Date: Wed 19 Sep 2012

Customer Service: Beyond the Ordinary

In July we spent ten days on a gastronic and vinicultural tour of eastern France. The southern tip of the journey was France’s second city and gastronomic capital, Lyon. We stayed at the Cour des Loges in the heart of old Lyon at the bottom of Fourvière hill where the Romans built the original town they called ‘Lugdunum’, the capital of Roman Gaul. The hotel is in a pedestrian precinct, so rooms are quiet. You can walk to most of the places you want to get to. It is a tasteful and imaginative conversion of several old buildings, done with a Mediterranean feel. There is a good restaurant attached to it and a quiet spa with swimming pool, sauna and a pleasant roof top terrace.

The place was very good, but not outstanding. The room windows were all that separated us from the main walkway on the first floor, so we had to close the curtains for privacy. There were no hooks in the bathroom, and the shower was awkwardly positioned. The air conditioning was not working. After thirty years of hard travelling, I am pretty jaded, a bit picky and not easily impressed.

However, our three-day stay was outstanding. What makes Cour des Loges special is the service.

Service in general is quiet, attentive and responsive. The faulty air conditioning was repaired immediately. A request for an umbrella was instantly fulfilled. They do things you do not expect and go the extra mile. When they delivered the car on our departure, it had been washed, someone polished the windscreen while we checked out, and we were handed two bottle of refrigerated water for our journey.

What makes the service special is the concierge team. It was the best I have ever experienced. We were greeted by François, a local boy who knows Lyon intimately and speaks effortless English. It was like being welcomed into someone's home. We got an immediate introduction to the city, where to go and how to get there, including advice about which streets are tourist traps. We had already got some recommendations about where to eat, and reservations were made for us. We also wanted to try a particular restaurant in Beaune on the way home. François called them, but they were full. Most concierges would have left it at that and moved on to the next guest's request. François suggested an alternative outside Beaune, showed us the website, explained its pros and cons, and booked us in. In Lyon itself I wanted to visit a particular baker’s shop we had heard about. François knew the place and said that the wayward genius who used to work there had been taken ill and that it was no longer what it had been. He explained the sorry imperfections of their croissants. Better to try another baker a few streets along. He was right.

We had booked a lunch at Poul Bocuse’s Auberge du Pont de Collonges which has had three Michelin stars since 1965, longer than any other restaurant. Officially, France is Catholic, but its real religion is food, and the heart of the country beats to the rhythm of mealtimes. The Auberge is the Vatican of haute cuisine and Bocuse is the Pope. François made sure the taxi was waiting. We went for the volaille de Bresse truffée en vessie, a whole chicken from Bresse – the best chicken in the world – flavoured with truffles stuffed under the skin and steamed in a pig’s bladder. We had seen it being made in a TV programme and there was a video of Michel Roux doing it on YouTube. So on the way back we thought ‘why not give it a try at home?’ I scoured Lyon for une vessie - a pig’s bladder. No joy. Back at the hotel, I mentioned it to François’ boss who was then on duty. Ah, he said, you can only get them at a special market in a village to the south of town, and they only sell them to the trade. We looked a little crestfallen. Hang on, he said, you are leaving for Beaune, aren’t you, which means you will leave the city heading north? Can you make a little diversion? We nodded, and he hit the phone. There was a brief conversation. He put the phone down, and explained that if we turned up at the Auberge du Pont de Collonges between 11:00 and 14:00 on our way and asked for Romuald, he would give us ‘une vessie’. We did, and Romuald produced our pig’s bladder, carefully vacuum packed to protect it on our journey home. There was no charge.

The lads at the Auberge are no beginners when it comes to customer service. When I asked if I could write down the details of the wines we had with lunch, I was asked not to bother and instead presented at the end of the meal with a couple of leaflets with the labels of the wines stuck inside them. Goodness knows how they did that. Did someone steam them off the bottles while we had dessert? On enquiring about their cellar, I was given a tour of it. Nothing about ‘I’m sorry, health and safety rules do not allow us to …’ Neither gesture was part of the standard package. What does form part of the package is a visit from the 86-year-old Pope to your table, with a waiter at the ready to take photos.

