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Thursday, December 29, 2005

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8:53 AM     The Art of the Customer Service Letter

When I write customer service letters for whatever reason, they tend to be lengthy, sort of like my normal posts here (sorry!) However, I do my best to make them at least entertaining to make sure that the custome service drones get a little humor in their day and, perhaps, just maybe, read the whole thing.

So, I'm on the road for business this week and I have had an interesting experience at a Hilton-branded hotel. So, I took the time and effort to write an e-mail to the frequent stayer program about my experiences.

Perhaps it's just spending all that time on the letter knowing that there's a 75% chance that it'll end up in a bureaucratic black hole, but I thought I'd at least share the letter with you guys here.

Let me know what you think...

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My name is Daniel R. Sweet and I'm a business traveller (Hhonors #:XXXXXXXXX). I've got a problem and I'm hoping that you can help me with it. Let me tell you about my most recent experience:

Whenever I stay at a Hilton-branded hotel, I always get the impression that there are two different factions fighting it out for control of the hotel. Usually it’s just minor stuff, but I’m currently staying at the DoubleTree Hotel Austin and the clash of the "Good Faction" and the "Bad Faction" is so conspicuous, I had to write.

(Just a note upon re-reading: Yes, this is a long letter. But I promise that it'll be worth your while to read every last, stinking word. I've tried to give you a very clear and somewhat entertaining look inside of a business traveller's brain. The only reason that I've taken the effort is because I like the Hilton chain and the HHonors program.

Please don't disappoint me by glancing at it and sending a "We really value your feedback. Signed, Computer #4" form letter back. You spend tons of money to figure out what your frequent stayers are thinking. Don't get scared off because of a little reading. Print it out and take it on your next flight somewhere.)

MR. GOOD FACTION

The "Good Faction" has obviously been at work in this hotel. There are things that without a doubt make my stay better, my life easier, and me want to run through the streets shouting the praises of Mr Good Faction, yelling, "My hotel chain is better than where you're staying. Leave now and stay with 'The Good Faction'!"

Some of the good things that the "Good Faction" is doing:

  • That new alarm clock - This is one of those things that makes me hit my head with the heel of my hand and say, "Now, how hard was THAT?!" Figuring that travelling businesspeople really didn't want to memorize the iffy, unpredictable, more-sensitive-than-my-wife-when-I-forgot-our-anniversary operation of 1,000 different models of alarm clocks, the "Good Leader" picked one that is not only easy to set, but the same everywhere we stay. Wow! Something so simple!
And then, on top of that, he makes it easy to pick a radio station to wake up to for a guy who obviously doesn't live here without tuning the whole dial or doing in-depth Internet research. AND he made a radio that actually can receive some stinking radio stations! Mr. Good Faction has been on the road once or twice and it shows. I think I really like Mr. Good Faction.

  • The bendy-out shower curtain - I know every hotel room can't have as nice of a shower stall as I have at home. But I'm a big guy and I never got used to taking a shower standing in a tiny tub with that wet, clammy, icecicle of a shower curtain threatening to freeze off a limb at any moment.
God help me if the A/C or Heat kicked on and started blowing that sheet-from-Hell at me and I had to back away from it while avoiding the iceberg-of-a-tile-wall. While wonderfully adventurous, I'm not sure I've fully enjoyed the daily, Indiana Jones-like "dance of death" with the shower curtain.

All I can say is, "Thank you, Mr. Good Faction, for coming up with the brilliant, yet simple, idea of having a curvy-out shower curtain bar!" It's another one of those relatively cheap, easy, smart solutions that makes me love the Hilton chains. I can't believe that there are other chains out there that still don't have this! Mr. Good Faction is becoming one of my closest friends.

  • The new bed - Okay, I saw the commercials for this bed and thought, "Listen, I just need a flat surface to conk out on for a few hours. I'm not going to make a special trip for that silly Sweet Dreams bed!" After awaking this morning in that bed drooling on my pillow (sorry, next-guy-that-stays-in-my-room), I must admit that it's pretty darn comfortable. I wasn't out drinking or anything, either!
With all of the excuses I hear about cost-cutting and cost control, however, I'm wondering what exactly it is that drove you to add another pillow to this bed. Is there really a contingent of traveller that says, "Unless I have 13 pillows on my bed, I'm going somewhere else"? My wife uses a number of pillows that I wouldn't have thought possible before seeing it, but even she would be drowning in pillows in your Sweet Dreams bed.

