Customers challenge the ordinary in search for authentic service


As published in CX Magazine, 1 September 2015

“Boutique Hotel” is a term that was initially used in North America and the UK to describe small hotels in unique settings with upscale and stylish accommodation. These hotels began appearing in the 1980s in cities like London, New York and San Francisco and remained secret escapes for a very exclusive traveller. In recent years we have seen an explosion in this market as many customers move away from the big chains – the ones that offer a consistent service, the kind that is the same no matter where you are in the world. The label “Boutique Hotel” is no longer a term used just for the small, as many large hotels have since entered this market, revolutionising what it means to offer 5-star service.

I had the privilege of being part of the Bridge Team that saw one such hotel transform from what was a leading, long-standing 5-star global chain into an amazing five-star, new-fashioned luxury hotel. This took 92% of the staff population that moved over to the new brand from thinking with a traditional service mindset to offering a bespoke and authentic experience-based approach. With Bridge joining as part of the existing transformation team, I was brought into a creative world that has changed the way I look at service forever.

The new hotel, Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa is a magical place that offers its very own unique way of connecting to the guest experience.

Without question, the stylish aesthetics and breath-taking landscape of the property sets it apart, but there is more to its boutique offering that warrants further exploration.

As I entered into this new world of service I had to ask myself, ‘why are boutique hotels so fashionable at the moment?’ and ‘how does their service differ from the traditional 5-star style that the market has become accustomed to?’ I also needed to better understand what it was that guests were seeking in this alternative and evolving market. Being at the cutting edge of the Eau transformation, I had the opportunity to work directly with all the employees in the hotel, sit at the table with the concept and brand creators, and also be a resident and live amongst the guests. When I say privilege I do not use the word lightly, as these three influences were merging in real-time all around me and giving me insight into why all customer service needs a little more “boutique” in today’s world.

When I first heard the term “new-fashioned luxury” at Eau, I thought that this, in itself, spoke volumes for the service that many of today’s customers are looking for.

As luxury was still a constant, it stood for maintaining high standards of great service, yet also alludes to a promise with a twist. Traditional 5-star service focuses its ‘attention to detail’ on ensuring that a clear set of processes is followed and gains guest confidence with the consistent manner in which it is delivered. It is never to question the process, as this would not reflect well on the agreed set of customary standards set forth.To maintain this standard, the contract and expectation of service is pre-set prior to engagement with the guest, and hence no real personal interaction is required.

Previously, I was under the impression that in the boutique hotel market the ‘attention to detail’ was firmly placed on the uniqueness of its design and furnishings. This is clearly a great opportunity for a hotel to showcase its own unique personality and style, but what I have learned about the magic that sits within true stars such as Eau and other boutique hotels is hidden deep within the twist. It extends beyond the traditional and gives the power to its employees to build relationships with guests – and herein lays the detail.

Never in question is the high standard, but the attention that is applied to learning the detail by seeing guests as individuals allows the service to be both appropriate and authentic.

In true hotelier fashion, this more relaxed and autonomous approach allows them to go beyond the expected and create experiences intuitively.

As customers across all markets are evolving, I think that we can learn more from what I see happening in the hospitality industry. Service is embedded in its fabric, albeit some can argue that service standards can vary based on the stars beside the name. Customers want more involvement in the experiences and engagement on offer by those they choose to engage with. Over the years I have seen more and more services move to online application or to offshore as a direct result of cost saving and convenience, and that is fine for many transactional services. In hotel terms, some nights you just want to lay your head on a pillow, and a roadside motel will suit you fine on that night.

At Eau they call those unexpected engagement moments of customer delight “Goosebumps”, and as it so happens, this is one of their five values.

It is creating a true connection with a guest based on building a relationship that allows the individual Hotelier to create, in real time, something that is meaningful to that person. It is the foundation of the boutique hotel, and interestingly in this market, is at odds with what is perceived as the traditional 5-star service. It is removing the standardisation and cookie-cutter approach to service, and using this interaction time to make an emotive memorable mark.

In general customer service I like to think that it is coming back to the traditional in some ways, and seeing customers as real people. Having providers demonstrate that they care about their customers by giving their front of house staff the time to really listen to what is important to guests and the autonomy to act on it. It is giving employees the freedom to make real-time decisions that can truly impact on the emotive connections that customers so desire with the interactions that they choose to engage with.

To be a true Hotelier is to be a true master of the trade, and to be a true service professional should follow the same degree of credibility. Hence a higher degree of trust needs to be built into organisational cultures in order that they can begin to behave more like a boutique hotel and less like a roadside motel. Service should be a privilege and an art form but it also needs the twist to make it stand out and be a truly memorable experience. To me, this is why Culture, Employee Engagement and Customer Experience needs to be truly and authentically aligned to the boutique projected personality of each service offering and brand promise.

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