Good customer service is efficient. Excellent customer service is responsive as well. Outstanding customer service treats you as an individual, anticipates your needs without being obtrusive and smooths the path to achieving your every desire. It is an act of seduction, and like seduction, it is subtle. The difference between success and failure is small. It provides enough, but not too much attention, acts on hints about your wishes without pressing upon you and gets the timing right. Your seducer makes makes you feel like the only person who matters to them, although you know they are giving dozens of people the same feeling every day. It is really an illusion, a conjuring trick. It is magical.

How do they do it?

The trip as a whole allowed me to get an idea, based simply upon my experience as a customer. The elements are simple enough, but the combination is elusive and finding them together remains rare.

We ate at some very good restaurants. At most of them the service was good but not outstanding. The staff attended to us, but were following their own agendas. They were mainly dutiful, but dominated by processes. They did not notice when we wanted to pay the bill, either standing around waiting for the next order or so busy they had no time for us. Not all of them could answer our questions about the food. Special requests sounded like they were a problem. Many staff looked bored. They were just doing their job. They had no passion.

We stayed at some nice hotels. Most of the staff were helpful, but could not always deliver. At one hotel, a lone woman on reception tried her utmost, but had to deal with checking us in, parking the car, getting the luggage and fielding phone calls. On asking about where to eat that night, she sheepishly confessed that she lived outside town and had no personal experience to go on. After a while a porter showed up, but could not help with the internet connection. The individuals were willing, but the organisation gave them neither power, knowledge, nor back up.

Service is only outstanding when the two elements – the individuals and the organisation – come together.

François was quietly passionate. He treated his job like a vocation. He clearly enjoyed meeting people and making them happy. Somehow within minutes he made you feel like a friend. His knowledge of Lyon was intimate, and he seemed to want us to love the city of his birth as much as he did.

Some of his own enthusiasm wore off on us. His advice about what to do was discriminating and discerning. He worked long hours. One day I noticed him at his post at 7:00 in the morning and he was still there at 20:00 that night, as cheerful as ever. His job did not stop when he left the hotel. The restaurant in Beaune he recommended was one he had found himself one weekend. When eating there he must have been sizing it up, thinking about what kind of guests it might suit on what occasions. His employer did not only pick the right guy for the job, but his boss clearly mentored him. He had the same values and the same spirit. You cannot create those if they are not there, but you can school and encourage them.

But he could not have delivered alone. The management had given him power. He was the first person you saw as you walked in – reception was off to one side. That was symbolic but also real. He was the centre of the customer experience and the centre of the hotel. Everyone else, from the car park attendant whom he sent off to fetch a jacket from my car for me (‘you don’t want to have to walk over there, describe it to us and we’ll fetch it for you’), the maid whom he told to press it before handing it over, to the maintenance man who fixed the air conditioning, did what he said immediately, regardless of their own agendas. His agenda was making every guest’s experience special, and the hotel made sure he was able to make it theirs. It gave him resources - the umbrella was to hand. It gave him time - reception fielded incoming calls, his phone was there exclusively to help him serve customers.

In sum, the hotel planned everything it could, honed routine processes until they were flawless and then let François call the shots. The resulting system was prepared for anything, even a pig’s bladder, by combining efficiency with empowerment. It had broken the potential compromise between the two.

Was it worth it?

Outstanding customer service is uniquely valuable. Its costs are modest. It is doing what you have to do anyway at a level better than any customer might reasonably expect. It is rare, so encountering it is a delightful surprise. The impact is emotional. Because it is emotional, the impact lasts. Memories of the other hotels we stayed in are already fading. The Cour des Loges might invest in more luxurious beds, more spacious rooms, more luxurious décor or a more reliable electrical system, but all that, expensive for them though it would be, would be quickly forgotten. We will not forget François so quickly.

Indeed, for us the service more than made up for deficiencies elsewhere. If we return to Lyon, there is no doubt about where we will stay, and there is no doubt about the advice we will give to others who might be thinking of a visit. We went there in the first place on the basis of two recommendations. And I would not be blogging about bed comfort or room size. Of course, we are unlikely to repeat this trip next year. But we are looking for some excuse to go back to a city somewhat off the usual tourist track. All because a small organisation has found a couple of gifted individuals and understood how to make full use of their talents.