When Scent Marketing Stinks: Four Points by Sheraton

I had an experience this week that serves as a great follow up to my previous article on scent marketing. Right now, I'm in San Francisco. I have been staying at the Four Points by Sheraton at the SFO Airport and commuting between downtown and San Jose.

Upon entering my hotel, I immediately noticed the scent of pie wafting from the lobby. In fact, the was pervasive in every corridor, inside my room, even outside the hotel and it didn't take long to suspect scent technology at work.

But first, I had to ask if they had pie at the restaurant. The waiter answered "only sometimes." Interested in how this related to the scent technology use, I inquired about the scent with the manager. He reluctantly admitted that Four Points is using scent technology to create a more home-like and welcoming atmosphere.

Oooh. Okay. Interesting. But here's what I noticed after four days...

  • The smell made me hungry
  • When I learned they had no pie, I then felt cheated!
  • The smell eventually became annoying - especially when I was not hungry. You know how you feel after you've eaten and the smell of your empty plate or leftovers turns you off? Yech.
  • The smell, combined with the stainless steel cleaner they used in the elevator, created a smell similar to that of VOMIT. That's not welcoming at all.

    Okay, so good for Sheraton for wanting to create a more "home like and welcoming" envorinment. The thing is, this goes to show that a comforting smell itself isn't without some drawbacks. Further, smell alone isn't going to create the home like experience.

    There's no doubt, smell can be terrific for memory recall - and can be used to reinforce experience. But what heppens when the experience fundamentals are missing and smell reinforces bad experience? Let's talk about a few of the fundmamentals gone wrong at this hotel:

    Getting Settled.

  • The parking garage below the hotel has elevator access. Bad News: It is locked during the day! Those who have no room key must schlep out of the garage, up the hill, and around the building to the upstairs lobby carrying all their stuff. Grrr

  • Walk in and you're immediately confronted with a fancy set of five stairs with a curved facade.... separated by a brass railing. There's no ramp (although there's a lift for handicapped guests). This seems to defy logic since most people checking into a hotel are carrying luggage.

  • Upon entering my King Suite, I was confronted by about 15 more, rather narrow stairs that led to my sleeping loft. All I wanted to do was to find a bathroom and crash for a minute. Instead, I ended up hefting luggage up the steep incline to my sleeping quarters.

    How about a cold, clammy bath?

  • For some reason, the company insisted on installing SPRINGS on all bathroom doors, which forced them to close behind you. I could not hear the phone or anything going on downstairs from inside the bathroom. I was forced to prop the door open with a trash can so I could listen for the phone and/or knocks from room service.

  • While the curved shower rods around the standard tub created a spacious shower interior, I was dismayed to find a freezing cold bathroom (no heater or controls there) and a shower with really POOR water pressure. Not only was the pressure bad, the water didn't get hot enough, leading to an unsatisfying shower and a freezing exit on to the cold, poorly cleaned travertine floor. This wasn't like home at all!!

  • The hotel boasted bath robes and spa products. My robe was hidden in the back of a closet and went unnoticed for days. I actually used the spa lotion and it was nice -- but my mostly-empty bottle was never replenished for me like they are at other hotels. This felt a bit "cheap" in the end. Why not put out the robe as a welcome and replenish the goodies for the guests?

    Comnecting by phone.

  • The phones were improperly programmed in my room, making it very difficult to connect to the front desk, housekeeping or room service. The first time I dialed the front desk, I tried three times to get an answer. I got no answer, a hangup call, and then an annoyed response after more than 30 rings. It was only 9:45 pm.

    And what to eat?

  • Beyond the fact that they pulled a bait and switch on the pie, the hotel's restaurant menu was uncreative and uninspired: Wings, hamburgers, fries, grilled chicken whatever... It was the same travel fare most of us road warriors are completely sick of. If they wanted to make the hotel feel more like home - why not offer home cooked meals, instead of the same, hotel fare you can find anywhere?

    The point is that customers don't like to go through hoops - we don't have them in our home environment, and we'd rather not have to jump through them at a hotel. In fact, hoops are actually contrary to creating a home-like and welcoming experience.

    For the marketers that dreamed up this experience: Is the scent of Fresh Baked Pie is going to make me feel positive when so many other aspects of the hotel experience were simply annoying? Did the company do ANY experience testing whatsoever with real customers - travel weary people, families, etc.?

    Either Four Points is trying to create a more home-like experience that drives brand affinity and loyalty, or it is not. From my experience at this hotel, it looks to me like they built a lot of marketing hype around a hotel experience that may fail to deliver. The question is whether or not what I experienced is a limited set up hiccups related to this hotel only.
  • Killing Customer Experience Gnats!

    My husband and I joined the Vonage family last month and I have to say, it’s been good for the most part. The price is good - even for international calling. The service seems to function reliably, although we’ve had to restart our modem a number of times to get things working again after cut-offs - even a few mid-call, which has been inconvenient (buzzz). However, I’m not sure if that’s a result of my ISP or the Vonage service, itself.

    But that’s what this post is about, really...it's about gnats. Bear with me as I buzz through this, a second...

