Lessons From The Overlook: Be Flexible

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 been awhile since I've shared an update about The Overlook.

A lot has happened since we put the cabin up for sale at the end of May. The summer is typically our slow season, yet we had our busiest July and August ever. Then there was a small fire that closed us down for all of September. 

The one thing that did not happen was a sale. We still own the cabin and now we think we have an even better plan (more on that in a moment).

The biggest lesson from the summer is you have to be flexible.

The Overlook vacation rental cabin

Beware of solution jumping

Solution jumping occurs when you instinctively identify a solution without fully understanding the problem. The danger is you could miss better opportunities or fail to solve the problem at all because your solution did not address the root cause. 

We initially jumped to a solution when we decided to sell The Overlook.

The problem we thought we were trying to solve was the cabin was too big:

  • It has four bedrooms, which is too much for us personally.

  • Damage increases and utility costs go up when we have more than six guests (our maximum is eight).

  • Larger cabins typically rent less often than smaller cabins.

Our plan was to sell The Overlook at a profit, buy a smaller cabin, and pocket the difference. We ran the numbers and found that a smaller cabin with a lower nightly rate would likely bring in more revenue per month.

It looked like a good plan on paper, but several factors made it hard to execute:

  • The market softened shortly after we put the cabin up for sale.

  • A high number of rentals made it hard for our agent to show the cabin to buyers.

  • We didn't find any smaller cabins that we really liked.

And then there was the fire over Labor Day weekend. 

A guest was using the grill and had it positioned against the side of the house. Some grease caught fire inside the grill and ignited the wood siding. The fire spread into the eaves before it was extinguished.

Photo credit: Idyllwild Vacation Cabins

Photo credit: Idyllwild Vacation Cabins

It could have been a lot worse, but there was enough damage that we had to take The Overlook off the rental market for the month of September. 

This is where flexibility comes in.

We could have made a bad decision if we locked in on selling the place. We might have slashed the asking price to sell The Overlook quickly and then found ourselves losing a lot of money trying to upgrade the next cabin to our standards.


How flexibility can create new opportunities

You can often discover unexpected solutions if you maintain your flexibility and resist the urge to jump to a solution. It is important to understand the problem first.

We initially thought our problem was The Overlook was too big. We now realize our maximum capacity of eight guests was the issue. 

  • There are just six seats at the dining table.

  • The living area is comfortable for four to six, but not eight.

  • Damage and utility costs go up when we have eight guests.

Advertising The Overlook as a four bedroom cabin for eight guests also limited our market.

Almost all of our renters are groups: large families, groups of friends, or several couples traveling together. These groups travel almost exclusively on weekends. Smaller cabins get more rentals during the week because a smaller party requires fewer people to make plans together.

The Overlook still had a number of advantages that other cabins we saw for sale did not have. The biggest one we could not replace was the view:

Sunset view from The Overlook

This thinking opened up another possibility. What if we reduced the capacity at The Overlook from eight to six? 

Our property manager has another cabin that has two bedrooms and a large game room downstairs. It rents extremely well. We know we can do something similar at The Overlook.

So that’s our plan.

We'll reduce our capacity to six by turning the large master bedroom into a game room and entertainment space. This should allow us to create an even better guest experience while reducing damage and utility costs. 

The changes should also increase our revenue as we expect to pick up more rentals during the week and throughout the summer.

The changes will take several months to implement. 

We're heading into our busy season, and there are already a number of rentals on the book for guests who expect four bedrooms. The good news is we have a clear path forward towards a better solution than we originally imagined.

Take Action

You can use flexible thinking to make similar strides in your own business.

The next time you face a challenging problem, resist the urge to jump to a solution. Take time to truly understand the problem you are trying to solve. Come up with alternative approaches, even if they don't seem feasible at first. 

And above all else, stick to your vision.

Our vision at The Overlook is welcome to your mountain retreat. We think these changes will bring us even closer to fulfilling that vision for our guests.


