Surprise! A Lesson in Superior Customer Service

July 9, 2011
Customer Service Stories

During a recent vacation, we were fortunate enough to stay at the Hotel Indigo in Asheville, NC where we received a great lesson in top-notch customer service and the art of surprise.

A Birthday in the Mountains

Hotel Indigo Asheville, NC

We were in Asheville to celebrate a milestone birthday of my wife’s (which milestone, I am sworn to secrecy on). When booking the room over a month before, we had mentioned the birthday to the Reservation Agent. We wanted a room with a view, and it was July 4th weekend, so we figured a tiny bit of it’s-my-birthday begging was not out of line.

In the end, it was a quick comment, nothing more. We didn’t push the matter or harp on it. We’re just not that picky about that kind of stuff.

When we arrived in Asheville, we were a few hours ahead of the 3:00 check-in. Our room was not ready, so we headed downtown to pass the time for a few hours.

When we returned to the hotel at about 2:45, the room was still not ready, so we waited in the lobby. When the clock passed 3:00, I went to check the status. I was not upset that the room was not ready early, but the staff was aware that we had arrived three hours ago; I was expecting the room to at least be ready on time.

When I asked about the room, the Front Desk Representative leaned over and whispered to me: “We are still getting your room ready. I gave you an awesome mountain view on the 9th floor, but the concierge is still out buying stuff to prepare the room for your wife’s birthday.”

Say what!!!

I gave the rep an appreciative smile and walked back across the lobby to keep my wife occupied while we waited. There were a couple of dicey moments when the concierge came back from her shopping and had some obvious birthday materials in hand. Fortunately, I was able to distract my wife while the concierge (who did not yet know who we were) grabbed some things from the desk next to us and left to finish the surprise.

Mere minutes later, the Front Desk Representative let us know our room was ready. When my wife walked in, this is what she saw:

Customer Service Hotel Gift
Happy Birthday from the Hotel Indigo

My wife was ecstatic! Unfortunately, I had to admit not being behind the thoughtful gesture (stupid, I know!), and my wife was amazed that the staff had done this of their own volition. I actually had to convince her that it wasn’t me; the hotel staff was just being awesome! She is as big a proponent of great customer service as I am and was impressed as a businessperson as well as a consumer. It was one heck of a first impression.

Making a Strong First Impression With a Customer

If you’ve studied consumer behavior at all you are most likely familiar with primacy and recency effects. Simply put, you remember best what happens first and what happens last. Less academically put…

First impressions matter.

Customer service is about meeting and exceeding expectations, and those expectations are contextual. If you spend $29 for a night at a motor lodge while driving across country, you’re pretty much happy as long as the hot water works and you aren’t eaten by rats in your sleep. If you drop $700 for a suite at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, your expectations might be a tad bit higher. Understanding the typical expectations that accompany your service is important, but no matter what those expectations are, you can set yourself up to exceed them by starting the service experience with a strong and memorable first impression.

A customer or client’s first impression sets the stage for everything that comes after. Canadian business consultant, Kaarina Dillabough, alludes to this concept in her recent blog post about curb appeal. In our own retail businesses, we talk a lot about the concept of having to “dig ourselves out of a hole” with a customer, meaning we blew the first interaction and now we must struggle to change the customer’s negative perception, instead of simply creating a good one from the start.

What the Hotel Indigo did was to set the stage perfectly. They were completely professional and super-friendly in the early interactions, and all the while, they were working to make sure our entrance to our room was spectacular. They created a frame for our experience, so that every experience we had afterwards was viewed through it.

And it worked. We did in fact have one bad experience during our stay – a café server who was fairly rude. However, because the concierge and front desk person had set the stage so well, because every other interaction we had with probably 15 or so other employees during our stay was so excellent, we looked at that incident as an anomaly, an employee having a bad day or simply a bad hire, not as representative of the service level at the Hotel Indigo.

Hotel Indigo Cafe

Imagine, however, had just a couple of things happened in a different order. What if we had been made to wait for our room past the check-in time (without a reason) and then had passed that time in the café when the rude server was on shift? What if that had been our first half hour at the hotel instead? What would our outlook about the hotel been then?

Fortunately, that did not happen. The Hotel Indigo gave us an incredible welcome to their business and followed up with an entire stay, save one incident, of pleasant and helpful service that reinforced the great feelings they gave us when we first entered our hotel room.

Did it work? Well, we had such a great experience that I am writing a blog post about it, and the next time we are in Asheville, there is no question where we will be staying. So, a hat tip to the staff at the Hotel Indigo for making my wife’s birthday and our trip so special. We will be back and will recommend you to all!

So, what do you to set the stage in your business? Have you ever had a bad first interaction that the company was unable to recover from? An awesome first impression that excused some later missteps?

Note: This post was originally published before the launch of our Customer Service Stories series. We have edited this page to include it in the series; however, all content and comments remain the same as originally published.

16 thoughts on “Surprise! A Lesson in Superior Customer Service”

  1. Adam, this is a superb example of true customer service. Not only did you have an amazing experience, but the”worth its weight in gold” word of mouth that you’ll now spread is indeed that: worth its weight in gold!

