This Is Service?

Everyone knows a dissatisfied customer will tell many more people about a bad experience than a satisfied customer will tell about a good experience. This isn’t news—but these days anyone with an Internet connection can also complain to the world at large.

Two recent experiences have inspired me again to discuss the importance of service. The first—at our local Acme supermarket (now owned by Albertson’s) was frustrating, but humorous. Having only a few items, I headed for the self-service checkout. Normally it’s quick and fun to use the scanner and scale. I ran the first few items through without problem, until the machine wouldn’t read the bar code on a bottle of Windex. It did finally beep its acceptance (or so I thought), so I put the Windex in the bag. The machine promptly announced there was an unauthorized item in the bagging area. (“Thief in checkout aisle one!”)

I took the Windex out and tried to scan it again, but the same thing happened. This routine went another few rounds before the machine froze, requiring help from the attendant at the self-serve area. She punched in some kind of grocery-wizard code and I continued.

When it came time to pay, I hit the appropriate button for “debit card with cash back,” slid my card through the reader, and waited. And waited. And waited. The machine made counting noises but no bills came forth. I called the grocery wizard again, and she punched in her code. Nothing. She unlocked the secret drawer below the counter and peered into the guts of the machine. Still nothing. Finally, after asking another cashier how to make it disgorge money from its innards, she went to the customer service counter to get my change.

The poor woman working the self-serve area was, in fact, helpful and very pleasant. But the irony is that hanging over the whole area was a huge banner proclaiming Acme’s current marketing tagline: “Making Your Life Easier.” You just have to laugh.

My experience at the New York Hilton & Towers wasn’t nearly so amusing. On checkout day, I wheeled my luggage to the lobby to be stored for a few hours. Several bellmen were standing around an empty luggage carrier. I made my way across the lobby and asked to have my bags stored.

Imagine my surprise when one of the bellmen pointed across the lobby and said, “The luggage storage room is over there to the right.”

Excuse me? Isn’t the primary responsibility of a bellhop to handle guests’ bags? Especially when the guest in question is juggling three bags and a coat—and wearing high heels to boot?

I hauled my things to the storage area, only to discover a $3.50 per bag cost for storage. I turned them over to the attendant and stalked off to find the hotel manager.

Now, I travel a fair bit. Never before have I been charged to store bags at a hotel where I’ve just been a guest for several days. At a convention center, yes, but never at a hotel.

“Is this considered a luxury hotel?” I asked the manager. “It’s considered a convention and business hotel,” she responded.

“So a business hotel charges its guests to store luggage?” I asked. “Yes, several New York hotels do,” she replied defensively. (I’ve stayed in more than “several” New York hotels and have never been charged to store my bags.) I told her it didn’t make me anxious to return to a Hilton.

“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, but it’s not all Hiltons,” she said. “It’s just this one. It’s what a lot of New York hotels do.” She explained the luggage storage was a separate concession, not part of the hotel, as if that were all the reason needed.

Separate concession it may be, but business travelers generally expect hotels to provide the service of storing their bags. I understand the need to manage costs, but the hotel could just as easily add $10 to the room charge and store the bags for free. Their costs are recouped, guests don’t feel ripped off, and everybody wins.

“Well, you can fill out a comment card if you’d like and make that suggestion,” replied the manager. She didn’t offer to go get me a comment card, however. To be fair, she did say she would address the bellman’s attitude, but beyond that she didn’t seem to care whether I become a repeat customer at her hotel.

Maybe a convention hotel doesn’t expect its guests to be repeat customers, but what if a dissatisfied guest happened to be a meeting planner scouting a site? How much business would be lost, not only from that potential meeting, but from other meeting- planner colleagues who hear the tale?

Maybe the manager was having a bad day. But being in a service profession means giving up the liberty to be cranky at work. You might be cranky for just one day, but the fallout can last for years—and cost the business thousands of dollars.