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In Customer Experience, Intent Speaks Louder Than Content

By Augie Ray | March 26, 2016 | 9 Comments

There is nothing quite like traveling to make clear the difference between customer experience content and intent–content is the things we say and intent is the reasons for what we do.

I took a quick a business trip this week, and my hotel experience left me wondering if the brand’s leaders realize how easy it is for customers to detect the enormous gap between its content and intent. That gap is more important than customer experience professionals (CX) often realize, because humans perceive the difference between intent and content with great clarity.

For example, I recently was listening to calls at a call center, and I heard a customer service rep (CSR) tell someone expecting a free replacement that there would be a fee. The customer took a breath and was about to blow up when the CSR continued, “The fee is that you have to have a big smile on your face when the replacement arrives.” I cringed because the gap between content and intent was made embarrassingly evident. The script provided to the CSR encouraged her to inject false emotion into an interaction where the consumer merely wanted efficiency and professionalism. As customers, we easily discern the difference between a CSR reading a script and one who cares–in other words, between content and intent.

IMG_20160322_224121-01-01Which brings me to my recent travel experience. I checked into a very nice hotel, and the employees greeted me with the appropriate level of warmth and professionalism. They told me how much they valued me as a guest, but when I arrived at the room, I found a minibar with a 1.3-ounce can of potato chips for $4.50 and a 3-ounce candy bar for $3.50. Of course, if I had exited the hotel and visited the convenience store next door, I could have purchased these same items two-thirds cheaper. Not only did the hotel hope to gouge me on the price of the minibar items, it also adds a 20% “convenience fee” to the price. (How convenient of them!) And, to truly make me feel like an honored guest, the minibar has sensors, so if I picked up an item to check its nutritional value or ingredients, I would be charged.

I was told several times during my stay how much the staff appreciated me being a “guest,” but all I could do is think about the 90%-plus margin and theft-deterrent sensors in my minibar. The words of Inigo Montoya from Princess Bride came to mind: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Compare this lodging experience to one I had last year when the staff greeted me with equal warmth and professionalism but offered a complimentary cookie and bottled water. Or, to give this an even more contemporary spin, compare my recent hotel experience to my Airbnb stay last fall where the host welcomed us with a free bottle of wine and basket of local treats.

The difference isn’t in the content–in each of these lodging examples I was welcomed and offered snacks. The disparity in intent could not be more different, however; in two of these cases, the intent was to make being away from home more pleasant while the hotel this week intended to extract maximum revenue at an excessive margin from a hungry traveler too weary to walk a block to buy a snack.

We have all become so conditioned to ridiculous minibar prices that perhaps my example seems overstated, but brands serious about customer experience cannot accept the status quo as being sufficient. Brands that offer a status quo experience are at risk of falling behind as more innovative and customer-centric brands change consumers’ expectations. Complicated programmable thermostats were the status quo until Nest altered what consumers expect of a thermostat, and taxis offered an in-demand service until Uber made the status quo of standing in a gutter waving your arm at passing yellow cabs seem old-fashioned.

What the leaders of this hotel chain fail to understand is that the minibar is not a standalone experience. While they may view it as a separate profit center, to guests, it is one part of the overall lodging experience. I will not stay at this hotel again. Its content was good, but its intent was loud, clear and frankly unpleasant. The brand was so interested in selling me an overpriced $3.50 candy bar that it lost me as a $199-a-night guest in the future. My feelings about the hotel’s intent were only reinforced upon checkout when the formerly-welcoming front desk staff attempted to convince me that the double-charged $19.73 breakfast on my bill was just a single $39.46 meal I ate. So, the next time I’m in Chicago, I’ll stay elsewhere–at a hotel that treats me like a guest and not a wallet for the picking.

How can customer experience professionals ensure their brand’s intent matches its content? In my role advising Gartner clients on customer experience, I help companies start out with the right goals and metrics that consider both today’s needs and tomorrow’s loyalty and advocacy. If this hotel balanced its concurrent metrics (revenue) with appropriate leading measurements (such as likelihood to repurchase or recommend), their minibar problem might be more apparent.

Balancing the horizon of your customer experience metrics is one way to make sure your intent aligns with your content rather than working against it. Or, put another way, all the cordial greetings from bellhops and clerks can be drowned out by a single $4.50 1.3-ounce can of chips (currently available online for 82 cents each in packs of 12).

