I recently returned from staying at a 4.5 star luxury resort in Orlando, Florida for a long weekend with my husband. It was a much needed break for both of us. The facility is large and our room was well-appointed. The resort boasts one of the top golf academies in the country and has several gorgeous courses, pools and a lovely spa. Unlike most hotels in the area during spring break, this hotel was not chock full of college students, but mostly business travelers and those attending conferences or meetings at the hotel. From the sleeping late to the spa treatments, golf game and floating down the lazy river at the pool, our stay was great–until we tried to check out. And this is where all good things up to that point began to fade quickly from our memories as our experience took a nosedive.
Most companies seek the “Good to Great” scenario–improving upon their current performance. Still, sometimes things go wrong–and they become teachable moments, touch points for future excellence. The following scenario should be one of them–a story of how things went awry and SNAP! Just like that, a business has someone ranting about them on a blog post. And if the ranters are valued customers, that’s not good. In my case, the customer service meltdown occurred at the heart of where hotels interface with customers: the front desk.
From Good to Horrific
Checkout is like the easiest part of travel, right? You do express check out or head to the front desk for a quick review of the final bill. Sometimes you need to change a few things or clarify a couple of charges, but within minutes you have your bill and you and your roller bag and are on your way. That’s in a normal scenario. In a high touch, service oriented, luxury resort, you might even expect things to be a bit smoother – an extra smile or courtesy, people to move with a bit more efficient grace than usual.
That was NOT our experience. Here’s what happened to us:
As we left our room, we called for the valet to pull our rental to the front. While our bags were quickly loaded, my husband said he would just run inside to check the final bill and move some personal charges from his business card to his personal account. I stayed in the car to use the few minutes to check email and voicemail. After responding to email and voicemail, clearing out my email box completely, checking twitter and updating Facebook, I realized that my husband had not returned. Was he lost? Was there an emergency business call he had to take? It had been 40 minutes. FORTY MINUTES. I texted my husband: “hungry…sitting in car…” just in case he forgot where I was and that we hadn’t had lunch yet. “Still at desk. Still no bill. Incompetent staff.” I decided to go inside. I shut off the car, grabbed the keys and smiled nicely at the valet guy who really didn’t want me parked in the loading plaza. “Your front desk has taken 40 minutes to check us out and is still not done. I have to leave the car.” The valet guy smiled, apologized and offered to keep the key in case they needed to move the car in an emergency.
Inside, I found my husband, irritated, having been standing at the front desk for 45 minutes. The front desk clerk was new and unable to get anyone to help her reverse charges and put them on a different card, he tells me. Pretty simple, I say. He nods. Silently. He is not one to make a fuss, and although I prefer no fuss, I believe in customer service. For heaven’s sake, the man has been standing here for near on an hour. And I was waiting in the car. Clearly, someone needed to be communicating through this issue. “What’s going on?” I ask the clerk. She barely meets my eyes and says she is working on it. “It’s been almost an hour, ” I say. She doesn’t respond. “Is there someone who can help you?” I ask. No response. There is one other clerk working but he has a constant line of people he is checking out. It’s the busiest hour at the front desk,. the hour the hotel as deemed as the imperative check-out hour. “She’s been back three times to find someone to help her,” my husband tells me, his tone controlled, signaling his irritation. “Well, I’m going to the concierge desk,” I tell him. “Perhaps they can move this thing along.”
I walk across the white marble floor to the concierge desk, where two concierges are standing at the ready. “Are you a concierge?” I ask the woman behind the beautiful carved wooden desk. “Yes, I am,” she assures me with a smile. “And your job is to help people?” I ask. “Yes it is,” she says confidently. “Well, I need your help,” I tell her. I explain that my husband has been “checking out” of the hotel for going on an hour and the clerk is new, unable to handle the minor bill changes and unable to get assistance. The concierge looks at me, no longer smiling. “We were in a bit of a hurry, and thought if someone could help out, perhaps it would be you?” By this time, her colleague concierge was listening and without an additional word, picks up the phone to call the back office. Two minutes of ringing, no answer. The woman concierge goes to the other phone to call another office. In the meantime, my husband walks over. “She left, ” he says. “What?” Who left?” I ask. “The clerk. She just walked away. She didn’t say where she was going, she just left.” “You’ve got to be kidding,” I say. “I’m going to go sit over there,” he says, pointing to a comfortable looking chair across from the front desk area. “Hopefully, she will return and we won’t be stuck here.” The two concierges who have been on the phone without luck now both reconvene. I ask what is going on. “The managers are unavailable, at lunch,” I’m told. “All of them?” I ask, surprised. “Let me go see if I can find someone in the back office,” the concierge says. “Well, maybe you can find the clerk, too, as she has left the desk without a word to my husband as to where she went or why.” He hurries off. I tell the woman concierge that I will be sitting next to my husband when they find out, but before I walk away, the other concierge returns, informing me that the clerk and an assistant manager are working on the bill in the back room. I tell him where we will be sitting. My husband asks me to find some sustenance, since we haven’t had breakfast or lunch. I go in search of Starbuck’s and a muffin, anticipating that upon my return, all will be sorted. Nope. We sit. We wait. We drink coffee and share a muffin. I am thinking that I really wanted a nice salad and some soup. “How many charges did you have them change?” I ask. “Three,” he says. “Three single charges?” I clarify, thinking that maybe it was some huge transaction that might in some way garner an hour-long check out and a special backroom pow-wow. My husband looks at me and nods quietly. “She reversed them and credited them to a different card and then couldn’t figure out what to credit and debit to which cards. She’s provided me with three different bills–all of them wrong.”
