Brand Construction or Brand Destruction? (2951 words)

How you use or lose your customer value perception opportunities tell much about your style of leadership. Every point-of-contact you or your employees have with your customers is an opportunity to increase or decrease your customers’ perceived value of doing business with you. The key idea here is perceived value. No matter how important you believe customer service to be, it is nothing more than a conduit for customer perceived value.

The crucial question to you, “Are you embracing, or squandering, your opportunities to deliver perceived value to your customers?” Too many business people today simply focus on customer service, erroneously believing that service is the end game. Further could be from the truth. Delivering customer perceived value is the end game for today’s successful businesses.

A few years ago, I delivered a full-day partnering workshop for the management team of a nationally branded downtown San Diego hotel. The lead hotel executive indicated that he wanted to increase the average room night rate by about 12 percent. He suggested that better customer service was the answer to increasing room night rates.

To the hotel executive’s amazement, I told his group that customer service was not the answer. In the hospitality industry, this is sacrilege! Customer service is simply a conduit to deliver perceived value. I continued to tell the group that their answer was to increase their customer’s perceived value of staying at their property. It’s the amplified customer perceived value that would build brand equity and give their guests a reason to pay more.

Regardless of your industry, every interaction with a customer is an opportunity for you to bolster or diminish their perceived value of you, your service or product, and your brand. The important issue upon which you should focus is the fact that one’s reality equals the conversation they have with themselves about you. What are your customers saying to themselves about you, your location and your brand? What is their reality?

Making the Point

This idea applies to any business that desires to move beyond traditional transactional business toward building long-lasting business relationships. As a professional speaker, I frequently have the opportunity to visit New Orleans. Because of the conferences, I generally stay in or around the French Quarter—frequently at the Sheraton.

A year ago, in New Orleans, I attended a convention of a group for which I’m a member.  This trip, I stayed across the street at the convention headquarter, a national brand property which I had not yet visited. Since I was there for five nights, I had sufficient interaction with the hotel staff to use this stay as example of value perception opportunities—sought or lost.

For simplicity, I’ve created a scoring system from my visit where I award a positive or negative to each of the hotel’s notable perception value opportunity areas. While my example is a hotel stay, you can easily apply this kind of scoring system to your business, no matter the industry. Apply this system idea to your business silos where your customers have contact with the people and systems of your organization.

Room Rate

The room rate the association negotiated with the hotel ended up being no less than 75% higher than rates at comparable hotels in the Quarter for that same period. While this is not the fault of the hotel, the hotel management should have been aware that many of the attendees knew they were paying much more to stay at the headquarter hotel and support the association. Many knew that they could have stayed at the Ritz Carlton no more than two blocks away, and have stayed for substantially less.

As such, management could have, and should have, made an effort to balance the value perception problem with an inexpensive gift basket in the room, drink vouchers or some other added value idea. These ideas are not expensive and would only have cost the hotel the wholesale and not the retail. Thereby offering high perceived value to guests at a low exposure to cost. If you charge more than your competition for a similar product or service, what do you do to increase your customers’ perception of your total value package? What do you do to justify in the minds of your customers the increased cost over your competition? Unfortunately, this hotel did absolutely nothing. For the first customer perceived value opportunity, I award the hotel a negative.

Guest Arrival

Upon my midday arrival at the hotel, there was not a bell person in sight to help me with my baggage so I just carried it from the taxi myself. In this value perception opportunity, even though the hotel management knew the arrival flow for the day and that many attendees were paying a much higher price than the going Internet and city special price, management selected not to schedule additional bell staff help for the arriving conference attendees.

If you know a busy or challenging time is approaching, do you plan, implement and execute for the impending situation? Or, do you take the business as usual approach? If you do not plan, implement and execute, your customers’ mental conversation they have with themselves about you will certainly be a negative. For the second customer perceived value opportunity, I award the hotel a negative.

Check-In

At the registration desk of this national brand hotel, fortunately there was plenty of help so check-in went quickly and uneventfully—as it should. Additionally, the woman that assisted me was able to accommodate my location request without a problem. For the third customer perceived value opportunity, I award the hotel a positive.

This sizing of positive value opportunities is what every business wants to hear from their customers. But, at this point the hotel has twice as many negative awards as positive. Related to this, in the world of providence, it generally takes ten Atta Boys to overcome oneAh Shucks and every negative is an Ah Shucks.

