Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Serve Your Users

I'm a bit upset. Some friends and I were planning a trip to San Francisco soon, and a few of them have booked a night at the Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf (don't worry, I will tie this in to software in a bit, trust me). I needed to book a night for me and my fiancée, so I brought up their website. Uh oh! The hotel was booked solid that night. This was bad... what if we have a hard time finding a place? This wasn't what made me mad though... well, besides at myself for not booking earlier.

What if the website wasn't accurate? I dialed up the hotel, just to be sure. It went something like the following (though it's coming from memory, so expect a bit of embellishment):

Me: Hi! Do you have a room available for the night of X?

Them: I'm sorry, I don't see anything available. Is the night flexible?

Me: Well, my friends already booked the night with you, soooo...

Them: I can check the Starwood Hotels, Le Meridien. It is about a mile away. Shall I check availability for you?

Me: Uuuuh, well, my friends are already staying at your hotel. Is there anything nearby that might have a room?

Them: ... It's only a mile away. Shall I look that up for you?

Me: Sure.

... She proceeds to book a night at Le Meridien, informing me of an offer comparable to what my friends had, though I made sure I had a refundable option so I could think it over ...

Ok, so this may seem like pleasant help from the reservations department at the Sheraton, but it's not quite why I'm angry. You see, after I hung up, I first checked how far on the map the 2 hotels were. It ended up being 1.4 miles... not exactly easily walkable for a night on the town. This wasn't why I was steaming though.

I then did a quick search of the nearby hotels to the Sheraton. I zoomed in on Google Maps, and all the hotels nearby were listed right on the map. The Hyatt, a block away. Holiday Inn, a block away. Best Western, across the street. Radisson, across the street. This was when my anger bubbled up. I called up the Best Western and found out that not only was a room available, but I could get the same price my friends got (and which was offered me at Le Meridien). I quickly cancelled the night at Le Meridien, quite thankful I didn't rush into the no refund deal I was initially offered.

Let's be clear, I fully understand where the Sheraton employee was coming from. They may get some kind of commission for redirecting my business to their sister hotel. They want to ensure they are getting my money. What irks me, though, is that I made it clear I preferred to be near my friends, yet she proceeded to push an option to me when she very likely knew full well there were alternatives that would have suited me better. It may be that any of the hotels I saw would do the exact same thing in a heartbeat, but I feel it is a grave mistake.

First, the Sheraton had a great opportunity to turn me into a fan. Had they pointed me to one of the numerous walking distance competitors, I would have remembered that fondly, and told everyone about my experience. Not many companies clearly have your best interests at heart. Instead, I remember it angrily... and tell everyone about my experience.

This is how I feel this story relates to software... well, more about business, but same thing if you are a software company. The way you need to treat your customers is as if your goal is to see their goal achieved in the way that best makes them happy. If that means pointing them to a competitor who would solve their problem better... then happily point them to your competitor's open arms. Don't treat your customers (or potential customers) as if their money is the only thing you care about, like the Sheraton did in this case. Your users will find out you weren't being completely honest, and they will hate you for it. They will speak out and write on some puny but public blog and tell everyone about the experience. Ultimately, your users will find their way to the option that is aligned with solving their problem, not extracting their money.

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