Walk to it and take the elevator up to the "Encounter" restaurant. The elevator ride alone is worth the trip: The ceiling lights up and the Star Trek-esque 60's inspired space opera music that comes on is a really funny touch. (see left of the page.)
Once upstairs, you'll be treated to very friendly service, an incredible view of L.A.'s skyline, front row seats to of one of the world's most famous landing strips, a fantastic menu, and a very unique and WOM-worthy dining experience.
The decor is right out of an Austin Powers flick: (I know... I detect a pattern. Shhh.) It's half Star Trek (the original series), half Moonraker. Not what you'd expect right up against an airport. Again, I expected to pay a lot more for my meal than I did, but the prices were very reasonable, the food came fast, and it was delicious. (The tuna tartare is top notch.)
What did these guys do right?
1) They built a super cool restaurant within walking distance of an international airport terminal.
2) They put crazy music and lights in the elevator, just to get you in the right mood before you even step through their doors for a complete immersive experience.
3) They can seat you immediately.
4) There isn't a bad table anywhere. The view is always fantastic.
5) The menu is fun and the prices are perfect.
6) The waiters are fast and friendly.
7) The restaurant is so cool that even if the food were average, you'd still want to tell all of your friends about it.
8) It's unique, and being there makes you feel like you're enjoying something very special.
9) Oh yeah, I almost forgot... nobody argued with me there.
So here's the little lesson of the day:
The minute a customer access your website, calls your toll-free number, walks into one of your locations or opens a box with your mark printed on it, the experience begins. This isn't something you can leave to chance. You have to think about every little detail. You have to know what will make your customers smile and what will make them frown. You have to anticipate that there will be problems and that customers will look to you to fix these problems for them. How you deal with these situations is as much a part of the experience as anything else. Perhaps more so.
If a customer leaves angry, you will never see them again. They will drag your name in the dirt, and your reputation within their sphere of influence will be destroyed. For every customer you lose, they take perhaps ten more with them. Twenty. A hundred. Possibly more. Families. Communities. Corporations. You never know the impact that one person's negative campaign against you will have. Ultimately, nobody wins. Your business loses revenue and gets bad publicity. Your customer leaves angry and frustrated. It's just bad business.
Crafting a positive customer experience isn't rocket science. Mostly, it's about attention to details and about showing that you care. That's it. It is never about going the extra mile. The extra mile concept is a myth. It's more like going the extra inch: A twist of lemon in a glass instead of a wedge. An extra two seconds to call a customer by her name. An extra three calories burned to produce a friendly smile. An extra thirty seconds to upgrade a frustrated guest to a better room or a better table just because they had to wait longer than they should have. A friendly "sure, let me do that for you" instead of a "No, you'll need to take this piece of paper to the third floor and fill out a request form."
It doesn't have to be about flat screen TVs above the urinals and Champagne fountains in the atrium. Most of the time, it's simply about treating customers with respect, kindness and care. People just want to be taken care of. They don't want to have to deal with rules and bureaucracy and disappointment. They just want to have a pleasant experience and then have fun telling their friends about it.
Listen to your customers. Get to know them. I mean... really. Not just through online surveys. Actually sit down with them. Buy them a drink. Find out what they're about. What they like and dislike. What they'd like to see you do a little better. Say "yes" to them more. Make it impossible for them not to love your products, your services, your brand. Make them excited about doing business with you. Their ideas might actually save you money. You just won't know until you've talked to enough of them.
You can do it.
Really, you can.
And you should.
Okay, I've rambled enough for one day. Go have some fun or something.
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.
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).
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.
First, the window spaces can be individually customized (transparent, translucent, wooden slats, etc.) so you can strategically keep your nosy neighbors out of your biz without sacrificing precious light or a killer view.
Second, the use of space inside this thing is nothing short of pure genius. It's wide open, every section flows into the next, and the furniture works to tie it all together as simply and comfortably as possible.
Third, (see below) the showerhead swings through the wall partition to water the plant. (How cool is that?!)
Fourth, (also below) the bathroom faucet swings throught its wall partition to double as a kitchen sink faucet. (Seriously. The coolness knows no end.)
Fifth... see those soothing little white rocks on the ground? They absorb moisture under the shower and the bathroom sink to help keep the floor dry. (Now why didn't I think of that?!?!?!?!)
Sixth, this thing can be built on a rooftop or in a backyard or by a swimming pool... or just anywhere you want.
