I checked online services to price hotel rooms for a weekend stay in New York City. I wanted something on the upper east side, close to all the cool stores and to my son who's doing an internship in the city.
Orbitz.com had the best rates on the hotels that interested me. After a few minutes I was out of my office, armed with information and on my cell phone to the Mrs. to coordinate dates and times. A few moments later, still on my drive home, I was on the phone with credit card in hand, ready to sing a chorus of “I love New York” to the reservation staff of my first pick, the Parker Meridian — up scale, great location and best advertised deal on-line. Just sign me up…
Not so fast newbie! I soon found that the cyber highway to Manhattan wasn't the yellow brick road of welcome, but rather a prickly path of cut-rate and side deals.
The first worm in the world wide web of the Big Apple was an earful of attitude that I got from the reservation woman whom I was looking to favor with business.
I called with a load of enthusiasm about how great their cyber rate was and how excited I was to visit. They countered with a lecture on the ins and outs of third party resellers and on-line marketing strategies and enough BS to fill a first-year law school course on commercial transactions. All I wanted was a room in their hotel which they were advertising on line presumably to attract folks like me.
Why am I sharing this story about a hotel room purchase with readers looking for cutting-edge automobile retailing strategies?
Because this is just as relevant in car sales as it is in showroom sales. What's more, when I look at things through the eyes of the consumer rather than the retailer, I quickly understand the passion with which our detractors come at us.
Back to the story at hand. I'm on the cell phone and excited about booking a romantic room for me and the Mrs. A young-sounding reservation clerk welcomes my call by asking how she could help, and then launches into a lesson in rate metrics and on-line intermediary contracts.
I thank her for her insights on the hotel industry, but remind her that I was calling from a cell phone in my car and without the benefit of a link to the Internet but with a simple request that she honor the rate that is currently offered which she can confirm in a snap.
“Unfortunately,” she chides, “I can only book the room at the higher phone-in rate, not the lower Internet rate.” Undaunted I ask for a supervisor who will surely recognize the opportunity and apply reasonable logic and to whom I put the following proposition:
“Would you rather hang up the phone knowing that I may or may not book your hotel before purchasing a stay elsewhere, or would you prefer the infinitely more profitable path of selling the reservation right now, allowing me to pay in advance, thus assuring that your room does not go empty?
She replied, “Our phone-in rates are what they are and there's nothing that can be done. Pay the premium for phone service or move on.”
I would have liked to hang up and move on, but that meant giving up what I wanted at a rate I wanted. So, upsetting as it was, I waited, logged on as soon as I got home and booked the room “through channels” as directed by the surly clerk. After all, those clerks were not really a reflection on the hotel's values, they were just in the call center. Weren't they?
And OK, maybe they even get points for Cyber integrity, but, they didn't even ask my name or whether they might assist me in placing a reservation. They simply said go online and book it if you want.
Which brings us to another point. “It's not our policy” has long been the “get out of jail free card” that uninspired managers give to untrusted employees so that they might make no bigger mistake than turning away business.
The trouble is that the holy grail of excuses does more than simply avoid silliness on the part of untrained staff. It conveys to the public that the company cares less about customer satisfaction than it does about protecting itself from thoughtless employees and dishonest patrons.
My experience at the Parker Meridian is a classic example of what happens when a company's use of information technology is driven by that fear.
Peter Brandow is a veteran dealer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.