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9 Comments

  • Steve Etzler says:

    Hi Augie,
    Thanks for the thought provoking post. I wonder if your example is as much a case of a misalignment of brand and product as intent and content? For $199 a night could one argue that the hotel is not a luxury brand and its content and intent should not be like one? Perhaps the hotel’s brand, content and intent should be one of value? If so, would the chasm between your expectation and experience be smaller resulting in a more satisfied experience and willingness to be a future customer? With that said there is no excuse for potentially poorly intended actions such as double charging that should have resulted in the hotel offering to remove the charge completely.
    Steve

    • Augie Ray says:

      Thanks for the comment, Steve. The hotel is a luxury hotel–it’s one of the oldest and most well-known hotels in the city and is owned by a luxury brand. I think my $199 price came from the special pricing our company gets–the rack rate for my room is $329 according to Travelocity.

      More to the point, I don’t think it matters if the hotel is luxury or value. If customers KNOW they are being ripped off, it’s a bad experience for the brand–ANY brand. While one could argue that free treats might be more appropriate for a luxury brand and paid minibar options more fitting for a value brand, in either case, attempting to extract a 300% (plus convenience fee!) price premium will always leave a bitter taste. If the margins for those same items in the highest-trafficked impulse-purchase areas of convenience stores are sufficient for retailers, it’s hard to imagine why hotels need many multiples higher for an otherwise unused corner of my room.

      The irony here is that luxury brands are the worst at including extras in their price. When I travel to mid-priced hotels, I often find free wi-fi, while luxury hotels still routinely insist I should pay for it. And the other hotel brand I mentioned–the one that gave me the free cookie and water–was a mid-priced hotel brand. I think those midpriced hotels are winning at the experience game. If it’s a choice between a higher price, no wi-fi and absurd minibar prices with a “luxury brand” or a lower price, free wi-fi and a free cookie, I know which one I’ll choose in the future!

      And that’s the point here–that brands must be cautious to provide a customer experience that builds loyalty and advocacy rather than one that encourages churn. That’s the lesson for every brand–be it a value or luxury brand–and the importance of balancing short-term revenue goals with goals that define longer-term success.

  • The clarity of bricks & mortar rings loudly in the customer experience.
    And hotel visits highlight crystal clear examples of both the good and
    the bad.

    Well done, Augie.

    Brian

  • Thought provoking as always Augie. We have become accustomed to being ‘ripped off’ by hotels and not just the mini bar. Think of wifi fees, high breakfast costs, parking fees. The customer think in terms of total cost of staying and not just the room rate (or should think that way) . Feeling ripped off never makes you feel good and the sense of dis-satisfaction will always lead to industry disruption such as AirBnB. For 3 years now, I have refused to use hotels that do not explicitly state free wifi because I regard access to wifi as essential as the pillow. Now which chain is going to offer main street priced snacks?

    • Augie Ray says:

      That’s very true. Hotels have gotten away with expensive minibars, costly wifi and $20 breakfasts because it seemed everybody did the same. It’s no wonder Airbnb is denting the lodging business, at least a little. In recent years, we’ve seen so many industries that got comfortable and complacent–until an innovator came, shook it up and caused everyone to scramble. Bottom line: In lodging or any other category, if the EVERY customer is left thinking “This is a ripoff,” that’s an easy place to explore if the brand’s customer experience is in need of some consideration.

  • Sam says:

    Historic luxury hotel with auto-charging sensors. Sounds like The Fairmont in SF? If so, I fell victim to that one immediately upon entering my room. Curiosity led to my picking up a toy bear–BAM, $20+ fee! I felt betrayed by that one.

  • Jay Wilson says:

    Excellent post, Augie. One of the issues here is the disconnect between expectation and experience. Low end and mid-priced brands have the advantage of lowered customer expectations, so when they deliver above and beyond, even with a minor embellishment like a free cookie, the experience is memorable.

    Luxury brands, for a time, have set the bar high – not only in terms of the experience we expect to have for the price paid, but also in terms of our acceptance of the peripheral costs – that everything associated with that experience will come at a premium price – the cocktail at a trendy restaurant, the minor repair to the exotic sports car, and yes, the $4.50 bag of chips. But as you state, the innovators have changed that model of expectation – we now know that we can have a premium experience without the premium price.

    That disruption, coupled with the recent recession, where even the least price conscious consumer is now tuned into peripheral costs – means that an experience like the one you had at the Chicago hotel can be a damaging one for the brand.

    • Augie Ray says:

      Great point, Jay, but doesn’t it seem upside down? Why is it mid-range hotels offer more amenities while luxury hotels charge their “guests” to death. My bottom line is this: No matter the brand, any time a customer thinking, “I’m getting ripped off,” it’s a bad customer experience.