A Tale of Two Hotels
What is the most important component for building customer loyalty? I don’t purport to hold the answer, and I can recite at least a score of pleasant-sounding theories that are popular in marketing circles. But on a recent vacation in Japan, I was confronted with a powerful example of something I’ve noticed before: that often, my most memorable positive consumer experiences have come from the unlikely realm of how a business deals with mistakes.
Let’s begin with my vacation to Tokyo last month. My wife and I flew via the Pacific and arrived, as you would guess, tired and horribly jet-lagged. An airport shuttle took us to our first destination, Starwood’s Westin—a highly rated hotel in every respect. I’m a Starwood Platinum member, so I headed straight for the special Platinum check-in lounge on a high floor of the hotel.
According to Starwood policy, I was entitled to ask for an upgrade to the best available room at the hotel, including a suite. I did so. The clerk looked over my reservation and told me that because of the special rate I was paying, I was not, even as a Platinum member, eligible for a room upgrade.
Now I knew, according to Starwood policy, that the clerk was wrong; I was entitled to the upgrade. But since we were exhausted from the long trip, my wife and I went ahead and checked into our assigned room and went straight to sleep. When we awoke the next morning, I wrote a quick e-mail to Starwood explaining the situation and asking if their policy had changed. Starwood wrote back within minutes saying there was no change in policy and that they’d contact the hotel.
When we got back from breakfast, there was a message waiting for me from the Tokyo Westin general manager. He apologized profusely for the mistake, said he had a special suite ready for us, and offered to send staff to help us move all our things. I accepted.
Quickly, we were ushered into the spacious and beautiful “Camellia Suite”, and the remainder of our stay at the Westin was wonderful.
After a few days, we traveled on to another part of Japan for the next leg of our vacation.
Ultimately, we returned to Tokyo for the final four days of our vacation, where I had booked us—well before we’d left the U.S., just for variety—into the celebrated Park Hyatt Tokyo. One of the most celebrated hotels in Tokyo, it was everything you’d expect. It was visually stunning, offered a surplus of inviting amenities, and was expertly staffed. We arrived by taxi, and when the hotel staff saw I was a Hyatt Diamond member, they immediately shifted into high gear, took charge of our luggage, and whisked us up to a magnificent room where chilled champagne was waiting. The entire stay was delightful. The experience was a snapshot of professionalism that approached perfection.
We loved our vacation, and both hotel experiences were great. There’s just one oddity: my standout memory—and the story I have been telling everyone since we returned—is of the Westin, and how they handled a clerk’s error with quickness, grace, and aplomb. Moreover, the experience improved my loyalty to Starwood, while I simply feel normal gratitude to the Park Hyatt for delivering the standard of service that has earned them their reputation.
In short, my Westin experience was the superior one, even though—in fact, because—it started with a mildly irritating error on the part of the hotel.
It leaves me asking myself about business, as I have before, “Is deft handling of mistakes more impressive than perfection?”
It simply doesn’t suffice to offer me the rhetorical rebuttal that problem-solving is part of overall customer service, and thus I am simply telling the same story—one of “excellence”—about both hotels.
No. In the first place, I hardly mention my seamless experience at the Park Hyatt to anyone, while recently I’ve been a very vocal promoter of Starwood and the Tokyo Westin. And something tells me I’d need to see the Park Hyatt handle a problem before I could become a committed promoter.
I think the vexing truth is that perfection or near-perfection is somewhat static. By contrast, the swift and effective response to an error is always dynamic. I’ve learned this not simply as a consumer, but in 30-plus years of management. In business, time and time again, I’ve sensed—or known for certain—that a customer’s loyalty was cemented not during times of a perfect, happy relationship, but by a timely response to an error or crisis: by some saving “correction.”
To take my impression of this phenomenon a bit further, I believe that mistakes, well corrected, are more than dynamic: they’re captivating, not just in business but in the public imagination. We celebrate them.
If you think I’ve crossed into hyperbole, consider an example far from the world of the boardroom.
The name of Roald Amundsen has long been and remains one that elicits medium recognition. Curious, considering he was the first explorer to reach the South Pole (and the first scientifically confirmed to reach the North Pole). Amundsen’s South Pole journey was of gigantic scientific significance. He prepared meticulously, demanding a ship design that would withstand fields of ice, utilizing skis for the first time on a polar mission, and outfitting his crew in unconventional lightweight clothing. He also bested a formidable competitor, Scott, whose entire team perished in the race against Amundsen.
Amundsen’s South Pole mission was near-perfect. But he just barely lives on as a historical figure today.
Now, consider the inexplicably heroic fortunes of Ernest Shackleton, captain of the “Endurance,” who led a far less significant voyage in 1914, aimed at sailing from sea to sea across the polar region. He haplessly sailed his ship into pack ice, where it was crushed. After the “Endurance” sank, Shackleton managed to get his entire crew home safely against great odds. The mission was an utter failure, but with each passing decade Shackleton grows grander in public esteem (featured in recent years in a best-selling book, a film documentary, a National Geographic museum exhibit, etc.) for saving his crew in the wake of his colossal navigational blunder.
The gap in popularity between the two explorers makes little sense. Nor does it make sense that I returned from Japan as an ardent promoter of the Tokyo Westin, when my all-around experience at the Park Hyatt was probably superior.
But after years of consideration, I’m now convinced that the well-handled mistake is a seriously underrated component in building customer loyalty. It may even be the most important component.
Steven Salta is co-founder and CEO of Ascentium, a digital media and interactive marketing agency. Steven has overall responsibility for the agency’s revenue, profitability, customer loyalty, and corporate culture.