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Guest Experience... We are still here to surprise and delight...

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July 06, 2017
Guest Experience
Michael Schubach - MichaelSchubach@me.com

©2017 Hospitality Upgrade
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Recent bad customer service behavior in the airline industry should have us asking, is this the new normal for guest experience?

According to my Uber ratings, I am one seriously talented passenger. I’ll be honest with you and begrudgingly admit that my Uber drivers probably like me because I have a tendency to over tip, but I like to think that my excellent score is the result of my unfailing charm and my willingness to engage with my service provider. Actually, I’ll be even more honest with you – charm aside, I’m not just willing to engage my driver in conversation – I’m obsessed by the opportunity.  Ask and ye shall hear some of the most amazing stories. On my last Uber ride, my driver’s day job was a circus acrobat. He was a graduate of a circus college in his native Cuba, and went on to marry a high-wire aerialist whom he met at work. I discovered that he is in the process of making a transition from Ringling Brothers, which announced earlier this year that it is closing down operations after more than 100 years in the circus business. Say what you will about making our economy great again, but an entire industry and an American icon are disappearing from the modern landscape, and I got an insider’s story from the back seat of my ride to the airport.
I was surprised and delighted.

What does all of that have to do with the hospitality industry?
It’s that my highly rated, very effective and sincerely appreciated interaction is the essence of what people in our business call a “personalized guest experience.”  It’s something we hotel folk think we’re good at – or that we certainly aspire to be good at, if you were to gauge the situation by the amount of conversation we devote to the subject. It was from hoteliers that I first heard the phrase “surprise and delight” applied to guest service. It was meant to describe a method of doing business that would make every hotel stay extraordinary. It was guest recognition. It was the empowerment of the front line of a hotel staff to personalize experiences so that guests were never treated as faceless commodities. It was building loyalty through outstanding service, and in so doing, making word-of-mouth our best source of marketing. It was strength through knowledge, and knowledge through the presentation of meaningful data.
So after decades of discussion and millions of terabytes of big data, I am asking the same questions that I used to ask when I was a less popular passenger – a kid trapped in the back seat of the car on a family vacation: “Are we there yet? Ah geez, are we ever gonna get there?” I look at the state of service in America, as well as the trends in our industry and economy, and I have the terrible feeling that I already know the answer. But I am essentially the same person today as I was then. I refuse to sit quietly and shut up about it.

Let me defend my sneaking suspicions. I am writing these words in the wake of a congressional investigation into the appalling service discrepancies in the airline industry, as witnessed by approximately the entire world population, courtesy of smartphone cameras, YouTube and the evening news. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Despite rising fuel costs, IATA reports that this year the airline industry will return net profits of $29.8 billion. With record profits and through-the-roof ridership, was there ever a better year for excellent customer service? Hmmm...let me think.
There are sardine-can accommodations, frayed nerves, frills only for the chosen few at ridiculous prices, and a system of travel in which the providers consider luggage to be a luxury option. Was there anything else? Oh, yes, I forgot – customer beatings. Were they a surprise? Definitely. Were they delightful? Not so much. And sadly, to paraphrase a T-shirt witticism, the beatings will continue until passenger morale improves. 
Of course, this is an extreme example, but it’s amazing to listen to some of the most brilliant (and highly compensated) corporate executives in business today be forced to sheepishly admit that they’ve lost their focus and forgotten their core values. While they somehow managed to overlook the fact that they are in a customer service business, they didn’t seem to overlook any opportunity to cut corners in the name of profit. Yes, I get it – profit matters. Yes, I know – the airlines contend with many important safety and security issues, and there have been many years when they didn’t generate fantastic profits. Nonetheless, the airline industry has steadily devolved from a high-end, experience-focused industry into a CaaC (Customer as a Commodity) enterprise. It is the cattle-car component of travel and tourism, the 21st century successor to the Greyhound bus. Looking at the airline model, we have to seriously begin to ask ourselves: Are personalized guest experiences too time consuming and therefore too expensive to deliver? 
I have always contended that you will come to understand almost any human situation if, like Woodward and Bernstein, you follow the money. Despite congressional testimony to the contrary, business institutions are always extremely loud and incredibly clear about their core values. They demonstrate what matters most by how and where they invest their time and money, and in the way they treat their employees and customers. At the end of each and every day, shareholder value (known in some circles as “unbridled greed”) wins. Demonstrating sincere customer appreciation and providing great customer service will be the hallmark of any service industry the moment the business can prove to shareholders that it is more profitable with them than without them.
Now take that thought and apply it to what is anticipated to be this decade’s hottest employee trend: simply getting rid of all of them. The industrialized world is racing toward the robotic replacement of human services. Why? Because, of course, machines are faster, more accurate and, gosh darn it, people really like gizmos and whiz-bangs. Was there anything else? Oh, yes, I forgot – they’re cheaper. Eliminating people represents a substantial savings in the cost of doing business, so that process is inevitable. I see your fine hands in this, Woodward and Bernstein. Admittedly, I also see the benefits for the hospitality industry, not the least of which is some whiz-bang sparkle. I will eventually lose this fight but will go down complaining: robotics is the antithesis of a personalized guest experience; you don’t personalize by removing the persons. A business can conceivably accelerate its processes and accommodate millennial do-it-yourselfers, but they can’t personalize the experience any more than they do now with automated telephone attendant software. And I think we all know how popular that time-and-money saving alternative has become.      
Taking a serious lesson from my extreme airline example, we in hospitality can’t forget our core values. Accommodation is a business of, by and for people. But we, like the rest of society, are moving toward self-service automation, telling ourselves all along the way that this is what the next generation wants, and the world really needs. Today, some hoteliers think the key to winning the battle is to leverage our service systems and splash a small dose of big data in a dialog box, so that service agents can feign recognition. Or better yet, we could just give our guests smartphone apps and keyless entry systems so that they can bypass the human interaction of the front desk altogether. No level of guest recognition would be required, and very soon, none will be expected.  
It’s not that we can’t automate that process, because we can. It’s that I’m not sure that eliminating human interaction – even though it can be very frustrating at times – is in our industry’s best interest. Automation is the best weapon in the modern arsenal, but as counter-intuitive as it may seem, it is not the tool for providing memorable guest experiences. What automation does – and does very well – is speed processing, and eliminate the needless errors and omissions resulting from workplace drudgery. It is the means by which we can give hotel service agents more of the very same secret advantage that a smart Uber driver enjoys – more time to interact in a meaningful fashion. Time to respond with genuine concern and empathy to resolve a problem or lend assistance. Time to realize what would best serve a particular guest during his or her stay, and act accordingly. Time to be more genuinely human, and that’s all the time we need to surprise and delight our guests.
Michael Schubach is a regular contributor for Hospitality Upgrade and can be reached at MichaelSchubach@me.com.

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