Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hyatt’s random walk down service street

Last month, Hyatt Hotels’ C.E.O., Mark Holamazian, announced that Hyatt Hotel employees will be performing “random acts of generosity” for some customers, such as comping a bar tab or waiving charges for a family breakfast. Bloggers have noted that conducting a publicity campaign around gestures hardly seems random, and runs the risk of angering those who don’t receive the largesse.

Rob Walker’s Consumed column in this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine points out that the Hyatt campaign is an effort to leave the customer grateful. Walker cites a coming paper in the Journal of Marketing which argues that a customer who is made to feel grateful is likely to become “enduringly loyal.” Humans enjoy reciprocating out of gratitude, and we feel guilty when we don’t, which is a phenomenon that businesses can exploit. But, as Walker writes, in order to inspire gratitude, favors must be performed “as a function of free will,” not merely in service of company rules. Loyalty programs sponsored by hotels and airlines do not automatically inspire gratitude; instead, frequent customers feel entitled to the free flights and hotel nights, and strategize to gain the most generous rewards for the points they’ve earned.

It’s not wrong for Hyatt to be ramping up customer service, especially now. Service has always driven loyalty, especially when customers are giving more thought to how they spend each dollar. One recent study found that nearly half of all customers feel service has declined since the recession started, and more than that said they’ve recently cut ties with a company due to a service lapse. It’s no coincidence that Nordstrom, with its legendary customer service, has recently trounced competitors such as Macy’s and Saks in terms of sales and stock performance. But we question whether Hyatt’s scattershot, random approach is the best way to go. Hyatt, and other businesses, might be better off building a reputation for top-notch customer service available consistently to all customers. What happens to customers who – having read about the plan – expect but then don’t receive any random generosity? And what about those who receive it a first time but may not “randomly” ever get it again? What happens to their loyalty? What do you think?
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