"Oh Wow!"


I recently had the good fortune to spend a weekend at a private game lodge “Springbok” in the Namitha Reserve for a family get-together. I hasten to add this is not one of the top price game lodges aimed at people with lots of US dollars, but more a place for locals to feel pampered. One of the questions on the guest satisfaction form upon our departure was: “what were the highlights?”

My initial thoughts went to the amazing game viewing we had been privileged to see – a lioness and her cubs so close we could have reached out to touch them; a porcupine scurrying from the Landrover lights; a mating pair of the endangered blue crane; two bull elephants that seemed intent on making us reverse just for fun! I could carry on describing the wonders of the South African Bush, but as the family convened before setting off we got onto the subject of the highlights.

We soon realized that although the animals were the reason we had initially chosen this venue, (much like the beach is the attraction for a Durban hotel) what would make us return was the attentive hospitality we had experienced. Without intending to sound glib or ungrateful, the animals were the backdrop to the overall experience. All game reserve lodges offer their guests the opportunity to see wild animals up close and in their natural habitat. So how does one lodge differentiate itself from another? It is truly “wow!” to see and hear a lion roar but the lodge itself has no control over that. The focus then has to be on what is controllable, in order to delight the customer.


The hospitality industry is a good example of where the “wow!” factor is becoming increasingly difficult to deliver. Despite the threat of terrorism and a weakened world economy, people are still in love with the idea of travel. Hotels have been competing largely on the basis of what they have naturally (stunning views or beach access) or what they can offer the guest in terms of facilities (golf course, spa, 24-hour service…). While the look and feel of the hotel and its facilities are clearly important, there is a point when the cost-benefit ratio makes it unaffordable to continue to try to impress purely by the product. A stunning bathroom with an outdoor shower and a view are very cool but when the next hotel offers something similar, then it slips slightly in its ability to impress. The expectation bar has now been raised.

How then is it possible to surprise customers, keep them coming back for more and having them do your advertising for you without pricing oneself out of business? The answer lies in the people, not the things. Customers have basic expectations of any business dependent on how much they are paying for the product or service. It is acceptable that a toasted sandwich from a fast food chain is served on thick industrial-use crockery with a sprig of parsley paying lip service to garnish. In a five star hotel, the same would be simply unacceptable, but if the sandwich is made with home-made bread and beautifully presented, that is acceptable. Note I say acceptable, not delightful because it is expected. What would make the sandwich or the five-star hotel memorable would be how the staff went out of their way to ensure that you felt special or if your preferences are remembered and repeated next time.

For example, our game ranger asked our preferences for tea & coffee the first morning. The next day, our drinks were made to our liking and she had ensured that the general penchant for muffins had been catered for. A little gesture but one which we noticed and appreciated.

The devil is in the detail. It requires a culture where the staff is encouraged to move off the “how may I help you?” script to actually really listening to and engaging with their customers. It requires obsessive attention to detail and the little cues that customers give about their preferences or how they are feeling. It requires a dedicated system of making a note and personalizing the service to that customer. It requires a natural friendliness and attitude of wanting to delight; using imagination to eliminate any possible frustrations. It means that good enough is never good enough.

If you want to wow your customers: Think of the little things you can do to surprise and please then do them! Learn from the best and try to bring that into your business. Keep it personal and pay attention to detail.

Author: Janet Askew

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