Every Customer Is Special

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Okay. Let's talk about hotels. More specifically, let's talk about 1) good service vs. bad service, and 2) what hotels do to create a memorable guest experience (for better or for worse).

As you know, I just got back from a week long trip to California, and I had the opportunity to stay at three fairly well-priced hotels while I was there.

1. The Standard - Downtown L.A.
2. The Sheraton Anaheim
3. The Radisson LAX

Three completely different hotels with different concepts... and very different experiences. One great, one average, and one shamefully bad.

First, let's talk about the standard, because it deserves some kudos.

The first thing you have to know about the standard is that it's hip. Did you happen to catch that little caption from the L.A. times just an inch above this line? "A hotel Austin Powers would love." I can't think of a better way of describing it.

Second, it's right smack in the middle of Los Angeles (and actually on a fairly clean and posh block at that.)

Third, from the moment you roll your suitcases through the lobby, you know this isn't Best Western or the Holiday Inn Express (no offense). The lobby looks, feels and sounds like an Austin Powers inspired lounge. If you happen to check in after dark, you'll be rolling your bags through a posh party of very hip people and live music so good you'll want to come right back down after you've dropped off your bags, just to hang out and take it all in.

The registration process takes less than three minutes. There is never a line. You're taken care of, given a very cool little key card (which I kept as a memento), and sent on your way with a pleasant (but perfectly aloof smile) from the subtly dismissive chic young front desk team.

Let me make this very clear, because we'll come back to this later: The front desk team doesn't argue with you about anything. They are pleasant, efficient, and part of the experience. They make you feel special, but they also make you feel that you are special just by staying at this unique hotel. It's subtle, but it works. Think slightly snooty but very polite French waiter... only Los Angeles style and much younger.

Now... let me ask you this: When was the last time you were actually giddy about checking into a hotel? When was the last time you walked into an elevator just dying to see what the next cool little surprise would be? Seriously. This hotel manages to do just that.

Less than five minutes after parking your car or getting out of your cab, you're already completely sold on the experience of this hotel. Every step you take is a discovery. Everywhere you look is a detail that makes you either smile or chuckle or say to yourself "cool idea."

The room numbers are marked on fake red and white name tags, which is kind of a cute touch. The rooms are decently sized, and like nothing you're used to:

#1: The bathrooms either sit completely open in the middle of the room or are encased in glass. In other words, you're not going to get any privacy from whomever is sharing the room with you... which is kind of the charm of the place. (Remember the whole Austin Powers thing? Okay.) It might not be my parents' cup of tea, but if you're looking for something different and WOM worthy, this is definitely a highlight.

#2: The bed is so low to the ground, it's kind of a Swedish Zen giant party beanbag kind of thing, which lends itself to the party-in-your-room atmosphere of the place. It also makes the room look a lot more spacious.

#3: The furniture and wall decor are right out of dwell or an Ikea catalog.

#4: The toilet paper has a little sticker of a stick man taking a #2 break, which is hilarious.

#5: Above the safe and minibar is a little basket of goodies that includes everything from music CDs, coloring books, fashion magazines, wasabe peanuts and even a bottle of bubble bath.

#6: The soap is wonderful and the little medical-looking cross on it kind of adds an element of mystery to its origins. (It's almost as if there's an untold story there that's worth investigating.)

The vibe of this hotel is just fun. It's relaxed. Unlike many of its guests, it doesn't take itself too seriously. (If the Standard has one flaw, it is that it attracts poseurs in droves.) It offers all of the comforts of home with all the extra style sizzle. It makes you feel like you're staying somewhere very special. Every inch of this hotel put a smile on my face. Their restaurant makes fantastic food. The waitresses' go-go boots are a fun touch. It's clockwork, it's painless, and it delivers on all of its promises.

And all of this for just $99 a night.

Yep. $99. Really.

See... I'd expect to pay $160+ (and you can most definitely pay that and more if you want to), but at a starting price of $99 a night, you just can't beat this.