I've seen modular dwellings before, but this one kind of rocks my world. It's pure design genius. Simple, beautiful, efficient... I'm in lurve. It's like, the ultimate guest house/loft/pod/lounge, all rolled into a stylish little package...
... and the perfect Christmas present for yours truly.
That's right: Either you are authentic or you are bogus. Period. End of story. There is no such thing as 75% authentic.
Authentic = trustworthy. Mess with people's trust, sell-out your brand's reputation to cut corners, and you will lose customers in droves.It doesn't take people long to lose their faith in something nowadays, especially when that something comes from a corporate entity. This is in great part why word-of-mouth is so appealing a concept: Because it is peer-based, it promises to be authentic.
Still doubting the power of WOM? Still coming up with reasons why you can't design the best possible product?
If a used car dealership can do it, surely anyone can. Case in point: Carmax. (No, it isn't stylish or sexy, but it works:)
"I don't know of any other dealership where you can test drive a used car, in excellent condition, and not have to go through a hard sell sales pitch, or a torturous bargaining phase when you decide to purchase it. The no-bargain price is right on the vehicles, and is often quite a bargain.
"Additionally, if you decide within five days of your purchase that it was not the right car for you, you can return it for a full refund, regardless of how much you drove it (and yes, I have actually tested this out) with no reason needed beyond simply that you didn't like the car.
"Their Service Centers also seem to be squeaky clean and very impressive. They seem to be the elusive Car Dealership with a Conscience."
Check out the full story here.
Before the cool ad campaigns, the TV spots, POP displays, the trade show displays, the press releases, the cool packaging, the WOM facilitation... before all of that, you need a cool product.
Cool comes in many flavors: Sometimes, it's something radically stylish and revolutionary like the iPod (or T&S' upcoming drink dispenser... ahem). Sometimes, it's "knock your socks off" customer service or a fantastic story or a moving photo essay or a life-changing art exhibit. It can be the most cleverly designed roof rack or the fastest time-trial bike or the lightest kayak paddle. It doesn't matter what the product is. No matter how you look at it, successful branding always starts with a product.
Not just a product, but a very well-designed product.
Ask yourself this: What if you completely got rid of advertising, catalogs and company websites... What if all of the promotional stuff we are so used to were suddenly gone? What would you be left with?
Answer: Your product, your brand's reputation, and word-of-mouth.
So... what is your reputation? Where do you stand against your would-be competitors? Are your products smarter? Tougher? Softer? Faster? Are you known as a cool innovator? Are you a pain to deal with when it comes to dealing with warranty or service? Do your customers recommend you to their friends or make a point of steering them away from you? If so, why? So what are you going to do about it?
We're only scratching the surface here, but you get the point. It all begins with the product's design. No matter how cool your packaging is, how dead-on your concept is and how hot the celebrity endorsing it may be, if your fragrance isn't appealing, you aren't going to get many repeat customers.
If the cars you make look great, have fantastic features but burn out their electrical systems after 35,000 miles, guess what? Even your most hardcore drivers are going to think twice about buying one of your cars again.
If your $300 faucets start leaking after only three months...
Well, you get the picture.
Design your customer-service touch-points better than everyone else, and your customers will reward you. (Your competitors' customers will soon reward you as well.) Build a better car or a better razor or a better computer, and you'll see what happens pretty quickly, with or without advertising.
For better or for worse, especially now that the planet is more connected than ever, word-of-mouth spreads like wildfire. Do something wrong, get slack, cut corners, and no amount of advertising will save you. Do something right - and be consistent about doing something right - and you'll be rolling in puppies.
If I wanted to be boring, I would tell you that your product is the foundation of your brand. That it's the big fat boulder that your success is based on. Blah blah blahblah... The truth is that your product is more like the epicenter of your brand. Why? because your brand isn't static. It's always moving outward, towards more and more people. Once the shockwave of a new product launch begins, those ripples get moving. And just like you can't unspill milk, you can't unripple a ripple. You can try, but you can't. Every product launch puts your reputation on the line. Every ad. Every press release. Every change in packaging or manufacturing or design. Every change you make unstills the water and reaches out to the rest of the world.
