Lessons from The Overlook: Trust, But Verify

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.

It's sometimes tempting to dismiss problems when you find an easy explanation.

A few months ago, I received a call from the water department. The water meter reading for The Overlook was unusually high. Even worse, it appeared the meter was running when an employee took the reading.

The news wasn't initially too concerning. I had gotten the same call after the last billing period, only to discover the culprit was an error reading the meter. So perhaps another mistake had happened.

I also wasn't too worried about the meter running. The meter reader had noticed lights were on at The Overlook, and I verified with our property manager that a cleaning crew was onsite prepping the cabin for our next guests.

It seemed like the problem had been solved, but there was a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. What if there really was an issue?

In business, we often rely on others to get things done. It's important to trust our employees, colleagues, vendors, and contractors to do what they say they will do. It's equally important to verify it gets done.

This is the third time the coffee table needed a repair.

This is the third time the coffee table needed a repair.

The Broken Coffee Table

One of the services our property manager provides is inspecting The Overlook before and after guests stay with us.

The pre-arrival inspection is to make sure the cabin has been properly cleaned and everything is in good working condition. The post-departure inspection is intended to look for any potential issues, such as this broken coffee table. The guests had somehow broken the face off of the drawer (how, I have no idea) and did not report it. They simply left the broken piece for someone to find.

This is a trust, but verify system.

Our property manager generally trusts the cabin is fully cleaned and in good condition, but a final inspection just before guests arrive verifies it truly is. Likewise, our property manager generally trusts that guests will share any issues or concerns, but an inspection can sometimes reveal an unreported problem.

A Slow Leak

Let’s go back to our water issue. The water department re-checked the meter reading, just like last month. This time it was correct. We had somehow used four times as much water this billing period as we normally do. 

Two of our toilets had recently been repaired. When I got the call from the water department, I quickly contacted our property manager and asked her to check on the cabin. In particular, I asked her to check out the toilets. Trust, but verify.

It's fortunate she did. One of the toilets had a small leak in the tank that caused it to constantly run, but the leak was so small you could easily miss it. The problem was immediately fixed once it was identified.

Set Up a Verification System

Managers have become so afraid of the dreaded micromanagement that they go too far in the opposite direction. They delegate without any follow-up.

Verifying work isn't micromanagement, it's validation. You can praise people when work is done correctly while having the peace of mind that everything is okay. And when something goes wrong, you have the opportunity to give feedback and help your team make any necessary corrections.

We have an inspection checklist we use each time we visit The Overlook. The cabin is a two hour drive from my home, but I try to go at least once every six weeks. Most of the time, I’m simply verifying our property manager is doing a terrific job maintaining the cabin and my feedback is, “The cabin looks great!”

However, there’s always something to improve or repair, and it’s easy for one person to miss something.

That’s why our checklist covers quite the gamut, from checking for leaks, looking for burned out light bulbs, checking dishes and glasses for damage, and making sure the furniture is in good condition. There are also preventative maintenance items, such as changing the furnace filter and treating the septic tank.

I did an extra inspection of the plumbing system the next time I visited after the toilet leak. The toilet appeared to be in good working condition, but I discovered some other issues. Pipes can freeze during the cold mountain winters, and I found two places where exposed pipes were uninsulated. 

This one was on me. I thought I had insulated all of the exposed piping, but I clearly missed a couple of places. The lesson here is trust, but verify is helpful even with your own work. Having a system in place, even a simple checklist, can help you do that.

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.

Lessons From the Overlook: The Power of Checklists

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.

I went to change the air filter on the heater while visiting The Overlook recently. 

Normally, there's an extra filter on hand to make this an easy chore, but I discovered I hadn't re-ordered filters the last time I'd used one. So I drove into town to buy one, but the size I needed was out of stock at both hardware stores in Idyllwild.

(Side note, I'm a big fan of Idyllwild's True Value, Forest Lumber. They pack a lot of merchandise into a small store, and the friendly staff are always very helpful.)

In the end I had to order a new filter online and have it delivered to our property manager for installation later that week. 

Changing the air filter was a minor hassle this time. It was also a terrific reminder that I had fallen out of habit of doing something very important: using a checklist.

