A frustration I have as a customer service consultant is the difficulty of convincing business leaders I work with to think in a less transactional, less fractured manner about the customer experience, to correct their misconception that improving independent pieces of the customer experience in isolation is sufficient, as if customers will logically tally up every aspect of working with their company and then dispassionately rate it.
This, of course, isn’t how the customer mind–the human mind–operates. Instead, a customer either decides that she enjoys being your customer or decides that she doesn’t. Your challenge in business, therefore, is to create this state of enjoyment for your customers: to envision what pleasure looks like for your customer and then–and only then–get to work on the individual pieces that will make up this whole.
One approach I’ve had success with in getting this through the heads of leaders is to ask them to think of directing a movie with their customer as the star. Once you decide to direct such a movie, and to put the customer (rather than your business, its processes, its internal org chart) in the starring role, we can get to work creating a tremendous customer experience.
Scenography at the Ritz-Carlton
There’s nothing more potentially interchangeable than a hotel room. Rectangular, built to particular safety standards, available at a particular price point. What infuses a hotel room, and the surrounding property, with life is the experience of the guests within it.
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company works every day to escape the commodity rut by taking the idea of moviemaking seriously, to the point of set design, music, lighting, and the rest. In Ritz-Carlton lingo, their approach is called “scenography.”
What “scenography” consists of is a little bit soft-focus, gauzy, hard to pin down. And that’s the magic of it. Scenography isn’t about features. Spec sheets. Room upgrades, and other easily-copied competitive advantages. It’s about creating a feeling.
Scenography involves creating a property-wide theme and supporting it with accompanying design elements, lighting, cast participation and so forth (I think you get the theatrical metaphor here, so I won’t belabor it).
This overarching theme supports the specific hotel or resort’s “sense of place,” its uniqueness, even its quirkiness, something that has been an important change in the Ritz-Carlton brand's identity from its earlier, more cookie-cutter incarnation.
For example, Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, perched as it is above the Pacific Ocean, has adopted a theme related to sunset: Candles. S’mores or wine around the firepits. A bagpiper who plays each night as the sun falls into the sea.
Or look at (listen to, really) what’s going on at Ritz-Carlton’s Dove Mountain Resort, in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Guests having cocktails outside its Ignite bar will suddenly hear melodies played on a handmade wood flute by a Native American musician (pictured below) who is perched on a hill some ways away from the hotel–played in a way that makes use of the answering echoes from the opposing mountains. Giving an auditory guide, in a sense, to the local landscape.
The thing is, I’m laying out these component elements for you individually because, well, it’s my job as a customer service consultant to break things down into their individual components to see how a “whole” has been created. But in practice, if you ask a Ritz-Carlton guest what they loved about their visit to, for example, Half Moon Bay, the answer is by and large “it was great,” not “the bagpiper played a modal air for eight repetitions before retiring for the evening.” Because the elements are designed and executed in a way that lets the guest, the “star,” go about their activities, but with critical enhancements that they wouldn’t necessarily notice on their own but would miss if the elements were absent.
To succeed with scenography requires first and foremost creativity on the part of the hotel staff. This creativity has to reach all the way up to the traditionally RevPar (revenue per available room)-obsessed General Manager and throughout the ranks of the employees to make the program a success. Rather than there being a list of “ten rules for successful scenography,” the rules that matter are more like the following, to paraphrase Fred Dust from Ideo, a creative firm that was involved in the creation of scenography. “1. Leaders, be more creative!” and 2. “Empower your employees to be more creative as well.”
The Ritz-Carlton’s commitment to scenography is such that they’ve written into their business plans that every year each individual hotel GM has to deliver three unique scenes as part of this scenography. Let me say that again: this fluffy, fuzzy idea of scenography is required now as part of each property’s business plan, to lay out that “these are the scenes we are going to be working on this year, and here’s the date that we’ll put them into motion.”
The thing about the creativity requirement is that it’s not just required to create these scenarios. The requirement for staff creativity continues to be important in implementation, in keeping each hotel property from becoming a slave to its pre-determined theme. Because every guest is unique, and the concept of creating, directing, supporting scenes needs to be modified, sometimes on the fly, based on the nature of the guest and the visit. For example: If you’re not much of a drinker, you can count on Half Moon Bay’s empathetic staff to pick up on this and not force their “red wine by the firepit” theme down your throat.
Ditto for smaller touchpoints, each instance of which may require adjustment for each guest: A stressed and jetlagged exec arriving at two in the morning needs one “scene” while leisurely lovers arriving midday need another, and so forth. The same approaches apply: preparing for likely scenarios (such as these two) and throwing out the script if something even more unusual is called for. Creativity, again, carries the day.