guest commentary by David Potts
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Some people are just lucky.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Alaska to attend a meeting of my peers. I had never been to Alaska, so I went a couple of days before the meeting to be a tourist. On a friend’s advice, I stayed in the little town of Talkeetna.
Talkeetna is a quaint town about two hours north of Anchorage and three hours south of Denali National Park’s visitor center. The only reason most people travel to Talkeetna is for the spectacular view of Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range. The best view is from the back porch of the Talkeetna Lodge. The rooms are a bit pricey for what you get, but again, you’re there for the view.
I arrived at the Talkeetna Lodge around 1 p.m., two hours before the normal check-in time, but the front desk found a clean room and let me check-in early. My room was a bit stuffy and a little warm. I unpacked and began to plan my itinerary for the next two days. There was no shortage of options but I took a staff member’s recommendation I booked a sightseeing tour for the next morning that flew around Mt. McKinley and landed on the Ruth Glacier for a close up view.
Around 2 p.m. I started to sweat. I’m from Arkansas so this didn’t seem unusual. I headed to the thermostat to turn down the AC and made a discovery. In Alaska there is no air conditioning in most hotels. However, being a luxury hotel, the Talkeetna Lodge had air conditioning ... in the lobby only.
At 3 p.m. I ventured into one of the two hotel’s restaurants to order something cold to drink. The restaurant was full of sweating guests. Nobody looked happy. Those huge windows allowing guests to have that spectacular view of Mt. McKinley had kicked in to provide substantial passive solar heat.
About 5 p.m I decided to tell the front desk that I would not be staying the second night because of the unbearable conditions. The young man tending the front desk responded that he understood. He then reluctantly informed me of the 72-hour cancellation policy. Whether I left or stayed, I would have to pay the next night’s room charge. At that point I asked to see the manager.
I had planned for my trip to Alaska. I called a resident travel agent in Alaska and was told the temperatures would be between 50 and 70 degrees, I would need to layer my clothing, and don’t forget to bring a light jacket. I packed as instructed.
So here I am in Alaska prepared for temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees and it is hot. And when I say hot, I mean I was in Talkeetna that one day in a century of days when, according to my iPhone weather app, at 6:19 p.m., the temperature reached 97 degrees Fahrenheit.
It was Monday four days before the summer solstice and in Talkeetna, Alaska, there is nearly 20 hours of daylight. In Arkansas on hot days you wait until the sun sets for the temperature to go down. Where I stayed the sun didn’t set until after midnight. The same day in Fort Smith folk were enduring that high temperature of 82 degrees with a bit of rain, and with those nice conditions, I know the great majority of homes and businesses still had your air conditioners on. That evening in Alaska I didn’t dare to close the drapes to make the room dark so I could sleep because I didn’t dare miss any potential movement of air.
Although this evening (and the next) was expensively miserable, it provided an object lesson, a reminder for business owners. People have expectations when they spend money with a business. I had expectations about my stay at the Talkeetna Lodge. I expected a quiet two-day stay of comfort, communing with nature away from Arkansas’ normally oppressive heat. However, my expectations were not met and I became for a few moments that cranky customer.
Business owners and managers teach their customers what to expect when they buy the business’ product or service. To create a customer the business makes promises. When I’m promised that if I buy a certain fitness product I’ll look like George Atlas in 30 days, then I expect to look like George Atlas in 30 days. If I don’t look like George Atlas in 30 days I will think poorly of the product and probably the company. That’s just human nature.
Events happen that are beyond a business’ control but the end result is a failure to achieve a customer’s expectations. Although the business can’t control the event, it can always control its response to the unhappy customer. As the cranky customer in Talkeetna, the staff performed exemplary. Most of the staff were young people working only during the summer busy season. They generally smiled even while the sweat beaded on their forehead. They showed great empathy and made every effort to make their guests as comfortable as possible. The staffed lived on the lodge’s premises and suffered the same conditions as their guests. Although Mother Nature ruined my expectations, the staff’s response took the edge off the stay and make it seem better.
Your competition can set your customers’ expectations. A car owner who used the local quick lube to change the oil the last few times may not expect or understand that a car repair shop might take longer to complete the same job. But would you want a quick lube shop to rebuild your transmission? Your customers’ expectations may not be based on your company’s marketing promise, but their expectations when unfulfilled can cost you future sales. However, as a defense, you can communicate with your customers before the sale to make sure their expectations are reasonably set and they leave your business satisfied with your product or service.
Setting your customers’ expectations, meeting those expectations, and better yet exceeding those expectations is a major attribute of the highly successful businesses. Your product or service doesn’t have to be the fastest, the greatest, the coolest in the industry. You just need to be truthful in your claims and meet expectations. Then, when unfortunate circumstances beyond your control create a obstacle to meeting your customers’ expectations occur, a empathetic response with a sincere apology or gesture will work most of the time for the customer to be a repeat customer.
If you remember, at the start of my story I had requested to talk with the manager. He was a no show. I expect he was no more than an average manager, didn’t care much for his guests, and lacks hospitality in a hospitality industry. Think how much goodwill could have been created with a simple gesture to his guests such as offering his guests one free lemonade each day when the temperature was over 85 degrees?
The manager’s saving grace was his staff. That’s another lesson for another day, but it should serve as reminder that your business is only as good as the people you employ.