The Critical Mistake to Avoid When Solving Customer Problems

The man's steak was hopelessly overcooked. 

The server noticed almost immediately. He checked on the couple right after they each took a bite of their filet mignon. The woman was quite happy with her steak, but the man's was well-done when he had ordered medium-rare.

The server quickly apologized and promised to fix it immediately. He scooped the overdone beef onto a side plate to take back to the kitchen, leaving the potatoes and vegetables on the man's dinner plate so he could enjoy his sides until the server returned with a new steak.

The manager was alerted.

He stopped by the guests' table to apologize for the steak being overcooked and offered the guests a free dessert. The guests declined, so the manager left the table thinking the guests were happy with the resolution.

He was wrong.

The Problem With Fixing Issues

There's a difference between fixing an issue and solving a problem.

Training programs, procedures, and even our instinctive orientation often focus on fixing the issue. In the restaurant, the issue the server and manager tried to fix was an overdone steak.

The fix was to replace it with another that was perfectly prepared and offer a free dessert. This failed to make the guests happy because it caused two problems that weren't addressed. 

The first was they wanted to enjoy a nice meal together. The was proving to be difficult. The woman could eat her steak immediately while it was the perfect temperature, but her husband would have to wait until his arrived. She could wait for her husband to get his steak, but then her steak would be cold. 

The second problem was the couple had theatre tickets for a performance later that evening. They planned for a leisurely dinner, but the restaurant sat them 30 minutes later than their reservation. The overcooked steak delayed their meal even longer. Staying for dessert was already out of the question by the time the manager offered it as they were now worried about getting to the theatre on time.

The focus on fixing often causes us to miss our customer's real needs. 

I recently wrote about having to contact Spectrum 23 times to set up phone, internet, and cable for my new vacation rental cabin. My issue is fixed in the sense that everything is now working and my bill is finally correct, but my problem hasn't been solved.

I'm frustrated that I had to spend so much time on the issue and disappointed to never receive a response from Kathleen Mayo, the Executive Vice President of Customer Operations I emailed to share my frustrations. 

 

Why Solving Problems is Better Than Fixing Issues

The best customer service professionals focus on helping customers achieve their goals.

This starts with listening carefully to understand customers' rational and emotional needs. Emotional needs are often overlooked in the rush to fix issues, but they're the most important

The goal is to help the customer feel better about the situation, and hopefully earn the customer's trust and repeat business.

Here's a good example of problem solving from Martha Sanchez, the owner of Idyllwild Vacation Cabins and our property manager for The Overlook cabin. 

My wife and I arrived at our mountain cabin this past weekend for a short stay. The water wasn't running when we arrived, so I checked the water shut-off valve for the house to make sure it was on and it was. Fearing a frozen pipe, we immediately called Martha for help.

Martha told us the water had been turned off at the street level, which shuts off the water to the entire property. She could have fixed the issue by sharing this information and telling us where the shut-off valve was located, but she solved the problem instead.

Martha drove out to The Overlook and gave us a hands-on winter safety tutorial. She explained that its necessary to shut-off the water when the cabin is unoccupied during winter months to prevent pipes from freezing. She told us it was better to shut off the water at street level to help prevent pipes from freezing between the street and the house. 

Martha took the time to show us some additional precautions to take during the winter. She even pointed out where the cabin once had a pipe burst due to careless maintenance and showed us what had been done to prevent it. 

She understood our real need wasn't just turning our water back on. We're new to owning a home in the mountains and needed to be educated on these winter precautions so we could be confident and capable owners. It was also an opportunity for Martha to demonstrate that our house would be well-cared for while it was being rented to guests.

We had running water and felt a whole lot better by the time Martha left.


Why Obvious Solutions Sometimes Aren't So Obvious

The contact center had trouble with associates who were rude and abrupt with customers. The director tried training, team meetings, and even the threat of disciplinary action. 

Nothing worked.

