First Impressions Are Nice, but Last Impressions Are the Ones That Really Count
By Laurence Bernstein Managing Partner, Protean Strategies | April 04, 2021
This article discusses two potent examples of received wisdom (myths) from the perspective of behavioral economics: how people actually respond to experience stimuli and what they remember and why.
Rather than focus on every touchpoint, one must identify the experience moments that are most likely to deliver on the brand promise overtly and which are most likely to be remembered. Specifically, how to focus on the departure experience which is more likely to be recalled than the welcome experience.?
Service is not automatically the differentiator between a good experience and a great experience. Sometimes amenities or location trumps service. We were at Amangiri a few years ago to celebrate a friend's fiftieth. The hotel is magnificent, situated near Canyon Point in the Utah desert. The built form of the hotel is unimaginably cool; the desert views from every suite are breathtaking. The spa is second to none. But the service, at least when we were there, was terrible.
But when I recall my visit to the Utah desert do I complain about the service? Not even a hint. I tell my friends about the physical hotel, the location, the view, the BMW convertible they lent us for a day. I tell my friends the place is so gorgeous that nothing else matters.
So, as you see, great service is not the be-all and end-all of luxury hotel management. But unless you have a uniquely stunning hotel in a uniquely stunning locations, it might be wise to concentrate on service as the way to differentiate your property. Charging a literally eye-popping room rate helps as well, but that is another subject entirely.
Most outstanding hotels provide the same level of excellent service. They must, it's table-stakes. This is the category where for the most part bad service is rarely forgiven. A typical customer will describe their experience in even the highest end branded hotel something like this; "It was a great hotel, we had a lovely stay, The hotel itself is really nice, the service is excellent and, although it's expensive, I think it's worth every penny" This is about as bland as a review can get, and the hotel will probably be forgotten by the next trip ("I cant actually remember where I stayed in Phoenix"). Unless, that is, the hotel features one of these three externalities that compel guests to visit the hotel. Externalities such as: 1. Closest to where I need to be; 2. Loyalty system member (yes, high end travelers collect points, too); or 3. They actually want to because their previous stay was so memorable.
The fact that upper end hotels have undifferentiated service is not a given. There are ways that hotels can make their brand of luxury different and preferable and memorable. Hotels that have a unique brand proposition, that authentically live their 'brand story' will very often have unique, experience-based, service notes that contribute to the memorability of the experience. This is the primary reason boutique and life-style hotels are doing so well (although, to be fair, boutique hotels are developing a worrying sameness and predictability even though they are in the best position to deliver unique service moments).
Every hotel stay consists of a series of experiential moments, most of which will never be recalled. We all experience around 20,000 moments every day, only a fraction of which make it to what Daniel Kahneman, the Noble laureate psychology professor, calls our "remembering self". The rest of our experiences simply disappear. So, the trick in experience design is to determine which of the 20,000 experiences your customers are enjoying or enduring, you want them to remember, and ensure that those experiences stand out and are remembered.
It's not unlike a rainstorm – there are billions of raindrops none of which are memorable (micro-experiences); there are pools of water some of which might be memorable (if they dirty your shoes), and thunder and lightning which are memorable (macro experiences), and then there is the biggest experience, the way the overall storm is remembered (meta experience). To remember a storm, we do not remember each raindrop, nor each individual clap of thunder (unless it is so loud and intrusive that it overwhelms the other memories), but we do remember the rainstorm. How we remember the rainstorm, whether positively, negatively, nostalgically, angrily, etc., is determined by the emotional link created by the experience.
Must Every Touchpoint Be Memorable?
Which brings us to the first of the two myths – that you need to make every touchpoint memorable. You do not because you cannot, and they would not be remembered anyway. You need to determine which moments are most important and most likely to be remembered and most likely to powerfully express the brand proposition. Of course, you need to make sure that every experience lives up to expectations. In the same way salient positive experiences can make their way into memory, salient negative experiences can make their way into memory.
