can greatly improve our ability to connect with customers.

Going back to the thread of technology, CEB’s third recommendation is about minimizing channel switching by increasing self-service channel “stickiness.” Given accelerating distribution costs this particular recommendation cannot be overlooked. An example from the article showcases Travelocity. An improvement to the help section of their website reduced customer effort and decreased calls into its call centers by 5%. Number four focuses on using feedback from disgruntled or struggling customers to reduce customer effort. We have had mountains and mountains of customer experience measurement data in our offices for decades now. For many hotels, it’s core to how we manage the business. My take-away is simply this: Are there areas that you consider just to be a cost of doing business perhaps you’re taking for granted? If you use the lens of effortless, is there another way you could meaningfully reduce customer effort and improve your guest service? Several reviews on Tripadvisor shared the same frustration for a 4-star hotel: Issues with the minibar:

“The mini bar/indulge bar. This is a nightmare. When we arrived and were looking around the room we noticed the “indulge bar” with 1 small bottle of wine. We picked up the dusty bottle and looked at it and placed it back. We opened the refrigerator to look at the mini bar selection and noticed expired bottles of beer and a couple sodas. Later on in the evening we noticed a sign on the “indulge bar” stating to not touch the bottles because they are motion censored and charges would apply if the sensor went off. We called down and explained to the staff and the charges were removed from our bill. The morning of check out we received an invoice under our door. On the invoice was over $100 of mini bar charges. We called down to the front desk again and asked why we were charged. They asked if we placed any of our own items in the fridge. I had put a bottle of water in the fridge door and it had touched a few other bottles which triggered all of these charges. The staff took these charges off our bill but it was very frustrating to have to deal with this.”

I can’t tell you how many reviews pointed to the same issue. Is having a motion censored mini-bar the cost of doing business? Should it be this frustrating for guests?

The last recommendation ties in how we empower the frontline to deliver low-effort experience. Are we incenting the desired behavior? A great story is shared on Amerprise Financial. Customer service reps were asked to capture all the instances in which they were forced to tell a customer “no.” Amerprise ended up modifying or eliminating 26 policies. The reps were asked to come up with other process efficiencies, which generated $1.2 million in savings as a result. Certainly not a bad return on its investment.

Customer Effort

Guest service as key differentiator for hotels has been around as long as the industry itself. What continues to evolve are the expectations of our customers. As such, what we measure and focus on must evolve with them. And if you don’t, believe me… the proof is in the research.

CEB evaluated the predictive powers of three metrics on customer loyalty, with loyalty defined as the customers’ intentions to keep doing business with the company, increase the amount they spend, or spread positive (and not negative) word of mouth.

Our staple of the industry – overall satisfaction (CSAT) – continues to perform the weakest of the three. Its predictive power is minimal which is why many brands have opted to move into a combined score of CSAT, Likelihood to Recommend and Likelihood to Return.

NPS has gained wide attention and has merit in capturing a holistic view of the brand. But, when it comes to capturing customer impressions at the transactional level, this little known new kid on the block, the Customer Effort Score (CES) outperformed both CSAT and NPS in predicting future behavior.

I repeat: How effortless is it to do business with your hotel? That’s the question on the mind of most customers today. It’s one that’s been proven to greatly impact their loyalty and affinity. So, next time you’re checking in on your guest service take a closer look at theeffort required.

PS. I’d welcome your predictions for when the industry will start to charge for room location versus simply the view, configuration, and/or package inclusions we have today.

Janet Gerhard has extensive experience transforming the way organizations understand and manage the customer experience. By analyzing and strategically changing how organizations interact with their customers, she helps clients redefine their growth strategy and customer experience ecosystem thereby driving top-line growth and bottom line results. Ms. Gerhard consults globally with automotive, business services, healthcare, hospitality logistics, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, retail, technology and telecommunication companies. In 2013, she was honored as one of HSMAI’s Top 25 Most Extraordinary Minds in Sales & Marketing. Ms. Gerhard has a Bachelor of Science degree in Hotel Administration from Cornell University. Ms. Gerhard can be contacted at 215-518-2425 or janet@hospitality-gal.com Extended Bio…

HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by HotelExecutive.com.