When Customer Service is so Forgettable, It’s Memorable

Tourism Accommodation Australia‘s analysis of hotel construction activity indicates that Australia will be home to 272 new hotels offering as many as 45,000 additional rooms in the next 6 years. That is an average of 7,500 rooms a year – or more than 20 new rooms per day – of technologically enhanced spaces, designed for today’s customers’ desire for on-demand practicality and connected, engaging experiences.

I wondered how an old dame of the 5 star hotel sector would stack up to my actual and imagined experiences of the new generations hotels that have been recently opened or announced. Last week, I had half an hour to spare and was passing a hotel where I had spent a couple of years of my hospitality career. Time for a coffee before my next appointment nearby.

I have been trying to forget that visit ever since.

Two impeccably groomed doormen stood at attention as I approached. “Good morning,” said one. “Good morning,” I replied back and continued towards the lobby.

“Sorry?” I didn’t catch what the second doorman had said to my retreating back, so I retraced my steps back outside.

“Is there something I can assist you with?” he repeated.

‘No, I’m fine, thank you,” I told him and turned to re-enter the building.

“Keep smiling,” he said.

“Odd,” was my first thought, before a faint sour aroma of past similar comments floated up through my memory. Words of such ilk, when spoken by older men, usually accompanied by patriarchal, patronising attitudes borne of their ideal women to be innocuously pleasant.

Like other vague annoyances, it hovered for a short moment at the periphery of my consciousness before dissipating in the face of my main goal of a coffee.

A server directed me to the bistro bar, where I had once served customers. The room was dingy – perfect if it had been for a 6PM drink, but at 10.30 the lighting gave the room a mildly depressing feel. Absent from the seating process – one in which I have trained people hundreds, if not thousands of times – were all the key components: the welcome, the invitation to enter, the offer of seating. The transaction that did take place was purely functional: I was directed to a table (not a brighter one next to the window that I would have preferred, but oh well); and asked for my order.

That seat put me in perfect earshot of the staff talking to each other as they went about their tasks. The coffee itself was unremarkable. That is, until I went to pay for it. Then, I discovered it was remarkably expensive.

The whole visit was forgettable and should have been forgotten.

Until that doorman made sure it was not. I spotted him and a mild sensation of unpleasantness flashed long enough that I gave him as wide a berth as the doorway allowed, walked briskly past while averting my gaze.

“Keep smiling,” he said. I turned. He was indeed speaking to me and looking at me expectantly. What do you say to that? “Thank you”? “You too?” There really is nothing, so I nodded slightly and kept walking.

Maybe it’s a small thing. Just a harmless comment, but it was thoughtless, irrelevant, uncalled for and just a generally nonsensical thing to say. Hardly the descriptors of exceptional service a 5 star hotel would wish to claim.

His comment was like other throwaway lines servers like to mindlessly brandish at customers: the ‘how’s your day?’ (their job is to ask, waiting for your answer not required); the ‘how are we today?’ (‘we’, who? I’m fine, but can’t speak for you); the ‘enjoy your day’ (I’d say thanks, but you’re already serving someone else).

They have nothing to do with service. The words are used as markers to demonstrate they have ‘served’ you.

These are not servers there for the customer. The customer is there for them, there to validate their positions. There to allow them to show that they ‘serve’.

It’s not just that the competition for the hotel customer is about to reach new levels of intensity. The new generation hotels are promising deeper, fuller, more encompassing experiences that invoke emotions of neighbourhood, home, wellness, local culture.

Legacy brands may be making the mistake of thinking ‘customer experience’ calls for little more than a brushing off of old customer service training. It isn’t. Smartphone-wielding customers have insatiable appetites for service that aren’t just about their functional needs. As one seasoned operator observed at an event I attended last week. you can deliver in full and on time, and that still won’t necessarily count as a service achievement

Service delivery and the brands behind them need make contact with customer inner ideals – that’s why it’s called customer experience.

Customer experience is the understanding of why a customer visits. It is an end-to-end, back-to-front, top-to-bottom, inside-out integration of all the functions, assets and technologies to support the people who contribute to customers having their ‘experiences’.

Offer anything less, and brands run the risk of being forgettable – or worse, memorable for how far they missed the mark.

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