There's also a super cool bar on the roof with a pool, waterbeds, and movies projected onto the wall of a building across the street just because it'll give you something else to talk about months after you've checked out. The full gym has a giant mural showing the starting line of a 70's nudist bike race (hilarious) and framed photos of classic kitch TV and movie icons like Rambo, The Incredible Hulk, Conan The Barbarian and Wonder Woman.

The big question is: Would I stay there again? Now that I've "been there, done that," will I be a repeat customer?

The answer is 100% yes. Next time I'm in L.A., I will most assuredly book a room there again, only next time, I might look into a bit of an upgrade. The next room up is $125, so I'll be checking out that package. Not only that, but now I am curious about the Hollywood version. There are also standard hotels in NYC and Miami... So guess where I'll be staying next time I'm in either of those cities.

That $99 room? It's brilliant. There's no excuse not to stay there, and once they have you, you're hooked. Every hotel after that is just... boring.

One of the cool things about the standard is that it makes you want to let other people experience it. Friends, co-workers, family members, spouse... You want them all to spend at least one night there. It's that cool. This place is all about WOM. Every last detail is specifically designed to make you love it. Even if you hate it, you'll still talk to everyone you meet about the cool things you experienced there during your stay.

Okay, so now that we've talked about everything that's right about a hotel, let's talk about everything that's wrong about a hotel. And just so you understand that I am not ragging specifically on Sheraton hotels (or even on the specific Anaheim property I am about to use as an example), I will go ahead and state that what I have experienced there is pretty typical of most hotel chains whose names we've all heard before.

Okay. Ready?

Strike 1: After two wonderful nights at the standard, I pull into the Sheraton Anaheim only to find out that I have to pay for parking.

Um... in downtown L.A., fine. Okay. But in Anaheim, in an open lot, nope. Bad call. Very bad call. Either charge more for the rooms or make parking free, but don't surprise travelers with this kind of underhanded little trick. (Hint: It isn't a good way to start your relationship with weary travelers. They aren't in the mood, and they all see it as a rip-off.)

Look at it this way: You're penalizing your guests for parking at your hotel. Clever? Not.

Besides, even without an extra parking fee, the "closed gate" thing is a big turnoff. At least, make your gate look cool... or disguise it as a security measure. Don't just install ugly, bland and scuffed-up "push-the-button-and-grab-a-ticket" stations in the entrances. It give the lot a kind of cheap half-way house vibe that just makes me want to turn around and never come back.

Strike 2: Once you get inside, you're of course greeted by a long line and an understaffed front desk. (This is the case all day and at any time of night.) Either streamline the process or let your guests wait in the empty foyer where a waitress can offer them a complementary drink while they wait in comfortable seats. (What a concept!)

Strike 3: Once it's finally your turn to check in, you're waved along by an obviously bored and irritated desk clerk who only makes eye contact with you if and when he has to. Again, not good. At $200+ per night, I think I'm more than just a number, thank you.

Actually, at $99 a night, I'm still quite sure that I'm a lot more than a number. So here's the deal: If a 19-year-old kid with a fauxhawk and a trendy little suit can call me Mr. Blanchard and shoot the bull with me at the standard, you can at least pretend to be pleasant and enthused about working at the Sheraton.

Strike 4: (Yeah, they keep coming.) Here's where things get fun. Your reservations are screwed up, and even through the smart thing for Mr. happy desk clerk to do is just to take care of the problem and make you feel like you're in good hands, he prefers to argue with you.

"You were expected yesterday" he says. "We're going to have to charge you for last night's stay." (Still no eye contact.)

_ (Pause.) Huh? Nonono. Those reservations were changed two weeks ago. Here's the confirmation number.

Upon giving the confirmation number a cursory look, he sighs and types it into his little computer. "I'm sorry sir, but it's not in our system. I'll need to see an ID and a credit card please."

_ Well... I wouldn't know anything about your system. All I know is that this was taken care of weeks ago, and I was given this number. I actually spoke with someone. (And unlike you, she was pleasant.)

"That number isn't in our system. Do you remember the name of the person you spoke with?"

_ Would it help?

"Not really, no."