Housekeeping

The second day of my visit, after being gone all day, I had to call housekeeping in the late afternoon to get my room cleaned and prepared as this basic service had been overlooked. Later that evening, when I returned to my room, I again had to call housekeeping as the maid overlooked replacing the in-room coffee package for the next morning. When a customer requests that your organization meet their expectation of base-level service, doesn’t it make sense to be sure that it is done thoroughly? Perhaps you might even want to do just a little extra? New Orleans is the home of lanyap, meaning to give a little extra. The next day was a repeat of the previous, as I again had to call in the late afternoon to have my room cleaned.

Shouldn’t one learn from mistakes and not repeat the same mistake two value perception opportunities in a row? To add to my strong feelings of being ignored from the experience the night before, the next morning, the last morning of my stay, the maid knocks on my door (to see if I had checked out) rudely waking me up. Isn’t that why they have a computer system? Can’t the front desk communicate with housekeeping? Do you have capabilities you do not use, perhaps because it takes a little bit of time, in serving your customers? How could your technological capabilities better serve your customers and help them to have a more positive conversation with themselves about the value you deliver? For having to call two days in a row and being so rudely woken up, I award housekeeping anegative.

Bell Desk Staff

While the Bell Staff was missing upon my arrival, I see that as a scheduling issue. Most other times they seemed to be present and quite helpful. One day, during my visit, I returned to the hotel with several boxes of beads for an evening activity. The doorman was quite helpful in assisting me to my room with the boxes. Additionally, when he realized that I had several more boxes that needed to be transported to another venue that evening, he suggested that I contact the Bell Captain and request one of the hotel’s complementary cars to transport my stuff the couple blocks. I took his suggestion, the car was provided and the Bellman was very helpful. I rewarded that bellman with a $40 tip for his effort. That was a great experience! The only thing the first bellman could have done better was to arrange the car himself. But, I do not fault him for not doing this because in chatting with the bellman, I read between the lines and understood hotel politics were involved. I award the bell staff a positive.

Banquet Staff Interaction

Unfortunately, during my stay, most of my interaction with the hotel banquet staff was far less than desirable. From the arrogant behavior of a banquet supervisor to the utterly rude behavior of an event bartender, they missed the value mark completely. I could not believe my eyes when an event bartender was more concerned with chatting on his cell phone then interested in serving myself and other attendees—this is an area hugely ready for the opportunity of improvement through better staff training.

Think about it, for conferences held at hotels, attendees generally have more interaction with the banquet staff than any of the other departments. Or, in a retail situation, it’s the clerks working the sales-floor, or in distribution it’s the customer service representatives. These lower-paid front-line employees have a huge influence in how your customers perceive and then determine the value your organization delivers. While it may be unfair to the scores of servers at this nationally known brand that did an acceptable job, for this value opportunity, I award the banquet staff a negative.

Hotel Management

My early interaction with hotel management had been quite positive. Unfortunately, the last evening at the hotel was indelibly distinctive and branded in my mind forever. The sad fact of the matter is that it was easily preventable.

On this trip, I took my 18-year-old son along so he could enjoy the French Quarter of New Orleans first hand. This last evening, I happened to go up to my room to pick something up. When I arrived at the room, my son was standing outside. He could not get into the room because a hall door was locked. Having been waiting for over ten minutes, he had twice called the front desk asking for help getting this needless hall door unlocked.

Why I say this situation was easily avoidable is because the hotel had a door at the end of the hall that was be used as a single entrance door to the last two rooms as in a suite situation. But, when the rooms were sold individually, neither of the two rooms had access to unlock the outer door—which rocket scientist made that decision? The hotel management simply determined that it was best to leave that door open but not code the individual room key cards to have access. Wouldn’t you know it—the door was somehow pushed closed causing my son and I denial of entry to our room.

When my son told me of the situation, I too called the front desk requesting assistance. We waited another 10 minutes but no help had arrived. Being a solution driven person I took a new approach. I called the front desk again and explained to them that I’d be forced to sound the fire alarm if nobody cared enough to come and give me access to my room. Amazingly, that worked. A security person instantly arrived out of nowhere with an electrical unlocking devise.

Why must I resort to threats to get people to simply do their job in a timely manner? Besides not how I want to operate, the need to become aggressive basically ruined my last evening at the conference. To the credit of the security person that did unlock the outer door, he offered me dinner for my trouble. Since I was leaving the next morning, that offer created zero value for me. By this time though, his offer was just not good enough.

I asked the security guard to call the night manager up to the room. And for effect, I asked the security guard to stay, telling him that I might not be able to control myself. My, for effect strategy did not work. When the night manager arrived, he spent more time telling me that the hotel was full and that they were short of staff and that is why their service was so poor. My Gosh! Never admit to your customer that you did not care enough about them to have a reasonable complement of help for their visit. I told the night manager that I wanted an adjustment on my rate for that evening for all the grief—he passed the buck saying he’d have to get it approved by the hotel’s general manager.

