Monday, April 18, 2005

For Customers, Soft Often Trumps Hard

I just got back from a business trip. This one, my wife and kids came too, because it was a nice place for a holiday. (Stay with me on this, because there’s a great moral to the story).

So we check in, and the gal behinds the desk asks for our kids’ names. “Why?” asks my wife skeptically. We soon find out. After we unpack, there’s a knock on the door. Here come the goodies. My kids like to think of themselves as cool sophisticated 8 and 10 year olds, but they are thrilled to receive small bath robes with a stuffed animal monkeys wrapped around them, along with milk and cookies that have their names sprinkled on them, as well as little bath sponges made of the letters of their names. (The bath robes were temporary, everything else was a keeper).

That’s how it went during the few days we were in the hotel. Little things, like popcorn and root beer waiting for them after we return from a hot afternoon at a theme park. Or, when I’m talking to room service on the phone, trying unsuccessfully to whet my 8 year old’s interest in a meal, and the lady on the other end of the line says kindly: “Let me talk to him.” They engage in a long conversation which culminates in an order.

The hotel didn’t ignore us adults. My wife appreciated the fact that after a jog the outside bellman would greet her with a towlette and small bottle of water. I appreciated the fact that after the hotel’s business office did a minor screw-up on some materials I prepared for my client, the entire front desk personnel roster seemed to go into immediate overdrive to solve the problem, and later I received a small bowl of fruit in my room, along with a long, handwritten letter of apology.

So what’s the moral? Sure, we’ll remember the “hard” stuff, the big-ticket tangibles, like the location of the hotel, the make-up of the property itself, the restaurants, the comfort of the meeting rooms and the fitness center, the attractions in the “children’s center”. All very important.

But you know what? A lot of upscale hotels offer pretty much the same tangibles, the same amenities. The key question for hotels (and for your business) is: how do we differentiate ourselves? How do we get customers to remember us, and come back?

All I can say is that our family will remember the “soft” stuff even more than the hard stuff. We'll remember the dinky little toys, the little gestures of affection, the authentic reaction to a foul-up. I wish more vendors would understand that the soft stuff is a lot cheaper than the hard stuff, yet for customers, it usually has a bigger impact. It reflects intangible factors like care, concern, attention, respect, even a kind of love. This hotel was smart enough to train its employees to deliver steady buckets of soft stuff to every guest, regardless of their age.

A cynic might say that the hotel is doing all this to justify its "non-cheap" room rate. But I prefer to flip the equation around: It’s because the hotel is doing all this that it can charge a premium rate, and differentiate itself from competitors at the same time. Which means that if you, in your business, start systematically providing your customers with heaps of cheap, soft stuff that matters to them, you too can charge a higher price and build customer loyalty at the same time.

I don’t want to be overly simplistic; every business has its own idiosyncracies (see, for example, my recent April 11 blog). But as a general rule, “soft” is a very big deal if applied systematically and authentically. As customers, we’re suckers for this stuff. And the reason “substantial soft” so often generates a substantial return on investment is because we customers rarely experience it.


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