_ Right. Maybe I need to speak with a manager.

"I don't think it will help, sir," the clerk says, eyes fixed on his screen, typing... something.

_ Well, I think it'll help. And I need this taken care of before I check in, because I'm not going to have an extra night's stay charged to my card.

Long story short: Fifteen minutes later, still no manager of any kind. I finally check in and am told that someone will get in touch with me within the hour.

Above: Science fiction. Take away the tree branch framing the top of the image. Push the dresser back against the wall. Get rid of the extra couch that mysteriously appeared in the forefront, turn the table sideways, get rid of the flowers and the tea set, and you'll have a more realistic version of the room. Nice try.

Strike 5: Nobody gets in touch with me. Four days later, I finally find out that it was taken care of because the "missing" night is not charged to my bill (of course).

Hint: If you're going to tell me that you're going to do something, do it. Period. End of story.

This was absolutely the WRONG way for the hotel to handle this. It was their mistake to begin with. It was an easy fix. What could possibly have possessed a desk clerk to want to argue with me about something as simple and easy to fix as this? Was the missing night's charge going to come out of his paycheck? Was he going to have to spend his lunch sitting by himself in the silent corner? No.

Here's a tip: The customer is always right. Especially when he is.

So now I'm annoyed by the undisclosed parking fee AND the fifteen or so minutes I just wasted arguing with someone whose job it is (at least in theory) to help make my stay at the Sheraton Anaheim a pleasant one. By the time I finally reach my room, the little brochure waiting for me on the bed telling me that whatever I find wrong with my stay, "we'll make it right" sounds pretty damn hollow.

Will I recommend Sheraton to my friends? Nope. So far, my experience has basically sucked. Two days ago, I spent $99 per night and got treated like a movie star. Today, I spent twice that, got argued with and was basically - for lack of a better term - "processed".

The room was blah. The lobby was blah. The bar was blah. The bathroom was blah (and tiny). the only cool thing was the bed, which I admit was very comfortable... but that's about the only positive thing I have to say about this hotel.

Should I complain about the lousy gift shop? Nah. No need. Save yourselves the hassle and do not stay at this hotel. There are plenty of great properties in Anaheim that will be happy to take care of you (and we'll talk about some of them in a later post).

Hotel #3: The Radisson, LAX.

You know what? Anything is an improvement after the Sheraton Anaheim.

The Radisson actually had a cool lobby and exterior, it has a penthouse bar, it's a block from the airport, the rooms are kind of big, and it's about equal in quality to the Sheraton... Only it's $89 per night, which is exactly the right pricepoint for this level of quality.

Oh, and the parking lot didn't feel like a prison.

So what have we learned today, boys and girls?

1) It's all in the details.

2) A good hotel takes good care of its guests. A bad hotel makes its guests jump through hoops and treats them like annoying little children.

3) "Same as" chains suck because they provide ZERO value. Even the higher priced properties are starting to lose ground in my book.

Look. The rule is simple: Every customer is special. Every customer is either a repeat customer and an advocate for your hotel (and chain) or an antiadvocate who will spend the rest of his or her life telling everyone they know about the lousy experience they had at one of your locations.

Until the standard does something to turn me off, I'm their biggest fan. The Sheraton, however... They've lost my business, and I will be sure to tell everyone who will listen to pick another chain for their next trip.

What's interesting is that it only took one person - one contact point - to turn what would have been a mildly annoying but otherwise boring experience into a "never again" misadventure.

One person. In a competitive economy with dozens of brands to choose from, that's all it takes.

You're only as good as your last success.

You can't afford to treat even a single customer badly. Not one.

Attention to details, folks. That's what it's about. First, craft a memorable user experience (make sure it's memorable for the right reasons). Second, hire the right people for the right job. Third, articulate the role they play in that experience and make sure they understand the importance of empathy, of hospitality, and of good manners. Fourth, repeat after me:

The customer is always right. Especially when he is.

Make people say nice things about you. I don't care what it takes. If you don't single-handedly generate positive WOM on a constant basis, you're already losing ground.

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