Of course some of those pillows (all of them but one for me) end up on the floor or, if I'm thinking about what may be ground into the carpet, on the couch. So, now it has cost you more money for the extra, extra pillows and for the time for the maid to put back and rearrange the "pillow castle" on the bed every day.

So, thanks for the really comfy bed, Mr. Good Faction, you're becoming like family. But when I get up from my drooly-sleep, don't complain to me about cost-cutting!

  • The Little Things - There are a lot of nice touches that make my stay pleasant, but wouldn't draw me into a hotel on their own. Things like a towel hook outside the shower (since you're asking me not to wash my towels every day), the hair dryer so I don't have to bring a dop kit the size of a small suitcase, and the desk with several power plugs for me to actually do work while in the room instead of stare blankly at the TV. Okay, at least I can seem like I'm doing work...
And those cookies! While I can't eat them, they sure make the elevator ride and room smell nice. I don't know if the idea behind the cookies was that you couldn't figure out how to fight a persistent funky smell in the elevator, but it works!

So, for all of this, Mr. Good Faction, I humbly and sincerely thank you. I think I'm starting to have feelings that one man isn't supposed to have for another...

Unfortunately, I know that if I were to lure some businessmen here, they would seen experience the "Bad Faction" leader. And then they'd probably hunt me down and stone me.

MR. BAD FACTION

Unfortunately, there isn't just Mr. Good Faction at Hilton hotels. Once here, we also see the work of the Bad Faction Leader, Mr. Bad Faction.

Mr. Bad Faction is obviously a little bit, shall we say, "limited" in the cranial capacity arena. He is also a serious bean counter and has never left his cinder-block-walled, windowless, off-white (from age, not preference), flickering-florescent-light office. And he feels a need to take that out on us poor business travellers.

Here are a few of the signs that Mr. Bad Faction has sent a memo to this hotel:

  • $10 a day for Internet access - I know this isn't the same for every Hilton property, but give me a break! I'm pretty sure government housing in the inner cities of America have free high-speed broadband. Why do you have to gouge me to have Internet access!? This is just plain ridiculous. You are a bad man, Mr. Bad Faction!
  • Fancy, not functional, desk chairs - Boy, they sure are pretty, Euro-designed, leather swivelly chairs. Darn pretty. Unfortunately, they offer absolutely no back support while I'm doing my endless typing on my laptop. And if I lean back and manage not to fly out of my chair, I'm now reclining in the most uncomfortable, feet off of the floor (this for a pretty tall guy!), staring-at-the-ceiling position imagineable.
And, while the chair does raise and lower, Mr. Bad Faction obviously hasn't actually seen the desk and chair together. For me, with the chair at it's highest setting, I'm in an incomfortable, "reaching up to type on my laptop" position. I can only imagine the "kid at Daddy's desk" feel for the more average-height businessman trying to use his computer in this set up. Why do you torture me so? Isn't my impending carpal-tunnel enough to keep you happy, Mr. Bad Faction!?!

  • Two foot ethernet cables - So, there I am looking like a crab all hunched over my laptop, but still reaching up in a carpal-tunnel enhancing, kung-fu, "attack of the dragon" position with my wrists pressed against either the edge of my computer or the edge of the desk and, hence, slowly losing the feeling in my hands as I type away. I think to myself, "Self, this isn't going to work. I know! I'll just go sit on the couch right next to the desk. I'm so brilliant!"
Sadly, though Mr. Bad Faction has never stepped foot in one of your hotels, he thought of this one. You see, he apparently sent a note to the Hotel Manager telling him to have a two-foot network cable from the desk. So, not only is it tough to get the cable to one's laptop on the desk itself, apparently Internet work is not allowed elsewhere in the room. Just because you work in a crappy office, Mr. Bad Faction, is no reason that I can't be relaxed on a couch when I work!
  • Crappy wireless Internet access - I know that getting wireless Internet access is tough in an older, classic hotel like this. The walls are thick (a good thing, usually) and the layout isn't particularly conducive to good coverage. I get it. But perhaps you could get Mr. Bad Faction to make up his mind whether you really wanted it or not. As it stands, he's spent the money to have it, but not enough to make it work well.I thought, after I unplugged from the Internet access, that I'd just check to see if you had wireless Internet access, since your little sign on the desk didn't mention it at all. Turns out that there was some...sort of. The signal was very weak at sub-30% (which means that it'd be cutting out periodically, but at least it was something), but I gave it a shot.
Mr. Bad Faction had thought ahead for this one, though. As soon as I connected, I was notified that I would have to pay another $10 for 24 hours of wireless Internet access. Wonderful. Fantastic. What's another $10 between friends? Why don't you get your hands out of my pocket, Mr. Bad Faction!
  • $7 a day parking - You know, I'm used to paying for parking for businesses that I visit in downtown Austin, Dallas, or Houston. I've even paid for parking at hotels before. On the "Miracle Mile" in Chicago. On Founder's Square in San Francisco. But at 290 and I-35 in Austin? Are you kidding?
Not only does Mr. Bad Faction have me pay $7 a day for parking, but the entire 1st floor is reserved for handicapped folk (understandable) and valet parking (ridiculous). So, if I understand this correctly, $7 a day gets me treated like a second-class citizen in the parking garage. To be treated as a valued customer, I've got to pay $7 per day, plus the valet parking fee (I didn't even bother to notice, other than it's not free), AND a tip? All for the opportunity let some kid scratch my car and see if there's anything in it he'd like to help himself to? No thanks.