The company hired me to help them fix the problem. It took me just five minutes. It's not because I'm a wizard. (Or, am I?) It's because I was able to see the problem from a fresh perspective.

The problem stemmed from hold times that stretched as long as 30 minutes in the morning. Contact center associates got stressed out when they knew people were waiting. They anticipated that those customers would be angry at them when they finally got on the phone. This caused them to come across as abrupt as they tried to hustle through each call.

The solution was also simple. A minor adjustment to the contact center's schedule put more associates on the phone during busy times and gave them less coverage when they didn't need it.

How could they miss such an obvious solution? Sometimes, what's obvious isn't so obvious. Here are some reasons why that happens:

knowledgeshare.jpg

Inattentional Blindness

This is a phenomenon that occurs when you focus so much on one thing, that something else becomes hidden, even when it would otherwise be obvious. 

The contact center leader was so fixated on her agents being rude to customers that she couldn't see what was causing it. She just wanted them to stop.

You can see examples of inattentional blindness here and here.

 

Framing

We tend to see things from a singular perspective. The challenge is that perspective might not be the complete picture. 

The contact center leader looked at agent rudeness as a behavioral issue. This made it difficult for her to see it was really the symptom of another problem.

You can experience a classic example of framing here.

 

Urgency

Speed can be a paradox. Moving faster can create additional problems that take extra time to solve. Sometimes, you have to work slow to go fast. 

The contact center associates came across as rude and abrupt because they were trying to work fast. In many cases, this made calls take even longer and created a self-reinforcing cycle. Longer calls led to longer wait times which led to more stress and then even longer calls.

There are plenty of examples of serving faster by slowing down, such as this contact center that became more efficient when they stopped holding agents accountable for talk time.

 

Solutions

Many customer service problems can be solved by making sure frontline employees are aware of the issue. This short video explains how to do that.

You can also try using this Quick Fix Checklist to help identify some common root causes for customer service problems.

Finally, I highly recommend Edward De Bono's book, Lateral Thinking. It's a creativity manual, but the timeless techniques De Bono describes are perfect for solving customer service problems.

Two different approaches to the same problem

Customer service problems can and will happen. I wish they didn’t, but they do. And when they do occur, how the company resolves the problem can make a big difference.

I recently experienced two very different problem solving approaches from the same company. The first approach made the problem feel much worse. The second was wonderful.

The Situation
My wife, Sally, and I recently opened a nice bottle of wine to go with a special dinner she had made. Unfortunately, the wine had a strong vinegar taste that made it undrinkable. This was a fairly expensive bottle that we had bought at the winery three years ago, so naturally we were disappointed.

We’re planning another visit to the winery in a few months, so I decided to send them an email and ask for a discount on our next purchase.

Approach #1
Don’t respond.

It shouldn’t shock me that companies don’t respond to emails in this day and age, but it does. Three days later, I emailed the winery a second time. This time I did receive a response. It was very uninspiring:

Jeff,

I forwarded the email to my tasting room manager.  You should hear back from her soon. 

The Hospitality Team

Can you spot the problems with this message? I see at least three:

  • Who is it from? I'm pretty sure "The Hospitality Team" isn't their real name.
  • Who is the tasting room manager? Let’s give this person a name too so I know who will be contacting me. Maybe they will become my new BFF.
  • When exactly is soon?

“Soon” turned out to be two days later. Sheesh – I really need to get a dictionary because I thought soon meant, well, sooner than two days. 

The email I did receive was underwhelming:

Dear Jeff,

I left a voice mail for you today. Please give us a call to verify the address that we can send the call tag. Or if easier, just email back.

Best regards.

Mary Ann

This was a little better than the first message. But it was still poorly done.

First, the person’s voice message and email were focused on her needs rather than mine. Mary Ann wanted to get back the empty wine bottle. I wanted to get a discount on a future wine purchase and to have my frustration acknowledged by a caring and compassionate customer service professional.

