[Interview] Roupert Muller talks to Ana Brant of Dorchester Collection luxury hotels
What do customers really want? Yes, the billion-dollar question. The evolution of digital communications has provided businesses with a gift (and a curse): data. Data to truly help brands develop products and services customers actually want. At least in theory, we’d like to believe so.
The luxury hospitality industry is no exception when addressing the need to understand and leverage big data. Social media posts, review and booking sites, rating agencies; hotels are subject to a constant barrage of data for all to see. But industries and organizations are made up of people. And people are set in their ways. So, how do you figure out what a customer really wants?
To be more specific, I’d like to share insights on how to use data to gain a better understanding of what luxury customers really want. It’s a target audience that can be tough to reach, and at times even tougher to understand. The time poor, well-heeled and discerning traveller is demanding, and rightly so.
We all know the importance of capturing and analyzing data. But how do we move from capturing data and analysis to change and implementation? How do you change the way you listen to customer feedback?
I had a chance to talk to Ana Brant (Director, Global Guest Experience & Innovation at Dorchester Collection), a leading global expert in the science of luxury service to pick her brain on how a luxury hotel collection managed to implement data analysis to help them improve the customer experience.
Brant shares insights regarding the organizational challenges, how to analyze and interpret data and how to transform insights into (new) services customers will actually value. Moreover, she explains how her partner in crime helped analyze all the available data. A partner with a knack for storytelling: Metis.
In one of your articles – published in Harvard Business Review – you mentioned how you look for curiosity in the people you hire. How was your curiosity triggered to use modern data analytics to improve the customer experience?
I am a lifetime learner and have a significant desire for mastery. Recently I had a pleasure of hearing the magnificent Sarah Lewis who, in her book The Rise writes: “Mastery is a constant auto-correct, when there seems nothing left to move beyond, we find a way to move beyond ourselves”. This triggered my curiosity and instinctively I knew that there has to be something, which goes beyond traditional hotel success metrics that haven’t changed in years.
TripAdvisor and other review sites have been perceived as enemies of the hospitality industry because they made any organizational dysfunction transparent, instantly. Industry wide there was, and still is, a large tendency to simply ignore or dismiss its importance of customer reviews. When I met Metis for the first time, I realized that TripAdvisor and other review sites have the ability to trigger organizational mastery. And very few were capitalizing on this.
Metis, the tool you use to analyze data, is an algorithm. Can you briefly explain how it works?
Metis distills the collective wisdom of the crowds and turns the insights into stories. Geoff Mead’s definition of a story is “an imagined experience narrated with enough detail and feeling to cause your listener’s imagination to experience it as real.
Metis combines the action, the drama, the comedy, and sometimes the tragedy of customer experiences. And she does it in an elegant, non-threatening way. The audience immerses in her witty curation, embraces her findings resulting in a fundamental change in the assumptions we had about our guests. Triggering a strategic paradigm shift is the essence of Metis.
How then has Metis managed to change the fundamental assumptions you had about your guests?
Let me ask you something: When was the last time you saw a Chef meeting the guests during breakfast?
I honestly can’t remember…
Well, Metis discovered that 3 out of 4 reviews mention breakfast, which makes it extremely important to our customers, yet our main focus is on the dinner experience. The breakfast experience alone won’t earn you a Michelin star. So everyone focuses on dinner.
Ok, so breakfast being the most important meal of the day has brought new meaning for Dorchester Collection. Based on that insight, what has been the most important learning for you in leveraging data from social media and review sites?
There were so many that it’s difficult to point out a just a few. In essence, the biggest lesson learned was that we learned how to listen differently, how to pay attention to what customers think is important and not only what we feel is important. Metis set us straight.
Apart from learning how to listen differently, what would you say is the most important challenge when analyzing customer experiences in luxury hospitality?
In the luxury sector, an organization’s ego often gets in the way of truly understanding customer experiences. The glamour of what we offer, the environment we are in often bedazzles us and the opportunities to improve may go unrecognized. In hotels for example, who would want to admit that the customer experience is not up to par after a multi-million investment in a penthouse suite with an infinity pool capturing the most exquisite views of the city?
