Using independent insight to drive the customer experience…
The customer is always right, but they are also always biased. Every guest that enters your premises has an agenda. Their reason for travel, their anticipated standards, and probably their previous experiences all combine to create an expectation that you must deliver on as an operator. Hotels all follow a standardised pattern of customer relations. Sure, it will include the unique messaging and flair that is appropriate to your brand, but it will still follow the typical cycle of pre-booking, booking, and post-booking steps. Requesting reviews and feedback most naturally comes at the end of this process, but in doing so, feedback is given through the lens of experience, and that experience is unique to each individual.
Guest feedback is good. It is good for providing us with two things. The first is a generalised assessment of our standards and our service provision, identifying trends and commonalities that require maintenance or improvement. The second is in identifying outliers, unusual, or potentially one-time challenges that, hopefully, are a straightforward fix. They are a good litmus test for how we are performing overall, day to day, and for identifying unique or evolving challenges that we must meet. The limitation of them comes back to perspective lens, the reality of human nature, and the passage of time.
Turning our attention to the basics of human psychology, and we are typically creatures of habit with a brain that favours patterns and familiarity. The side effect of this is confirmation bias, which incites guests to validate their stay either positively or negatively based on many things that are ultimately out of our control. We all of us can attest to the old adage that we’ll be forgiven for the first error, and the second, but not the third, but the reason this rings true is because of confirmation bias. Guest’s natural psychological predisposition feeds into the lens through which they view their stay, and ultimately determines whether they have a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ experience.
At the same time, our memories are not very good. At a granular level, unless an event imprints strongly on our brain, our ability to recall details accurately, diminishes with every hour that passes. From the perspective of reviews, this means that guest responses will be more accurate on more recent details – such as their stay and their check-out – but less accurate on the earlier details such as the booking process, or the check-in for example. It means that reviews, while true, probably lack many of the details and insights required to support your business to maximise its customer experience.
So, if we can’t rely on guest reviews for accuracy or detail, where then do we look for insight to drive continuous improvement? Garry Baldwin, Managing Director of New Forest Holidays shares his thoughts.
“Lockdown provided us with a unique opportunity to review our values and position ourselves within our community,” Baldwin explains. “Working with our teams at all levels we reaffirmed that our New Forest Guest was at the heart of everything we do. What’s changed is that we link this back to all decision making we complete as a business. Our vision is for our guests, team, and our partners to be part of our community. In all that we do we aim to enrich lives through our New Forest Hospitality.”
He continues “Having been a Senior Hotel & Restaurant inspector for over ten years, I understood the value of independent inspection, and the role it can play in providing an impartial, timely review of your services. The New Forest Collection was also AA graded for several decades, so I was familiar with the scheme when I joined. The challenge is getting that report and feedback to translate into something that your team can use to grow and enhance the customer experience. Our team was struggling; they didn’t really understand what the results of an inspection meant, nor, importantly, how to translate it into tangible results. It was time for a change.”
“The major refocus for us was not only on gaining independent, external advice, but to do so in a manner that is suited to our business and the business that we want to be”, Baldwin states. “Our vision is simple. With a name like New Forest collection, we have a responsibility to the environment we work in, we want to be the accommodation venues of choice, whilst supporting the local community and beyond. This goes from using excellent local suppliers and producers, to working in partnership with businesses that share those same core values and responsibilities.”
He adds: “Grading has changed from a focus on standardised attainments, to a focus on personalised value. We want to put the customer first, but we also want to build a business where we encourage our team members to be themselves, and to build engaged relationships with our guests. For us, a less standardised approach to accreditation was a must, shifting our partnership to Quality in Tourism, to engage their advice and guidance and pursue tangible outcomes.”
Environmental responsibility is a core factor of New Forest Collection, driven by customer and staff demand, and the frankly breathtaking vistas they are positioned in. The New Forest is a magical national park with lots of stories to tell, providing guests with a great opportunity to make their own too. The collection actively wants guests to be comfortable enough to create their experiences, but knows that they also have a responsibility to promote safe tourism through education.
“Our environmental considerations go way beyond changing bulbs to LED,” Baldwin explains. “Each of our Estates gets a personalised approach based on location and opportunity. This year we installed four beehives at Bartley Lodge, turned lawns into meadows within our Burley Manor estate and implemented garden waste composting on our site. We have also become the largest contributor to ‘Love the Forest’; an organisation that supports communities, education projects and sustainable grants within the national park.
“Independent accreditation has fed into all of this for us. It doesn’t have to be standardised against a list of criteria, but it does need to be relevant, and guest focussed. Introducing a mystery-shopping style approach has not only provided us with unique insights for every single stage of the customer journey, but has provided an impartial assessment of our businesses, identifying opportunities for tangible improvements. The teams are all really motivated by the reports and the changes that they can implement, which in turn has supported our guest experience to be the very best that it can be. Some quick wins have been installed and resulted in positive guest feedback, but particular attention is also focussed on the elements we want to be good at, like our green credentials.”
“The modern hospitality sector is all about differentiation,” Baldwin concludes. “The industry I first started in was all about common standards and set expectations, but the modern guest is more focussed on experience and potentially even uniqueness, as long as it is transparently conveyed. The industry has had it tough recently, but we’re finding that our agile, resilient approach combined with a focus on continuous improvement, driven by accreditation, is helping us to thrive. This ultimately assists in the guest decision making process, which paired with a positive SEO and marketing strategy are driving bookings and having a transformative effect.”
Garry Baldwin is Managing Director of New Forest Collection which boasts five properties in the national park. The collection has two grade II listed manor houses, a Georgian dower house, a coaching inn with its own pub restaurant and a Victorian village hide-away, all run as a family operation. They are all independently accredited by Quality in Tourism, and are also working towards their FARE and REST accreditations, for food and sustainability respectively. Baldwin himself has always had a love of hospitality, kickstarted from a conversation with his grandfather leading to cheffing qualifications. He ultimately found guest interaction a little more rewarding, switching to front of house for much of his early career. He is a progressive and engaged leader with a clear vision for creating businesses with purpose and actively embracing change.