Almost everyone in the luxury service industry talks about “listening to the voice of the customer.” But listening is not the same as understanding. How you listen, and to whom you listen, is critical. Even a smart, high-end business can be led astray by misunderstanding the strengths and weaknesses of different customer feedback channels.
In this piece, I’ll lay out a few of the strengths and shortcomings of a few of the more common channels, based on my experience as global director of guest experience and innovation at the Dorchester Collection of luxury hotels.
Mystery shopper ratings
One ubiquitous tool for evaluating the quality of the customer experience in service industries is the mystery shopper. The mystery shopper plays the role of a customer, evaluating service on a checklist of criteria. With these checklists, mystery shoppers measure compliance to a set of standards related to physical attributes and service
. Your own company or an external evaluator (such as AAA or Forbes Five Star) may set these standards. Mystery shoppers are best for measuring efficiency — but not experience.
One checklist measure in the hospitality industry, for instance, is how promptly a guest is greeted upon arrival in the lobby, and whether she is greeted by name. But in this era of heightened sensitivity to privacy, does that always make sense? Suppose we’re talking about a luxury hotel guest who is a paparazzi-shy celebrity? A mystery shopper report would never alert me to the receptionist who had the good sense not to speak that guest’s name out loud.
A mystery shopper’s report is an important tool to help us deliver efficient service. But it’s equally important for my team to remember that a checklist, which tends to reward repetitive behaviors, cannot encompass everything we hope to be.
This is the easiest feedback channel to misinterpret, for luxury businesses and others. Results are best when it’s a scientific survey built on a proven customer-engagement methodology. One survey we recently did helped us distinguish between what business and leisure travelers look for in a hotel. It told us that we needed to work on winning back a greater proportion of business travelers as leisure guests, and positioned us to increase that by 6% over the following six months.
However, beware the opposite. A quick online survey (à la Survey Monkey) can set a luxury organization into fire-fighting mode about a one-off problem that’s not a true trend. Also, this data can be interpreted — and manipulated easily – by managers, to fit any agenda.
Social media feedback
Many businesses track Twitter and Facebook as measures of how well they are doing on customer service. For luxury brands, social media posts serve one main purpose — as online postcards.
When we looked closely, we found our guests most often use these channels to brag that they have stayed with us. What can we do with that sort of feedback? A lot. These insights don’t tell us about our customer service performance, but they can inform our marketing and customer experience strategies. For example, we see meal pictures showing up frequently on Instagram. So a question we can ask about a luxury room service meal is, is the presentation Instagram-worthy?
Looking at a series of posts from customers can also remind us of what differentiates us from our competitors: afternoon tea at The Dorchester and the soufflés at The Beverly Hills. At Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris, for instance, guests find a high-end fluffy robe and slippers – with a twist. The slippers have red soles, like Christian Louboutin shoes. We learned via social posts that guests love this touch (especially those who remember Carrie Bradshaw’s fashionable stay there during the last two episodes of Sex and the City).
Social and review posts can also deliver “aha” moments about competitors’ offerings. For example, are luxury hotels delivering the same items – say cake and champagne – to special occasion guests? If so, you can strive for something more distinctive.
Social media is best for discovering what customers really value about their luxury experience with you. This information shapes customer experience strategy. Of course, they can also provide early warning signals that service has slipped. If your social media posts read like comment cards, that’s an alarm bell.
In our industry, it is a common misperception that the review sites are used only to find deals. That has led some luxury service providers to discount them. True, not everyone on a review site will be your target customer. However, we’ve learned that many luxury shoppers use sites such as TripAdvisor to validate their choices prior to making a final decision, and browse our reviews and those of our direct competitors. That’s a customer we certainly want to win, so our managers respond to TripAdvisor reviews. Sometimes, this also presents a bonus opportunity to turn a one-time guest into a repeat customer.
Sites such as TripAdvisor can also help identify gaps in what you think is important to customers vs. what customers say is important. While surveys only tell us what we think we want to know and social posts often showcase the best highlights of a guest experience, review sites highlight our blind spots. And when customer reviews include images, they show our products and services through our customers’ eyes, not how professional photographers pose and light them for our website. This can be a reality check for us.
They can also help you look into your competition’s customer experience. Ask this key question: What do you have that customers love — and your competitors lack?
It’s also valuable to learn when your own eyes trump all. One of the most powerful and often underappreciated tools for improving service and performance is direct observation. Sit in the lobby and see how staff members greet guests, how traffic flows through registration, and how well people work together. Someone in the luxury car business could apply the same principle to seeing what really goes on in the showroom, or in the sales manager’s office.
Luxury innovations usually come from understanding and addressing new needs. For instance, while sitting in the lobby of The Dorchester, members of my innovation team observed guests walk to the theater desk to book tickets for a West End show, and then go to the Concierge Desk to arrange for dinner reservations and transportation. Why, they asked, should guests have to go to two desks to arrange one evening? Now the theater desk staff make all the arrangements a guest might need. I am not sure we would have discovered that less-than-seamless service issue any other way than by sitting in the lobby and watching.
While auditing and measuring the customer experience, remember the ultimate goal is to gather information that helps deliver a level of customer service that differentiates your business. Do not expect technology-driven and repetitive checklist-style evaluations to find it for you.