Lessons From The Overlook: Customer Service vs Customer 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.

We recently had some upset guests at The Overlook. This story helps differentiate between customer service and customer experience, and highlights why you need to understand both.

Our guests had originally booked a different cabin with our property management company. That cabin suddenly became unavailable, so our property manager re-accommodated the guests with us.

They were clearly unhappy with the move. When people get upset, research shows they can become more judgmental and less open to ideas. In this case, the guests sent our property manager a slew of nit-picky complaints about The Overlook: there wasn't enough counter space in the bathrooms, there's only one television, etc. 

One complaint really caught our attention. The guests claimed our cabin had just three bedrooms, not four.

We disagree with their count, but serving customers is a perception game. Here's how customer service and customer experience both played a role in this situation.

The “controversial” fourth bedroom. Photo credit:  Idyllwild Vacation Cabins

The “controversial” fourth bedroom. Photo credit: Idyllwild Vacation Cabins


Let's start with defining the terms customer service and customer experience. 

The two get mixed up a lot. There's a trend where customer service teams are renaming themselves the Customer Experience Team, but they're doing the same thing they were before. But customer experience is really much broader.

So what's the difference? Here's a simple, concise definition of customer service from the Oxford English Dictionary:

The assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services.

Customer experience is much broader. Here's a definition I really like from Annette Franz:

The sum of all the interactions that a customer has with an organization over the life of the “relationship” with that company… and, especially, the feelings, emotions, and perceptions the customer has about those interactions.

Graphic depicting customer service as a subset of customer experience.

Customer experience encompasses customer service. It also includes product design, product quality, advertising, and many other factors not traditionally considered to be part of customer service.

Service or Experience?

Our guests' complaint about the cabin really having just three bedrooms helps differentiate between customer service and customer experience.

Advertising is part of the customer experience, since it helps set expectations for what a customer will get from your product or service. The Overlook is advertised as a four bedroom cabin:

  • There are two bedrooms with queen beds on the main floor.

  • There's an en suite master bedroom with a king bed downstairs.

  • The fourth bedroom is upstairs from the main floor.

The fourth bedroom has a king-sized bed, a closet, two windows, and its own bathroom. Our guests complained that it wasn't really a bedroom because it doesn't have a door. 

The customer service aspect was our property manager listening to the complaint with an empathetic ear and trying to rectify the situation in some way. Adding a door wasn't a feasible solution during the guests' stay, so they were ultimately offered a discount as compensation for their numerous complaints.

Now let's look at the customer experience aspects that go beyond customer service.

  • The bedroom's lack of a door

  • The bedroom’s lack of a television

  • The way the guests used the bedroom

Our guests' party included young children, and their perception was the kids sleeping in the upstairs room were too loud for the adults because the room didn't have a door. They also complained that the bedroom lacked a television, so what our guests were really looking for was a place for the kids to entertain themselves while not disturbing the rest of the house.

Improving the Guest Experience

It's easy to write-off these complaints. The same guests complained the cabin was dirty because the kids’ white socks had dirt on them after the kids were running around outside in their socks.

Yet there's often a kernel of truth in nearly every complaint.

Their biggest issue was they weren't staying in the cabin they originally wanted. The Overlook was clearly not a great fit for these guests who probably would have been happier in a cabin with a separate TV room where they could stash the kids. Our property manager might steer a similar family to a different cabin the next time guests need to be re-accommodated.

The upstairs bedroom is private and you can't see into it from the main floor, but some guests might still expect anything labeled a bedroom to have a door. So we've updated our advertising to explain that one of the bedrooms is a loft with its own bathroom.

There's a word of caution here, too. 

You could spend a lot of money if you tried to give every guest exactly what they wanted. For example, we could put televisions in every room and add a door to the upstairs bedroom based on the feedback from just one unhappy group of guests. But that would be costly and it wouldn't dramatically improve the experience for our ideal guests who are coming up to the mountains to enjoy the outdoors and the peaceful serenity.

We look at feedback in the context of our customer service vision: Welcome to your mountain retreat. So when some guests shared that they wished there were extra towels since they went hiking during the day and then used the hot tub at night, we saw this as an opportunity to enhance the experience in alignment with our vision. In this case, the cost of the extra towels was a worthwhile investment.

Take Action

Our property manager handled the situation well. The guests were placated in the end, though they probably won't be returning to The Overlook since it’s not a great match with their needs.

We met with our property manager afterwards to discuss the guest experience improvements outlined above. One of the many reasons we like working with Idyllwild Vacation Cabins is the owner, Martha, always looks for a way to improve her guests’ experience.

You can take action in your own business by understanding the difference between customer service and customer experience. Service is important, but you need other elements such as a good product, fair policies, and helpful advertising to create the best experience.