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The best learning takes place far away from the classroom, and there is no better place to learn about customer service and the impact on your bottom line than paying attention to your everyday life. I am in Hawaii right now keynoting for one of my favorite clients, a financial institution that is innovative, creative and committed to taking it to the next level. We are currently working on a long-term project that requires me to be in Hawaii both speaking and consulting at least quarterly – I know, tough life, right? And when I visit here, I am given the luxury of staying anywhere I want to, in any hotel that I choose, on any area of the island. Yes, it is wonderful working for yourself!

Now, with that type of opportunity given to me in a place like Honolulu, you might think that I would try different hotels, on different parts of the island, just to get the full experience, right? Good point and I agree. When I first signed the contract, that was exactly what I wanted to do. I thought, “How fun is this! I can stay anywhere I want, from Waikiki to the North Shore and even give downtown a try.” Well, that was my intention when I booked the Marriott on Waikiki, a wonderful hotel which was reasonably priced, always trying to be mindful of expenses. I chose this hotel because of price, location and it had all the amenities I like: nice room, decent restaurant and a good workout space. The first time I stayed there, however, I have to admit they far exceeded my expectations. When I checked in, they called me by name, made sure I got credit for my stay on Marriott Rewards (and looked up past stays I had had at Marriott), had my favorite granola bar waiting for me in my room, and they even made arrangements to allow me into the workout facility on off hours, given my professional obligations.

All of these things were amazing, but it was actually my experience in the restaurant that put me over the top. Now, you first have to understand that breakfast is my favorite meal of the day; in fact, I think it’s one of the only reasons I pop out of bed in the morning. I wake up excited about eating. The breakfast dish I like the most is a big fluffy egg white omelet, no cheese, and jammed with veggies. It just so happened the restaurant at this hotel had an omelet bar. My first morning, I casually strolled over to the omelet bar and the nicest man, tending the bar, took my order and served it right up. The next morning, I again headed that way, only to find that my omelet guy already had it cooking; he started it when he saw me enter the restaurant. The third morning, he outdid himself by preparing the omelet open face on a bed of spinach with extra tomatoes, and on my fourth and final morning, he sautéed onions and mushrooms to put on top. He was exceptional and so happy to be doing this type of thing for me, and everyone else who came in for breakfast. So from check-in to check-out, this hotel was off the chart, and I could not believe how amazing Hawaii was, and was looking forward to my next trip.

As great as this hotel was, and as wonderful as my omelet maker was, I was still anxious to try a new part of the island; plus I was sure that my experience would be close to as good, right? So the next trip, I decided to stay closer to the downtown area and try a new hotel. The property I chose, which will remain anonymous for this article, did a fine job from check-in to check-out. The property was beautiful, had all the amenities I like, including an omelet bar, but nothing stood out, no one went over the top. No one knew my name, no one was excited to see me, and no one made eating an omelet so healthy and so much fun. In other words, no one made me feel special. There was clearly a difference, and while this hotel was a higher quality in terms of the room, workout facility, etc., it definitely lost points in the area of creating a customer experience, and given a choice, experience for most people wins out; it is what we are paying for.

Since that first trip, I have been back to Hawaii six times and will go at least eight more before the close of 2014 and each visit will be at least a week. While my original intent was to stay at a variety of hotels on different parts of the lsland, my second (less-than-exceptional) hotel experience cured me of that and has sent me running back to the Marriott on Waikiki.  I am a regular here now, and even though I come back consistently and they can count on my business, each and every time I visit, they go above and beyond to make sure I am taken care of, and somewhat spoiled as guest in their hotel. I now have a favorite table, my favorite waitress, and, yes, each and every day something new and different gets added to my omelet. There is always extra coffee and cream in my room, a few of my favorite granola bars and a special key to get me in and out of the workout facility as I need to.

Yesterday, I was reading the paper (eating my veggie omelet) and noticed an article in the paper about hotel occupancy rates and the economic struggles Hawaii has experienced since this economic shift began: falling hotel prices, low occupancy rates and some hotels struggling to stay alive as they wait for things to turn around. I looked up and noticed that this restaurant was full, and this hotel seemed quite healthy. It all made me think, given that this is off season, and the article I was reading clearly reflects that Hawaii is still feeling the impact of the economy, how this hotel has managed to remain profitable and successful based on empowering their employees to give over-the-top customer service.

So think about this as it relates to your business; I imagine you have a lot in common. They face the same challenges: buried in competition, struggling with a challenging economy and they are a luxury not a necessity. No one actually has to have a vacation to Hawaii; it is far more a want than a need. However, this hotel has invested wisely, found the true place to focus to gain competitive advantage, and understood that their facilities and amenities are not the right place to try and stand out. That place is customer experience and empowering their team to do what it takes. The result of that kind of effort breeds true return on investment!