At that moment, the young clerk, clearly flustered, walks over to my husband with the bills – one with his personal charges, one with his business charges. While they clarify yet again, I check my watch. It’s been an hour and a half. Not completely satisfied that he won’t see crazy charges on his cards, my husband agrees that this will do. I tell the clerk I’m glad that it’s been figured out but perhaps the hotel might want to feed us, since we’ve waited an hour and a half during lunch? The clerk laughs nervously and without a word, walks away. My husband and I look at each other. “Oh no, she di’int!” is what is running through my head. I stand up and walk over to the concierge’s desk. “It’s been sorted,” I say, “but it’s also taken an hour and a half of our time in the middle of our day. I asked the clerk if the hotel might want to buy us lunch and she laughed and walked away–but I was serious.” I stop and wait. The concierge looks at me and says that they don’t have the authority to do that, but that he would ask a manager. I wondered if he would have any better luck finding a manager for this task than that of sorting our bill. I told him where I would be sitting.
After a few minutes, a young woman walks over and introduces herself as the assistant manager and tells us that she is not the manager–that the manager is at lunch. She says she is glad they were able to help the clerk sort the bill. I agreed (although was thinking that her tone was a bit self-congratulatory about a job that was expected the resort should do in the first place and which they turned into a bungled mess), but reminded her that we had waited for an hour and a half and thought that since it was lunch and we had waited, famished, perhaps the hotel could pick up our lunch? “Sure,” she said, she thought they could do that. She told us what we should tell the restaurant in order to comp our lunch. As she started to walk away, I stopped her. “Do you have a card?” I asked. She went back to her office to get one.
Where’s the Beef?
If this were a business class in college, we might now ask the class where the hotel went wrong and what they could have changed, given the service failure taking place. If this was a one or two star hotel, we might expect the class to offer maybe a couple of ideas on how to make it right. But we would remind the class that this is a 4.5 star resort that touts itself as a luxury product for high-end customers. Service is key to their competitive advantage in a city that houses hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms. Service is their “beef”: along with beautiful amenities and a world-class golf course, service is the meat of what they offer their customers. And in the end, the class should also be reminded that the story is real and not at all academic–as should be the remedies. Here are a few of my ideas:
- When the clerk realized she was over her head, she should have clearly communicated that to my husband. Transparency breeds trust.
- After he had been standing there for over a half an hour, she should have apologized profusely and asked if he wanted to sit down, since this was going to take much longer than she expected. He should have been offered a coffee or a drink. Ask if his wife would like one, too (oh yeah, and if she’s in the car, perhaps get the valet to communicate the issue and escort her inside to share a coffee with her husband. The customer’s needs should be paramount.
- AT THE FIRST SIGN OF TROUBLE, turn your attention to your customers comfort and needs and after your customer is comfortable, THEN go back to solving the problem
- As a general rule, if checkout is one of the busiest times at the hotel front desk on a weekend, the manager should not take lunch during that time. And if lunch is taken, someone with authority and know-how should be available to help front desk staff.
- Why would you ever leave your NEW clerk to handle a weekend check out rush on her own without supervision or back up? This is a recipe for disaster. Was there no pager? No manager cell phone? No other managers who could step in? This is a resort, people–I know there was more than one manager at the resort that day.
- The assistant manager should have come out to communicate her apologies at the point she took over. Um, in this story, the manager wouldn’t have come out to communicate anything at all if the customer hadn’t requested a free lunch. The assistant manager should have proactively apologized and offered some consideration for the service failure. Frankly, I think lunch was the least they could do. They should have comped the spa charges, offered a free nights stay, something that recognized the value of the customer and specifically, the value of the customer’s time they had wasted.
- The customer should never have to ask for an apology or compensation for a service failure. At the point the customer is asking for such things, an apology is too little and too late.
- Finally, knowing the customer was still dubious about the final charges, the assistant manager should have offered to call him and follow up on the charges the following week and them put it on her calendar to review and to call, ensuring follow-through.
- The assistant manager should have offered her card and contact information without ever being asked.
I am sure there are more examples, but these were a few that my husband and I came up with as we mulled over the incident over our free (albeit forced) lunch. I told him I would be writing a letter. He said we should bill them for our hourly rates for our time (since we are both professionals, this would have set them back much more than lunch or a spa treatment). I said I would be tweeting about it first. And I did.
You’ve heard the phrase “buyer beware”, where a buyer is basically buying a product “as is”, with all defects and problems. Even in the age of social media, the buyer may have to stomach an “as is” situation (like we did), but because of social media we have an amplified voice. I remember seeing a tweet from @michaelhyatt about a local restaurant that we often frequented. He had tweeted that he had gotten a bad meal there and would not be returning. To this day, we have not been back to that restaurant. I know several others who did the same thing, based solely on the credibility of one person tweeting. (Considering the source is an important note here–and I would call both my husband and myself credible sources for assessing customer experiences based both on our own extensive personal experiences coupled with our extensive professional backgrounds.) Social media truly gives all buyers megaphones (to paraphrase Chris Anderson).
While I sat at lunch, I tweeted the following messages to the resort:
And then I thought there were a few service lessons that perhaps I could pass along to the resort via twitter–and see if they were listening. Following are 5 specifics that service companies should not only consider but should incorporate into their operating procedures.
I will report that I did get a tweet back from @omnihotels, and this was our exchange:
I am not sure what type of response a letter will get (since it will look quite a bit like my blog post!) but note to all readers: my social media activity got instant response. It may not be instant satisfaction, but it’s at least communication and, in the service industry, that’s at least moving back in the right direction.
That said, businesses beware – consumers have instant power with the most powerful form of marketing: word of mouth. You might want to consider the kinds of words about your company that you want coming out of your customers’ mouths–and then do your best to make that a reality.