Tag Archives: customer service

More than just the meter

Taxis have been a hot topic in the news this week and this has got me thinking about the different ways taxis and minicabs feature in our travel experiences.

For many of us, a cab ride to and from the airport signifies the beginning or the end of a trip. These threshold moments, as we shut the car door and hear the engine rev, bring a host of different feelings. It could be the sheer excitement in knowing you’re jetting off somewhere exciting…it could be the anxiety around needing to get to the airport in good time or the unease, even guilt, at having left loved ones behind when off on business. In many cases, on the return leg, it’s the sinking feeling in knowing the holiday is really over and it’s back to the grind…or for some, even concerns around finding your home as you left it.

So lots of emotional highs and lows depending on numerous circumstances… From the type of trip you are going on, the time of day and whether you are alone or with others… to whether it’s driving to or driving back home from the airport. All of these things can affect the mindset of a traveller and taxi drivers need to pay attention to more than just what’s on the road and tune into the needs of their passengers.

In many cases they don’t know how to. For example, a cab ride with friends to Luton airport a few days ago (at 4.45am) involved a 10 minute stop for petrol, despite us talking en route about being pushed for time and the likelihood of having to battle through the crowds at the check in desks. The driver definitely had enough in the tank to get us to Luton but for some reason hadn’t paid attention to our sense of urgency or even checked what time our flight was before deciding to stop.

I’ve also had numerous encounters where I am on my way home from Heathrow after a long transatlantic flight with little sleep and all I want to do is spend time thinking, reflecting (and more commonly nodding off). In these circumstances I’ll often pull the short straw and get the driver who insists on interrogating me about my trip…asking about my job and offering opinions, verdicts, solutions and stories of his own. Normally I appreciate the chit chat, but not when I’m so tired I can barely string a sentence together.

This type of conversation is best suited to when I’m on my way to the airport, especially when I’m going to a new destination. For example, I went to India for the first time a couple of months ago and the cab driver who took me to Heathrow had been to India several times before. Our conversation added to my intrigue and suspense about the country I was about to spend the next two weeks discovering.

And what about the taxi drivers at our destination? Cabbies on the other side are often our first insight into the new culture we have entered into…the first physical contact we have with a local. Often the shoe is on the other foot here and my co-travellers and I will be the ones asking them the questions and seeking their advice, making small talk to try a get some initial insight into our new temporary home.

Sometimes we’ll end up having deep and meaningful conversations and I’ve occasionally found myself thinking back to conversations in cabs and words of wisdom shared by taxi drivers themselves…from discussing the Tibetan population in New York City to the extreme poverty and slum life in New Delhi.

Right now I’m staying in a small village in Cyprus and was delighted to discover that the taxi driver who takes us back from the restaurant area is the son of the person who works in the village pizzeria and the same person who came to sort the WiFi in our villa. Speaking with him (albeit after a few drinks) resulted in a really memorable 5 minute journey where we ended up learning some of the local lingo.

The best drivers in my view are the ones who stay with you for long run. The ones in countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Thailand who, for an agreed upfront charge, accompany you for the day and go beyond being just a driver, becoming more of a ‘tour guide’ or ‘partner in crime’…doing whatever it takes to get you to your meeting, event or tourist attraction in time and even waiting patiently for you until it’s finished to take you back without you having to worry about transport.

The worst, on the other hand, are the rude, obnoxious drivers who barely acknowledge your existence, the ones who take the strange back streets and make you question your safety, and the ones who seem to just want an argument. I had an incident a couple of weeks ago in New York where the driver misunderstood me asking to go to a street number rather than a building number and nearly reached boiling point whilst blaming me for the mishap. Needless to say he didn’t get a tip.

So lots of examples of the different ways taxi drivers can affect our travel experiences, for the better and for the worse. It goes without saying that cab drivers, often far more than they are aware, contribute enormously to the highs and lows of a trip and set the tone for the journey, day or holiday ahead. And in many cases they become more than just a driver. We, as travellers, where possible should reap the benefits of this, learning from their knowledge and expertise and adding colour to our overall travel experience.

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The hotel mini bar saga

Something I pay close attention to whilst staying in hotels is the mini bar. In fact, one of the first things I do when I check into any hotel room is suss out the mini bar situation. This has become a kind of ritual as I settle in and familiarise myself with my temporary ‘home’, despite the fact that 95% of the time I wouldn’t actually buy anything from it. We’ll come onto that.

The contents of a mini bar can tell you more about the hotel brand and the location you are staying in than you might realise. For example, I stayed in a quirky boutique hotel in Moscow a couple of years ago called the Golden Apple and was amused to discover that vodka was cheaper than water. Got to love the priorities in Russia!