Ah, the ego, the human element that blocks the ability to change a mindset. It’s safe to say every industry has its own standard methodologies and people are set in their ways. Was it a struggle to convince management to listen to Metis?
They key to success was in bridging generations. Metis does that. It didn’t matter if you are a Millennial or Baby Boomer or Gen Z, if you never looked at TripAdvisor or if you were a frequent reviewer, Metis appealed to everyone. She spoke human, not a techy jargon only few understood.
Simultaneously, there was a strong desire to do something different. All the tools in the market that fit our brand were delivering the same things in slightly different ways. Mystery shoppers were popular in the 90’s, customer satisfaction surveys received a new dimension with the emerging technology platforms in the 2000s, and the pursuit of big data made interactive dashboards and sentiment analysis the must have items of 2010s. These tools are great and certainly have a place in every organization, but they were missing a human dimension. In the luxury segment, we cannot afford to look at customers as spreadsheets or market segments; they are real human beings with different needs on different occasions.
You still needed to gain support across your organization to actually get things done. How did you persuade your colleagues that the company needed to change the way it collects and interprets customer feedback?
I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a team of extremely talented and highly experienced ultra-luxury leaders. Our General Managers and Dorchester Collection Executive Team simply refused to follow the norm and accept the fact that service standards alone enable bespoke luxury experiences. One of our values is Innovation, and this value doesn’t live on paper.
Clearly the first step to change old ways has been taken. Full integration of the new process of analyzing customer experience through data research to developing new custom experiences for your guests is now a walk in the park?
It’s hard work and by no means a walk in the park! I’m very proud we’ve managed to shift our approach and this is a process that requires leadership with an interdisciplinary skill set. Take the breakfast example. Metis taught us the importance of breakfast and how guests passionately discuss the breakfast menu items. Everyone seemed to have their own definition of perfect eggs or a perfect breakfast. And that was great insight.
Ok, but how do you actually transform that insight into something customers will value?
We needed to connect this insight with our world of passionate hoteliers. So that’s exactly what we did. We analyzed the internal data to see what items were the most popular during breakfast, which dishes cause the most complaints – surprise surprise, it was eggs – and how many guests modify their breakfast order. The results of this internal analysis led us to a conclusion that one really doesn’t need a breakfast menu as the majority of the orders are modified. Modified orders, may cause dissatisfaction because Chefs are focused on perfecting the menu items, not off-menu requests. So here it comes again; we focused on what is traditionally important in the hotel business – having great menus – and the customer is clearly telling us they don’t need one. This is a true paradigm shift for our industry.
As a result, we now have a few hotels experimenting with the concept of menu-less breakfast – and the initial feedback is great.
These initial findings and changes are only the tip of the iceberg. The potential for your industry is huge. How do you intend to take this methodology to the next level?
As you mentioned the potential is huge. The applications of Metis are endless. We are currently undertaking a big restaurant study in which we use Metis to tell us stories about our restaurants and compare them to local competitors via review sites like Yelp or OpenTable.
We are also considering using Metis to gain insights from within our organization. Our Vice President of People & Organizational Development, Eugenio Pirri, is looking to ask Metis to curate the commentary from our employee engagement surveys so we can better understand our employee experience.
As we embark on the journey of expansion, we will use Metis for feasibility studies in the new markets to learn what not to do in new build hotels. These are just some of the immediate plans for using Metis.
It’s been quite a journey for you and your colleagues and change is not easy. What’s your main advice for companies wanting to better utilize big data to improve performance?
Henry Ford said: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. The same principle applies to big data – it will tell you some fascinating facts but won’t tell you what to do with it. I go back to the beginning of the interview and the importance of learning. Without the authentic human desire for mastery and drive for curiosity, big data is simply a faster horse.
Sign me up then for a menu-less breakfast.
Read more on how Dorchester Collection leveraged big data to improve the customer experience.
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