If you want your employees to have an emotional ownership in the success of your enterprise, empower them to make decisions, especially in this case, as it was not a huge decision. Heck, even the newest front desk clerk at the Sheraton across the street could make that decision. This empowerment is a chain-wide policy allowing Sheraton employees to do what’s necessary in the area of guest satisfaction.

The next morning, over the telephone, I chatted with the general manager—we’ll call him Mark, since that is his name. After explaining my total dissatisfaction with my stay at his property, Mark was basically cryptic and unwilling to make an adjustment decision, saying that he would look into it and get back with me. He asked if there was anything else he could do for me that morning. I told him that there was—a late checkout would be nice. He said that he would take care of it.

A few days later, I received a letter from Mark stating, “I can assure you that the feedback from hundreds of your peers, as well as the meeting planner for the XYZ Association, has been nothing short of outstanding…” Mark basically told me that I was full of it, and rather than make the requested adjustment for the last night, he welcomed the opportunity to host me for a weekend stay as his guest—like I’d want to stay there again?

For the grand finale, a couple weeks later when my credit card bill arrived, I noticed that I was charged an extra $50 on my guest folio from the hotel. I called the hotel to inquire about the additional charge and was put on hold for five minutes (I actually timed the hold). When I finally got a person at guest relations, I was told the extra $50 was a late check out charge! Holly cow—and to add insult to injury! It took some doing, but I did get the $50 charge credited. To the management of this property I award three negatives. One negative for the lack of empowerment, one negative for the general manager effectively negating my experience as not valid and one negative for the general manager not doing what he told me he would do in reference to the late check out charge.

Let’s total my “conversation I had with myself about this property and brand”

  • Positive: 2
  • Negative: 7

Since this appalling visit, I have many times been tempted to mention the property by name at a number of meetings industry events at which I have been invited to speak. While I have not yet mentioned this visit from the platform, in private discussions with meeting planners I most certainly have. Recently, I was the closing general session speaker for an association of meeting planners at their annual meeting and had the occasion to meet a sales person from this property at that meeting. Needless to say, in a private chat with this salesperson, I didn’t hold back.

About a week after the meeting planner’s annual meeting I received another letter from Mark, the hotel’s general manager reiterating his offer in which he stated, “…and you may be assured that your next stay will be memorable for all the right reasons.”

It’s been about a year since this dreadful hotel visit and since have attended the same association meeting in a different city. The convention used the same national brand again and I had an awesome visit—a memorable visit for all the right reasons. But, as I sit at my desk finishing this yearlong article writing exercise, I can’t help thinking the visit a year ago has done permanent damage to my perception of this particular national brand. And even though I just recently had a wonderful visit at this same brand I think of Atta Boysvs. Ah Shucks in as much as it takes ten positive experiences to just equal out a negative experience.

In constructing a memorable brand, the lesson for us all is to be aware of how our actions and decisions not only affect us at the local level, but also the brand nationally. What are you doing to be sure that you and your employees are doing everything necessary to insure that you seize rather than squander the value perception opportunities given to you by your customers?

You Vote

As a final note, perhaps I’m being too hard on Mark? Please share with me your opinion by emailing your vote—which do you suggest?

  • Accept Mark’s offer of a memorable visit.
  • Start telling the story from the platform.

PS. Your Vote is No Longer Necessary

In a December 2007 meetings industry magazine there was an advertisement for this property that announced its post Katrina $38 million “wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling” renovation. And, to my excitement, Mark is no longer the general manager. As you might imagine, I’m now looking forward to my next visit at the New Orleans Marriott.

PSS. I sent a letter to the new manager over a year ago, and he has never responded. Hmmmm…

Edrigsbee

Edrigsbee

Ed Rigsbee is the consummate evangelist for member recruitment and strategic alliance success. He holds the Certified Association Executive (CAE) and Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) accreditation. Ed is the author of The ROI of Membership-Today’s Missing Link for Explosive Growth, PartnerShift, Developing Strategic Alliances, and The Art of Partnering. To his credit, he has over 2,500 articles in print and countless articles electronically published.

Ed is the Founder and CEO of the 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity, Cigar PEG Philanthropy through Fun, and president at Rigsbee Research which conducts qualitative member ROI research and consulting for associations and societies. He has been called “the dynamite that broke up our log jam” by association executives—rarely politically correct and almost always provocative—and from a dozen years as a United States Soccer Federation referee, Ed calls it the way he sees it. Exceptional resources at www.rigsbee.com.
Edrigsbee