Good enough

By Arnie Weissmann

AWEISSMANN100x135Industries have personalities. Certain images come to mind when you think, for example, of lawyers, insurance agents, Wall Street bankers, Hollywood types or high-tech workers.

To some extent, the travel industry suffers from multiple personality disorder (think airline CEOs, travel agents, hoteliers), but ultimately, I think hospitality is the dominant force in our collective psyche.

Hoteliers seem to set the service standards for the rest of us. Cruise lines, theme parks, tour operators and destination marketers have all adopted the hotel model of calling their customers "guests" and treating them accordingly.

It was with this in mind that I read a recent Zogby International survey on customer service conducted on behalf of the website MSN Money. The survey, brought to my attention by hotelier Rob Solomon, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Outrigger Enterprises Group, rated customer service at 116 companies. Of those, 23 are in the travel industry.

The travel brands listed in the survey include hotels, airlines and travel agencies, and the chart they appear in on the website is interactive so that users can sort results in several ways.

I had assumed that because hotels frequently build their reputations on customer service, they would dominate when I chose to rank the companies in order of "excellent" customer service. Not so. In fact, when ranked in that fashion, the only travel company that makes it into the top 10 (appearing at No. 10) is not a hotel but an airline: 36.7% of Southwest's customers think it provides "excellent" customer service.

JetBlue isn't far behind, at No. 13. British Airways ranks 19, and Alaska 23. There's a bit of gap before one gets to Continental at No. 66. AirTran is the laggard among low-cost carriers, coming in at 74. Delta ranks 94 and US Airways is 99. United limps in at the 108th position, and a seemingly comatose American is listed at 114 out of 116.

Hotels don't fare much better or worse. Marriott, at No. 11, was less than half a percentage point behind Southwest in perception of excellent customer service. Hilton came in at 15. Hampton Hotels held the 24 spot, Sheraton is 28, Holiday Inn is 67. Bringing up the rear were Comfort Inn at 83, Best Western International at 84, Days Inn at 97, Quality Inn at 101 and Super 8 at 103.

Travel agencies on the list, ranked according to excellent customer service, were American Express at 22, Travelocity at 42 and Expedia at 54.

(Even though American Express is primarily a financial services company, I include it because it also books more travel than any other company in the world.)

Interestingly, if you rank the companies to see which had the fewest "poor" customer service ratings, another story emerges. In this case, hotels dominate the top of the chart, with Marriott holding No. 1, Hampton 2, Sheraton 6, Holiday Inn 9, Hilton 11, Comfort Inn 13, Quality Inn 18 and Best Western 20. (The only two that didn't make the top 20 were Days Inn at 30 and Super 8 at 82.)

Airlines, when ranked according to the fewest "poor" customer service responses, tended to lump up in the middle of the list somewhat, with Southwest at No. 10, Alaska 15, JetBlue 25, AirTran 43, British Airways 47, Delta 54, American 60, Continental 62, United 79 and US Airways 88.

And the order of travel agencies reverses under this criterion, with Expedia showing up at 26, Travelocity 50 and American Express 85.

The results are interesting in part because it seems that some companies, consciously or not, focus either on providing good customer service or avoiding bad customer service, but many can't seem to do both at the same time. Among hotels, only Marriott, Hilton, Hampton and Sheraton make the top quarter of both lists; for airlines, it's Southwest, JetBlue and Alaska.

The overall trend among travel companies appears to be to avoid poor customer service rather than strive for excellence (with the notable exception of Super 8, which appears to do neither).

Perhaps what they're doing is good enough. In his most recent book "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell points out that people with the highest IQs don't, as a group, achieve more in life than those who are simply "smart enough." And apparently most hoteliers have concluded that they don't need to go over the top to please customers; they simply need to avoid pissing them off.

(I should point out that all the companies on this list are high-volume and mass-market, which means that high-end brands such as Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton didn't get enough responses in the survey to qualify for the list.)

There are likely no hard-and-fast rules on the economics of customer service or when a point of diminishing returns might be reached for any individual company. But I will throw in one more set of data points that's not provided by the chart: The stock price of Marriott, hospitality's customer-service superstar, fell only 14.3% in the past year, compared with the S&P 500 drop of 29.7%. That's impressive. But Choice Hotels, whose brands Comfort Inn and Quality Inn ranked lower than Marriott on both the scales described above, actually performed a little better; its stock dropped only 13.6%.

Perhaps good enough is good enough.

Contact Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/awtravelweekly.

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