It’s always easy when you’re skiing downhill

Now before regular readers of this blog wonder:

a. why my first activity after 3 months in a boot and crutches is to go skiing or

b. whether any form of skiing is ever easy when you are as klutzy as I am;

Rest assured, this is purely metaphorical skiing I’m referring to here.

This is a phrase that Stuart and I have used time and time again in both our business and personal lives, reflecting on the fact that pretty much anyone can master downhill skiing when the going is easy, but its the times when things get tough and it’s necessary to pick up your skiis and slog it out on the climb back up the mountain that provide the true tests.

In commercial relationships, whether you are playing the role of service provider or recipient, its very easy to have a great relationship when everything is going well. Inevitably, there will come a time when something occurs which has the potential to damage that relationship and no matter how big or small the causative factor is, the end outcome is determined by the way that the issue is dealt with by the parties concerned.

Our mantra in business has always been that if something goes wrong and we are in the role of the supplier, we do everything we can to resolve the issue as quickly and as painlessly for the customer as possible, regardless of how and with whom the issue arose. That has to be the first priority, as this is the opportunity to make or break that relationship. By all means investigate the causative factors and do what you can to address these, but this has to be occurring as a background activity unless it is directly related to the visible solution for the customer. If you do a good enough job on the resolution, you can actually find that the outcome is actually a strengthened customer relationship as a consequence. We’ve always found that the vast majority of people behave in a reasonable manner, and unless the issue has arisen out of clearly avoidable negligence are quite prepared to behave in a way which reflects what they would like to see if the shoe was on the other foot.

We’ve had a really interesting week this week, where rather than being the supplier we’ve been in the customer role with a couple of our key partners when things went badly and it’s fair to say some of those relationships have been strengthened while others have been badly damaged, and the difference has all come down to the way they have managed the issue.  It’s also been a really interesting insight into business cultures and team engagement, because none of the people we’ve been dealing with have been business owners, all have been employees of large organisations.

To cut to the chase, our hotel room was accessed overnight in Berlin last Sunday night while we were in there asleep, and a large number of items stolen including both our wallets (with all our credit cards), my handbag with my passport in it, the kids iPhone and iPad, etc etc; right down to the very random item of Sam’s Hawks training jacket!  When we woke up in the morning and discovered this, it was fair to say we were pretty freaked out, the idea of someone ransacking your living room while you are asleep in one of the world’s leading hotel chains is not the most comfortable, and indeed breaches the entire duty of care of hotel providers globally.

Now let’s keep in mind that this hotel chain is one that we have an exceptionally close relationship with in Australia, and our bookings in both Munich and Berlin were actually made by the senior management of that chain in Australia. To that end, we were more than a little surprised to find that the way the hotel dealt with the reported theft was to direct us to a chair in the lobby by the entrance door, ask us to fill in a form for THEIR insurance, and then leave. us. there. for. hours.  Allegedly, we were waiting for the police, but after a while I needed to go to the Australian embassy to replace my passport (and enormous kudos to the people there, who issued me a new emergency passport despite me not being able to produce any form of official ID documentation, as everything I had been travelling with had been stolen) so Stuart went back upstairs to our room, where the log of access to our room was taken, so we could then confirm what was authorised and what could potentially be the thief. We pointed out that it should be pretty easy to spot, as the theft had occurred between 1.30 am and 7 am, when none of us had accessed the door, and this is where it all got a little incredulous.

Because we never heard anything further from the hotel management.

That’s right, nothing.

We went out to grab an early dinner before our early morning departure the following day, and the concierge, who had provided us with fantastic service all week, ran over and wanted to make sure that we were okay, was very upset that the theft had occurred and wanted to let us know of his personal outrage that this had happened. But we never had (and right through till the time I’m writing this post), have still not had, a single piece of contact or follow up from anyone from the hotel management apologising, checking that we are ok, or seeing if there’s anything they could do to make the situation better.

Needless to say, this complete failure of duty of care has enormously changed our perception of this hotel chain and its culture, and it’s gone from being top of our list to ‘would not stay in one of their international locations if it was the last hotel on earth’ status.

On the other hand, our bankers (both business and personal because all of our cards were stolen) and our American Express relationship manager, who played no part in the events that led to the theft of the credit cards, could not have gone any further out of their way to make this their issue to solve. They made themselves completely accessible even with the difference in business hours between Germany and Australia, chased missing replacement cards down like sniffer dogs and went above and beyond to do everything they could to help us get back to the point where we had access to cash and functioning cards ASAP. We are immensely grateful to them, and value their services more than ever.

None of these people own the businesses they were acting on behalf of, yet each had the power to control the way in which that business was perceived via its handling of the issue presented. None of them were directly responsible for the problem at the heart of the issue, but some chose to take responsibility for trying to deliver the best outcome they could, and use the opportunity to demonstrate to the customer both the value of the service they could provide, and the regard they held for their customers’ business. And some didn’t.

What makes the difference? It’s my belief it all comes down to  business culture. In large organisations, customer service and customer focus is highly dependent on the right culture because no manager or individual can oversee every customer interaction. Some of these businesses have great customer focused cultures, where people are empowered to do everything they can to both meet and exceed customer expectations, and some don’t  (watch this space for an upcoming post on an organisation that is the best I’ve ever seen for delivering customer experience through staff engagement).

The organisations’ that take their customers for granted do so at their peril, because as soon as the downhill ski run finishes they have no ability to survive the climb back to the top of the slope.

UPDATE:  Despite the room log when finally provided showing that our room had been accessed not just once but numerous times between 3am and 5am, we have now been formally advised by the Hilton Berlin (yes I’m now prepared to name and shame you, after numerous chances to apologise for the breach of your duty of care which you have missed on every occasion) that because the key card used to access the room was coded ‘guest’ – do they actually have cards coded ‘robber’?? – it was obviously us who were responsible and therefore they have no liability in this matter.

And with that our long term relationship with the Hilton brand internationally ends, but I guarantee this won’t be the last time I tell this story, or use it in presentations as an illustration of the absolute worst kind of business culture.

The thing that the management of the Hilton Berlin have completely failed to grasp is it was never about the value of the goods that were stolen, it was about the breach of trust and the damage to our confidence in them as a brand.

This could have been recovered if  handled appropriately, instead they chose a path that had no outcome other than to create the worst kind of customer any business can have – one who is passionately committed to spreading the news about how bad their experience was, in any forum where the opportunity presents.

The room had a great view, but it’s one we certainly won’t be seeing again…
Newer Story:

Putting on the Ritz & raising the bar!

October 05, 2014

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