Customer Loyalty: The Rock Star Approach (part 1 with Tourette's Notes!)
I said in a blog post recently that I was fiercely brand loyal until I wasn’t, and I used the example of Starwood Hotels vs. Hilton to illustrate the point, as well as Outback Steakhouse vs. Saketumi, my local sushi joint.
At least Starwood didn’t call me on the phone like Scottrade did after a blog posting where I suggested more money be spent on their ap and less on the commercials flying their CEO around in a helicopter. (DO NOT CALL ME SCOTTRADE. IT WAS A JOKE. I KNOW THOSE COMMERCIALS DON’T AIR ANY MORE.)
Anyway, the crux of my point was this: treat your customers like rock stars, and they will be loyal. With that in mind, let me tell you the story about how I met Starwood hotels, and how I’ve come to spend one out of every 6 nights in the past 6 years at one of their brands.
The year was 2006, and DC Event Photos was slowly changing to US Event Photos. I remember checking into a hotel, and the front desk agent asking me what I did. “I’m a photographer,” I replied, “I travel between Washington, DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia shooting events.”
At that time, that description was pretty accurate. However, within the next year, I started expanding the business, and US Event Photos was born. Same description, except the cities changed to “between New York and Los Angeles.”
Anyway, that year I was shooting the Maryland Dental Convention in Baltimore, and had booked my hotel room through Hotwire.
You know, four star hotels at a two star price, Hotwire. (Oh, Christ, now they are going to call me, too. Oh, well.) Well, I booked a three star by Baltimore Washington International (BWI) , and ended up at a Homestead Inn and Suites. (Renamed Hooker Suites since.)
Here’s a hint: Homestead Inn and Suites at BWI is NOT three star. It is MAYBE two star. And, the rate? I quickly learned my “hugely” discounted rate was their regular rate, or at least, within a few dollars.
That’s ok: it was a room. It was a bed. It had a bathroom. It was fine. Much like my meal at a Denny’s, when the server asks tentatively, “is everything OK?”
Yes, it is OK.
So, after work, I fell into bed.
All I remember is the pounding on my door.
“Hey, sugar!” Said the voice, “don’t you want a little company?”
I put pillow over ears.
“Come on, sugar! I know you want this! Come on, baaaaaby! I just want to plaaaaay.”
I sprang out of bed. I flung open the door. There, in front of me, was a very fat hooker.
“I think you have the wrong room,” I said through clenched teeth.
“That’s ok, shuuuuuuuuugar, you are sooooooooooo cute.”
“I am sooooooooooo gaaaaaaaay. So please, not interested.”
I shut the door on surprised fat hooker. A few minutes later, the pounding came, but a bit more muffled: it was on the door next to mine.
And so it continued through most of the night. I called the front desk — twice. Both times a sleepy sounding agent answered the phone and said they’d take care of it. (Code for F off!)
The next morning, I didn’t have to work until late. I checked out, eating the Hotwire prepaid rate and stomped out of Homestead Inn and Suites BWI. I drove directly to the Sheraton Columbia, MD, about 15 minutes away, and checked in.
“How is your day?” Asked the front desk agent.
I told her a brief recap of the night before. She looked horrified. I looked tired.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, “I will put you in a really nice room.”
And, she did. A king on the executive floor, overlooking the Columbia Mall. Now, this detail may not seem important to you, but as a kid I shopped at that mall. I’d look up at the Sheraton tower across the street and think, “Boy, that’s a pretty hotel.” I always loved hotels.
Here I was, staying there. Looking down on creation.
I joined Starwood’s SPG program. I figured, hell, if they treated me this well for just a quick one night stay, what must it be like when you reach their preferred status? I also thought: How the hell do you reach Gold? Who stays that many nights (10 stays or 25 nights annually)?
Little did I realize, that within the next year, I’d be that person. In fact, I’d go well beyond that, to more than 50 nights annually. In fact, almost 400 nights since that fateful night have been spent in a Starwood branded hotel.
Let’s say the average nightly rate is $150. I think that’s fair. That’s $60,000 worth of hotel stays.
Why? Why did this happen? Why didn’t I choose Hilton? Or Marriott? Or Intercontinental? The hotel business is so competitive.
I can tell you why: that hotel clerk, at the Columbia, MD Sheraton, who put me in an upgraded room after the hooker experience. (why are they always fat women?)
Now, I almost never book on Hotwire. And, while I do stay at my share of Hiltons, it is almost always because there is not a Starwood hotel that is in the neighborhood. My third choice is La Quinta. Don’t roll your eyes — this is one of those chains that is lower tier, but not bad. The rooms are usually good, (except tonight’s, not a fan of beat up bath tub next to bed, see pic) and I almost always get a two room suite. (Not here, though description said ‘living area’. Room is about the size of a small greenscreen photo booth. Where is living area? Maybe that chair? Wait, no, that’s my night stand…) My only gripe with La Quinta? Thin walls. And, since it is an economy brand, it tends to attract a “partying” crowd, drinking wine from a box. But at $79 / night, average, I overlook that when required. Again, almost always La Quinta is chosen because there is no Starwood or Hilton brand available. Or, those premium chains have jacked up the price (because of the event I’m working) to more than $400 / night. (The cost of a skinny hooker.)
Brand loyalty is a tricky thing, isn’t it? On one hand, you have to make sure what you are doing is profitable. It does no good to have a loyal customer if that client is COSTING you money. But if that client is contributing to the success of your business, shouldn’t you go out of your way to contribute to their success?
I often wonder what happened to that Sheraton front desk agent in Columbia, MD all those years ago. I haven’t the foggiest idea. Does Starwood know the business she single-handedly brought? Did I fail because I never told anyone about her customer progressive act? Hell, I didn’t realize it at the time. Did she? Did she go home that night thinking, “I did a great job today”? Did her manager realize her gift, moving her up the corporate food chain?
Is she now having these progressive contacts with clients every day, bringing millions into Starwood?
Or does she now work for Hilton?