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Analysis

What Happens at a Cabin Doesn’t Stay at a Cabin: Customer Service in the Lodging Industry

Good customer service doesn’t always necessitate going above and beyond expectations. It’s often enough to make customers feel cared for; and at the very least provide a clean room

Adam Fout
August 14 2017

This is the story of the best customer service I’ve ever received.

These people were awesome. They did a good job, they impressed me, and, because of the customer service (and, in fact, only because of that customer service), I was willing to go back to them and use their services a second time.

And, as a bonus bonanza, I’m going to also tell you the story about some less-than-stellar customer service that I received from a very similar business, how the two compare, and why one will be getting my business again, and again, and again, likely for decades, and the other will never get more than what they’ve already gotten from me.

The mind of a consumer is one that most business owners rarely get a peek inside — let’s see if we can tease out the rights and wrongs that led to successful and failed customer retention for two different businesses.

A Tale of Two Cabins Casitas

So, for those who aren’t familiar, a lot of the desert-type vacation destinations in the southwest portion of the big ole’ U.S. of A. have, in addition to your traditional hotels and motels, these things called casitas.

They have more amenities than you’d find in your average hotel room, usually including a partial or full kitchen, multiple bedrooms in a single unit, some porch areas, private parking areas, grills, fireplaces, and the like.

It’s a lot like renting a little apartment for the week instead of staying in a hotel, but it’s run by a business, so you get some of the services that you’ve come to expect of a hotel, like daily maid service, replenishment of hygiene items and towels, a front office ready to do your bidding, and (since there’s a kitchen in these things), cleaned dishes.

Sounds cushy as heck right?

That’s exactly what we thought.

In one case, we were heckin’ right.

In one case, we were heckin’ wrong.

The First City — A Desert Paradise

The first city, which I will happily name, is Terlingua, Texas, just outside Big Bend National Park. I’d never been to this desert paradise, which actually has a series of mountain ranges, amazing hikes, unique desert areas, and is just filled to bursting with the kind of outdoorsy stuff us outdoorsy types like.

But, outdoorsy as I may be, I still like my comfort — and so does my wife.

Which meant we had to find a place to stay.

Now, we spent some time looking online, and we found a number of available cabins and motels (not really any hotels out there), but they all looked, well… Nasty.

And then, we found the casitas.

They’re provided by a place called Far Flung Outdoor Center, and they’re incredible. For less than the average cost of a nice hotel room, you basically get an entire apartment in the beautiful wilderness to yourself.

Now, the product itself is a fantastic one — it’s nice inside, they seem to be pretty new (either that, or they’re very well maintained), you have access to a public grill, there’s plenty of parking, you have a partial kitchen (no stove, but you know, I didn’t exactly want to do more than grill out there anyway), you have a flat screen TV, Wi-Fi, heating and air conditioning, coffee, dishes and silverware…

It wasn’t everything you’d find in an apartment, but it was close enough that it didn’t matter.

But What Mattered Most Was the Service I Received

The service at this place was phenomenal. From booking right through the end of our stay and beyond, we received customer service that was top notch, service that inspired me to go back and stay with them again when we went back a year later.

Here’s what their service looked like, what set it apart in my eyes.

First, even though we were in these little casitas and not a giant hotel, we still had maid service every day. Though we had a partial kitchen, we didn’t have to worry about cleaning or doing the dishes.

That stuck out in my head because the cabins in city number two (which I’ll get to in a minute) did not provide this service.

And that’s crazy, right, for someone to not provide such a service? I absolutely expected there to be maid service in these casitas. This, in mind my, was a baseline.

Well…

OK, Confession Time… Actually, They’re Way Above the Standard for the Area

So I’ve gone on vacation to more than a few mountain/desert type places, and the quality of lodging can vary markedly.

In Yellowstone, for example, some of the hotels are just absurdly nice.

Big Bend, it turns out, doesn’t quite have the same standards…

Far Flung excluded.

The level of quality that we received at Far Flung is not the standard for lodging in the Big Bend area — it’s well above the standard.

We looked at the handful of available cabins/lodges, and the standards were quite clearly a lot lower than the average standard for lodging would be in other comparable destinations.

Still, this is understandable — when you’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s hard to provide lobster bisque via room service. Still, it’s not hard to keep your rooms clean and stocked, to ensure your guests are comfortable, and to show that you care about them.

And that’s what we experienced. The rooms were clean and well kept. The staff checked on us and sure we had everything we needed. The maids came every day unless we chose otherwise. Even the Wi-Fi, though slow, was constant and useable. Our keys were left out for us as we arrived late at night, and they even included a little welcome package. The casita was kept at a comfortable temperature, so we didn’t walk into a furnace (or freezer).

We got some discounts on activities for staying there, which we took advantage of, and we found their activities staff to be not simply courteous or polite, but quite frankly impressive. Our ATV tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and taught us an incredible amount about Big Bend, the flora and fauna, and the unique geology of the area.

Truthfully, They DID Go Above and Beyond — But Subtly

And here was the real kicker (in my eyes) — inside the casita was a little book. Inside this book, you were encouraged to leave a little note (written with an actual pen or pencil) about your time there.

I loved this little touch — it was a subtle way to go just a little above my expectations. The previous guests of the year had left a variety of tips on hiking destinations and the best times to stargaze, but more than that, it just contributed to the general feeling of being on vacation in a place that moves at a different speed than the urban world.

It was nice, it was subtle, and it tied the whole experience together for me.

And when we left, they sent us a survey asking how they’d done. I filled it out and made a few suggestions, and, to my complete surprise, they responded! Like I was a real person!

It made me realize that they actually gave a damn. They weren’t putting these places up just for the money. They weren’t just trying to take advantage of some property they happened to own. They honestly cared about their work, about their customers, and about improving.

