Do You Know What Your Customers Really Want?

Learn from Cornell Hotel Experts how to determine what customers really want and how to deliver it to them in ways that build trust and exceeds expectations.

Here’s What Most Companies Get Wrong About Service

As we enter an age of experiential service, customers not only want more out of their interactions with companies, they also enter into those interactions armed with more knowledge – and thus greater expectations – than ever before. But in order for service professionals to exceed their customers’ expectations, they must first know what those expectations are.

As part of the Hospitality webcast series hosted by eCornell, Elizabeth Martyn of Cornell Hotel School delivered a presentation on how to determine what customers really want and how to deliver it to them in a way that builds trust and exceeds expectations.

Below is an abridged version of her conversation with eCornell’s Chris Wofford.

Wofford: What do organizations most often miss when it comes to exceeding customer expectations?

Martyn: In order to exceed expectations, you have to understand what your guests’ expectations are to begin with. That might sound kind of obvious but I think a lot of times we get so focused on going above and beyond that we sort of miss some of the key steps in making sure that we know what it is that customers are expecting when they come to us for service in the first place.

Meeting all of those expectations has to come before we take the next step and talk about exceeding them. You’ve got to hit the basics first and it’s easy to look right past that.

Wofford: Does it start with trust?

Martyn: That’s one of the things that I get really passionate about because a lot of times we end up spending our time focused on the standards we need to hit when there really needs to be a focus on what’s going to work for you to build a trusting relationship. How do we tailor our service to our clients in order to build a trusting relationship and create loyalty?

Wofford: I have to imagine it’s about the whole brand experience these days.

Martyn: That’s right. We have really left the age of customer service and are moving into the age of experiential service. We talk a lot about millennials now, and millennials want experiences. But it’s actually something that’s true across all demographics of consumers. They’re looking for a more authentic experience, a more authentic connection.

So we need to think about the holistic service experience that we’re providing. The service experience is the entire experience that your brand or organization provides to your customer. We need to think about it from a broad perspective.

Wofford: And there are many more touch points available now due to technology.

Martyn: Yes — that’s part of what this “age of experiential service” means. You have all of these different interactions going on. The guest goes to your website, they check out your social media, they look at your reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Google. There’s e-mail communication, maybe some company support text communication. They’re calling on the phone. They may be engaging with the automated bot-oriented service providers that we’re seeing more and more, where customers can engage with a scripted bot online. And they’re also still interacting with your personnel face to face.

Customers have this whole digital perception of what your company is and they create expectations before they ever pick up a phone and call you or walk into your place of business. So we have a lot more to think about when we think about the service experience because it’s so broad.

Wofford: And this is changing quickly, right?

Martyn: It is. By 2020, the customer experience is going to be more important than both price or actual product differences in terms of differentiating brands. A recent study found that 56 percent of consumers have higher expectations for service than they did just one year ago, and that’s part of this flood of information that they have about who you are and what services they can expect. We can also see that 68 percent of consumers are switching brands because their expectations aren’t being met. They have other options and they’re much more informed so they can choose to take their business elsewhere.

The study also shows that 74 percent of consumers have actually spent more money because of the quality of service that they received. Think about that. With three quarters of the people you’re interacting with, you have the ability to drive their engagement and increase what they spend on your company if you provide that trusted service and exceed the expectations level.

Wofford: And that 68 percent figure shows that you can steal business away from your competitors if they’re not doing it right.

Martyn: Exactly. The stakes are really high and there’s a lot of pressure on the face to face, phone-based and email-based interactions that service providers actually have control over.

One of the things that we need to do as we look to elevate the services that we’re providing is to take a close look at how we’re currently doing things today. Often times, companies find themselves falling back on a standards-based approach that tends to focus on the customer’s stated need. But this is difficult because a lot of times our customers don’t actually necessarily know what they want. Or they know what they want, but they don’t know the right question to ask to get the answer that they want.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re traveling somewhere and you go into a hotel and you say, “Hey, where’s the best place to eat around here?”

The person at the front desk says, “Ah! The best restaurant in the area is Cafe ABCD. You have to go there, it’s terrific.” So, off you go. You walk three blocks to the cafe and, surprise, it’s closed. That’s because it’s lunchtime and they only serve dinner.

So that front desk worker actually did answer the question correctly. Cafe ABCD truly is the best restaurant in the area. But they didn’t take that extra step to ask about your real need. To ask you if you were looking to eat now or later, or if you wanted the best place to entertain a client or if you were just looking for something quick. They didn’t ask how much money you wanted to spend. There are all of these components involved in really delivering the right service at the right time to the right person.

This is the kind of scenario that tends to unfold in a service environment with a standards-based approach. Now, if we look at an excellence approach to delivering service, you’re really focusing on teaching techniques and strategies that allow your team members to think critically, to be fast on their feet and be able to adapt on the fly during that service exchange. In this approach, you’re tailoring your responses and your delivery to each individual based on all those clues that you’re picking up.