This mini bar in the Eros Hotel, New Delhi also intrigued me in its dominant offering of British branded alcohol:

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Coincidence? Or a reflection of how prominent British culture is in modern India?

And this picture below taken of a mini bar in the Zetter hotel where I stayed a couple of weeks ago in Farringdon London, has moved away from your typical classic ‘open-the-cupboard’ mini bar to having all the tempting snacks in full display on the unit next to the bed. What is more interesting is the hotel’s choice to supply a product called ‘Faust’s potions’ – a relatively new product on the market, described as a ‘recovery pack aimed at professionals to help you feel your best’… or in other words, to help ease the hangover. Says a lot about the clientele… I had in fact just come from an evening of wine tasting!

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So we have lots of different types of mini bars offering a range of different products. But who is actually buying the contents? Apparently very few of us according to TripAdvisor who shared results from a research study conducted for them by Ipsos earlier this year which suggests that mini bars are soon to be a thing of the past. Only 14% of global travellers consider the mini bar an important amenity whilst 63% of global hoteliers have already done away with the mini bar.

This made me question why I very rarely take anything from the mini bar and I came to two conclusions. Firstly, the majority of snacks in a mini bar are loaded with carbs and covered in chocolate. Although I love to indulge, especially when I’m on holiday, I tend to do my indulging when I’m out and about. Snacking on crisps and chocolate is often the last thing I want to do when I come back to my hotel room after a heavy meal, or when I leave the room first thing in the morning. Mashable, in its 15 ideas that would vastly improve travel suggests that healthy vending machines offering olives, dried fruit and organic foods would go down well in hotels and I have to agree…not just for corridor vending machines but within mini bars in bedrooms too.

Secondly, there’s the guilt thing. We all know that the prices of products in mini bars are likely to be at least treble the prices of the same products in the shop just outside the hotel. We have also clocked onto the fact that mini bars are designed to catch us at our weakest moment, with some hotels now (like the Zetter) having their mini bar products in full display, eyeing up their guests and luring them in. As tempting as the display might be, I think that travellers are outsmarting the system and realising that popping down to the 7-11 to stock up on water and snacks for the room is the way to go. People just can’t justify the current cost of products from a mini-bar, even business travellers using the company credit card. We want to feel smart about the choices we make when we travel and spending over the odds for a bottle of water, a packet of crisps and a shot of whisky doesn’t seem so clever. So we’ll apply control, restrain ourselves and resist temptation…or be shrewd and come armed with pre-purchased snacks.

Perhaps if hotels considered significantly lowering their mini bar prices to a level that guests are more likely to be able to justify (with less margin but still enough to make some profit) the impending death of the mini bar might be less of a reality. Oh and they should look to supply some healthier product options. Personally I think it would be a shame if mini-bars ceased to exist. They are an iconic feature within hotel rooms and, like I said earlier, having a look at what’s on offer helps ease us into our temporary ‘home.’

I’ll finish this post with a story of a mini bar incident that occurred on a business trip earlier this year which still makes me chuckle. We were in New York, staying at the Intercontinental Times Sq. One of my colleagues, the newest member of the team who was excited to be on his first trip away for work, started getting to grips with his room. He was intrigued by the bright coloured packet on top of one of the cupboards and upon closer inspection, realised this was a condom pack. He then realised that attached to this pack was a wire and that wire ran back behind the cupboard connecting to something else. By the time he had registered what it was connected to – the mini bar – it was too late. He had nudged the condoms and they had now been out of position for over 10 seconds. The sign next to the bar said that anything out of place for 10 seconds or more would be charged – the bar had a sophisticated sensor system so could recognise this. The panicked expression on his face and shaky explanation to our team of what might be appearing on his room bill at checkout is something I’ll never live down.

Dog friendly hotels

My three favourite things in life (aside from all the things you are meant to say) are travel, food and my dogs! This weekend I was fortunate enough to combine all of these on a trip to Lymington, a small town on the edge of the New Forest.

We (6 adults and 2 dogs) stayed in a dog friendly hotel called Stanwell House, right in the heart of the town.

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This got me wondering about dog friendly hotels in general, namely how challenging it must be to provide great service, not just to ‘human’ guests, but to those of the canine kind too.

Stanwell House certainly made my two ‘canines’ feel at home right away with the lovely greeting they were given by the staff at reception. I guess the key part of ‘dog friendly’ is the word ‘friendly’ and this was absolutely my first impression of the hotel staff as they stroked and cooed at my two furry boys whilst assigning us to our rooms.