Second, it’s a good rule of thumb to use the customer’s preferred method of communication. I had emailed because it was more convenient, but Mary Ann had called me and left a voice message with most of the information she wanted me to have. 

I did end up calling AND emailing, but did not receive a response.

Approach #2
Solve the problem swiftly with caring and enthusiasm.

I was contacted by someone else named Elizabeth the day after my last email to Mary Ann. Notice Elizabeth’s very different approach:

Hi Jeff!

I just wanted to reach out to you regarding your bad bottle of wine.  I apologize you didn't receive the response from our tasting room manager, but we would be happy to organize getting a new bottle to you!  What address do you prefer to receive shipments to?

And just so that we can continue to improve on our end-- out of curiosity, where and when was the bottle purchased?

Again, we apologize that the bottle was a disappointment.

Regards,

Elizabeth

I replied to Elizabeth’s email with my shipping address plus an explanation that I had purchased the bottle at the winery. She quickly responded to let me know she received my message and apologized once again. A new bottle arrived the very next day.

It’s too bad I didn’t encounter Elizabeth first. I had emailed to ask for a discount and she had responded by overnighting me a replacement bottle which feels like outstanding service to me. It’s the hassle in the middle I could have done without.

Do you know the real reason your customer is angry?

Problems can and will happen in customer service. What happens next is often critical. Will the problem be resolved? Or, will more mistakes exacerbate the situation like pouring gas on a fire?

Here's a recent example that shows both.

I'm a huge fan of New Balance and buy nearly all of my running gear from their online store, Shop New Balance. Recently, I received an email offering 15% off my order plus free shipping. It was time to get some new running shoes anyway, so I carefully followed the instructions on the email and tried to place my order.

Unfortunately, my 15% discount wasn't added at check out, so I had to cancel my order. <----- Problem

I emailed their customer service department and explained the issue. A customer service rep emailed me back the next day and apologized for the error. He went on to explain that the online promotion had ended the night I tried to place my order, so I would have to call customer service to get my 15% discount. 

This was a minor bummer. I had placed my order online because it was easier to browse through their selection and most of my account information was already on file. Now, I needed to find time to call them and place the whole order all over again. <----- Problem #2

I called a few days later and spoke with a rep named Laura. I was bracing for a fight as I explained the situation, but she cheerfully told me she'd be happy to honor the discount. <----- Resolution

Now comes the hero factor. Several of the items I originally ordered were now marked down 20% off their original price. That was better than the 15% discount I had hoped for, but Laura gave me an additional 15% off anyway. Savings + savings = awesome. <----- Hero Moment

I also realized that I was leaving town for a long weekend and there was a good chance that my order might be delivered while I was gone. This would mean the shipment would sit by my front door for several days advertising the fact that I wasn't home. I explained this to Laura and asked if she could delay shipment by a few days. She assured me she would take care of it.

A couple days later I was pleasantly surprised to receive my order before I left for my trip. Laura had upgraded my shipping to express at no extra charge to ensure everything arrived before I left instead of after I returned. <----- Hero Moment #2

Unfortunately, one of my new shoes was damaged and will need to be returned. That was disappointing, but not the end of the world. <----- Problem #3

If you are keeping score, I experienced 3 Problems and 2 Hero Moments. What does that add up to? A very satisfied customer.

Laura's hero work more than made up for the other issues I experienced. Would I be disappointed if the problems happened again? Certainly. I've also done enough business with Shop New Balance over the years to understand that this was an unusual situation and my next order will probably be smooth sailing. In the meantime, Laura's outstanding problem resolution earned them plenty of goodwill.

Here are a few of my takeways from the situation.

 

  • Don't make problems any worse than they need to be. Anything less than an immediate resolution can make a mountain out of a molehill.
  • Empower your employees to give customers more than they expect. It will make it much easier to go way beyond resolution and turn a problem into an opportunity to delight. (Chris Zane's wonderful book, Reinventing the Wheel, gives many examples about this.)
  • Mixing in a few hero moments will earn you enough goodwill to keep your customers' business when you occasionally stumble.