Here's how a checklist is (usually) a timesaver at The Overlook, and why you should be using them, too.

An inspection revealed a pipe under the spa deck was missing some insulation. We asked our property manager to have it fixed before it caused any real problems.

An inspection revealed a pipe under the spa deck was missing some insulation. We asked our property manager to have it fixed before it caused any real problems.

Using a PM Checklist

When my wife, Sally, and I first bought The Overlook in October 2016, we created a preventative maintenance (PM) checklist. 

Our plan was to use the checklist when inspecting the cabin on our regular visits. It would help us remember what to inspect while identifying some maintenance items that had to be done on occasion. We've updated the checklist as we've discovered new requirements or added a new feature, like a game room.

We've found the checklist to be extremely useful. 

There's been some minor maintenance to be done each time we've visited the cabin, which is usually once every six weeks. Glasses are missing, lightbulbs are burned out, guests leave personal items in drawers, furniture has been moved, you name it.

The PM checklist also contains a lot of helpful reminders, such as pumping the septic tank, trimming trees, and checking our propane consumption. We also use it to identify when to re-order supplies such as spare glasses, dishes, lightbulbs, and cleaning supplies.

Forming a Bad Habit

We've strayed away from using the checklist during the past few months. The excuse was busyness.

A day trip to the cabin in September was a whirlwind of chores. We returned in October, but storm knocked the power out and put a damper on our plans. Another trip the first weekend in December was nice, but there was also a long list of chores that needed to be done.

In hindsight, these were precisely the times when a checklist would have been handy. It would have helped me remember to order new air filters for our heater or inspect the piping under the spa deck (see photo). I allowed myself to get so busy focusing on whatever task was right in front of me that I neglected to follow our own procedure.

Fortunately, the only fallout was a little wasted time from not having replacement air filters on hand. I know it could have been worse, such as a frozen pipe!

We'll definitely be using our PM checklist on the next visit.

Build Your Own Operations Checklist

A checklist is great to have if there's something you want people to inspect or a list of chores you want people to do on a regular basis.

  • Retail shops use them for opening and closing the store.

  • Contact centers use them when evaluating phone calls.

  • A home repair technician uses them to inventory parts on the truck.

  • A mechanic uses them when inspecting your vehicle.

  • Restaurants use them for cleaning the kitchen.

There are probably multiple ways to build a PM checklist. Here's how we built ours.

  1. Start with an initial walk-through.

  2. Capture any items to add to your checklist.

  3. For the first few times you use it, identify any needed adjustments.

  4. Review and update the checklist periodically, at least once per year.

Another consideration is how people will access the checklist. This should be a function of who is using it, when they're using it, and where they're using it.

For example, you've probably seen an inspection checklist posted in a public restroom. This makes it very easy for the janitorial crew to identify what needs to be cleaned or inspected, and mark down the work that has been done.

We keep our PM checklist on a Google Doc, so it's easy for either of us to pull it up on an iPad and update it as we walk around the house. 

A Final Reminder

Our experience taught us that it's easy to use busyness as an excuse to stop doing things the right way. In the long run, not using the checklist cost us more time than it saved.

Lessons from The Overlook: Why You Should Be a Good Guest

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.

The couch has three decorative pillows. They often get moved around to different parts of the house. On a recent inspection, one was in the living room, one was on the patio couch, and one was over the side railing.

The couch has three decorative pillows. They often get moved around to different parts of the house. On a recent inspection, one was in the living room, one was on the patio couch, and one was over the side railing.

One of the chores Sally and I do on our regular maintenance visits to The Overlook is count the dishes and glasses. We make two discoveries nearly every time:

  1. At least one glass is missing.

  2. Some dishes and glasses are dirty.

It's a minor inconvenience for us. We immediately replace any missing or broken dishes or glassware, and we clean any that need cleaning.

I understand that guests won't always clean dishes, report minor damage, or even put things back where they found them. My true worry is how this impacts the next guest.

What some people don't understand when they rent a vacation home is it is genuinely a home, not a hotel. 