The welcoming feeling continued as we moved into our room to discover some dog treats and a blanket laid out with an accompanying note:

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This was a lovely, unexpected surprise and in fact more satisfying to receive than the pack of shortbread biscuits laid out for myself and the hubby, knowing the hotel had cared enough to consider that a happy dog means a happy owner.

I have stayed in ‘dog friendly’ places before where, although dogs were technically allowed, this wasn’t really publicised. This resulted in us feeling like we were doing something wrong during our stay whenever other guests saw our dogs.

Let’s face it – even the most well behaved dog will bark, smell, knock things over, chew stuff, slobber, whine, growl, pee on things – you name it…these are the things that dog lovers let go over their heads. So a ‘dog friendly’ hotel has a big challenge on their hands – striking the right balance between making guests with dogs (and the dogs themselves) feel at home whilst keeping their other guests – those who couldn’t care less about dogs or those (I hate to say it) who detest dogs just as happy.

Stanwell House got this balance spot on. There were no traces of ‘doggy smells’, the hotel was immaculately clean with lots of doors to access the garden areas and there was even a separate eating area for those with dogs which, importantly, didn’t feel cut off from the rest of the dining area.

It’s a lot of fun travelling with your dogs, but my family and I often find it tough to locate half decent accommodation where having a dog on display in a hotel doesn’t offend other guests and make the hotel staff feel uncomfortable. I’d like to hope more of the places who claim to be ‘dog friendly’ follow the example of Stanwell House. Rocco (below) certainly slept very peacefully:

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And if you’re wondering about my other love – the food – this was absolutely exceptional. It was beautifully presented and tasted delicious. These pictures don’t do it justice:

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Hotel website: http://www.stanwellhousehotel.co.uk

To tip or not to tip? That is the question…

The prospect of giving a tip can be one of controversy and is something that has triggered much debate and discussion among friends, family and colleagues over the years. As such, I thought I’d share some views and stories of recent tipping experiences whilst travelling, as the whole concept and the unknown ‘rules’ between different countries is one which continues to baffle me.

Tipping is clearly a point of anxiety for many travellers. The fact that we now see sections in travel guides advising on the appropriate percentage to tip when visiting specific countries shows this is something that plays on peoples’ minds during and even prior to a trip…and I am testament to this! There is nothing more awkward than a bell boy taking luggage up to your room and then hovering around for a few moments whilst you have an internal moral dilemma about how much to give him. And that’s made even worse when you have just arrived in the country you are visiting, unable to think straight after a long flight and haven’t yet grasped the currency break down. Then after some fumbling around you realise you don’t even have any small change. Mega awkward! I wonder if these moments of mild discomfort are intensified because I am British or whether the experience is just as uncomfortable for others around the world?

So, correct me if I’m wrong but I always thought that you tip someone based on how you rate their service and their ability to make your experience in a restaurant, hotel, taxi or whatever it may be painless…perhaps even enjoyable. That’s the way it works right?

Apparently not…

A friend recently told me about how she was asked to pay AND provide a tip upfront when having a manicure done in the states. I get that it would be easier to deal with payment before having wet nails, but how on earth was she expected to decide upfront how much tip she should award the manicurist? Surely a tip is something that should be earned and the amount given should be based on my friend’s judgement post receiving the service and assessing how good the manicure was?

Another friend actually got kicked out of a restaurant in San Francisco because she is Australian and Australians have a reputation for not tipping. She was told whilst ordering drinks that unless she paid $11 upfront (which the waitress described as ‘the worth of her seat’) she would have to go outside. That’s pretty shocking on a number of levels.

Now I know in the likes of America it seems that people in the service industry are not paid particularly well and rely on tips to beef up their wage. But what I don’t think I’ll ever really understand is why they can’t be paid more in the first place to avoid relying on customer donations so the actual cost of something is spelt out from the start. Anything extra should be earned and awarded at the discretion of the customer. Because what really starts to anger me is when customer facing staff don’t provide an adequate level of service but STILL expect a tip.

I was in a restaurant at JFK airport last week and received some appalling service. The waiter pretty much forgot about my colleagues and I to the extent that one of us had to go and get the drinks ourselves, Larry David style. When another waitress walked past with a tray of dirty plates half the food got spilt over another colleague and there was a mix up with orders (among a number of other mishaps). Consequently, when calculating the bill we decided that our waiter did not worthy a tip. After handing back the payment to him and swiftly trying to leave the restaurant (obviously being British and wanting to avoid confrontation) I caught a glimpse of him frowning and adding up the dollars against the bill. He was confirming that we had indeed not given him the tip he somehow felt he deserved for his non existent service and started shaking his head in disbelief. He then turned towards us and gave what can only be described as ‘the look of death’ – not what you want before getting on a plane – leaving me questioning what planet this guy was on if he thought he deserved a reward for his horrific ability to ‘serve’.

