Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a time when excellent service was the hallmark of a luxury experience – one that was desired by the people and delivered by the best of companies. Today, it is an aspect of the service sector that has come to be expected by customers. Companies in the service industry have claimed their adherence to the words ‘service excellence’ since time immemorial, with brands such as The Ritz-Carlton at the forefront with its famous $2,000 rule, but what is service excellence? How many of us actually know what ‘service excellence’ truly means?
What is service excellence, and why does it matter?
Service excellence is not just about delivering luxury-level service. By definition, service excellence refers to the ability of service providers to consistently meet and occasionally even exceed customers’ expectations. This implies that the true meaning of excellent service is relative to the service itself and customers’ expectations of it, which also means that the burden of providing excellent customer service falls on even the most budget of brands.
At the same time, 72% of customers would share a good experience with 6 or more people. In the world of word-of-mouth marketing, this is an immense figure, as 74% of consumers consider word-of-mouth as a key influencer in their purchase decisions. Therefore, as online reviews and recommendations from friends and family reign supreme in this conversational era, proper service design and delivering on the customer experience has become more crucial than ever to the long-term profitability of a service company.
However, unlike getting right a double-shot cappuccino with soy milk and two pumps of vanilla syrup, delivering excellent service is like rocket science – because the answer to every question in hospitality too often seems to begin with the all-knowing: it depends.
The changing faces of service excellence
When the bed and breakfast concept began to boom in the 1980s, hospitality may have been about providing a ‘home away from home’. Today, however, the industry is coming to be defined by its ability to create an experience more luxurious than the comforts of home.
As hotel companies continue in their rat race to prove that their brands represent the best, they are beginning to provide more, and guests are learning to expect more. While sleek and funky designs may have been a trademark of upper-scale hotels, the rise of brands like JO & JOE and Citizen M illustrates that hotel brands may no longer be put into traditional chain scales – guests no longer walk into a “mid-scale” Mama Shelter expecting mid-scale service – they expect service befitting the image of the hotel, which may appear anything but mid-scale.
Yet, growing customer expectations is not the only pressure hotel companies face.
As hotels turn to technology to automate processes and drive operational efficiencies, the number of physical touchpoints between guests and employees are diminishing. This means that each touchpoint carries additional weight in defining the guests’ perception of their experience, and that every interaction needs to deliver a service experience beyond what a machine could do.
Furthermore, heightened awareness of privacy issues mean that consumers are less willing to share their data, and even fewer believe in the data-for-personalization narrative. In other words, guests want you to know them – but not too much – and especially not from the personal data that they share with you; they want just the right level of service, though however would you know what that means anyway? (hint: they probably couldn’t tell you either)
Complex problems, simple(r) solutions?
The growing complexity in delivering service excellence may make it tempting to believe that the way forward is to go up – larger open-space lobbies, more personalized services, and higher-end in-room technology. But what if the solution could be a little simpler?
Too often do we spend time analyzing past behavior, guessing what the guest may want, without understanding enough what they actually need. So rather than giving guests what we think they want, perhaps they could simply be better empowered to customize their own experiences. Hotel apps should be more than just a booking and concierge tool, but be used to give feedback and customize experiences throughout the guests’ stay. What if you could tell your hotel app that you only wanted housekeeping to make up your room every other day, or that you liked the new cocktail on today’s menu, but you prefer sweeter drinks? The key, then, would be in storing this information that the guests do willingly share, and then asking (perhaps through an automated message) – “Mr. Smith, would you like your usual cappuccino delivered to your room at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning?”
In addition, the future of hotels has been said to lie in technology, with hotel companies looking to implement tools such as the Internet of Things (IoT), facial recognition, and even augmented reality. But the question is – to what extent would your guests value these investments? It is no secret that the latest trends in the industry include offering authentic experiences, building communities, and creating shared value – none of which are driven by such high-end tech. While the adoption of these technologies is an exciting trend in itself, it is important to weigh the benefits of pouring money into developing these new gadgets, than simply enhancing the essentials of the hotel experience; could it be that your guests would rather enjoy the comfiest bed in town, than an interactive mirror that could allow them to try on different hairstyles and clothes?
Similarly, hotel companies invest a lot of money into building a brand image – expensive media advertisements, professionally-shot videos, and elaborate publicity stunts – all in a bid to attract their target audience. However, looking at the case of Zappos, who took all the money from its marketing budget, put it into the customer experience, and let the customer satisfaction market itself, one may wonder if the hotel industry could take a page out of the online retailer’s book.
The future is nigh
The service sector appears to be becoming a victim of its own success – as more companies purport being able to offer hyper-personalized services and deliver excellent service, what used to be a unique selling proposition is fast becoming a non-differentiating factor – and is what guests are coming to expect, rather than appreciate. With choices abound and profits stretching thinner, it will remain crucial for service companies to understand what their customers want – and also what they do not care about. In other words, where should you invest your money, and where can you offer mediocre service without hurting the top line?
The hospitality industry has been and will be measured by its ability to deliver service excellence, however elusive its definition may be to each different individual. Nonetheless, it would be difficult to imagine that the basic meaning of excellent customer service will change very drastically in the (near) future. After all, the constructs of hospitality shall remain – a good bed, good food – everything else is simply the icing on the cake. But how much icing does your guest like on his cake? Well now, that depends.