The Guest Satisfaction Survey Blind Spot

Last night I caught up on a Cornell Hospitality Industry Perspectives titled, ‘Making Customer Satisfaction Pay: Connecting Survey Data to Financial Outcomes in the Hotel Industry’.  As the title suggests, the research finds a correlation between guest satisfaction and financial performance. Said another way, happy customers do come back, and they often spend more money on their next trip.

“The survey proves that customer satisfaction directly bears on repeat purchases and on the likelihood of making recommendations.”

While I wasn’t too surprised with the findings of the study, I was happy that the study had been done so I can defend the importance of monitoring and tracking guest feedback as it can predict future bookings. But more so, I was fascinated by something else the authors wrote about how this information is often requested:

“Hotel comment cards provide a quick and easy way to generate feedback. But they typically obtain low response rates, provide anonymous feedback, and often lack important details for analysis such as the date of the stay.”

I can only image how much money the hotel industry as a whole is spending to measure guest satisfaction. With more than 15 years of product marketing experience, I absolutely believe in feedback and actionable data, but I am starting to question the vehicle with which many hotels acquire this data.

While satisfaction surveys have moved to the Web, the methodology seems to have remained the same for many years. I recently looked at a hotel satisfaction survey and there was no way that I was going to complete it without the prospect of winning an ipad factory. Why? In the age of social media, the surveys seem archaic to me. For one, social media has trained me, for good or bad, to do things quickly. I check in. I tweet in 140 characters. I update my status. I no longer have the patience to consider how I feel about tens of different amenities and services. It’s no wonder that response rates are low.

Second, I want to provide my feedback my way.  What I mean by that is that I want to comment on things that made my stay exceptional or disappointing. I don’t want to comment on things that didn’t stand out in my mind. If my check-in was smooth and I didn’t have to wait, my expectations are met and I don’t feel the need to report on it. But I do want to tell the hotel that in the elevator going up to my room an exceptional staff-member told me about a great new restaurant that opened up down the street and offered to make a reservation for me. I want to report that when I ‘checked in’ on Foursquare the concierge found me in the lobby and offered to buy me a drink. Entering these stories in a comment card seems useless since it’s clear that these are quantitative tools looking for aggregate data.

This freedom of expression is why sites like TripAdvisor are becoming so popular. I read hundreds of reviews every day and most people are like me. They like to mention the details that make a hotel stay special or disappointing. They don’t want to fill in holes about the mundane. They want to tell stories. And hotels need to read, and learn from, these stories.

I don’t think that guest satisfaction surveys are going away any time soon. Every hotel has already deeply operationalized GSS measurement and it has become a critical data source by which hotels are measured and operational decisions are based. Executive bonuses can hinge on the results, as can branding. That said, I do think that hotels absolutely need to supplement their survey cards with a program to manage and track information from online reviews.

Why? For one, traditional guest satisfaction surveys are a very private affair. The survey cards are kept locked away and the results are only discussed internally.  However, it’s the public online reviews that are actually driving bookings and brand – – not traditional surveys. If brands don’t pay attention to what guests are saying about them publicly and engage in the conversations, they are missing out on potential sales and branding opportunities.

The good news is that many hotels are already managing online reviews, either manually or with hosted software solutions. But too many hotels are still ignoring this feedback channel.  The ones that move now and operationalize these metrics will be at a significant market advantage when the rest of the industry catches up. In such a highly competitive marketplace, where everyone is looking for an edge, this information channel is a massive area of opportunity for hotels. And once hotels start paying attention to this vast, free and public source, I don’t think they will ever go back as it’s like seeing color in a black and white world.

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