    I think we have become so accustomed to poor or fair customer service (or the complete lack thereof), that we accept average or adequate as the norm. I’m going to come back and share an amazing example, once I remember which book I read it in.

    And thank you so much for the lovely tip of the hat to me. I’m honoured and grateful.

    I’ll be back with that story soon. Cheers! Kaarina

    1. Kaarina, You’re so right about norms in customer service nowadays. I always love it when I receive exceptional service, because it stands out so much anymore. The Hotel Indigo really did an excellent job throughout our experience but that one gesture was just incredible!

      My pleasure, btw. You’re post was awesome.

      I look forward to the story your referring to! Thanks for your comment.

      1. Will be back with the story soon:) In the meantime, I mosey’d over to Like your FB page. I look forward to our continued connection, especially when we can #TeamBlogJack, haha! Cheers! Kaarina

        1. Thanks for the Facebook Kaarina! Liked yours back. Still need to get my page view-worthy, but I’ve got a few projects ahead of that one at the moment.

          Maybe #TeamBlogJack needs its own page. 🙂

  2. Nah man, if they got to meet me it had to be a wonderful first impression, right? My customers love me……..:)

    This is so true and the order of ‘events’ do have an impact. First impressions matter more than some people give credit for. And I will always say this, sometimes it is just paying attention to detail and taking care of the little things. Please, thank you, mentioning your name, etc are easy but good things to say.

    Good to see you bringing Kaarina into the story as well.

    Glad you had a great stay and good to have you back. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. What other impression could they have gotten meeting you? 🙂

      I agree the little details — the common courtesies — are a big part of making that impression, and of the entire customer experience.

      Just saw Kaarina pop up as the star of Erica’s Sunday post. She’s quite the celebrity this weekend, and deservedly so.

      Have a great Sunday Bill.

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  5. Hi Adam,

    Wonderful experience and I love the way they did the setup for wife’s birthday. I guess the wait was worth it. I believe such a customer service makes sure that the reputation of the hotel will go very far .

    Nice to know that you had a great time .


    1. Hi Ashvini,

      Thanks for stopping by. They really did do a great job, and the concierge there deserves a lot of credit.

      I agree that its this kind of exceptional service that makes people want to spread the word and really helps organizations build a reputation.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it.

  6. Vernessa Taylor

    Hi Adam,

    Without a doubt, customer service is near and dear to my heart. What a wonderful customer service story. (And belated happy birthday to your wife!)

    While I can’t take any credit for the superb welcome you and your wife received in Asheville, I want you to know that their mountains are right in my backyard (about an hour away) and that is the kind of service you can expect when you visit *My* neck of the woods! LOL (Just kidding!)

    Experiencing bad customer service leaves an impression, like you say, but being the cause of a customer’s bad experience carries an even bigger weight IMHO. I once lost an online account because the customer signed up for something and I didn’t get back to him for 24 hours. Even though I was having some technical difficulties that had me offline for that period of time, I still felt horrible about it. Offering incentives and extras to turn the situation around, the customer wouldn’t accept, demanded a refund, and likely bad-mouthed me (though I hope not!)

    I’ve consistently been known for providing good customer service. That unfortunate event left a strong impression with me that makes me ensure (to the best of my ability) that even technical glitches don’t cost me customers.

    On the flip side of that, I’ve just had a wonderful customer service experience. The SmallBizTrends site had technical difficulties on the last night of the nominations for the SmallBiz Influencer Award. Several staff persons have contacted me to make sure I got my nomination in. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this story and asking those questions, Adam.

    1. Hi Vernessa,

      What a great comment. I look at customer service similarly, which is to say as the essence of a business relationship. It never feels good to drop the ball with a customer, but it’s going to happen from time to time no matter how focused we are. The only thing you can hope is that they give you a second chance.

      Didn’t realize you were so close to Asheville. I will be expecting excellent customer service from the entire region now that I know it’s your “neck of the woods.” 🙂

      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. Hope you are having a great week!

  7. John Falchetto

    Wow! One day I will share my honeymoon story with you and trust me I should have chosen this hotel.

    I applaud you for this post because we often see rants and people whining online about bad customer service, but often forget to write when businesses go out of their way to make us happy.

    First impressions make it or break it. A bad first impression can be salvaged but it’s tough. Although I must say with the proper care some critics can easily be turned into raving fans. Simply by listening to the client. Ah yes listening, it’s nothing fancy, no great strategy but it really works.

    Thanks for this post Adam and happy birthday to your wife.

    1. Uh oh… that doesn’t sound good. I look forward to hearing the story though.

      I appreciate it. You’re so right that people generally seem much quicker to share their bad service stories than the good ones. It’s nice to have this platform to not only share the story but to share the lessons from it.

      That’s a good point about turning around critics. There’s actually research to support that customers are more loyal after you have messed up and fixed it. Still, I think it best to get it right the first time. Easier on everyone. 🙂

      Great thoughts as always John!

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    Its amazing what a difference customer service can make to your whole trip – it can literally make it or break it. When you think about past holidays, I bet you can recall the ones with really good customer service and also the ones with really poor service.
    Post was a nice read during my break! 🙂

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