Less Victims and More Heroes Needed

There are so many lessons from the hotel industry that can help all companies.

I recently stayed in four different hotels in Cape Town, London and Zurich, just a few days apart. On the first trip to Cape Town and the fourth trip to Zurich, our client had generously booked me in rather expensive, beautifully located and architecturally impressive venues that are part of a global American hotel group. The second hotel, the City Lodge in Cape Town was far more modest with fewer facilities. The third hotel was the Shaftsbury Hotel in Bayswater, London, and because I was paying for it myself, I had chosen it because of it’s reasonable nightly rate. The two cheapest hotels offered me a far better experience.

Let’s begin with the victim-staffed expensive hotel first. I arrived at about 1 p.m., tired, but fully expecting to be treated like royalty. After all, this was a five-star hotel, wasn’t it? The queue at the long, but under-manned check-in counter was slow, but when I eventually got to the front, a very cold and indifferent young man, who had been warm and charming to the previous guests who were the entire crew from a Lufthansa flight, informed me that my room was not ready. (How could this be, in a hotel with 483 rooms, costing about $US400 per night, and a check-out time two hours earlier at 11.00 a.m.?)

I tried to ignore my fatigue and hide my disappointment, and he suggested that I return in an hour. He didn’t suggest what I should do in that hour, didn’t offer me any alternative, nor even a complementary drink or a newspaper. (The porter did, however, almost indecently-quickly snatch my luggage but only in anticipation of a later tip.)

I walked across to the V & A Waterfront Mall and grabbed some lunch, visited a bookshop, and returned 90 minutes later at 2.30 p.m. Another clerk informed me that there was still no room available, and this time I expressed my anger. They had had three-and-a-half hours warning – and still insisted that the room wasn’t ready yet? The hostile check-in clerk punished me for complaining by putting me into a room without a view about ten floors further down that was ready.

It didn’t matter that the room was quite one of the best I have ever stayed in, that the bed was enormous and very comfortable, that the facilities were just magnificent, and there was WiFi, for a fee.) I was furious, too angry and too tired to notice.

As a diabetic, I wanted to use the fridge to pack my water, fruit and medicines, but discovered that there are sensors in the fridge which detect whenever you pick up one of their enormously expensive cold-drinks – and this sophisticated system immediately charges your account. In a room that costs almost R5000 per night?! I just couldn’t believe that this was happening to me.

The next morning, my negative impressions of the hotel and it’s awful staff were confirmed. I went to the first floor where, as indicated on various signs, the conference rooms were located. I was there rather early at 7.30 a.m., (to prepare for my presentation,) but nobody was able or willing to inform me in which of the dozen-odd rooms we were supposed to be. I saw a security guard and a bartender talking, interrupted them, and their response could not have been less helpful.

Eventually another customer said that there were more (not signposted) conference rooms in the basement, and it turned out that this is where I was supposed to be. When I got there close to 7:45 a.m. the signage was non-existent, and kitchen staff were still setting up coffee, biscuits and snacks for an 8.00 a.m. start. I asked one young lady for a cup of coffee, and she looked at me as if I had asked for a miracle. I won’t go into the sad saga of my check-out two days later, except to say my last impression was really negative because the entire crew of the Lufthansa flight got there seconds before I did, and it took another twenty minutes.

Now contrast this with my next hotel, the City Lodge, where I moved in for a more reasonable R937 per night. Yes, the room and facilities were more humble and unassuming, and I only had a ground-floor view of the back end of a golf course.

But it took me six minutes to get from the parking lot to settling into my room, including check-in, payment, and a stop at the bar for some ice. Both check-in staff at the reception counter were courteous, friendly and efficient, and asked me about my trip and my work.

I told them that I had a speech to do that night, and, as I returned to the reception area at about 6:00 p.m. on my way to the car, Roger, the young lad perched behind the desk asked if I would be having dinner. I said no, (since I don’t like eating before a speech,) and the look of consternation on his face was quite fantastic.

“But Sir,” said Roger, “You can’t miss dinner!”

I grinned and said I’d be okay, but he was insistent. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, reaching under the counter. “Here is a Mr. Delivery booklet. They close at ten tonight, so why don’t you ‘phone them at about quarter to ten, and they will deliver here. I’ll pay them and we can sort it out later."

Roger had such an expectant look on his face, and had tried so hard, that I took the booklet and decided what I would order later, not wanting to disappoint him.

Early the next morning, he was on duty again, and as we finalised the check-out, he told me that he’d already checked that the time of my flight was as scheduled, and did I know how to get to the airport. As I confirmed everything, he took out a branded brown paper bag with two muffins and an apple for my breakfast, and bade me bon voyage. Fantastic! Roger was definitely my hero of the week.

I spent two days at home, and then jetted off again to London. I arrived at Heathrow on an overnight flight that landed at 5:30 a.m. It was pouring with rain, but that was no problem since everything was sheltered all the way through to Bayswater Tube Station in central London. At the station, I wondered if I should open the suitcase to get my raincoat and brolly out, but since Google Maps indicated that the Shaftsbury Hotel was about 120m from the station, I decided to run for it.