The process is taxing, but worthwhile, because in the end you focus on what makes a difference and not focus on services that will not be noticed or recalled. When done effectively this results in the brand being remembered as you want it to be remembered, not as it is accidentally experienced. The process is best done including all associates, with each department identifying what they consider the most salient experiences they deliver directly or indirectly during the guests' stay.
Each of these moments need to meet two criteria: important enough to be remembered by the guest and differentiated enough to deliver on the brand promise. I must have checked into a thousand hotels, and I remember none of the check in experiences. Except one, at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago twenty years ago when they handed out strawberries to make the wait time at the front desk less upsetting. Note that I did not remember the overly long wait to check in (negative experience), but I did remember the salient, standout strawberry (positive experience). The result of that simple strawberry is that every time I think of Chicago, I think of the Hyatt Regency. Interestingly, despite the impressive structure and excellent service of the hotel, I remember it only because of the strawberry which is the only way in which it actually differentiated itself from any other upper upscale hotel.
Are First Impressions the Most Important?
The second myth we will be busting is the commonly accepted belief that first impressions are the most important. Hotels spend time and resources on making sure the arrival is special on the assumption that…well, I'm not sure what assumption. It's just one of those received wisdom things, that nobody actually questions. Again, I am not advocating for an arrival and check in that is careless or cavalier. I am suggesting that too much emphasis is placed on the arrival at the expense, as it turns out, of the departure.
While hotel door persons and porters devise myriad schemes to find out the guest's name so they can pretend to recognize him or her: from sneaking a look at baggage tags to arranging with cabs and limousine drivers to call ahead. Greeting guests by name, if they are returning, is obviously a solid win for any hotel, but it does not have the impact one might think. For one thing, returning guests expect no less from luxury properties, and for another it is, in fact, unlikely to have much impact on the way the guest ultimately evaluates the stay. Calling the guest by name when they leave the hotel is more authentic and more likely to be remembered.
The theory here is the proven (by behavioural scientists) idea that ultimately events are evaluated not by aggregating each individual experiential component (averaging the effect of all the micro and macro experiences), but rather by considering the last event and the "peak" event (the one that stands out most in your mind). In the case of the Hyatt Regency in Chicago the peak event was in fact the strawberry, which is the only aspect of the stay that stands out. In remembering a hotel experience, customers are most likely to recall the experience through the lens of the most salient experience and the last experience: what is extra special and unique and how they were treated on the way out.
As hoteliers we tend to fawn over people when they arrive (rightly) but at the expense of acknowledging guests when they leave. Arrival is a choreographed ballet of service moments, while often when checking out or leaving a hotel one gets the impression that all they want is us out of there. Even though it is convenient, the net impression of all the instant checkout services is that the hotel does not want to see or hear from guests when they leave.
Hotels surprise guests with wine or fruit in the room, which is a great way of welcoming customers and making them feel special. In reality a surprise at the end of the stay is likely to have more impact on the recall of the stay than a surprise at the beginning. Of course, this is not a zero-sum game, and its not an either/or proposition. Great hotels do both…but it is a good bet that guests will remember the gift on departure more vividly than the welcome gift.
I clearly remember staying at the Fairmont in Quebec City. I remember enjoying breakfast on a terrace overlooking the old part of the city, and I remember the smell of the freshly baked muffin they left in my car with a bottle of water, when I left. I cannot recall any gift on arrival. As predicted, I recall the peak experience (breakfast on the terrace) and the end experience; and my overall recall of my stay is defined by the way I felt about these two experiences. Had the peak experience been a waiter spilling a hot soup over my trousers at lunch, my recall would be entirely different.
There are a number of amenities or service moments that can be delivered to guests on departure. From a simple thank you card from the manager (sort of like the welcome card, but in reverse), to boxed water, to baked goods, to newspapers, and the list goes on.
The simple take away is to be less concerned about the small unremarkable moments and focus on those that are likely to be remembered (make them memorable) and ensure that the end experience is worthy of recall.
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