That's why brandbuilding starts at the beginning of the product development cycle, not at its end. Everything that goes into the development of a product, whether it is an mp3 player, a zombie flick, a handbag, a sports drink, a magazine or a faucet - before the designer's pencil ever graces a sheet of paper with its first rough sketch - has to take into account the brand's strengths and weaknesses and relevance. The product managers, designers, manufacturing engineers and marketing gurus have to understand where they are, where they have been, and where they want to go. They have to ask themselves: Will this look, feel, smell, perform and inspire like an Apple product? Like a BMW product? Like a Michelin product? Will this meet the expectations of our customers, or will it exceed them? Will this cement our position for another year, or will it elevate it?
Before. Not after.
If you aren't a BMW or an Apple, maybe the questions will be more along the lines of: Will this help us reconnect with the customers we lost? Will this restore their faith in us? Will this get them excited about who we are again? Will this finally pull us out of the shadow of our established competitors?
If the answer is no, how do we get there? What are we missing?
All too often, companies will turn to strategic partners (usually marketing firms, ad agencies or Identity companies) once a product has already been developed. The dynamic is pretty-much "Here! We have this product and we want to sell it (or sell it to more people). Help us."
Okay, so there's really nothing wrong with that. If what you're looking for is a killer marketing strategy, great ads, pub coverage and all kinds of cool POP and promo stuff, you can definitely get your money's worth. But what if you didn't wait until your product was pretty-much designed and ready to go into production? What if you didn't wait until sales had been kind of flat for six months?
What if you brought them in before your designers' pencils ever hit paper? What if you were to let them help you make sure that your product itself - not just everything around it - were the embodiment of everything you want your brand to be?
Design think-tanks like IDEO and FROG embrace this concept all the way by completely taking over the conceptualizing, design, prototyping and testing of products and systems for client companies. (If you aren't familiar with their work, check them out. You'll be astounded at the number of products you have in your house right now that were developed there, starting with the computer mouse.) They have been so amazingly succesful at it that they have now reached cult-like status. But hiring a full-on design juggernaut isn't always the answer (or financially feasible). Most of the time, companies that already have very good products to their names have the resources to create more. All they might be lacking is that little extra bit of insight.
And that's where creative companies working as strategic partners come in. Most manufacturers don't have anthropologists on staff. They don't have human factors specialists or curiosity officers to help product managers, engineers and business development execs. translate sometimes ethereal customer needs into (first) specific design elements, (second) a relevant brand language, and (third) a complete customer-brand experience.
Real strategic partners act more as interpreters than teachers. Their wisdom comes from living in the village, not on the mountain top or in the classroom. Find them. Invite them in for tea. Let them spend the night and tell you stories by the fire. Let them inspire you and guide you and enrich your company with their bag of ancient magical weapons: creativity, imagination, marketing savvy, behavioral science, and most importantly: insight.
If insight had mass, it would be worth its weight in gold.
Here's a tip: Branding shouldn't start when a product ad is released. It shouldn't start when a marketing campaign is implemented. It shouldn't begin with the creation of clever packaging or when a mark gets burned onto a product, or when a customer service representative gets his new script. It really starts with the product itself, with the very first brainstorming session, when input from customers first get discussed by a project team. That's when it begins, and that's brand-building's ground-zero.
If everything about your brand ripples outward, and at the epicenter of your brand - of your reputation, of your image and ultimately of your success - is your product, then you need to realize the importance that insight plays in the process that brings this product to life.
Every shock wave needs a trigger. A catalyst. And that catalyst is people: Engineers, creatives, listeners, curious Georges, artists, writers, mathematicians, designers, philosophers, anthropologists, product users, historians, poets and problem-solvers. These are the people who will turn a chunk of metal into not only a work of art, but a product that will inspire awe and love and want.
These are the people who will help turn something as precarious as an interaction between a frustrated customer and a customer service rep. into three-minute of toll-free bliss.
These are the people who can make anything transcend its "sum-of-its-parts" banality into an extraordinary experience.
Think about iPod. Think about the Starbucks cup of coffee. Think about the Palm V. Think about every iconic innovative breakthrough that has changed the way we live and work and travel and play. Every single one without fail startedwith a group of people from diverse backgrounds sitting in a room together to listen to each other talk about how to address a need.
This happens at the beginning of a product's design cycle, not at the end.
Anyone can do this. You could be an international corporation or a one-person company. It doesn't matter.
Think about where you are today. Does your product truly embody the spirit of your brand? Does your brand live and breathe and grow with every new customer?
Imagine you couldn't afford advertising. Imagine you couldn't print catalogs or publish a website or create POP displays. Imagine the only way you could promote your product were through word-of-mouth. What would people say about it? What would they say about you? Who would you be?