Doing this effectively helps to develop amazing relationships because when the customers feels like the person they’re talking to is really taking the time to figure out what they need, they think, “Wow, these people are great. They get me. I love coming here.” And that’s where we move into totally exceeded expectations.

Wofford: And those are the customers that are likely to come back to you time after time.

Martyn: Absolutely. You know, when we start to get into the difference of standards for excellence, it can be hard to explain, even to our fellow colleagues. What are we really talking about here? If you’re thinking about standards as being what your customers expect, how do you then deliver on those expectations? How do you meet or exceed them?

The next step in moving to the service excellence approach is to really recognize the client. Who is our customer, and how can we adjust our service delivery to make them feel important, relevant, heard, respected, or whatever it is that’s critical to your audience? What makes them want to come back and give you their business? The service excellence approach is adjusting your service to meet these standards and expectations.

A lot of companies will dictate a service delivery. You have to smile, you have to make eye contact and have a friendly and engaging attitude. The customer’s always right, and so on. These are not bad ideas but they’re limited because they’re not allowing the individual service provider to really do critical thinking and be able to take ownership of their service and deliver the best service as opposed to just being friendly and engaging.

Wofford: When you talk about the concept of critical thinking, it sounds like something that’s maybe difficult to teach and certainly something that would make it more difficult to get everyone on the same page. What does critical thinking look like in practice?

Martyn: Critical thinking would be taking an active role as a service provider in the moment and making decisions based on the information that you’re processing. That’s the real difference. Sometimes, when we’re in a more standards-based approach, we just follow the script. When we see something that deviates, we might notice it but not act on it.

In an excellence approach, if you see it, you want to do something about it. The important thing is to use that information and adjust or modify your approach because of the new information that’s coming in.

Wofford: What other approaches can help your service delivery, particularly for those who are out there on the front lines interacting with clients, guests or customers every day?

Martyn: Another great technique is to listen, observe and ask. That’s a terrific way to manage the actual exchange portion with each guest. Be open to what they’re saying, truly hear and confirm that you received the message correctly. Watch for changes in body language or facial expression and then decide, “Okay, was that a positive change or a negative change?” Then use that to reconfirm and ask thorough questions. “Does this work for you? Is there anything else I can do? We have a choice of A or B, which would you prefer?”

Make sure that you’re really open to information. Then seek out validation. Am I doing the right service for this guest?

The final piece is to be sensitive to context and use that to inform your delivery. The right service to the right guest is really dependent on the clues that you’re receiving. I think a lot of us are comfortable with the idea of using guest clues like facial expression and body language, but there are a lot of what we call environmental clues too. It can be whether they are wearing a coat or not. Do they have a wet umbrella? What kind of bags do they have with them? What else can you look at and use in order to customize that service delivery?

This is probably something that we’re all already doing automatically from time to time, but it’s about using it with every guest very intentionally to step up your service level beyond just those most obvious instances.

Wofford: It’s more than just seeing someone come in soaking wet and saying something painfully obvious like, “Oh my, you got caught in the rain.”

Martyn: Right, it’s about picking up on clues that aren’t so blatant and acting on them.

Good customer service isn’t rocket science, and I don’t want to tell anyone that it is. But that’s the thing. Some people are just innately good at it but they can’t necessarily explain why. You almost feel like they either have good customer service in their DNA or they don’t, but I think there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily realize that they’re not doing the right thing even though they’re really well intentioned.

As I said at the outset, you cannot possibly exceed expectations if you’re unclear on what the expectations are. It’s important for leaders to distill service down to a framework that puts some structure around the things that really great service providers are already doing. Creating critical thinking standards for the people on the front lines can be really successful. It helps them deliver good service to your clients and also gives them the confidence in knowing how to perform their job.

Wofford: It sort of eliminates the gray area.

Martyn: That’s right. My challenge for everyone here is to think about what they are going to do today and tomorrow. What are the next steps? This is not big picture stuff that should take six months or a year to put in place.

There are absolutely things that everyone can go out and do today and decide to put a stake in the ground and say, “I’m going to make a change. I’m going to try something different tomorrow or on my next phone call and see what sort of results I get from being a little bit more engaged, and thinking about both the before and the after, the prep and the follow-on of that service exchange.”

Wofford: Thank you, Elizabeth, for joining me in the studio. You’ve really given us some great advice here today.

Martyn: Thank you, Chris.

Elizabeth Martyn is the author of Cornell University’s Service Excellence On-Demand Training, an eight-lesson online program focused on actionable frameworks for delivering what customers need, when they need it.


Want to hear more? This interview is based on Elizabeth Martyn’s live eCornell WebSeries event, Building Trust and Exceeding Expectations: Service Excellence at CornellSubscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Hospitality topics.