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Chronicles from a Caribbean Cubicle

3/23/2006

Delivering a Custom Experience

I’m staying at my favourite hotel in Barbados, the Accra Beach Hotel. What makes it my solid first choice is the very warm welcome I receive after 30 visits, and the high level of service delivered relative to other Bajan hotels. The service is on par with a Jamaican hotel such as the Pegasus and a Trinidadian hotel like The Kapok.

On the other hand, it comes on the heels of my visit to the Marriott in Miami’s Dadeland area (my third or fourth overall).

There is just no comparison between the standards of the two hotels – the Marriot operates at a level that is clearly higher.

For example, I am sitting at my computer in my room at the Accra, and as I scan the room I can enumerate the service defects in my line of sight:
  • the balcony door has putty spots on it
  • there is a black mark on the wall
  • the light fixture needs to be painted
  • the light is blown
  • I had to move my desk to the other side of the room, where the hi-speed access Ethernet port is located
  • the baseboard is dirty
  • there are marks on the ceiling
The overall furnishings are clearly of much lesser quality than the Marriott (or even the Hilton here in Barbados for that matter).

But that is not what got my attention initially. As a runner, I often enter a hotel after a morning run by walking through the lobby, looking like someone who just ran 6 miles or so in 80 degree weather. As I entered the Marriott’s lobby yesterday, the bellman literally ran to his desk, and pulled out a bottle of water for me to drink. This is perhaps the third time he has done so.

In my 5 or so years of staying at the Accra Beach Hotel, that has never happened; nor has anything close to it happened.

I use this example to illustrate the example of a bellman who operates to extremely high standards, although his actions are typical of the staff at the hotel.

The question I have been asking myself is, “What would it take for the staff at The Accra to meet that kind of standard?”

Incidentally, I ask myself the same question. In my career, I have had the fortune to work with and for McKinsey & Co., which is seen by many as the premier management consulting firm in the world. Working alongside some of the brightest people in the world hired from the best schools in the world was an eye-opener.

What remains is a personal goal to operate my company at the standard I witnessed at that firm. This has proven to be challenging!

It seems that the first obstacle that The Accra would have to face is how to very quickly create the standard in the first place. The average Caribbean employee in the service industry is not surrounded by the high standards of service that their colleagues in the First World are privy to. There is no mass-market company in the region that is known for excellent, world-class service (except, perhaps, in their own minds). By mass-market, I mean companies that serve the general public, therefore excluding hotels like the Ritz Carlton or Sandy Lane.

Therefore, it is impossible to tell an employee of The Accra that the service they deliver should be “world-class” like Sandy Lane’s. The truth is that the average employee would have no idea what that experience is like.

Instead, The Accra would have to start by defining the precise experience they wanted customers to have, and allow employees to create it for themselves for the customers. In other words, instead of delivering “world-class service” they would have to deliver an experience equivalent to that delivered to “my best friend” or “my favourite teacher” or “my team-mate.”

Once the desired experience is defined, then the hotel could move on to defining standards of new behaviour that match the experience.

However, there is a limit to what standards can do. The bellman who runs to give me water after a long run is obviously not following a written standard.

Instead, it strikes me that there are two requirements for service to be delivered at this level.

The first requirement is that there must be an inner motivation to deliver the experience. The easiest way to ensure that the right staff is in place is to hire people with a predisposition to serve from the very beginning. For the majority of existing and operational hotels, this is not an option as the staff would be very difficult to change wholesale.

The Accra would have to find a way to directly address and transform the culture of the existing organization.

The second requirement is that the staff would have to be trained to recognize the customer’s experience, and how to produce the desired experience at will. These are tall orders, but they are required capacities that may take a significant investment to perfect.

Interventions to produce these capacities must be developed with an understanding of the region’s peculiar realities, both historical and sociological.

With these ingredients, The Accra could improve its standards, and maybe even deliver a distinct experience that the Marriott could not duplicate.

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