Outstanding customer service you'll never notice

Our regular UPS driver came to the door yesterday afternoon. I had to sign for the package because he was delivering a shipment of wine. As I was signing, he remarked that the package had the wrong address on it. "I'm glad you knew where to bring it!" I said.

He replied that it was easy for him to track down the correct address because of my unusual last name and the shipment contained wine. (Yes, I am a huge wine enthusiast: www.sharethebottle.com.) 

I paused for a moment to think about what had just happened as I brought the wine in the house. The wine shipment had arrived just as expected. That by itself wasn't amazing, but the fact that it arrived on time was due to the actions of a very alert UPS driver who knew the regular customers on his route. He took extra initiative to ensure my expectations were met.

Could it be that some of the very best customer service happens behind the scenes? 

Customers tend to notice service service that is either exceptionally good or exceptionally poor. We are unlikely to notice when things go exactly the way we expect them to. 

What would have happened if the UPS driver had not taken the initiative to deliver my wine to the correct address? The shipment could have been delayed a day or two while a customer service representative tried to track me down. I might have been inconvenienced if I had to go to the UPS station to pick up the package instead of it being delivered to me. The wine might not have been delivered on time for an upcoming party if it took too long to resolve the problem.

All of those situations would have landed squarely below my expectations. I would have likely been upset at the winery, UPS, or even both. 

Instead, I'm happy.

How many times do unsung customer service heroes spot a problem before it occurs and just fix it? When it does happen, the experience will likely register as "average" on the customer's radar, but we should all agree that the effort was outstanding.

The power company reinforces the value of great service

I recently had a great customer service experience with San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), my local power company. They're pretty much the only game in town if you live in San Diego and use electricity. Fortunately, SDG&E realized that good customer service is still good business.

The Situation
An SDG&E contractor broke a sprinkler pipe in my yard while working on some SDG&E equipment that is adjacent to my lawn. I called on a Sunday and filed my initial claim, but was told that the claims department wouldn't open until Monday. Someone would call me then.

I braced myself for the expected hassle and runaround, but what followed was a trio of surprises that exceeded my expectations.

RESPONSIVENESS!
A gentleman named Mike from the claims department called me on Monday morning. I was truly surprised to get a call as promised.

Why is this such a big deal? Too many companies don't call in this situation. That prompts another call from the customer. And another. And another. It aggravates the customer but also wastes valuable company time to deal with the some complaint over and over again. It's always better to put the problem in the hands of a person who can fix it and let them fix it right away.

IT WAS EASY!
I was bracing for a mountain of bureaucratic paperwork. Instead, Mike simply apologized and suggested I use my own sprinkler guy to do the repair. He told me I could send the bill directly to him and he'd make sure I got paid.

What?! Where is the bureaucracy? Where was the expected accusation that I was somehow trying to rip them off? What's up with this helpful single point of contact business instead of making me call another number and re-explain the problem?!

Mike's actions made things easy for me but they also saved SDG&E a lot of time too. Making me wade through a maze of bureaucratic steps would make it necessary to employ a legion of bureaucratic gate keepers to patrol the maze. Problems can and will happen, but customers shouldn't have to suffer more than necessary to get them fixed. Mike was able to resolve the problem with a minimal amount of contact and effort on both sides.

RESOLUTION!
A reimbursement check came in the mail a few days after I sent my receipt to Mike. I had expected it to take forever to get my money, so it was a real surprise to get the check so quickly.

Wait - aren't big utility companies supposed to be evil?

It turns out that being evil can be much more expensive than doing right. Let's imagine my check didn't arrive quickly. I'd probably call again. The labor cost of that extra phone call would offset any marginal savings gained from delaying payment. In fact, each time I called, the company would be deeper in the hole. Better, and cheaper, to just send the check and get it done.

So there you have it. A customer service lesson from the utility company. Be on the lookout for flying pigs!