Our property manager, Idyllwild Vacation Cabins, does a terrific job maintaining the cabin and keeping it clean and tidy. Yet it's simply not feasible for the cleaning crew to inspect every dish like we do, or to memorize the location of every piece of furniture, blanket, kitchen tool, and knick-knack in the house.

So a dirty dish that's hidden on the bottom of the stack in the cupboard will gross out the next guest who finds it. A broken glass that's unreported will mean the next guest will have to make do with one fewer. The puzzle pieces dumped in a drawer will create extra work for the next guest who wants to work a puzzle.

And the blankets moved to different rooms might stay there, meaning someone else's grandma is going to be cold on a winter night. You don't want grandma to freeze, do you?

If you rent a vacation home, my advice is to treat it like you were staying in a friend's home. Chances are, you'd earnestly want to be a good houseguest.

Here are a few tips that can help you avoid inconveniencing the next guests:

  • Report damage, no matter how small, so it can be fixed for the next guest. 

  • Put everything back where you found it, or as near as you can remember.

  • Clean and dry dishes before you put them away.

  • Take out trash and avoid littering.

  • Follow the check-out instructions precisely. 

We try not to ask too much of our guests. If you break a glass, you won't be charged for the replacement. When you check out, you can even leave the sheets on the bed and the towels in the bathroom. (Many vacation rentals ask you to start a load of laundry.)

The goal is to ensure you have a great time, and our next guests have a great time, too. Here's a positive example from one of our last guests. 

The guests reported that the upstairs toilet would occasionally continue running after it was flushed. This not only wastes water, it creates a hassle for guests who have to jiggle the handle or even take the lid off the tank to get it to stop.

They reported the issue to our property manager, and the toilet was fixed by the time the next guests checked in.

Lessons From the Overlook: Sometimes Work Isn’t Fun

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.

There are times when we have to put in hard work and long hours, and it seems like there's no reward in sight. It's natural to ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?"

I recently experienced one of those times with The Overlook.

My wife, Sally, and I try to visit the cabin every four to six weeks to inspect it, bring supplies, and do routine maintenance. Unfortunately, making that visit this past September was difficult. Sally was traveling extensively and I was frantically working on the launch of my new book before we went on vacation at the end of the month.

So I took a day to drive the two hours from my home to The Overlook, did work for a couple of hours, and then drove the two hours back that same day. It was a long day—especially since I worked on the new book before I left and again when I returned home.

I must admit, I felt a small amount of resentment. Not towards anyone in particular; just the idea of visiting the cabin and not being able to have any fun bothered me!

It was a reminder that you have to have fun when you can.

The kitchen has a new mat, a couple broken glasses were replaced, and everything is ready for our next guests.

The kitchen has a new mat, a couple broken glasses were replaced, and everything is ready for our next guests.

Rediscover Your Purpose

Sally and I originally purchased The Overlook because we wanted a vacation cabin, and making it a rental would help offset the costs. We envisioned it as a place where we could relax while taking in the fresh mountain air, or use it as a home base for hiking and other outdoor adventures.

Our customer service vision for The Overlook reflects both the way we feel about the cabin and then way we hope our guests will feel also:

Welcome to your mountain retreat

I thought about this as I spent the day driving to and from The Overlook.

I realized that part of my frustration came from a short visit in August, where a thunderstorm warning cancelled a hike that I had been planning for a long time. Instead of spending the day hiking in the nearby mountains, I spent that time doing chores at the cabin. Now I was heading back to do more chores without getting a chance to have some fun.

Chances are, you too had a purpose when you started your job.

Maybe the job offered an exciting career opportunity, or you were excited about the chance to develop new skills. It could be you really admired the company or its products and wanted to be part of something cool and interesting. Perhaps you just wanted to help people.

And chances are, you’ve had days like mine when it wasn’t fun.

When that happens, it helps to rediscover your purpose. In some cases, you’ll realize what you are doing has meaning and you’ll feel better about it.

One way to do that is through the Thank You Letter Challenge. This guided activity will help you envision the type of service you'd like to provide to your customers, and then invest <1 minute per day towards making that service a habit. 

So why was I slogging up to Idyllwild on a day when I felt so short on time?

