What I call “anticipatory customer service” is the fastest, most direct way to create customer loyalty. The power of anticipatory customer service, of serving customer wishes that they haven’t even yet articulated, that they don’t even yet know they have, is this: While customer loyalty can be built through repeated iterations of merely satisfactory service, that’s a dangerous way to build a business. Every time someone has a satisfactory (but not extraordinary) experience at your property, it’s fine, and far preferable to that experience being unsatisfactory. But satisfactory service isn’t enough to draw you into a category where you’re not at the mercy of someone switching to get points from another brand, or because–when booking a return trip– they notice another hotel with a tripadvisor rating that’s .01 percent higher than yours in the same town and they’ve forgotten why (actually they haven’t been given a “why”) to return to you over checking out that other property. You’re in the dangerous, deadly realm of “who cares,” in other words.
What anticipatory customer service looks like
Tonya is a house attendant at The Inn At Palmetto Bluff, a strikingly picturesque inn-and-cottage institution nestled among ancient, Spanish moss-draped live oaks along the May River thirty minutes from Savannah.
What’s a house attendant? It’s the hospitality position that used to be called a “houseman”: part of the housekeeping team, with duties that include ensuring housekeepers are stocked with towels and waters, helping them to flip mattresses and the like, as well as helping with the cleaning itself. House Attendant is an essential position in hospitality, but one that is invisible to guests under normal circumstances and, like other housekeeping positions, at the low end of the hospitality org chart.
(Although intelligent hoteliers understand that housekeeping is the most essential department in a hotel—as Diana Oreck from The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center pithily puts it, “if the housekeepers didn’t come to work tomorrow we’d have to shutter our hotels,”—housekeepers, due to low socioeconomic status and the challenge of meeting with/socializing with the rest of the hospitality staff when you’re in a position that is as mobile and labor intensive as housekeeping, can get the short end of the respect stick in many hotels.)
Tonya pulled up outside our rooms in her golf cart–a necessity on the sprawling Palmetto Bluff campus–bringing supplies such as bottled water, towels and sheets to the housekeepers working inside. On her way in she greeted us cheerfully. (The three of us–my young son and his youngish parents–were out front of the cottage getting my son seated on one of the bikes The Inn provides to guests.) A minute or two later, on her way back out, Tonya again looked our way, took in that we were still more or less in the same positions where she’d left us, having not made any progress down the road as my son teetered atop a bike he clearly wasn’t ready to handle.
After Tonya [whose last name I’ve redacted, by the way, at her manager’s request] took in the details of the scene in front of her, she announced, “Your boy needs a bike with wheels,” by which she meant “training wheels.” “I’ll be back in five minutes.”
When she returned (in four minutes) with the newly equipped bike, she also brought Angella, a manager from Palmetto Bluff’s recreation department, with her to ensure our son was properly fitted and instructed in how to get off to a successful start with the new training wheel-equipped bike. (Tonya also brought a helmet, which showed further mind reading on her part, as we’re the kind of parents who would make our kids wear helmets even in the back seat of the car if we could.)
Her observation and anticipatory action that morning transformed the rest of our stay at Palmetto Bluff. Our son, on his now-appropriately equipped bicycle (more a quadricycle, I suppose), could range all over the gorgeous trails of Palmetto Bluff from that point forward. It was, if not life-changing, at least vacation-changing.
What Tonya did wasn’t just making an extra effort. It was making the right extra effort. Contrast how appropriate and on-point she was compared to the restaurant that messes up your check and then tries to give you a free dessert in compensation–the last thing you have time for at that point, after the 8 minutes it took to get your bill adjusted. Or the young lady at the Panera register who I just saw offer a roll “for just an additional 25 cents” to the gentleman who had just asked for no croutons in his Caesar salad. Or the hotel where five or six employees in succession ask you “how was your trip in today?” because they’ve all been told to ask that by a management that hasn’t calculated how grating that sounds after the third identical query.
Assistance like Tonya gave us didn’t cost her company anything, directly. What this kind of service does cost is proper hiring, proper training, and proper reinforcement. When Tonya was hired (or, the term I prefer, “selected”) to work at Palmetto Bluff, she was selected not for her water-carrying, towel schlepping abilities, but for what is inside her: her natural affinity for people and for service.
Then she was trained, including a two-day onboarding with Palmetto Bluff’s current management company, Montage Resorts, that they call “morés,” which goes far beyond teaching brand standards like “answer the phone within three rings” to encompass how a talented employee like Tonya can make use of her innate empathy: to combine it with her senses, including her peripheral vision, to ensure she is picking up on issues and opportunities that are meaningful to her guests.
Finally, she is celebrated for it, and held up as an example to her co-workers of how things should be done. When I recounted to David Smiley, Director of Guest Services at Palmetto Bluff, the full Tonya saga, he reported back to me later the same day that he had set Tonya’s accomplishment to be the centerpiece of Housekeeping’s “lineup” the next morning: a celebration of Tonya’s work and a teachable moment for her co-workers.