CRE Customer Service Lessons from Savannah

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Photo of Savannah’s Forsyth Park courtesy of FreeImages.com / Roger Kirby

For all today’s trendy talk about “authentic” travel experiences—staying off the beaten path, seeing the grittier side of cities, eating where the locals eat, etc.—sometimes it’s fun to embrace being just being an authentic tourist. That’s what I did a couple of weeks back on a weekend getaway with my wife* to one of our favorite cities: Savannah, Georgia.

Savannah is packed with historical sights, centered in a condensed, walkable grid (think Manhattan, but with shorter buildings and far nicer people—it’s in the South, after all). It is also famous for the John Berendt book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the story of a high-profile 1980s murder trial. Locals call it simply “the book,” which was later made into a movie starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey. As it turns out, this 1997 cult classic catalyzed a textbook case of customer service excellence.

Before getting to town, I contacted the hotel (via Twitter, no less) and—in a true show of authentic tourism—asked whether it was possible to watch in my room. I soon got a response:

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Simple enough so far. But the payoff came at check-in. When I opened the door to the room, on the TV stand was a brand new DVD of the movie, along with a bag of popcorn from a gourmet shop down the street and a handwritten note: “Please enjoy the popcorn and movie!! We are delighted that you decided to stay with us!”

Thanks to this gesture, the feeling of delight quickly became mutual.

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This personal experience reminded me of some familiar themes from my investigations of customer service in the commercial real estate (CRE) industry. There are at least a few lessons here for property managers and engineers as they serve both owners and occupiers.

Here are three of them:

  1. Be thoughtful

    The hotel impressed me because I had requested information and got an experience instead. I expected an answer like, “We always have that movie available on our digital rental list” or “All our rooms have DVD players and we keep a few copies at the desk for our guests to borrow.”

    Either would have been perfectly acceptable.

    But the hotel staff refused to settle for acceptable. Instead, they saw past the verbatim request (How can I watch this movie?) to the underlying desire (I want to watch this movie.) They assumed the role of facilitator rather than informer.

    I’ve heard over and over from owners and occupiers during my time in CRE that they wish more property management organizations would look at things from the customer point of view. “Ownership mentality” or “thinking like we think” is what they often call it. It’s hard to get out of the weeds of day-to-day tasks and get into the minds of customers, but they will almost always recognize and appreciate it when they see it. And one nice thing about technology like property management software is that it can help document and track requests that reveal opportunities for thoughtfulness.

  2. Be personalized

    Think about what had to happen to execute something as simple as putting a DVD in my hotel room. First, whoever was running the Twitter account had to recognize an opportunity. Then the hotel had to identify me and confirm my reservation. Finally, the front desk and housekeeping staff had to coordinate on my room assignment and arrival time. All this took effort.

    In commercially occupied space, “personalization” often takes on more of a corporate flavor than an individual one, but the principle is the same. Each customer has a unique set of needs, preferences, and goals for the space. Standardized policies and procedures are commendable—I encourage using them!

    But a little extra effort beyond basic standards goes a long way. For example, rather than just offering a conference room for a tenant to reserve, why not anticipate their arrival by bringing in some flowers and light snacks while also making sure to preset the climate control system?

  3. Be on-brand

    The hotel I visited in Savannah is definitely upscale. They probably spent $20-25 on my request. Given their typical nightly rates and their presumed operating budget, that was justified. A five-star resort might have even more flexibility, while an economy hotel would certainly have less. The point is that staff had discretion commensurate with the hotel’s image.

    Commercial property management is becoming increasingly branded. At the same time, budgets are always under pressure, which can make it hard to spend money on little extras. But whether there is or isn’t room for such niceties, a strong branded experience requires creativity within the bounds of available resources. That might mean free coffee once a quarter at one building and fresh pastries once a week at another.

    Hotels are not the same as other commercial buildings, but they do know a thing or two about customer service. In fact, as the workforce keeps evolving, it will probably keep becoming more like the kind of consumer marketplace that hotels serve. In the meantime, there are lessons for CRE professionals to apply.

*I would be remiss if I failed to recognize my in-laws for making this all possible by staying with the kids. Thanks, Nina and Pa!