Make Your Vision a Priority

It's easy to put off work if you don't understand the purpose behind it.

If I was honest with myself, I didn't need to visit The Overlook in September. The summer is our slow season, made even slower this year by a terrible fire that mostly spared the town of Idyllwild but scared away many would-be tourists. All of the chores were minor and could have been put off for a month or so.

But our vision kept nagging at me.

We already had several bookings for October, including a week-long stay. There were things I wanted to get done that I knew would make an impression on our guests, such as replacing some worn-out mats in the kitchen and bathrooms and fixing patio furniture cushions that had been torn.

I wanted The Overlook to be a welcoming retreat for our guests, just like it is for Sally and me whenever we visit.

There were some chores left for a future visit that I knew would not impact our guests. For example, we have some items that need to be donated or recycled. But they're all tucked away in storage, so guests won't see them. That can wait.

Think about your vision the next time you feel tempted to avoid work. It's okay to put something off that's not value-added. Just make sure you prioritize work that impacts your vision.

This is also a good time to ask whether what you’re doing is really adding value to your vision. Years ago, as a young nonprofit leader, I cancelled my organization’s biggest fundraiser because it didn’t help our mission. It turned out to be a liberating decision.

Remember to Have Fun

Work is so much better when we can find the joy in it.

Back to our purpose, Sally and I have a trip to The Overlook planned for later this month. I'll have fewer to do on this visit because I did so many chores in September.. Which means I am going to do that big hike I missed out on in August.

I'm really looking forward to it.

Your job has to be fun at some point. There needs to be something to look forward to that can make those frustrating days a little brighter.

Perhaps it’s a project you’re itching to work on. Maybe there’s a goal your team is trying to achieve, and you know there will be a big celebration when you reach it. Or it could be you’re just happiest when you are making an impact on your customers, and you realize you need to fix some problems to allow that to happen more often.

Whatever it is, find the fun or the whole thing will become one big, dreary chore.

Lessons From the Overlook: Know Your Neighbors

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.

You've probably heard horror stories about bad neighbors. Perhaps you've even been unlucky enough to experience this issue yourself.

It's a particularly thorny issue for vacation rental owners. 

My hometown of San Diego is a popular tourist destination with quite a few vacation rental properties. Many residents have complained about loud parties, rude or even intoxicated guests, vehicles blocking driveways, and other nuisances from people renting a house next door.

The problem has gotten so bad that the San Diego city council recently created extreme regulations that will effectively put many vacation rental owners out of business.

Idyllwild isn't immune to complaints about renters, as you'll see in just a moment. 

While you may not be in the vacation rental business, your company almost certainly has neighbors if you have a physical location. Here's how we learned just how important a good relationship can be.

Guests have sometimes blocked our neighbors' driveways, even though there is room to park four vehicles on the gravel and asphalt areas at The Overlook.

Guests have sometimes blocked our neighbors' driveways, even though there is room to park four vehicles on the gravel and asphalt areas at The Overlook.

Why Good Neighbors Are Good For Business

There are many ways a neighbor can help or harm your business.

A friendly neighbor can keep an eye out on your property and alert you to anything suspicious. This can be very comforting for Sally and me since The Overlook is a two-hour drive away from where we live. We know our property management company is very diligent about watching the property, but it's nice to have an extra set of eyes on things.

During the recent Cranston fire, we relied on updates from people in our neighborhood who stayed behind to keep tabs on the fire. Fortunately, The Overlook was unharmed, but we were very worried as the flames grew closer. The "on-the-ground" intel was extremely helpful.

A unhappy neighbor can also harm your business.

They'll be less likely to look out for your property or help you in an emergency. Complaints from neighbors can draw scrutiny from local authorities and even lead to fines if your business is not compliant with local regulations. 


How We Created Relationships

The Overlook has full-time residents living on both sides of us.

When Sally and I first bought the property, we visited both neighbors to introduce ourselves. The Overlook had been a vacation rental before we bought it, but we still wanted to create a good first impression. So we brought over some homemade fudge and a card with our contact information on it.

