Unique customer experience touches add up to long-term loyalty.
by TEMA FRANK
We all want loyal customers. They save us money on advertising costs and agency fees because they are likely to come back to us directly to rebook. They are more likely to tell others about us and send us referral business. They make our staff feel good, because there can be a relationship that develops and regular customers are more likely to leave larger tips. So how do you get that kind of loyalty? The key is delivering consistently excellent, and sometimes surprising, customer experiences. Let’s break that down.
For a few years there was an experience that happened to me over and over. I’d be walking down the street on a warm summer day when a car would pull up beside me. A desperate parent would pop his or her head out the window and ask, “Where’s the nearest McDonalds? My kids are hungry.” I’d explain that the nearest one was far away, but that there was a much better local hamburger joint nearby.
“Nope,” they’d insist. “It’s got to be McDonalds. They won’t eat anywhere else.”
McDonald’s food wasn’t great, even then, but part of what drew families to it so powerfully was the consistency. They knew exactly what they’d be getting. The kids knew to expect a Happy Meal with a cheap plastic toy. The parents knew they could count on getting food their kids would eat without complaint. And, in those days, everyone knew it would be fast, clean and have friendly staff. Part of the reason McDonald’s has suffered in recent years is that the consistency is gone. You can’t count on that cheerful smile and cleanliness any more.
The same holds true for hotel experiences. People book at chain hotels partially because they know what to expect. Say the words “Four Seasons,” and a certain level of comfort and luxury comes to mind. Say “Super 8” and a different value proposition comes to mind. Either way, you know what to expect. Humans are creatures of habit, and consistency gives us comfort.
Excellent customer experiences are defined by the customer, not by you. What customers consider excellent at a fancy hotel is not the same as how they would define excellence in something less expensive. But either way, you need to know what it is that your customers want. There are certain core elements that virtually all customers look for: cleanliness, comfortable beds, working fixtures and bathrooms, and polite staff. But beyond that, it is best to get to know your customers, your target market and what is most important to them.
This sounds like a contradiction of my first point about consistency, and in a way it is. The key is that the surprise has to be layered on top of the consistent experience they have come to know and love, and it has to be a positive surprise.
Surprises can be little things, but have an outsized impact. Not only do surprises delight guests, but surprises are what people share with others. They help grow word of mouth and increase public ratings and reviews.
Many surprising ideas get copied once others hear of them. I remember my delight the first time I stayed in a resort where the towels were folded into animal shapes. Now it has become commonplace at resorts, so it becomes part of the baseline expectation. Still nice, but it no longer provides the same level of delight. I don’t rush to share the photos with my friends on Facebook or Pinterest any more.
If your best ideas get copied, how do you keep surprising customers? Brainstorming with your staff (at all levels, especially frontline staff) will help. Chatting with customers about other great hotel experiences they’ve had can also give you ideas – so can borrowing ideas you’ve seen in other industries.
Delight your guests with small touches to get them talking
Here are some ideas I’ve either seen, heard about or just dreamed up based on decades of traveling around the world.
Acknowledge returning guests
Welcome a returning guest with something that shows you remember their previous visit. Even just acknowledging that they are a returning guest will make a difference. With modern computer systems, there is no reason why your front desk staff shouldn’t know when a repeat customer returns to your property.
Have a chocolate bar waiting on weary traveler’s pillow instead of a square of chocolate, as happened to one of the frequent travelers I interviewed recently on the Frank Reactions podcast.
Give them a treat
Greet them with a plateful of fresh baked cookies (or, conversely, a healthy treat) in the lobby instead of just ice water, as happened to me at a hotel in Whistler, BC.
Packaging makes it special
Borrowing an idea from small e-commerce retailers that use creative packaging, maybe you can have clever, unique cards or boxes that the keys are handed over in. Make the packaging special enough, and guests may bring it home, show their friends and post pictures of it on social media.
Wow with plush
Have a mini-teddy bear waiting on the bed instead of a chocolate, to help your guest “sleep tight.”
Give them a personal welcome
Greet them with a handwritten note (at a small hotel). Recently I’ve noticed some hotels have a welcoming note on the bedside signed by the housekeeper. It is a subtle but effective way to remind me to tip, but it also made the welcome seem a bit more personal
Anticipate their needs
Have a toothbrush and mini-toothpaste waiting in the bathroom. Some Asian hotels do this, but it is surprisingly rare elsewhere. Maybe I’m atypical, but toothpaste and toothbrush are among the things I’m most likely to forget. Consider providing earplugs beside the bed. I had these waiting for me recently in an airport hotel.
Showcase local businesses
Give them a sample of some local specialty. You could partner with local bakeries, breweries or artisans on this to lower the cost, since it would benefit them as well as you.
Satisfy late-night hunger
Have some munchies waiting for guests who arrive after all your restaurants are closed. I remember showing up at a hotel at 2 a.m. due to flight delays, and they had plates of sandwiches and fruit waiting in our room. How grateful we were!
Make them feel welcomed
Emailing a confirmation note a few days before guests’ arrival, written in a friendly tone, says that you are looking forward to seeing them will make them feel welcomed.
Treat them to a cocktail
Invite them to join hosts and other guests for a cocktail hour. One small hotel I stayed at last year provided a free glass of wine, and the friendly hosts got the conversation going and introduced guests to each other.
Anticipate their arrival
Surprises can also start before your guests arrive. In many cases now, you will have their email address, so you can send them a map and information about how to get to your hotel from the airport, train station or other likely arrival point. One hotel I read about sends driving directions from the guest’s home town. Sure, they could look this up for themselves, and you probably already have much or all of it on your website, but sending it to them directly saves them time and signals that you are anticipating their arrival.
Highlight community events
Share information about events that will be taking place in town while they are there. Maybe even include a link for discount tickets. (Again there is an opportunity to partner with others in your community to make such offers.)
Leave a lasting impression
And it doesn’t stop after the guest checks out. Consider giving a departure gift, such as a little jar of jam with your logo and website address on it, or a customized USB for business travelers. Check with promotional product providers to find what is new, fun and in your price range.
Go beyond the standard tourist guides
Provide a tip sheet from hotel staff of their favorite “secret” places to go or things to do in town. Try to include things that would not be in the standard tourist guides. Consider personalizing it with the first names and jobs of the people making the recommendations to show that people at all levels of the hotel hierarchy care about the guests.
If you know when their birthday is, send birthday greetings, or if they got married at your hotel, send anniversary greetings.
Handwrite a note
Seems so simple, but write a thank-you letter. You can send an electronic one to all guests, but for even more impact, randomly pick some guests each week and send them a handwritten letter of appreciation. That will have the kind of impact that is likely to get them telling others because it is so unusual.
Be social and interact online
If guests are active on social media, follow them and share or comment on what they post related to their stay. This is likely to be too time-consuming for large hotels, but for smaller operators, you may have the time and ability to do it, and thus forge deeper connections with your guests.
These are just a few ideas, and you and your team can certainly come up with more. The important thing is that you must get the basics down pat so you deliver them consistently, get to know your customers so you can customize what you offer to the types of guests you attract, and then offer small, memorable touches that will get them wanting to talk about you and eager to come back. ■
Tema Frank, chief instigator at Frank Reactions and Web Mystery Shoppers Inc., has been pioneering online success for hotels and other businesses since 2001. She has over 30 years’ experience in marketing, customer service, usability testing and business strategy. Visit www.frankreactions.com for more information. Shared with permission from Tema Frank and HOTELEXECUTIVE.COM.
Have an innovative but low-cost way to wow guests every time? Write to our editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.