Mr. Bad Faction, you truly are diabolical. I'm sure the fee is just for the protection of my car and my valuables, however. Except for that big sign on every floor of the parking garage that says that Hilton is not responsible if someone breaks into my car, steals everything of worth inside it, sets it in fire, and then hunts me down and shoots me just to finish off the job. Other than that sign, I've got a warm and fuzzy feeling about my $7 parking investment.

Or is the justification that most of your guests are walk-ins off of Interstate 35 and it wouldn't be fair to make them pay for the parking, too? Yeah - now that I think about it, that's probably the situation. It's the walk-in business.

HEADING OFF THE EXCUSES

Please, please, please don't come back with your first question being, "Did you call the main desk with these problems? They can usually fix these things." To me, what that is saying is, "Yeah, we know about all of those problems, but we don't really care enough to fix them. Unless you call, of course. It's cheaper to just fix it for people who call." Please don't make me think those things about you.

I've been at quite a few hotels where I could have dragged my luggage back down to the front desk because the "Non-Smoking Room" had obviously been smoked in recently. I've been to hotels where I could have mentioned to the front desk that the Internet access was painfully slow. I've even been at a Hilton-branded hotel (though this has been 3-4 years ago) where there was feces spread all over the front of the toilet and I could have pitched a fit, called the health inspector, and gotten a new room.

I don't know why I don't complain to the minimum-wage worker at the front desk. I don't know why I don't get all huffy and demand to see a manager. I don't know why I don't expend a whole lot of my own energy getting upset about your problems, even though they've very temporarily become mine. Frankly, I'm probably too lazy.

As I did in every one of those previous situations I mentioned, I just left and found another hotel. Some people charged me for the room, others didn't. But every one of those places has seen their last dollar from me or anyone that I can talk out of it.

Let me be brutally honest: I don't really care that a maid quit or the previous guest smoked where they weren't supposed to or that your front desk person has only been there for a couple of months. If I'm going to get those excuses anyway, I'll just go stay at a Motel 8 where I expect them and save a little money.

WHAT CAN I DO TO AVOID MR. BAD FACTION?

I don't mean to beat up on your mercilessly. It has been a few years since I’ve been on the road regularly and so I was pleasantly surprised by some of the changes that have been made to all of the Hilton brands. I wanted you to know that I can see the attempt to better service we weary travellers who need an accomodating space to work and rest while we're away from home.

But it's experiences like those set up by Mr. Bad Faction above that still makes me shake my head and wonder, "What were they thinking?!"

It seems that Mr. Bad Faction has too much of a toe-hold in this hotel, so I will undoubtedly not be staying here again, as nice as the hotel archetecture, rooms, and location are. Is there a listing of Hilton-branded hotels that Mr. Bad Faction isn't so prevelent in that I could get? What can I do to avoid Mr. Bad Faction? The only think I know of for sure is to stop staying at Hilton hotels, and I'd rather not do that if I can avoid it. However, if I can't...

If there is anything I can do to avoid these circumstances in the future, please let me know. If you're serious about your 100% satisfaction guarantees, I would expect some sort of personal correspondence back letting me know A) What you think you can do to help me feel better about this stay, B) Some reassurance that this isn't a system-wide problem and I can still rely on Hilton, and C) How I can avoid these types of problems in the future.

Thanks for your attention to this matter,

Dan
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Daniel R. Sweet


PS: If you have read the beginning of this letter and then jumped down to the end to see if I'm someone important enough to care about or to save yourself some precious reading time, please let me know. There is no hope that you care enough about your guests' actual experiences to ever get them fixed. Just please shoot me a quick e-mail titled, "Take a Hike" and I'll get the message.

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