Our visit turned into a short history lesson when we learned one of our neighbors had helped build an addition to The Overlook many years ago when his sister owned the property! He and his wife's grandson runs a painting business in Idyllwild, and we've used his services for a couple of small projects. 

We told our neighbors we wanted them to feel comfortable calling us if they ever experienced an issue with a guest. It would be much better to hear about something quickly so we could handle it proactively, rather than letting an annoyance fester and create long-term damage to the relationship.

I hadn't heard any complaints at all, so I recently contacted our neighbors just to check in. It was a good thing I did.

Both of our neighbors told me they have had a few issues with guests blocking their driveways. There's plenty of room for four vehicles at The Overlook, so we worked with our property manager to provide clearer parking instructions and even a photo of the parking area.

One of our neighbors also told us about a loud group that clearly had more than the maximum of eight guests that we allow. They had left a lot of trash on both our property and hers (which she graciously cleaned up) and were really annoying.

This same group caused damage and stole some items last December. Had we heard about these issues sooner, we may have been able to proactively address the situation and possibly avoid annoyance for our neighbor and theft and damage for us.

The feedback made me realize that I needed to be more proactive about maintaining relationships with our neighbors. People can be naturally reluctant to complain or raise an issue if they don't feel comfortable. So I'll now be checking in with them more often so they won't hesitate to call us or our property manager when a guest is causing a problem.


Take Action

You can apply this lesson in your own business.

Start by identifying the value of having good relationships with your neighbors. Some businesses share a common area or a parking lot. One business I know of shares tools with other neighboring businesses and even allows one company to borrow its forklift!

Here are some action steps you can take once you identify the value of great neighborly relations:

  1. Identify your neighbors.
  2. Proactively make contact to start developing a relationship.
  3. Discuss areas of mutual interest or concern.

And of course, don't forget to maintain the relationship. That valuable lesson could have saved us some theft and damage at The Overlook!

Lessons from The Overlook: Why We Revised Our Vision

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 arrived at The Overlook earlier this month just as our property manager was finishing up a tour. A couple and their daughter were visiting a few properties to decide which one to book for a family getaway later this year.

They appeared to really like our cabin. "It's beautiful," one said. Another exclaimed, "You have a very nice place!" 

We checked in with our property manager a few days later and learned they rented another cabin. The couple really liked The Overlook, but they ultimately decided they wanted to be closer to town so they could walk to shops and restaurants.

That bit of feedback solidified something we've been thinking of for months. Sally and I knew then we needed to tweak our customer service vision.

Beautiful day on the outdoor couch on the deck outside The Overlook.

The Backstory on Our Vision

If you read this blog regularly, you know how often I stress the importance of creating a customer service vision. It's a shared definition of outstanding service that you can use as a compass to point everyone (and every decision) in the same direction.

Here's our original vision for The Overlook:

Welcome to your mountain community retreat.

Each word was carefully chosen to represent the experience we wanted to create for our guests. You can read the full story, but here's a summary:

  • Welcome: we want our guests to feel welcome throughout their stay.

  • Your: we want our guests to feel like the place is their own, so they'll treat it well while they're there and return on a regular basis.

  • Mountain: Guests come here for the mountains, so we'll emphasize that experience.

  • Community: We want our guests to experience that charming small-town friendliness that comes with being part of a rural community.

  • Retreat: A mountain cabin like The Overlook is a place to get away from it all, so we want to help our guests relax.

The one word we got stuck on when we did an annual vision review last year was "community." We just weren't sure how to emphasize community for our guests so they could enjoy the town of Idyllwild the way we enjoyed it.

For example, we loved the Fourth of July parade, which brought out a festive crowd of locals to see the pageantry. Where else but a small town can you see Santa Claus waving from a fire truck in July?

Santa Claus waving from the top of a fire truck in Idyllwild.

Or a dog named Max who happens to be the elected mayor?

Mayor Max enjoying the Fourth of July Parade in Idyllwild.


What Guest Feedback Says

It's important to keep in mind that your style and preferences may not be a perfect representation of your customers. 

For example, there's a faux deer antler chandelier over the dining table. It's definitely not our style and Sally and I would replace it in a heartbeat if the Overlook was just our private cabin. However, we've gotten so many positive comments about it that we know it's the right decor.

