Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Create a Process to Manage Exceptions, but Don't Let Exceptions Drive Your Processes

When I woke up yesterday morning at the Lago Mar Resort in Fort Lauderdale, FL, I went about my normal morning routine, and when I got to the part about drying my hair, I stepped into one of those break-my-process travel moments. I pulled the hair dryer out of a satin draw-string bag. The cord was wrapped tightly around the hair dryer and and the large plug end was tucked between the tightly wrapped cord. I had to wrestle with the plug and cord for a few minutes to get the plug dislodged. Why do they do this, I wondered? After I finally got the cord freed up, I discovered that the hair dryer didn't work. All that work for nothing, I thought. It was around 7:35 AM and I had a breakfast to attend in a first floor conference room at 8 AM.

This isn't the first time this happened to me, so the first thing I did was to question myself about why I didn't check the hair dryer when I arrived the night before. I've told myself in the past that I need to make this part of my own travel process, but too late for that fix today.

So I called the front desk and told a friendly lady that my hair dryer didn't work.

"Oh, dear," she said, "our head of housekeeping isn't in yet."

Oh great, is what I was thinking. They don't have a process to help a lady with long hair who discovers a dead hair dryer twenty-five minutes before her meeting.

"I'll see what I can do," she promises.

About five minutes later, a black man wearing a name tag identifying himself from Haiti, knocks on my door.

"You have something broke?" he asks.

Oh great, is what I thought again. She sent help, but he doesn't even know why he came to see me.

"My hair dryer doesn't work," I told him, "can you get me another one quickly?"

"Hair dryer?" he asks?

"Yes, hair dryer," I say.

"Broken?" he asks?

"Yes, my hair dryer is broken."

"OK," he says, "I find you another one."

I close the door, somewhat happy that I have some hope of getting a hair dryer soon, but doubtful that it will be here soon enough. I go to the bathroom and start using hand towels to dry my hair as much as possible, preparing myself to show up at the breakfast with damp and flat hair.

At about 7:50 AM, my phone rings and it's the nice lady from the front desk asking me if I got my iron yet. I was very impressed that she followed up, despite the fact that she wasn't clear about what I needed.

"I need a hair dryer very quickly," I say, "I have a meeting in ten minutes!"

"Oh, dear," she says, "please hold and I'll see what I can do."

She puts me on hold so fast, that I don't have time to tell her that I don't want to hold. While I'm on hold, someone knocks on my door, so I leave the phone. It's the man from Haiti and he has a hair dryer in his hands. I ask him to wait so I can check to make sure it works. Fortunately for me, it does. I ask him to wait again. I pull a tip out of my wallet and thank him. Then I run back to the phone to see if the oh dear front desk lady is still on the phone. I hear music. She still has me on hold. Should I hang up and go dry my hair, or should I wait to tell her that she doesn't have to send extra forces? She picks up.

"Did you get your iron, I mean hair dryer, dear?"

"Yes, I did, thank you very much."

By now it's about 7:55 and I make it down to my breakfast around 8:05.

The same day on our morning break, I call the front desk and request some extra coffee for my room. When I get back to my room in the afternoon, sure enough they brought more coffee. In addition, I had a voicemail asking me if I received the coffee and if everything else in the room met my expectations.

I'm so impressed with their follow-up system. I did get the coffee, but when I made my next cup, I poured one of the little half & half containers into the coffee and it curdled right there in my fresh cup of coffee. Down the drain it all went and I started all over again, hoping that the next little serving of half & half wouldn't curdle. I sure appreciate their effort in stocking all their rooms with half & half, but the problem with these little containers is that it's hard to know if it's bad until after it ruins a good cup of coffee.

I studied the little Wholesome Farms container to see if it had an expiration date. All I found was a series of numbers that would probably allow you to track it back to the manufacturer in the event it was poisoned or something, but this isn't much help to the end user who gets cranky without a good cup of coffee with cream.

I can continue to complain about the Lago Mar and Wholesome Farms, but it's really my problem. I'm the one who chooses to pamper this coffee habit. I'm the one who will drive miles out of my way for a good cup of coffee and I'm the one who will feel irritated without it. I should challenge myself with my caffeine addiction or at least minimize its impact by switching over to tea. It's much easier to find a hot cup of water for a tea bag than it is to find a good hot coffee and cream. Enough whining over the coffee.

So let me tell you about the toilet paper in my Lago Mar room. The first time I tried to get some toilet paper, I found out that it didn't roll properly on the toilet paper holder. It's one of those upscale holders that has two independent decorative posts with a spring roll in the middle. Whoever installed it placed the two posts too close so when you try to put on a roll of toilet paper between them, the paper roll gets jammed in the decorative posts and doesn't roll.

This is an education and process issue that traces back to the person who hired the installer. The person who did the installation either didn't have instructions or if he did, he didn't follow them. And he may not have needed the instructions anyway if he had a lot of prior experience or training on proper installation of bathroom hardware. Even if the installer didn't have instructions, training or experience, the contractors final quality check, or punchlist should have picked up on the mistake.

And that's not the end of it. If this happened in one hotel room, there's a good chance that it happened in ten, twenty, fifty, or maybe even in hundreds of rooms! People are fairly predictible. If the installer used his good sense to do the install in my room, he probably used the same line of reasoning, right or wrong, to do others.

So enough about the jammed toilet paper. I'm sure you'd much rather hear about Lago Mar "Good Earthkeeping" policy. They advertise their policy with a little sign posted on the sink top in the bathroom. It states the following:

The Lago Mar is committed to the State of Florida's request to conserve our water and reduce the amount of pollutants from detergents and chemicals released into our environment.

They go on to say that their soaps and shampoos are environmentally friendly and that they only change the sheets and towels every three days, unless you request it more frequently or leave your towels on the floor. At least that's what they say on paper. What I found is that my towels were changed out every day, even though they were all hanging. And my soap bars at the sink and in the shower disappeared every day. I'm sad when I see this kind of waste built into a process. I'd much rather use the same bar of soap from one day to the next than contribute to unnecessary extravagance.

Leaders and managers in the hotel industry should be required to spend at least 10% of their nights in a variety of hotel rooms so they can participate in the comparative customer experience. If you have a guest room in your home, you may have no idea what it's like to spend the night there unless you really do it. If you manage a hotel, but don't sleep in your own rooms from time to time, you really don't know what you're offering your own customers.

People in the service industry have to manage a lot of exceptions. It's important to have a process and guidelines set up to manage the exceptions, but not important to have a process for every exception. The Lago Mar managed a few of my exceptions very well.

What seems to be missing, however, is a feedback form. I didn't find a customer feedback form anywhere in the room. They may give me one if I go to the front desk to check out, but that's not a good time to stall customers with extra paperwork.

Every service company should be asking their customers at least two questions:

1. What do you like most about our service or facilities?

2. What is the number one thing that we need to improve?

It's surprising what you can find out, just by asking.

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