Draughty halls and cold showers… the alternative way to customer satisfaction.

January 12, 2007

I was standing patiently in line last week waiting for the man in front of me to finish his diatribe. I was waiting to check-out of the hotel I had been staying in…he was not happy to go quietly.

It was a really nice hotel; newly refurbished, all mod-cons, digital this and digital that, 24 hour everything and hot and cold running customer service experiences driven through every “have a nice day” interaction.

The man in front of me however was in no mood to recognise any of this. Apparently at 4:05am he had been woken by the sound of another guest returning rather noisily to their room after a presumably cheerful night out.

He then had the inconvenience of finding that the incompetents behind the scenes had delivered a copy of The Times to his room and not the Daily Mail he had ordered the night before.

The final straw for him was that this morning the “executive lounge” was full to overflowing when he tried to get his complimentary breakfast (despite his elite card carrying status) and instead he was re-directed to the main restaurant…

For all this hardship he now anticipated a grand gesture. I think I heard him say (although obviously I was doing my best not to hear any of it) …”if you expect me to come here again, I don’t expect you to charge me for this bloody awful night”.

It is hard to imagine why apparently minor irritations should create such vitriol, but it serves as a counterpoint to something I have noticed about a residential programme we run for in-house lawyers at Queens’ College Cambridge.

Queens’ College provides perhaps one of the most stunningly beautiful settings for study anywhere in the world. It is jaw-droppingly lovely.

When I first saw the rooms we were able to use for our event I knew we would be creating a unique learning experience that would live long in the memory. But I also knew we might have a bit of a challenge with the accommodation for our delegates.

The accommodation block is the same block used by the students. It is utilitarian, functional, bare, and a number of other similar words that come to mind – like chilly, cramped, draughty, and basic. Showers might be described as intermittent and sometimes cold. One delegate felt they needed to run around under the shower to get wet. There are no TV’s in the rooms, no mini bars, no shag-pile carpet…

It is very clean however and charming in its way, but then one runs out of good things to say!

So every event we brace ourselves for critical comments about the accommodation, but the strange thing is that at every event we get nothing negative at all.

Instead delegates and speakers tell us it adds to the uniqueness of the event; that it is really good “fun” to remember what being a student used to be like; that it is nice we are “all mixed in together” and “who needs a TV when the company is this good”.

The Old Hall at Queens’ College is the centre for our event. It is an inspiring venue, but one which frankly has lousy acoustics and a wicked draught…The delegates and speakers love it however and enjoy every second of being there.

In significant contrast the big city law firms now go to great lengths to make every aspect of the client environment as perfect as it possibly can be.

One city firm (I hear) has just employed a second biscuit chef!

Surely to goodness I hope someone somewhere did not present a PowerPoint slideshow on the competitive advantage of biscuits…Even so, one knows that somewhere there is a budget and a committee behind it. God save us.

I wonder now whether sometimes we have so mismanaged expectation that we are preoccupied with the wrapping and not the substance. Could it be that we might want to dazzle with the perfection of our environment, but have lost sight of the humanity and soul that is at the heart of every meaningful experience.

After all, we all know that the law is a relationship business, where trust and credibility have to be at the forefront of the desired outcomes.

I am not going to hire or fire a firm for the quality of their biscuits and I am sure no-one ever will. I will even put up with a cold and draughty meeting room, but what is crucial is to feel important, to be part of something where people care, where time is taken to find out what I want and need and to help me get there as effectively as possible.

Lawyers must never trade on the vanity of their architecture, but on the sincerity of their vocation.

Show me a law firm that truly cares for its clients and those clients will never seriously criticise the décor, the absence of free trade coffee or the quality of the freebee pads and pens.

In the end we all want the same things and in the long list of what we want, nice biscuits might not be the deal-breaker.

My ranting man in the line at the hotel would probably have coped with the Times instead of the Daily Mail, and might not have minded his relocated breakfast, provided he felt people really did care and really were trying to make his stay important. Instead I think he just felt that his experience, despite the trappings of comfort and joy, was that of occupying a soulless twilight zone where the most important fact the hotel staff knew about him was his credit card number…

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