Lessons from the Overlook: How Standardization Drives Service


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Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It’s a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

When my wife, Sally, and I purchased The Overlook, we had a lot of big ideas.

We wanted our place to be unique, with a lot of value-added touches that would wow our guests and make them want to return over and over again.

So we brainstormed a list of ideas:

  • Leave bottle of local wine on the counter as a guest amenity?
  • Give our guests free firewood in the wintertime?
  • Put high quality toiletries in all the bathrooms?

It turned out the best way to wow our guests was to do none of these things. The biggest reason wasn’t cost, although cost certainly was important.

It was standardization. Here’s why standardization is crucial to service.

Photo credit: Jon Millhouse

Fear of Service Failure

When we thought about extras at The Overlook, we also worried about service failure.

In their outstanding book, The Effortless Experience, authors Matt Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick Delisi make a compelling argument that service failures have a much greater impact on customers than wow moments.

That’s because people naturally tend to have a negativity bias. Negative experiences are much more memorable and are more likely to sway future behavior than positive ones.

What happens if one guest gets a bottle of wine, tells people about it, but the bottle of wine fails to appear for the next guest?

What happens if we promise free firewood (so guests don’t bring any of their own), but the firewood isn’t there when guests arrive late on a cold winter night?

What happens if the fancy toiletries aren’t replenished and the bathrooms look like the last guest just left a few half-empty bottles behind that weren’t removed by the cleaning crew?

We were concerned about all of these potential failures because we knew we’d need to rely on our property manager to handle any extras. Our property management company has a well-defined, standardized process for servicing the 40+ homes it manages.

Asking them to change their routine for just us would be begging for trouble.

How Variables Create Failure

Think about cleaning and re-stocking a vacation cabin from an operations perspective. The easiest way to ensure consistency is to standardize.

  1. Write standard procedures.
  2. Train everyone to follow those procedures. 
  3. Stock standard replenishment items (paper towels, toilet paper, soap, etc.)

Our property management company has it down to a science. There are even standard sheets and towels so linens can quickly be replaced without having to launder everything onsite.

Now, imagine changing everything for just one house. 

The procedures change. You need to remind employees to follow the different procedures, and you need to remind them again because the same employees might not service the house each time. You also need to stock special supplies and make sure you don’t run out for just that one cabin.

All of those variables are a recipe for things “falling through the cracks.” 

Even big companies struggle with this. For example, extreme variability is one of the reasons why McDonald’s has struggled with service and food quality.

The Standardization Cure

You’re much more likely to deliver consistently excellent service if you can standardize your service delivery process. With that in mind, we couldn’t just consider our own cabin. We had to think of it from our property manager’s perspective. (This is an important aspect of partnership, a topic I covered last month.)

All of our original ideas required our property manager to deviate from a standard procedure.

So we re-thought our approach and came up with some new ideas that didn’t require our property management company to alter its normal routine:

Idea #1: Don’t charge for snow removal. Standard procedure was for our property manager to shovel and plow snow at each cabin whenever a snow storm hit. It’s a required safety item, but most cabin owners charge for this service. We decided to pay for it ourselves.

Idea #2: Stock back-up dishes. Most vacation rental guests expect a few cracked plates or mis-matched dishes. We put in an entire set of matching dishes and then added some back-ups to our owner’s closet. Once a month, we inspect the cabin ourselves and replace any broken or missing items so the kitchen feels fully-stocked. (Many guests have commented on this.)

Idea #3: Stock extra kitchen items. The Overlook has four bedrooms, so it’s really geared for families or couples traveling together. That means they’ll cook a few nice meals in the cabin, so we made sure the kitchen was stocked with items you don’t normally find in a vacation rental: a crockpot, extra tupperware, a full set of pots and pans, and even an apron for the chef. It turns out this has become one of the biggest delights for our guests!

Idea #4: Remove clutter. We talked to many people who regularly rent vacation cabins and one of their top pet peeves was clutter. They’d say, “How can I put my stuff somewhere if the owner’s stuff is all over the place?!” So we went through the entire cabin and kept every table, counter, nightstand, and chest of drawers as clutter-free as possible.

Idea #5: Provide a nice guest book. The typical vacation cabin has a ratty three-ring binder that contains all of the house rules, instructions for using various items, and information about the local area. We spent a few extra dollars and created a beautiful bound book on Shutterfly. It’s a classier way to share the same information.

In his new book, Kaleidoscope, customer service guru Chip Bell calls these items value-unique. They don’t necessarily cost a lot of money, but they make The Overlook standout compared to other options.

We’ve been lucky so far. It’s been booked nearly every weekend.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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