I’ve also started to notice on restaurant bills that some places actually dictate how much tip you should give on the bill itself. A few months ago I was actually chased out of a Mexican restaurant in New York for not aligning my tip to the one that was ‘suggested’ on the bill. The service was average at best and the food wasn’t anything worthy of an Instagram upload, so my colleagues and I thought a 15% tip was actually quite generous all things considered. And that is what we decided to award our waiter, despite the bill giving three tip options only with a little check box beside each one for 18%, 20% or 22.5%. This did mean having to calculate the amount ourselves rather than ticking one of the three pre-calculated options, but we were standing our ground here! The waiter clearly disagreed and just as I was opening the door to leave the restaurant I heard heavy footsteps and a voice behind me shouting “maaaam I think you’ve miscalculated this!” I glanced back awkwardly, told him it was perfectly correct based on 15% and left feeling like I’d committed some sort of crime. Ridiculous!

It seems these tipping games are played by lots of people I know and there are actually a number of different ways that people approach the ‘to tip or not to tip?’… or ‘how much to tip?’ dilemma:

The tip Jar approach is most suited to a restaurant type situation and involves setting a maximum amount that you are prepared to tip upfront (say 18%). Then each time something goes wrong during a meal, whether that be a waiter getting an order wrong or forgetting to bring something, a deduction of 1% is made to the final amount.

The pre-tip is something a friend told me their father does from time to time. When checking into a hotel he’ll hand over say a couple of $50 notes and give the simple instruction ‘make it a good stay’. Apparently he has seen this pay off a number of times and has been known to have staff in hotels (clearly thinking there might be more where that came from) running round him as a result.

The tip and run is probably the one that I and most Brits are guilty of. Assessing the service you have just experienced, deciding the amount the waiter or whoever it may be deserves (which is often likely to be lower than they expect) then shooting off as quickly as possible and not hanging around for a confrontation. BEWARE – sometimes this results in being chased out like a criminal.

The reluctant is actually my Ozzie friend’s attitude – she does not enjoy the whole concept of tipping because she feels “putting a five dollar note in a grown man’s hand is like tapping him on the head like a dog” as she describes it.

And my favourite which another friend recently told me about… The just get drunk or Pretend to be more drunk than you are approach to avoid the situation outright. This isn’t necessarily designed to get out of giving a tip full stop, but could help you get away with only giving the amount you feel is deserved by playing dumb to subsequent confrontation or help to innocently justify your inability to add up correctly.

I’m sure many more approaches exist (which I’d love to hear about). But just a final point to end on… I have mentioned how tipping is not really part of the Australian way of doing things. Australians are in fact paid a lot better and the minimum wage is higher than most other countries. As a potential result of this, I think some of the best customer experience I have ever encountered has taken place in Australia. The service over there feels genuine – not just with a potential reward in mind like it is in many other countries. The impact of this actually on some level made me want to be more generous with my tipping for the duration of my trip down under. Go figure!

Airline humour

Air travel seems to provide rich material and fuel the laughter for many comical sketches. I guess this is largely down to the fact that flying still (despite some carriers providing what can seem like a bus service) feels strange and unnatural with so much potential for things to go wrong. The idea of being in a metal tube 40,000 feet in the air for several hours can be quite hard to contemplate – for me at least anyway. If we were meant to fly, surely we’d have been made with wings? Nevertheless that doesn’t stop me from going anywhere and trying my best to forget my fears and enjoy the experience of flying.

Bad and bizarre customer experience is often at the heart of any comedian’s work. I am a big fan of anything ‘comedy’ related so I was quite excited to discover a comedienne over the weekend (who has apparently been around for years) who goes by the name of Pam Ann. As you can probably tell, her sketches focus specifically on the flying experience, bringing to life the varied perceptions people have of different airlines in an amusing yet graphic way. Much of it is of course deeply exaggerated, but there are still some interesting underlying messages in her work around how people are made to feel by staff, based on her observations as a passenger.

Check out the following (though best not to if you are easily offended):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAgQR8Z_-KQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JgKWguQ4P4

If you like what you see here is the link to her website to find tour dates. It looks like she’s going to be in London at the end of March…! http://pamann.com/

Another great pair of comedians who have also used the theme of flying and the unique customer experience we can encounter whilst in airports and on board as comedy fuel is David Walliams and Matt Lucas. Despite first hitting our screens a few years ago, their series Come Fly With Me will never get old, especially with episodes currently being re-aired on Sky and Netflix.

A couple of my favourite sketches:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOrhMcqx6vw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIJzfrrpyUQ

Enjoy and remember to keep your eye out for real life comedy gold whilst you’re travelling!