This Hotel Brand “Gets” the Subtleties of Service

At my local retailers like Safeway and CVS, cashiers always ask, “Did you find everything you needed?” I have observed my own behavior: Often there was something I couldn’t find, but I gave up on it a few minutes ago. Most often, I just say, “Yes, I found everything,” because at this point I have moved on. The well-intentioned question is a throw-away. Sublime service is so much more than rehearsed lines with a smile. Some subtler listening skills are required. Hotels have been working hard to get this right.

In an interview with Skift, Mitzi Gaskins, JW Marriott’s global brand manager, describes a lovely way of training to service. The company has daily rehearsals of “service harmonies” (what a charming Zen term!) for staffers. One example was dubbed: be present, pause and recognize:

When you think about what a difference it makes when someone is passing you, say a housekeeper is passing you in a guest corridor, and you see them and they just say good morning and they keep walking. But if they actually stop, acknowledge you, say good morning, and then allow you to pass, then that’s a much more impactful experience. And it also allows the associate to read the cues of the guest if they need anything.

This approach recognizes that true service requires listening, not reciting. And that many opportunities for connection are lost in hallways. The best service is intangible, a feeling, an unexpected and unrehearsed gesture.

An aside: I saw one of my favorite hotel service gestures at the Shangri-La Toronto last winter. The doorman guided traffic through the lobby-front circular drive in frigid weather dressed in a long wool coat, a Mongolian fur hat, and leather mittens. As our shuttle pulled out into the street traffic, his mittened hand saluted us as if to say “Safe travels.” Small movement. It made an impression.

The High Stakes of Personalized Service

Imagine checking into your hotel room to find a beautiful pot of your favorite green tea, with a note from the general manager. It’s perfectly tailored for you: Your afternoon ritual is to take a break with tea, and you are delighted to find it waiting for you in your room.

At a meeting I recently attended, a travel company explained they were rolling out a loyalty program that asked customers for a wide array of their preferences, right down to the magazines they liked and type of wine. The plan was to surprise and delight—those traditional service goals. They would, from time to time, surprise their most valued customers with the magazine or wine or any of the other lifestyle preferences they had specified.

Technology and big data allow travel companies to personalize customer experience in ways never before possible. But that comes with risks.

The industry professionals who were at the meeting all agreed: “Great idea! That would be cool!” Yet every positive comment was followed by, “But you’d better be able to deliver.” Because the opposite of “surprise and delight” is “disappoint and alienate.” If customers come to expect a personal touch and if it’s not there or (even worse!) it’s In Style instead of Sports Illustrated, you’ve just blown it big time.

Expectations of personalization have risen dramatically. It’s what we all want as customers: to be recognized, to be treated as special and to get just what we want. As this tailored experience becomes more and more possible—even common—our expectations are so high that when they’re not met, our opinion of the company can drop even farther.

As a traveler, I am probably more forgiving than most. I know it’s almost impossible for airlines and hotels to get it right every single time. At the same time, I do notice that I have raised the bar higher than ever. Truth is, I like green tea and not black, and I will be more disappointed with black tea than none all. Be careful out there. Good intentions can only carry a loyalty program so far.

Should Hotel Personnel Be Fully “Present”?

In the last month I have stayed in a wide range of hotels–including a five-star resort, a four-star business hotel, a three-star big box new brand, and another that could only be described as a flashback to the ’80s (maybe no stars?). In each case I noticed something new on my radar: housekeeping staff engaged on their cell phones while doing their jobs. And it was a huge turn-off for me.

I want to be realistic. I know these workers are, in general, not doing this job because it’s their calling or passion. So it would be a lot ask that they be fully engaged. But in all cases, I dinged the hotel a little in my mind…with a little bigger hit to the five-star property perception than the ’80s relic. It has made me think about the illusion of service in a hotel. I realized I want to believe the staff is there, fully present, ready to serve (even if I know, deep down, that probably isn’t the case).

If I were a hotel company, I would prohibit (and enforce) use of personal phones during staff working hours. Is that unfair? Of is it all part of creating the service illusion?

Third time’s a charm

Gary Leff, knower of all things frequent flyer, swears that his most important tip is this: Hang Up, Call Back (HUCB). When a customer service agent doesn’t give you the answer you want–or even the answer you know to be true–politely say goodbye, dial again and hope for better results in the next call. Gary suggests trying at least three times before giving up.

Truth be told, this tip always seemed a little unbelievable to me. Customer service agents were all on the same page (literally: the manual), I thought. But I had occasion to put the tip to use this weekend. And now I’m a believer.

I faced a simple task: Cancel one night on a three-night reservation at a Hilton.

Call #1: The agent looked a moment at my reservation, muttered, “Hmmm,” (never a good sign) and told me she’d need to speak to a supervisor. We were then cut off. Coincidence or bad luck? I think not.

Call #2: The agent told me Hilton could not alter the reservation because it was made through a convention housing service. She provided me the housing service’s 800 number. So helpful! Not. The recording informed me I had just won a cruise (if I would stay on the line). Clearly the wrong number. Which is when I remembered Gary’s advice.

Call #3: After the agent told me the same story about the housing service and gave me the 800#, which I knew to be the bogus cruise prize phone number, I protested. I politely explained why I believed Hilton was actually the party that should change the reservation. She put me on hold to talk to her supervisor and eventually came back to tell me the reservation had been changed. Eureka. Lesson learned: Thank you, Gary!