Saturday, April 29, 2006


hotel patrons: users and customers

I'm back from a week's stay at a "deluxe" hotel in Sydney, right in the financial district. Very nice place, full of smiling staff and polished marble. The hotel even boasted it was voted one of the top 25 hotels in the Asia-Pacific. Clearly, customer experience is a paramount concern for this hotel.

But for all the concern about customer experience, there seemed to be little concern for user experience. On arriving, I looked around for the standard hotel portfolio binder explaining available services, when they were accessible and what the charges were. Unable to find such a binder, I then noticed the serious looking remote control by the television, and thought "this information must be all online." I turned on the television and started surfing. It seemed a struggle to by-pass the pay-for-view movie selections. I couldn't figure how to go back, when while looking for the hotel information I got sucked into various infomercials touting the hotel chain's other hotels in faraway places. After a seemingly random traversal through unrelated screens and meaningless menu option labels, the only piece of hotel-related information I discovered were stern instructions on what to do in case of a fire. Not exactly where I would expect to look for that information, though happily the hotel marble was not ablaze.

We had to ring the concierge to get the information sought, but it wasn't simple either. There are two reasons I'd rather be a "user" dealing with an interactive device, rather than a "customer" dealing with human. First, the human encounter requires certain nice formalities that can be irrelevant to the task at hand, such as when the well-trained hotel staff solicitously enquire how I'm enjoying my stay, even though I've just arrived and am simply trying to get some information. Second, it can sometimes be difficult to articulate what you want; it is easier to scan for and recognize it. The conversation about the folder/binder thing with hotel information (do these things have a name?) did not quickly result in required information. The staff keep asking what information exactly we wanted, while what we wanted was general information we might want to know once we were aware of it. Our ever-attentive hotel staff attempted to satisfy us by giving as the hotel's corporate newsletter, which didn't have any information relevant to us at all. The confusion was finally resolved when the hotel staff realized that we didn't have the mysterious binder of information in our room as it should be. There was a binder, it had the information what we wanted, it just wasn't in our room.

The incident was hardly traumatic, but it was amusing, considering the enormous stock hotels place in addressing the customer experience. While my Sydney hotel focused on the personal touch, it had a klutzy interactive TV that took several minutes to download the balance on one's room charges.

Hotels can ironically misunderstand to the needs of their patrons on account of their people-orientated systems of delivering services. I don't mean to suggest that patrons don't want personal attention for such matters as getting restaurant recommendations and bookings, or theater tickets. But people, apart from the desperately lonely, don't want all encounters to be personal, and hotels don't recognize this.

Labor economist Robert Reich notes he prefers ATMs to bank tellers. He admits what many feel deep down: "I'd prefer to save my scarce social energies for more important encounters." I think some hotel functions fall in the same category. But while ATMs are famous for being simple to use, hotel IT services lack such distinction. Some hotels have embraced wireless technology, but many, including big name outfits in major global business centers, haven't even grasped the importance of having user-friendly information technology available for patrons. Far too many punish patrons for wanting IT access, viewing it as just another way to gouge customers. Hotel business center fees can make the hotel spa services look like a bargain in comparison. My Sydney hotel charged A$36 an hour for internet access. As far as I'm concerned, that's like charging $36 for a newspaper.

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