A warm welcome is one of the quickest ways to endear your business to customers and make a lasting impression. However, ensuring that this backed up by a consistently reliable experience is what will win customer loyalty according to the woman behind the hospitality industry’s leading customer experience analyst.
Having established the Mystery Dining Company in 2003, Sally Whelan remains convinced that there is enormous potential for operators across the hospitality industry to improve their business performance simply by responding to feedback received from their customers. She comments: “Hotels, especially those that are part of a chain or consortium, have to face some fairly significant hurdles when it comes to impressing their customers.”
She believes there is a need for hoteliers to deliver a ‘home-away-from-home’ service and that many operators within the hotel sector have failed to grasp the true benefits of customer feedback. She adds: “On one hand the hotel industry is built around accreditation schemes and audits, so managers are used to meeting specific standards to maintain a star rating. However, in my experience, I have found that there is often less emphasis placed on real-time customer feedback and looking at how this feedback can be used to improve systems and, in turn, the guest experience.”
Knowing what your customers really think is one of the most important things for any business owner, and in Whelan’s opinion, it is the operators who regularly use these opinions to inform their staff training, procurement and housekeeping systems who achieve higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty. This, she believes has been particularly evident during the recession and subsequent recovery periods. She says: “We have over 2,500 qualified mystery assessors operating in the UK, and another 500 around the world. We regularly ask them about their own habits and preferences and we consistently find that the majority of consumers are happy to spend a little bit more money on a brand, be it hotel, restaurant or retail chain, if they feel they are going to receive a consistent experience which represents value for money.”
Consistency is a term that comes up regularly when speaking with Whelan, and she says it is one of the main reasons why the Mystery Dining Company’s own hotel clients use its services. She explains: “Whether it’s a luxury weekend away or an overnight business trip, a hotel guest will enter an establishment with a certain expectation and it’s up to the hotel staff to deliver an experience that meets or exceeds this expectation in a positive way. If a hotel’s management doesn’t know what its customers are thinking, how can they be confident they are introducing the right changes to deliver improvements to the guest experience?”
She believes it’s key for a hotel to focus on the guest experience adding that the last thing someone wants to deal with during their stay is problems whether its with the reservation, the state of the room or an unhelpful member of staff. Her own team of hotel assessors are people who simply enjoy visiting hotels and restaurants and can make the sort of observations, including those based on the feeling they get from their stay, which better represents the majority of hotel guests. She explains how they are, “sent into a hotel with the purpose of experiencing everything it has to offer a regular guest.” They are also interested not just in the operational systems, but also the interactions and the general ambiance of a venue as these are the types of things that make an experience memorable, promote word-of-mouth recommendations and encourage brand loyalty.
She says that her company takes on wide range of clients for many different reasons: “It might be that a hotel chain wants to ensure that consistency is being achieved across each of its sites or perhaps the management team wants to test the effectiveness of recent staff training initiatives. It’s definitely not a one size fits all approach.” However, her team did identify several key areas where hoteliers were liable to offer a less than satisfactory experience.
Hotel customers generally have fairly high expectations when it comes to breakfast. Value for money is important, but so too is quality. Guests are likely to be critical if they feel the breakfast offering, taking into account both the food and the service, isn’t up to scratch. Sally adds: “My advice to any hotelier is to really take a look at what is left on the table when a customer leaves.”
The team also highlighted consistency issues which they found were particularly relevant to the chains. The assessors found that if a guest chooses a hotel based on a positive experience at the same chain and the next site doesn’t meet the expectations then this can, rightly or wrongly, have a significant impact on the overall impression of the entire brand.
Housekeeping details were also a key issue and sometimes there are minor details that a customer won’t necessarily raise as an issue during their stay but that they will remember next time they go to book accommodation, or when they are contributing to an online review. This can be anything from a bit of dust behind the doors or a stain on the carpet. Interestingly, the assessors found that when the problem is more significant and the guest complains, the hotel’s staff actually have the opportunity to rectify the situation and turn it into a positive by delivering good customer service to sort it out promptly and apologetically.
Finally, the Mystery Dining Company’s director offers a few useful tips for hoteliers on improving positive guest feedback. Firstly, she stresses the importance of collecting and monitoring feedback from customers, be it through in-room comment cards, online reviews or using mystery guests. She says: “It’s important that you do more than just read it and file it away. Look for common themes and then ask the question why are so many of your guests commenting on the same element of their experience.”
Being involved in the day-to-day operations of any business can make it easy to forget the feeling of what it’s like to stay in your own hotel. She suggests, “regularly encouraging managers to take on the guest role, either within your hotel or your competitors, as it can help bring the focus back on what the customer is experiencing.” Training staff to be intuitive and genuine is crucial, however it is also important to use your customer feedback to learn which areas additional training is needed in. There is no point running a training session on concierge services if this is one of the areas receiving the largest amount of positive feedback. Likewise, if guests are finding that check-in/check-out procedures are taking too long, look at the issues behind this – is it the fact staff aren’t using systems properly or is the system itself flawed?
Regional operations director of Bespoke Hotels, Graham Marskell used regular visits from the Mystery Dining Company over a period of 12 months to help raise standards and achieve a consistently high satisfaction rating with both people dining at the company’s chain of hotels. He concluded: “Outstanding customer service is a crucial part of the Bespoke character so regular reports supplied by a third party keep this high on the agenda for everyone.”
This feature first appeared in the April 2014 issue of Hotel Owner.