Lessons From The Overlook: Experience Your Customers' Experience

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

Guest experience was initially a blind spot at The Overlook.

When we bought the property last October, our property manager did a property walk-through with us and gave her assessment. That was helpful, but we didn't have a lot of data other than that.

How were we going to find out what our guests liked or disliked? Or how we could make their stay align with our customer service vision, Welcome to your mountain community retreat?

Most people would default to a guest survey. We did that (through our property manager), but we also used two techniques that are arguably more powerful in this situation: experience and observation.

Here's what we did and how you can use these concepts, too.

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Experience Your Product or Service

The first thing we did when we bought The Overlook was spend a weekend.

The house was already a vacation rental and it was sold turnkey, which meant it came fully furnished. What we didn't know was whether those furnishings were adequate.

You can learn a lot when you experience your product or service the way a customer would. For example, it might be easy to miss a few burned out lightbulbs if you weren't relaxing at the dining table underneath your faux-antler chandelier.

So we tried to experience everything a guest would experience. We slept in each bedroom, used each bathroom, cooked in the kitchen, watched TV, and used the internet. We even brought our dog to see how comfortable she would be.

This experience allowed us to experience The Overlook the way a guest would experience it. We might not represent every guest, but we could still use empathetic insight to imagine what guests might like and what they probably wouldn't.

Then we made a list of everything we felt was sub-par and made improvements. We went back a few times over the next several weeks to make updates and complete some minor repairs. 

A few weeks later, we returned once again. This time we booked our stay through our property manager's website. We wanted to experience the entire reservation process and then see what it was like when The Overlook was prepped for guests.

It's amazing how many small things you can discover this way. For example, we noticed we often had to find creative ways to store leftovers after cooking a meal. We figured our guests would feel the same way, so we added some extra tupperware to the kitchen.

Lesson Learned: Try mystery shopping your own business so you can experience a product or service the way a customer would. You might notice opportunities for improvement from a whole new perspective.

 

Observe How Customers Use Your Product or Service

Another exercise we did was to visit The Overlook several times immediately after guests checked out.

Our timing was critical because our property manager inspects the property after each stay and then sends a cleaning crew in to clean the house so it's ready for the next guests.

Our goal was to see the cabin before the inspection. We wanted to see it exactly our our guests left it. In particular, we looked for four things:

  • What was dirty?
  • What was moved?
  • What was damaged?
  • What was missing?

This exercise gave us insight into how our guests used the cabin. Here are some examples:

We got clues about how guests used the kitchen by what was dirty and what had been moved from it's original location. This helped us better organize and stock the kitchen.

One particular vase was always moved from its original location. This signaled to us that it was in our guests' way. They were likely moving it to make more room for their stuff, so we just removed it completely.

Plates and glasses sometimes get damaged, too. Some guests will notify our property manager, but other guests will try to hide the damaged dish in a cupboard or fail to mention a broken glass. Looking for those items allows us to replace them.

Lesson Learned: Observe how your guests use your product or service. You'll almost certainly gain insight that you'd never get from a survey.

 

Conclusion

It's always good to have data from multiple sources. We look at our guest survey data and combine it with our experience and observation data. 

For instance, our guest observations tell us that the typical guest uses 75-100% of the bath towels. That's not surprising since we provide eight sets of towels, our max capacity is eight, and we tend to get a lot of groups that size.

Our survey revealed that guests would like even more towels because they often shower after a sweaty hike and then use the hot tub later in the evening. Using the same towel more than once in a day get leave it feeling a bit soggy.

We're working on that one now.