A Spooky Tale of Two Cities … no, really just a tale of how important service recovery is


We’ve been covering a lot of the basics this year — because we believe that they are key to any strong Customer Experience program. We’ve talked about language, design, strategy and metrics

We’ve also talked a ton about culture over here at Chief Customer. As a matter of fact, we were talking about the correlation between employee experience and customer experience long before it became popular. 

This month, our topic is really a combination of all the above, and then some. Because when the rubber hits the road, the best run program is being delivered by humans. When something goes wrong, oftentimes, it is humans who make the mistake. And generally, it is humans who are forced to do the clean-up. 

I’d like to tell you a story this month about a tale of two hospitality experiences. One, horrific, and one absolutely breathtaking. This is truly a tale of #CXEDS (Customer Experience Execution Deadly Sin). 

You tell me — which one of these would your company be executing against if push came to shove?

As many of you know, I was raised in Hawaii. I try to come home as often as I can. I know, I know exactly how that sounds — but it is my home. Moving on …

I took a trip back home in the beginning of September. My route was the one that has become my favorite. TPA-ATL-HNL. I spend a few nights in Honolulu on Oahu visiting old family friends, then off to Maui for a hunk of time, then back to Honolulu for one more night before HNL-ATL-TPA. It’s a heck of a travel day getting to and from the islands, so I’ve got this down to a science.

For my first stay in Honolulu, I decided to use some of my stash of Marriott points. Now, I had super status with both Marriott and Starwood before their merger. So, the “Bonvoy” status I’ve got is pretty tops. According to their site, the only one above me is “Ambassador Status” which would require that I spend $20k a year in their hotels. Since I like and respect our clients, and because I do like to be home sometimes, that status will likely never be met. 

Regardless, as a “Titanium Elite” — and it really is a top-dog status — I’m supposed to be offered upgrades. I’m supposed to get welcome gifts. I have a special phone number to call. All of the things. Because of this fabulous status, I’ve also accumulated an enormous amount of points over the years. And I have a few Marriott-branded credit cards. You can say I’m all in. When you have the cards, and you travel a ton, it is actually really hard to use up your miles and points. I find myself donating them often.

I made the decision to break from my habit of staying at the Marriot Waikiki and decide to splurge and stay at the Princess of Waikiki. Now, for those of you who have been lucky enough to go to Oahu and stay on Waikiki, you would totally recognize her by sight. She was built in 1901, and was the first hotel built on Waikiki. 

What you also need to know is that I’ve walked by this hotel hundreds of times. I’ve marched past it as a Girl Scout down Kalakaua Avenue (which is the main drag of Waikiki Beach) in the 80s. I’ve gone into their lobby more times that I can count to see the Christmas decorations. I’ve always dreamt of staying at this hotel.

I had a ton of points, I had Titanium status. What could possibly go wrong?

I won’t bore you with all the gritty details, but I’ll frame the experience for you:

  1. Got email from a concierge days before saying they were busy and I wouldn’t get a status upgrade to a better room.
  2. Had a lovely exchange with concierge.
  3. Had a lovely check in experience.
  4. Walked into a sad looking room with peeling wallpaper, but after 18 hours of travel fell to sleep.
  5. Woke up the next morning at the crack of dawn having an asthma attack.
  6. Identified an enormous amount of mold in the bathroom.
  7. Reported said mold to guest services — also clearly stating that I had severe asthma.
  8. Was told that it would be fixed immediately.
  9. Left room to find somewhere to breathe.
  10. Came back several hours later to find an industrial-sized air purifier and the head of housekeeping in my room because they’d used “horrific chemicals” without realizing until “too late” that I had asthma.
  11. Told them I needed to be moved.
  12. Was moved to a room of a lower quality than even the one I’d booked.
  13. Asked if there was anything better available.
  14. Was told there wasn’t.
  15. Checked the website. There were several rooms of a higher tier available for the remainder of my stay.
  16. Decided that it wasn’t worth the fight since I was on vacation and decided to respond to them later.
  17. Sent an email to the concierge and responded to the survey post check-out with all of the above.
  18. Received an email response from the manager. Was credited for one night of points, not for the three I was there for. Nor was I credited the daily resort fee. The apology was poor, at best.

Now Ingrid, it’s Hawaii, which is in the tropics —  of course there is mold! And how could you expect housekeeping to have known you had asthma? How else could they have removed the mold from the room without using chemicals? All legitimate questions. But the thing that really got to me? The lack of comment from the management. 

There have been plenty of times when a company I’ve been the CXO for messed up. Because we’re all human, right? And I have to tell you, service recovery is key. 

All that needed to happen was a call from the hotel manager — a gift basket with a bottle of wine, a handwritten note. A simple acknowledgement of the mistake and a gesture showing that they are trying to make up for the error. It goes a long way.

So, let’s fast forward to the other bookend of my stay. My last night on the islands. Back in Honolulu after a fabulous couple of weeks in Maui. This time, I stayed at the place I have stayed on my last night every time I’m on Oahu. The Outrigger Waikiki Beach. Another truly iconic Waikiki property. Home of Duke’s. 

Now. I’ve been staying at this hotel 1-3 nights a year for a long time. They are a part of the Discovery Loyalty program. I have zero status with that program. Zero. The Discovery Loyalty program is a fabulous program that covers hotel chains like the Outrigger, the Omni, and a whole host of other smaller hotel chains. 

When I arrived, I was greeted like an old friend at check in. I was welcomed back. I was upgraded to an ocean front, corner, one bedroom suite with two balconies. Within moments of arriving, there was a knock on the door and a goody bag was delivered. It was a reusable, thermal Hawaiian print lunch bag. It was filled with a few waters, Hawaiian juices, cookies, chocolates, and some other snacks. 

(source: Hilo Hattie’s)

The room was fabulous. The experience was fabulous. I was treated like an old friend. And remember, I had ZERO status.

What astounded me, as I cruised eastward back across the Pacific, was how different the two experiences were. Two brands — both of which I’ve been very loyal to (on very different scales) and which showed up in the inverse order one would expect. 

I’d have expected my Marriott stay to be flawless and well-orchestrated. Partially due to my status and my loyalty. Partially due to the class of the hotel. Partially due to the experiences they usually provide. Yet, they failed at delivering basics: a clean room, a safe environment. And, their service recovery was non-existent. 

From the Outrigger property, I was offered a stunningly orchestrated experience — and although I’ve been loyal for years, it has been on such a small scale that I would think I’d have received only the baseline treatment.

In this ever-growing field of Customer Experience, I’m telling this story to remind people that the basics still carry so much weight. And that even if you fail at something, you still have a chance to fix it.

I’ll tell you, I’m not going to be so rash as to say “I’m done with Marriott! I’m out!”  But I will say that I’m exploring what the other chains offer. And I’m checking out some of the new credit card sign-on bonuses for other hotel brands.

Think about your business. 

Have you been clear about what #NailtheCXBasics looks like?

Have you segmented your highest-value guests?

Have you been explicit about how your teams will execute on service recovery?

You really should be. Humans deliver your customer experience. But don’t forget — humans are also on the receiving end of it.