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What separates a good service experience from a great one?

Getting the basics right – and making the pasta stretch a little further

Good service experience

A few weeks ago, I got itchy feet – again. This time, I decided to visit my friend S in Milan.

He and I used to do an Italian/English conversation swap when he lived here in Cambridge, and we’ve remained in touch online since he returned to Italy. But however HD the video, and however surround the sound, a Skype call just isn’t the same as a face-to-face encounter.

So I decided to head for the bright lights and the big city, and booked my ticket for Milan. But first, I had to find somewhere to stay, as S’s sister’s flat couldn’t accommodate all three of us.

A home from home

Booking accommodation is always a bit of a crapshoot. In the past, I’ve had the misfortune to rent one place where the bedrooms smelt of cat pee and the owner’s hard-of-hearing mother had the television on at full blast in the room above mine (Rome).

Or the creatively photographed apartment that left out the busy road running right past the terrace (French Pyrenees). Not to mention the top-floor flat above a market square that turned into a gathering place for droves of Vespa-riding teens until well after midnight (Florence). 

But now with the sharing economy in full swing, and with everybody rating everybody, things have become a little more transparent. Cat pee and noisy roads will soon sink a listing, so you can book with relative confidence.

But in a world of rising standards, not everybody has hit five stars. So what makes a service experience really stand out? 

  • Communication. My host (let’s call him A) was responsive from the very beginning – confirming the booking within minutes, and suggesting we connect on WhatsApp. From then on, he was available at a moment’s notice to answer any questions or provide advice. 
  • Flexibility. I read in one of the reviews that A had waited up until 1am for a guest to arrive who’d got delayed. And with me, he showed the same flexible approach: no problem with arrival or departure time, breakfast at whatever time suited me, and modifying his schedule on the fly to take me on an impromptu walk through Milan.
  • Going above and beyond. Strictly speaking, I should have had just bed and breakfast (if you haven’t had Italian fette biscottate to start the day, you haven’t lived). But on my four nights in Milan, A invited me to dine with him on one evening, and with him and his partner on another when I rocked up five minutes before they were due to eat (“Join us! There’s plenty of pasta to go around.”). 
  • Making a connection. When I chatted to A about renting out his spare room, he said he started it as a business, but soon realised that it was more than that. Receiving paying guests in his home wasn’t simply a commercial transaction, but a way to connect with people from all over the world and share their lives (and his) for a few days. 

The caring economy

Now renting accommodation on Airbnb or any of the other lookalike sites is not like selling widgets, or providing IT support services or running a management consultancy.

So can the lessons of a holiday experience be extended to business? I think they can. Because what these hosts and guests have realised is that all business is transacted between two people.

And yes, it’s true that you don’t get to meet every customer or prospect in person over a crunchy Italian biscuit at breakfast.

But you can try to imagine what their world is like when you’re writing that marketing email or posting that tweet, when you’re drafting the blog post or launching a sales campaign.

A physiotherapist once told me that it’s been scientifically proven that if you visualise a muscle when you’re exercising it, the manoeuvre is more effective. In much the same way, I think that if you visualise your target audience when you’re carrying out any sort of marketing activity, it works better. 

And that’s why so many marketers nowadays have detailed buyer personas. See the person and you make the connection – which, for my money, is what separates a good service experience from an exceptional one.

I’m already planning a return trip. Because those crunchy Italian breakfast biscuits just aren’t the same here.

Funny that.