Faux deer antler chandelier

So looking at guest feedback, our guests are staying at The Overlook for a retreat while the local community is far less important.

  • "Everything is well maintained and beautifully appointed and the views of the city lights, sunsets, and mountain landscapes are simply spectacular."

  • "Everything you need to do what you need. Relax, hike, run, bike, swim, etc."

  • "Great cabin to build memories in!"


Our New Vision Statement

It's natural for a customer service vision to go through a revision or two. In most cases, adjusting just one or two words is all that's needed.

Here's our new vision:

Welcome to your mountain retreat

That's it. We simply removed "community." Sally and I realized we've been focusing on making The Overlook a welcoming retreat in the mountains all along. Here are just a few things we've added since buying the cabin:

  • Extra towels for the hot tub

  • Family-friendly games, puzzles, and DVDs

  • Access to Netflix and other streaming services

  • Upgraded and expanded seating on the deck

  • Extra seating on the catwalk

  • Game room with a ping pong table

Updating our vision has provided amazing clarity. We'll continue to use our vision to guide our decision-making, with a renewed emphasis on making The Overlook the perfect place for a welcoming mountain retreat.

Lessons from The Overlook: Verify Procedures are Followed

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.

Last month, I wrote that guest bookings had suddenly slowed at The Overlook. Our property manager called at the beginning of June with a new problem.

The Overlook was too hot inside and she was having trouble renting it to guests. The cabin can get to 80 degrees or hotter inside when the weather turns warm. Even worse, the cabin develops a distinctive, "musty cabin" smell when the inside temperature rises too high.

Our cabin doesn't have air conditioning, so our property manager wanted us to consider adding central air. As an alternative, she thought we could add window ac units to each bedroom.

If this problem sounds familiar, it's because it is. We went through the same exercise last year. At the time, we thought the problem was solved.

Many businesses encounter recurring problems. Here's how we handled this one.

The afternoon sun heats The Overlook if the blinds are left open.

Step 1: Know Your History

Start by checking to see if the problem has already been solved.

Harried employees quickly forget decisions made last year, last month, or even last week. Do you remember what we decided at last Monday's meeting? Yeah, me neither.

Employees come and go, too. New employees often think they are the first ones to encounter an issue, without realizing their predecessor kept copious notes on how to handle it.

And some managers are too eager to put their own stamp on something. They change for the sake of change, without first understanding why something was done a certain way.

Forgetting your history can be expensive and wasteful. 

For example, it would cost $600 (on the low end) to put window ac units in each bedroom at The Overlook. Adding central air conditioning would cost at least $5,000. Given our recent sales slump, it might be tempting to spend that money on a quick fix without verifying we'd get a reasonable return.

We knew we had already found a solution to the heat problem at The Overlook last year. So we decided to check on that first before deciding to spend any more money.


Step 2: Check the Procedure

It's always a good idea to ensure the existing procedure is being followed before implementing anything new. Existing procedures can represent a known solution to a problem. 

Unfortunately, procedures aren't always rigorously followed. People develop poor habits. A new employees comes onboard and isn't properly trained. Infrequently needed procedures are simply forgotten.

We had an existing procedure for dealing with the heat at The Overlook:

  1. Close the blinds during the day to keep the hot sun out.
  2. Turn the ceiling fans to summer mode. 
  3. Put window fans in the bedroom windows.

Two of the three steps were not being followed when we checked. The blinds had been left open and the window fans were still in the closet where we had stored them for the winter.

Our property manager followed the remaining two steps and the cabin quickly cooled. The inside temperature was a nice 72 degrees on a recent weekend when we had guests.

Better yet, we quickly picked up several more guest bookings. This puts us back on track after a slightly slow May.


Step 3: Follow-up

If an existing procedure breaks down once, it's reasonable to assume it will break down again without reinforcement. You can help prevent this with some timely follow-up.

Sally and I need to accept some responsibility for the heat issue at The Overlook.

We learned long ago that adopting our property manager's standard procedures makes things run more smoothly. The company oversees more than 40 cabins, which makes it difficult to keep track of a procedure that's only used in one particular cabin for a few months a year.

