Are you the weak link for your brand?

I’m incredibly fortunate to find myself now spending a lot of time travelling around the world looking at where our next opportunities are coming from, and how we can take inspiration from the things I see or experience in other industries and apply those learnings to our own business activities.

Far more of those experiences are positive than negative – I recently got to experience an absolute master class in branding by Dior, which I wrote about here, but everyone now and again you have the opportunity to learn just as much when an opposite style of service delivery is on display.

This past week or so in London has delivered one of those, so I thought I’d share it here – without naming names – as while again it’s from a completely different industry to healthcare, it still has plenty of relevance.

We’ve just spent the past week in London, staying in a hotel we hadn’t visited previously. We’ve stayed in plenty of other properties belonging to this brand around the world, are top tier members of their loyalty program, and always thoroughly enjoyed our visits whether it be for one night or several weeks duration. The physical buildings and locations may all be quite different, but the commonality to date has been in the service delivery and the way each and every team member is committed to delivering the best possible guest experience.

Sascha and I stayed at the London location for a couple of nights last week before joining the boys in Yorkshire, and while it wasn’t awful it was pretty underwhelming and not at all reflective of our past experiences with the brand. After a few days in Yorkshire we were all excited to be in London as a family for the first time since the Olympics, and our location ticked all the boxes – across the road from TopShop for the teen, just down the road from Hamleys and all of its delights for Sam, and close by to two of my London faves, Selfridges and Psycle.

Unfortunately from the moment we arrived things went pear-shaped and continued to get worse. The two bedroom apartment we had initially tried to book was unavailable, which I’m happy to accept can happen, there is only ever a limited number of those accommodation’s available in any property and if they’re already booked they’re already booked. However when it was suggested that the reason the two rooms we’d subsequently been allocated were at opposite ends of the floor ‘because that’s what you’d specifically requested’ – of course that’s what you do when you’re travelling with your kids, request they are given a room miles away from yours! – the brand experience really started to deteriorate at pace. We had no trouble believing the hotel was fully booked (the lady checking in next to us didn’t even get the room she’d booked, she was told she’d have to find somewhere else to stay) and that these were the only two rooms available in the entire hotel, but after packing and unpacking 7 times in the past two weeks had no interest in the only proposed solution (offered after much discussion) which was to move the kids the following day.

When we got to the rooms, the kids were delighted to find that the Amex travel program’s welcome champagne had been placed in their room rather than ours, but maybe that was because the hotel thought Stuart and I didn’t need champagne on top of the incredibly strong smell of marijuana smoke that the previous guests had left in our room. Clearly we were now fully aware there was no option for a room move, and I suppose they weren’t to know that smoke (whether it be marijuana or cigarette in origin) is one of the strongest triggers around for my asthma. Sleeping with the windows wide open cleared out the smell, but the damage was done and I spent the rest of our time in London attached to my puffer and coughing like I’d spent the last 46 years as a pack a day smoker.

From there it was just an ongoing litany of basic hospitality errors that had us wondering whether

  1. It was work experience week
  2. Local management had taken inspiration from Fawlty Towers in their desire to deliver a unique British experience
  3. We were part of some bizarre reality TV experiment

Unfortunately I don’t think any of these provided the explanation, and the cause was much more simple than that. At no point during any of this ongoing series of issues did we have any contact from the management of the hotel to ask what had gone wrong, and was there anything they could do to fix it. This was despite us knowing they were well aware of the issues as they made contact through a third party to offer us a discounted rate for the first night!

We declined, none of our issues with the service or product delivered were about trying to get a discount and we’ve encountered enough ‘professional complainers’ in our travels to have absolutely no desire to be tarred with that brush.

We were however absolutely disgusted that despite the fact that we were still staying in the hotel they made no attempt to contact us directly. This did however answer every question around why this location stands alone from others in the brand in having such a terrible culture and execution capability. When the management of any business actively dodges direct customer interaction and doesn’t take responsibility for customer experience, how can the rest of the team be expected to understand what the brand promise is really about?

Don’t get me wrong, some of the staff were lovely and so apologetic about the terrible experience we were having. One of them asked me what the duty manager had said about it, and when I replied that we’d had no contact from them, their response of ‘and that says it all really, don’t it ma’am’ summed things up beautifully.

I’m acutely aware that having a less than optimal stay in a 5 star hotel is very much in the category of first world problems, and while we can and will easily address the issue by staying somewhere else in future, the one positive was that it did deliver up some excellent branding lessons that we will take back to our own teams.

  1. Your brand is only as good as its weakest link. A poor experience, particularly when delivered by one of your brand flagships has the ability to damage the perception of the overall group.
  2. The culture and engagement of your people is irrevocably linked to the brand experience, and delivers a much more powerful message than any of the physical attributes of your brand no matter how much money you spend on fancy fit outs and styling.
  3. The old truism that fish rot from the head was on display here. If leadership is weak and poorly aligned to brand values, you can expect that to permeate right through your service proposition.
  4. Loyalty programs are only of value if you actually also make people feel valued, just giving someone a card saying you are one of our most valuable customers counts for nothing if the experience doesn’t demonstrate or reinforce that.

It’s been fascinating to see two excellent opportunities for brand learning come out of London just weeks apart, albeit at such opposite ends of the spectrum. The take aways from each are equally as important and I know will deliver value to our businesses, and I hope to others also reading this post.


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