Should you judge quality by price?

What a week last week! I spent almost 30 hours driving and covered well over 1,000 miles. I got stuck behind a burning lorry loaded with cheese and got caught up in “Operation Stack”. In between I delivered two management development events, spent a day with an inspirational group of CEOs and took in a tour of the exciting new CareerGift website. By Friday I admit I was exhausted.

In weeks like this you need a lift. And I got mine in a most unexpected place.

On the surface it had all the hallmarks of a disaster of Fawlty Towers proportions. A budget hotel complete with its own – I kid you not – Major in the bar.

And it didn’t start well. After a nightmare drive to the south coast I found myself down a back lane hunting for my hotel. What I found instead was the entrance to a caravan park. Not one mention of a hotel on any of the signs.

In a sense of growing gloom I crawled around an unattractive service road past rows of mobile homes and 1970’s holiday chalets. Finally I spotted a sign for Reception.

That turned out to be a pretty grim looking brick building. The fact it doubled as the entrance to a swimming pool (with a strong whiff of chlorine) just added to the sense of foreboding. Before I even stepped over the threshold, I seriously contemplated getting back in the car and going somewhere, anywhere, else.

Inside, the receptionist couldn’t have been nicer. A certain very swanky 5* hotel in Brussels could learn from her. Whereas they lost my reservation and treated me like it was my fault, this hotel was the epitome of efficiency. Check in was effortless. Although I did start to worry when I was asked for payment on arrival – ie before I had seen the room and could change my mind.

My room turned out to be perfectly adequate. Spotlessly clean, in good repair with a comfy bed and plenty of towels. I’ve stayed in lots of Premier Inns and this was pretty close to that standard. All for just £44 for the night. Right by the coast. In June.

The bar and restaurant turned out to be pretty much one and the same. It seemed popular but I almost choked on my diet coke when the first “regular” came in and called out “evening Major” to an elderly gentleman in the corner. This was repeated time and again to the point I was certain Basil, Sybil or Manuel had to appear at any moment.

Bar service was great and my supper arrived quickly and efficiently. OK so it was “pub grub”. But somehow, at the end of a day that had started before 5am, that was rather comforting.

I had a great night’s sleep and headed down to my £5.50 full English on a plate with a knife and fork. Brilliant again. In Camden it costs nearly that for a bacon butty in a sweaty paper bag.

Check out was as easy as check in. The morning receptionist seemed genuinely concerned whether I had enjoyed my stay. And she didn’t ask me to fill in one of those dreadful, dreary and long-winded customer questionnaires so many chain hotels force on you.

As I drove away I almost regretted I wasn’t staying another night. I doubt Alex Polizzi would rave about it. However if I am ever that way again they’re guaranteed my £50.

Why I mention any of this is that I’ve been lucky enough to hear the brilliant Mark Robb talk about customer experience on two occasions in the last few months. He talks a lot about Wow factor. That means going beyond what the customer expects to secure their loyalty.

My hotel experience checked all his boxes. You just couldn’t fault it for value. I can’t help comparing it with a past stay in a £250 a night room in Brussels (without breakfast) that was a huge let down. In truth my bedroom was definitely grander – and bigger – but certainly not cleaner. The hotel had chandeliers in every public area, a high end restaurant and some glamorous customers. Yet I came away deeply disappointed. Largely due to the “haughty” staff who seem to look down on anyone who doesn’t wear Armani, Prada and Rolex – and glow from fake tan.

As Mark rightly says apathy is the biggest enemy of customer experience. Just because you have a 5* rating doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels. I’m taking my new sense of what it takes to deliver a Wow into our next product development session.

Above all what I’ve learned from this experience are three important lessons:-

  • When faced with something new or different it is easy to leap to the wrong conclusions and put up a mental barrier to change. If my first sight had been an ivy covered country house at the end of a long gravel drive then I am sure that my opening mindset would have been completely different.
  • You have to try something new before you can make a proper judgement. Rejecting things just because they are not what you are used to could shut out the chance to experience something so much better.
  • Price is no guide to a great experience. Sometimes something that is great value knocks you off your feet more than something expensive that just delivers what you expected.

Ian Gooden
Chief Executive

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