    As I tried to figure out the USER ID and password my husband set up today, I noticed a cute little application running on the site. It was an interactive flash app, which called out various service components with value-based messaging. Each service topic linked to an animated tutorial with a voiceover that would expand on each topic. At first, it seemed well produced and looked like this:

    "Cool," I thought, "Let me learn more." The problem was, however, when you clicked on all but one of the four topics, the description that came up didn’t match with the topic name. For example, the “Voicemail” topic linked to information about toll free numbers. “Toll Free Plus” linked to information about voicemail. “Soft Phone” linked to Caller ID… It was confusing and I still don’t know what Soft Phone is... (buzzz)

    So, like a good little usability expert, I decided to call Vonage to report the problem. As I tried to find a phone number, I noted an option for what I perceived to be web-based support. The graphic said “Need help now? Ask Vonage.....our interactive, personal agent” After typing my question, I got this:

    For those of you who do not have x-ray vision and cannot read the text by the green arrow, it says "I am a robot" in response to my question "You aren't really a person, are you?".

    So, this wasn’t a chat-based application featuring a real agent or person. It was instead, just a hyped up marketing driven way of presenting FAQs by presenting them in a pop-up window and calling it an agent. Not a huge deal - just another hurdle to go through on my quest for satisfaction and a minor irritation... (BUZZ)

    It’s significant to mention, however, that these two little issues – and they were little - added to some “back of mind” irritation I already felt after some other experience irritations. You see, in my experience over the last few months, both my husband and I had encountered more than a few usability hurdles on the company’s corporate and password-protected customer web sites…(BUZZ) For example, it is surprisingly unclear how to set up your voicemail message, and mine is still embarrassingly absent. (BUZZZZZZZZZ!)

    Why the Buzz? To make a point. Little usability problems are like pesky “experience gnats” that bother consumer increasingly over time. Sooner or later, the irritation they present may force people somewhere else… and that’s where the risk is for most companies today.

    This is especially true for a company like Vonage, which has first-mover status in this category, along with a relatively high hurdle to conversion and a seemingly complicated set of service options. This is also especially true for companies in rapid growth modes, which are rapidly developing and launching new products and services to new markets... adjusting messaging and service offerings to maximize conversions along the way.

    Simply put, clarity and ease of use are critical.

    Where Vonage has succeeded on many fronts to create an understandable product and achieve market penetration – the risk they face (like many of us) is that someone else will come along, learning at their expense to create something that’s even easier to use. We’ve seen this happen in the market thousands of times.

    That’s why Vonage – and companies like it – can’t afford to skimp on customer testing!

    Ironically, some simple user acceptance testing would have registered the glitch in the little service app I noted. Customer testing may have also identified the perceptional challenges that are created by applying a marketing term like “AGENT” to what equates to a FAQ engine… It may also have uncovered the myriad of simple usability challenges I noted on Vonage's customer targeted web site – as well as the support collateral they sent us when we became new users.

    Killing the experience gnats is best supported by effective iterative product development lifecycle management.

    Using the right iterative model, appropriate levels of testing can be “built in” at various stages of work to ensure the end-solution meets the needs of the business, audience and answers market need.

    Employing appropriate testing approaches across the development lifecycle will help identify areas of the environment may cultivate experience gnats - and elliminate them.

    Ineffective iterative approaches applies testing at a level that is too shallow or narrow. Testing that fails to go deep enough may fail to uncover functional problems that impact a large number of users. Testing that is limited within a single channel can create experience pitfalls - because each time changes are made, they can have a cascading effect on other areas, including collateral, web experience, site content, service policies and other key experience areas.

    Poorly executed planning can happen for a number of reasons, including ignorance or poor governance. However it is often present because of (or at least impacted by) insufficient development timelines, development delays, or "executive pushing" due to business pressure. This drives increased pressure for launch and often subverts customer-based testing (e.g. usability testing).

    Good iterative processes support testing that assesses individual components as well as the overall, cross-channel experience, to ensure the user’s journey comprehensive experience is as clean, "gnat-free" and seamless as possible. This testing is never done - it continues as the products and services evolve over time. It requires time, investment and dedication - and very importantly, executive support.

    Beyond the gnats, iterative testing may help identify serious customer experience pitfalls.

    For example, perhaps this kind of testing would have uncovered the "irritation factor" caused by Vonage's hidden "15-days-from-purchase" clause on the modem rebate! We didn't install Vonage for 30 days and "ate" the cost of our $60 modem as a result. This wasn't an experience "gnat" it was more like a horsefly - one that has undoubtedly motivated other users to return the product (I know of one) and increased Vonage's barrier to entry. :-P

    Incidentally, I did get touch with Vonage by phone and reported the little application error, which hopefully by now, they’ve fixed. The associate was affable, responsive and thankful for the report. She was also helpful in resolving my own issue. Her approach and demeanor squashed a few gnats for me and left me feeling generally positive.

    Ultimately, experience gnats like the ones pointed about above can be encountered with almost any company - so the goal here is not to be nit-picky. Some gnats are bigger than others, as we've pointed out - including self-service usability problems and hidden clauses that screw the customer. Testing can help ensure that, as we architect experiences, we avoid "leaving out rotten apples" that can attract and colonize gnats, and annoy customers. Using the right development methodology, which leverages practical testing to anticipate and correct address potential experience pitfalls that can have a cumulative effect of undermining customer relationships.





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    I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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