The right direction for good service

This Christmas I’ve decided to leave the warm temperatures in Melbourne and spend the holidays in sub-zero Europe (it almost sounds a bit crazy, really). Those of you who have ever done the Kangaroo Route will know it’s a long trip! Approximately 24 hours in the air with a brief stopover, and you’ve just about had it – I normally just want to find my hotel and have a little lie down.

As such, I have been investigating how best to get from London Heathrow airport to my (budget) hotel, using the good old London Tube. I want to get there the cheapest and most efficient way; I’ll be laden down with suitcases, backpacks and a sleepy head! So I looked up the hotel’s website to find out where they were, and how to get there.

A suprising find

The hotel’s website has its problems: yes, the directions are on the ‘Contact info’ page (the IA in me doesn’t really like this..), the background makes the text hard to read, and there is gratuitous use of ‘click here’ link text – however all that is for another discussion!

Along with the requisite address and maps was something a little different: podcast directions. For each of the four closest Tube stops, the hotel has provided an MP3 file containing instructions on how to get to the hotel from the underground station.

And there’s a Pizza Hut…

Have you ever emerged from a train station in a foreign city after a long-haul flight, dazed and confused? Sometimes you will have your own map, or there will be one in the train station – but once you exit the station you must be able to work out which corner you’re standing on, or what street runs in front of you for your map to be of any use.

Using the hotel’s podcast directions, a friendly voice – the set of instructions I downloaded was recorded by Lisa, who had an Australian accent, no less – directs you towards the hotel using easily recognisable landmarks. You don’t need to know which is north and which is south, or measure out 400 metres or 600 feet – just knowing your left and right is enough (though a knowledge of global fast food chains could help too – see below!)

“You’ll notice that in front of you, there’s a Pizza Hut; this is on the corner of Moscow Road. Walk towards Moscow Road. … Straight ahead of you, you will see Worldwide Travels and Holidays; continue past.”

Never have I seen a hotel provide me with such a useful service before I even arrive to begin my stay!

Wayfinding with a twist

These podcast directions are an example of wayfinding, the notion of orienting oneself and navigating from place to place. But instead of just relying on signage or iconography, aural instructions are overlaid on top of the built environment to create a type of augmented wayfinding, if you will. These directions require less cognitive effort than a printed map, and could be particularly useful for people who have difficulty reading, or who have problems with spatial awareness. The instructions are given in real-time (though people who move slowly may need to pause the recording at various stages), and rely on obvious landmarks and recognisable brand names. Almost the only thing missing is a review of the local restaurants and attractions!

They’re looking out for me

While I doubt that this innovation has been derived from a structured service design initiative, it suggests that the service provider has looked beyond what is standard in their industry to offer added value to their target market at little extra expense.

Conciously or not, the hotel appears to be empathetic with its guests. As a hotel for the budget tourist (well, the upper end of the budget market), it could be assumed that many of its guests are arriving on public transport, possibly at the culmination of a (very) long journey and with little knowledge of the surrounding area. Offering downloadable podcast directions (as well as all the other maps and recommended routes provided on the hotel’s website) shows that they have probably tried to place themselves in the situation of the traveller, or maybe listened to feedback provided by guests.

One could hazard a guess, however, that most people who stay at luxury hotels such as the Four Seasons, or the London Savoy won’t be taking the Tube to get there, they are more likely to be business travellers and they may even be more frequent visitors to London, so podcast directions would probably be of little value.

The feeling’s mutual

This reminds me of an example used in the introduction to Rohit Ramaswamy’s Design and Management of Service Design Processes where he describes how Ikea creates a mutually beneficial ranges of services to assist both the customer an the company. In the instance of this hotel, the podcast directions are mutually beneficial in that the hotel guest is likely to arrive at the hotel more smoothly and in a positive frame of mind, while the hotel itself will probably receive less calls from lost guests and also sets up a positive environment in which to welcome the guest.

Though the hotel only has an average rating on TripAdvisor, I will arrive feeling a little more upbeat than usual, knowing that this hotel, however ‘budget’, has attempted to do something a little of out of the ordinary to assist guests in arriving quickly and easily to begin their stay.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

As ‘Lisa’ trots through London (wearing what sounds like metal horseshoes!), she will guide you past ‘the large dome’ and ‘the pretty garden’, straight to the front door of the hotel. “I hope this is helpful“, she says. Thank you Lisa, I think it will be.

What do you think?

Have you ever got an unexpected bit of added value from a ‘budget’ service? Can you think of any other ways that hotels can provide low-cost added value to their guests? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

customer service, service design

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