And they won me over as a customer, probably for life, not by going crazy over-the-top and trying to blow my mind with incredible experiences — no, they just made the experience subtly unique, comfortable, easy, and simple.

What else can you ask for from a lodging experience?

Unless they change ownership or start straying far away from what they are now, I’ll likely return over and over to stay with them.

But how could we know that they were really as awesome as we thought until we had something to compare it to?

Not too long ago, we got exactly that…

The Second City — A Mountain Hell

In mid July of 2017, my wife and I went on a trip to the mountains of New Mexico, to a little town called Ruidoso.

In my mind, the two destinations are comparable in a number of ways. Both have large swaths of protected land, both have desert and mountain regions to explore. Both have lots of camping and hiking available.

And, where Big Bend had its casitas, Ruidoso had its cabins.

Now, we only tried one cabin up there, so I will certainly say it’s possible our experience was unique…

But I doubt it, especially after the reviews we read.

(Pro Tip — Even if you’re in a rush, read the reviews before you book a place. You’ll be glad you did.)

Ruidoso itself had a lot more going on, in terms of the city itself, than Big Bend. The town of Terlingua outside of Big Bend doesn’t have a lot going on, and Ruidoso is a ski town, so there were plenty of amenities and stores and such, and the city stood out in that respect.

Ruidoso also has a large casino and resort in the middle of the mountains.

I wish we had stayed there.

Instead, we found cabins that reminded us, in many ways, of the casitas, so we picked a random cabin company, thinking to repeat our awesome casita experience, and we stayed there.

We found quickly that the cabins were much different than the casitas of Big Bend.

Where the Casitas Succeeded, the Cabins Failed

In just about every way.

First, the insides were only clean in a very surface-level way — I don’t know that they had ever actually been deep cleaned.

For instance, there was a huge, dead spider in the light in the bedroom, which we found about a day in — we could see the shadow of his giant body.

It got better from there. The place had only a wall A/C unit, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it felt like it’d been off for a week — it was hotter’n heckfire in there, and it took many hours to cool down.

It was almost like they weren’t expecting us…

There were no maids, and we were expected to wash our own dishes and take out our own trash.

We were there for a week. Not once did a maid (or anyone else) clean this place. It was just us.

That means it wasn’t cleaned much when the previous guests stayed either, which would explain the dead bugs and webs and dust and such.

That means some random person was using and cleaning the dishware and silverware, and perhaps they weren’t doing the best job of it.

We got some plasticware.

It Gets Better

They provided coffee, but they clearly didn’t change the coffee between guests — we had an open, half-used tub of Folgers in the room.

I could go on — the carpet was nasty and not clean, there was dust and dirt and webs in all the corners. God only knows how often the linens got cleaned.

The grills were dirty. The doors didn’t have deadbolts, and they all stuck and were impossible to open and shut without putting some muscle into it.

The Wi-Fi was completely unusable (the cheap so-and-so’s had us on another cabin’s Wi-Fi, which very clearly didn’t reach us). The sink in the bathroom didn’t drain properly and filled up immediately.

The TV was nice though.

We started checking the reviews on the place (should have done that before). Not only were they mostly bad, but the owner answered every review defensively, accusing the guests of basically ruining everything.

I called politely to get help with the sink, and they came and fixed it, but they never once checked on us to see how we were doing.

They also said something weird.

“Thanks for letting us know — some people don’t tell us when things don’t work.”

If only there was a way of figuring that out for yourself…

The people in the front office were weird. They spent a lot of their time in the back office. When we got there, they came out buttoning up their shirts and looking around awkwardly…

The only other time I walked in there, I definitely felt like I was bothering them — the clerk looked at me like I was an alien when I asked a simple question.

We left a day early.

We didn’t get an email with a survey.

I didn’t bother to leave a review.

We won’t be going back.

The Two Places Are Very Similar, and It Was the Service That Made the Difference

In terms of the actual quality of the two places, the casita and the cabin, they were very comparable.

Both had the same amount of space, both had Wi-Fi, both had a flat screen TV, both were about the same level of niceness inside.

In fact, the cabin was arguably better (except for their horrid carpet). The cabin had a private grill and private porch. The cabin had a full kitchen, including a stove, and it had a fireplace.

But the service by the cabin people ruined all that.

The cabin was dirty, it was nasty, and the people who were running it (and 30+ other cabins) very clearly didn’t want us there, were annoyed by our presence, felt like we needed to do all the work in there, and didn’t give a damn how it was going.

Far Flung gave a damn, and even though we didn’t get a stove, we got excellent customer service, we felt comfortable and cared for, and we just generally got treated well.

And it’s sad, because our experience at the cabin discolored our view of the entire town of Ruidoso (which, though it had its quirks, was a pretty awesome place).

We might not go back.

But we’ll certainly go back to Big Bend.

Here are the lessons I learned from the two experiences:

  • Cleanliness is next to godliness
  • A little touch goes a lot farther than someone trying too hard to go over the top
  • If you care, it shows
  • If you don’t care, it shows
  • If you’re a miserable owner, your staff will be miserable, and your clients will suffer
  • In the lodging industry, you influence how people view the destination they’ve come to more than you think

And, most importantly:

If you treat your customers the way you want to be treated, you’ll inspire loyalty more certainly and more effectively than by giving them a discount, offering rewards, or doing something weird to go “above and beyond.”

It’s just like I’ve said before: Customer service is customer retention.

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Adam Fout

Adam Fout, resident content sorcerer at BlueSteelSolutions, turns blogs and social media accounts into marketing machines for your business. In his free time, he writes strange bits of fiction and posts them on My Website

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