Discover your free Construction Marketing Ideas Email Newsletter

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The customer is (always) right

Last night, as I prepared to check out of the hotel in Nashville, I noticed on my Amex account a charge for one night's stay at what appeared to be my hotel. Nothing wrong with that, I thought, it could have been a prepayment guarantee (in exchange for a lower room rate). But when I asked for an accounting, I noticed the 'prepayment' didn't appear on the statement.

The front desk quickly explained the situation. The Hampton Inn Vanderbilt is not the same hotel as the Hampton Inn and Suites Vanderbilt. They are both part of the Hilton hotel system, but Hampton Inns are independently owned. I called the other hotel -- a few blocks away -- and found I had been debited the one night's stay (purportedly from September) as a "no show".

Woahh. I couldn't find any record of the reservation; the best I could think is that in planning our Nashville trip, I had inadvertently clicked on some 'reserve' box for the other hotel, before deciding on the trip, and selecting the hotel with the rather similar name!

Regardless, I didn't think the charge was fair, or reasonable, and so I complained. The hotel I stayed at, of course, said they couldn't do anything -- they weren't the hotel that levied the charge. And when I called the other Hampton Inn, the front desk simply put me through to the manager's voice mail.

Angry, livid, but fully aware of marketing and branding, I decided to put Hilton Hotels to the test. So I called the 800 number on my Hilton Honours Gold Card, and the person who answered forwarded me to 'customer service'.

Janet Osburn, a Guest Assistance Specialist, took my call, and without hesitation, 10 seconds after I explained the problem, she said: "Don't worry, you will not have to pay the bill. We will refund your money."

No questions asked, no bureaucratic run-around, just a quick and rapid resolution....
Well, actually, she said, "we need to give the hotel a chance to make good; three days, if they don't we will issue the refund." And today, the manager of the second Hampton Inn called back, and after explaining the problem with no-shows, he accepted the decision to return the money to my bank account.

We can all learn some lessons from Hilton's approach to customer service. In this case, you have a chain with hundreds of properties, operating under specific rules, but different brand identities (and ownerships). How do you hold everything together and not risk one bad experience blowing your brand, or client relationships?

In Hilton's case, they provide a number, and a contact point, and trained personnel who can quickly assess the overall client value and experience, and make on-the-spot decisions to fix things to client satisfaction. When someone like me spends thousands of dollars each years on hotel stays, a $150 or so refund isn't going to mess up too much with the profit picture. I explained to the Hampton Inn manager today who accepted the refund request that I realize some clients mess around and try to cheat the system, but quick response systems are absolutely essential to protect the brand and preserve client relationships. The weakness, if anything, here is that I needed to make two calls before solving the problem -- in the perfect customer service picture, the front desk clerk would have been able to respond in a forthright manner, and corrected the problem, rather than leave it for another day. Fortunately, Hilton has a fail safe with an after- hours call centre response capacity.

How do your front line employees handle customer complaints or apparent dissatisfaction? Do you give them discretion to correct problems on the spot, without requiring management approval or permission (or do you have a system where clients can immediately access managers with the capability and authority to resolve the problems?) If not, why? Can you afford client discontent, bureaucracy, or strict adherence to 'policy' in times where clients have other choices, and may be scarce to find and replace? You don't want to blow your brand and market position that way, I hope.

In this case, Hilton gets an eight out of 10. In the Perfect 10, the minute I complained, the front desk clerk at the Hampton Inn where I stayed would have resolved the issue, or taken it up, in my presence, until he could resolve it. But when I reached the right person, indeed, I found the solution. Always give your clients that satisfaction. They will remain loyal.

No comments: