Customer Experience, Acting on Customer Feedback, CRM
This weekend, I stayed at a chain hotel while traveling on business. This particular hotel offered a free breakfast until 10 a.m. as an amenity, and as a former journalist I naturally gravitate toward free food.

As many of us do at such hotels, I waited until about 9:45 on Sunday to saunter down for my repast; judging from the number of people scurrying down to the breakfast area, this is the pattern for many like-minded hotel customers.

I watched the end of the British Open while enjoying pancakes, eggs, bacon and a big sweet roll. It was quite pleasant, and I looked forward to repeating it on Monday.

However, when I rolled down at 9:45 on Monday, the breakfast area was being cleared. Nothing was left except for the coffee (literally -- the cream and sugar had already been whisked away, too). Several other not-so-pleased guests could be seen nearby sipping their non-sweetened, non-creamed coffee.

The manager happened by and, seeing my dead-on impression of Grumpy Cat, stopped to ask what was wrong. “I thought breakfast was served until 10,” I said.

“Oh -- not on Mondays,” he replied. “It’s over at 9:30. Didn't someone tell you that at check in?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, it’s also printed on the folder for your key cards.” I pulled said folder from my pocket and helpfully noted that no such notice was present, unless printed in invisible ink.

The manager was somewhat taken aback. He asked when I checked in, because he’d have a word with the desk person who was on duty. He then produced a bag breakfast with a bagel, an apple and some yogurt.

That was nice -- but why did the hotel have bagged breakfasts standing by? Probably because guests missed breakfasts in the past and this was the hotel’s solution. It’s a bad solution; the better solution would be to inform the guests of the actual time of breakfast and to do so clearly. The fact that the manager seemed so unaware of why guests in the breakfast area seemed somewhat perturbed at 9:45 on Monday morning -- but he had a solution close at hand! -- suggested some disingenuousness on the manager’s part.

I know he’d heard similar customer complaints on previous Mondays. His solution was a business-centric one: throw together these bagged breakfasts for the seven or eight guests who complain. They’ll be gone soon, anyway.

The key word is “gone.” As in, not coming back as a customer. And in the era of social media, a story like this can reach many other potential customers, magnifying the effect of the mistake.

How do you avoid this? I suggest three starting points.

1. Have a mechanism for customer feedback

If you provide a way for customers to give you suggestions about improving their experiences, they will do so. Some suggestions will be silly or outlandish, of course, but some will be solid, reasonable ideas that you can put to use. The best of these comments comes as “light bulb” moments that make business leaders suddenly see not just things they’re doing wrong but things that can help them provide a better and more unique experience to the customer.

It also allows customers to bring concerns directly to you. Otherwise, they look for third-part feedback systems like Yelp!. What would be better for your business: a customer complaint delivered through a system of your design or a complaint broadcast into the vast wilderness of social media?

2. Have a plan for acting on that feedback

It’s not enough to collect feedback -- it has to be acted upon, and not in a once-off, once-in-a-while manner. There should be a process in place to evaluate and implement changes to the way you do things based on the customers’ experience with your business. The customers who engage with you this way are providing a valuable service; they’re helping you see your business through their eyes and either validating what you’re doing or telling you how you could be doing it better.

With that valuable data, you should be eager to adapt how you do business with customers. But most businesses find excuses to avoid doing this. Change can be difficult, but the only reason your business exists, as Peter Drucker observed, is to create satisfied customers.

Managers should meet regularly to review this feedback and to cull useful ideas from it -- and they should then be required to demonstrate how they’re putting what they’re learning into action. This requires a culture that’s comfortable with adjustments in the business; make sure employees know that they can suggest changes based on what they hear from customers, and that changes based on customer feedback will be a regular part of their work experience.

3. Have a plan for handling true outlier events

Once in a while, things do go haywire. You can’t plan for the details of such events, but you can establish policies about how to react to these problems and how far employees can go to remedy them and salvage the customer experience.

Policies that limit employee’s powers to deal with problems are deadly -- they leave employees with the ability to say “I’m sorry,” but do little else to help fix the situation. Giving them latitude do things to solve problems is crucial; even more crucial is hiring the right people so that they can be trusted to exercise that latitude the right way.

Discovering a flaw in your customer experience and then designing a work-around to placate the customer represents a failure to think like the customer and a failure to collect and use customer input to improve the customer experience. If you’re fixing the same problem in your customers’ experiences over and over, it’s time to stop, listen and take what you’re hearing to heart.

Title image courtesy of jannoon028 (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Be sure to read more of Chris's thoughts on customer care in Why Extending CRM is Critical to Meeting Customer Needs