By the time I arrived, I was soaked through to my underwear and socks! As I walked in to the reception, dripping all over the floor, Deepak, the young man behind the desk took one horrified look at me, and in a distinctly Indian accent said, “Oh, no! You are going to catch a cold! Come in quickly while I get some warm towels.” He disappeared for a few seconds, and the brought me three warm and fluffy white towels to dry myself. He clucked over me like a mother hen, and when I looked and felt slightly better than my bedraggled state a few minutes before, he pointed to a huge bowl of sweets and chocolates on the counter and said, “Please, help yourself. Take as many as you want to.”

It wasn’t yet 7:00 a.m., and I already felt a million times better.

I then explained that I knew I was there way before check-in time, but would it be okay for me to leave my baggage with him while I went out, and I would return later to check in. Deepak said, “Before we do that, please tell me your name.” I told him and he typed it into his computer.

Then he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said: “Today is your lucky day. Your room is ready!” Less than three minutes later I was in my nice warm and beautiful room, and ready for a warm shower. I had a wonderful stay over the next few days.

Later in my visit I met the General Manager of the hotel, Suzanne, and I expressed my delight at Deepak’s performance while congratulating her on the way the hotel was managed. She was almost embarrassed by my praise, and asked how long I was going to stay.

It just so happened that I would be going to Zurich for one night for a training session with a client, and I would return to the Shaftbury for a few more days. “So,” I said to her, I’m checking out tomorrow, and will be back on Thursday for another two nights."

Her response nearly knocked me down! She said, “Please don’t bother to pack your stuff and check out. Just leave everything you don’t need for Switzerland in your room, and we’ll look after it. And of course we won’t charge you for that extra night.”

What a great spirit of generosity she displayed!

Looking forward to my return, I flew to Zurich late one afternoon, and took a shuttle bus to the hotel in town. (It was also an expensive hotel, in the same global group as the Cape Town hotel.) As I arrived, I noticed a little hot dog stand just around the corner, and decided that this would be what I would have for dinner, and have an early night. The check-in was simple and efficient, albeit somewhat cold and formal, and I popped into my room, unpacked, and made my way downstairs again.

In the elevator, I suddenly realised I only had SA Rands and British Pounds with me, so I went to the desk, and asked the same lady, who had checked me in just a few minutes before, if I could exchange my currency for some Swiss Francs.

“Oh no,” she replied, “I’can’t do that.”

A bit taken aback, I asked her why not. She said, “Because it’s against the rules.” We argued about that for a bit, and I think she may have even agreed that the rules were silly, so I asked her what she suggested I should do.

She thought for a few seconds, and then said I could visit the hotel shop and buy something, and they would give me change in Swiss Francs. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but I reluctantly went to the shop, found the cheapest item I could buy, (a bottle of water,) and paid with the highest denomination of Pounds in my wallet. The shop assistant was clearly upset, and gave me back my change with a sort of “Harrumph.” I did consider telling her that I had changed my mind, and could she refund me for the water, but decided that discretion was the better part of valour, so escaped as soon as I could.

To this day, I cannot explain why this world-famous hotel chain, with hundreds of hotels all over the world, does this to it’s guests.

Here are some lessons:

  • First, walk in the shoes of your customers. Notice things about them and respond. If someone arrives at your hotel to check in, for example, you can be pretty sure that they have just been on a journey and they are tired and perhaps disoriented. Customers tend to give us rather obvious clues about how they are feeling, and it’s the heroes that notice them, while the victims couldn’t care.
  • Second, if you are a manager, train your people to take care of customers, and give them good reasons to be less like victims and more like heroes. Celebrate and recognise people like Roger and Deepak.
  • Third, offer your customers a better deal than your price suggests: If you are expensive, then you had better be sure that your product and service expensive matches the deal. If your price is more reasonable, then it’s the little bits of extra attention, the small surprises, and a generous attitude that can make the world of difference to your customer’s loyalty. But a great product is never, ever, enough to cancel out the effects of a bad service experience. You can’t put whipped cream on garbage.
  • Fourth, stop being such a big deal. If you cannot be courteous and warm towards customers, if you find it impossible to smile a bit and be helpful and responsive to their needs, go find a job in another industry.
  • Fifth, challenge every rule in your business all of the time, and constantly look at the dumb things that cause customer unhappiness. If you make the lives of your customers difficult, they will punish you. But if you make it almost effortless to deal with your business, they will return again and again, paying more, bringing their friends, and doing whatever it takes to demonstrate their loyalty. Look for opportunities that make it easier on a physical level, an intellectual/onceptual level, and an emotional level, and do whatever you can to help them avoid wasting their time.(This is also good for the members of your team, because they don’t have to spend emotional energy to do things that just don’t make sense to customers.)

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