It makes sense for us to remind our property manager about the heat abatement procedure the next time it starts getting warm.

Following these same steps can save you a lot of grief when things go wrong. It's tough enough to solve a problem one time, let alone solving it over and over again!

Lessons from The Overlook: Don't Panic

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.

Things have changed dramatically at The Overlook in the past six weeks.

The cabin was booked every weekend from November through early April. This is the busy season in Idyllwild, though the results were still better than we expected.

The slow season is now upon us and we're feeling it. Half our weekends in May are open and we have only one booking for June.

It's times like these when it can be tempting to panic and make some knee-jerk decisions. Here's why we won't and why you shouldn't, either.

Exterior image of The Overlook. Photo credit: Sally Toister

Panic at The Overlook?

You tend to make poor choices when you panic in business.

Revenue is down right now and it looks like we're in for several months of the same. There's definitely a gut instinct to do something dramatic. 

The challenge is every idea goes against advice I previously laid out in this column.

For example, we could slash pricing to lure in an extra guest or two. Perhaps we could convince people to upgrade from a three bedroom home to our four bedroom cabin if the price was right. The challenge with this ploy is it runs counter to our pricing strategy. And, like many retailers have discovered, extreme discounting can become a habit your customers come to expect.

Another idea is to switch property managers. We recently had one promise us an extra $5,000 in net profit in our first year. Of course, that runs counter to our warning to beware of easy money. Our current property manager, Idyllwild Vacation Cabins, is likely to outperform that competitor over the long-run, and it will definitely take much better care of both our guests and our cabin.

Deferring some maintenance is another idea on the table. We have a painting project about to start and perhaps we could wait another year on that one. The key lesson here is knowing when to cut corners. This minor paint job will include some necessary repairs that allow us to delay painting the entire house. That means we'll actually save money.

So far, a level-headed analysis of these ideas makes it easy to conclude they are based on panic, not on what's right for the longterm health of The Overlook.


Panic in Your Business

Perhaps you've seen other signs of panic in your business. Here are a few examples I've seen in other companies.

One customer service executive frantically asked for customer service training. There had been a few complaints and the company president had demanded swift action. 

The problem with rushing into customer service training is it's only responsible for about one percent of service performance. The complaints will likely persist if the other issues are not addressed. 

Retailers across the country are cutting staff. This provides a short-term reduction in expenses, but it can hurt revenue and service quality over the long-run. I recently conducted a mini-comparison of three drug store chains, and found that understaffing led to lost sales in two of three stores.

Other businesses cut corners in any way they can. I've worked with several companies that have hired temporary employees through a staffing agency and then given those employees inadequate training because they were "temps." The inevitable result was poor service quality and a lot of turnover that cost the company much more than it saved by not hiring and training properly.


Take a Deep Breath and Don't Panic

This advice is easier written than followed. Panic can still tempt you to make poor decisions. Here's how we avoided doing that at The Overlook.

First, we know our numbers. Putting our current slow period into context helps. Here are a few things we know about that:

  • The slow period is a normal part of the business cycle.
  • Occupancy is trending just one booking lower than last year's slow season.
  • Our booking window is 4-6 weeks out, which means we're still okay for June.

We also understand the role of time here. Last year was our first full year owning The Overlook. It was previously a vacation rental, but we opened up the master bedroom which the previous owners did not rent. That made the property a four bedroom, three bath cabin, which appeals to a different group of customers than before. 

Our target audience tends to stay in Idyllwild once per year. We're just now starting to see some repeat guests. The goal is to continue adding more regular, repeat guests over time. That will take patience.

Finally, we're using this opportunity to innovate a bit.

For example, our property manager is pitching The Overlook for month-long rentals during the summer. This could help us lock in slightly higher revenues than last year. We'll have to wait and see on that one.

We're also starting to put some effort into social media, such as posting on The Overlook's Facebook page. That's not been high on our list so far (we've been busy with those pesky day jobs of ours), but we think it can pay dividends.

Time will tell if things will turn out okay, but I think they will. We just have to avoid panicking!