Making life difficult for customers makes no sense at all! Case studies from Marriot Hotels and Debenhams


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Making Life Difficult

We are living in a world where consumer expectation is changing as rapidly as ever before. New technology is enabling people to do what they want, when they want to do it, wherever they happen to be. We crave speed, simplicity and consistency in our interactions. All around the world, this change in consumer expectation is actually picking up pace – even in countries where there has been a cultural acceptance of ‘the way things are’ – people are no longer prepared to tolerate experiences that fail to meet expectation.

Unless they have been living in a cave, leaders of businesses all around the world will have noticed the changes in consumer expectation I am referring to. Not only should they have noticed the change in the way consumers interact with their own organisations, they should have recognised that their own personal needs and expectations have changed. That is right… leaders are consumers too…..they just conveniently seem to forget that fact sometimes. I often say that many business leaders would not dream of doing to themselves some of the things they do to their own customers – it is one of the most frustrating things about unacceptable customer experiences.

The fact that business leaders should therefore be completely aware of the things their organisations do that make life difficult for their customers makes it even more remarkable that awful experiences still occur. On an almost weekly basis I am made aware of things that make me shake my head in despair. Only last night (3rd February), I visited a restaurant in London that still delivered the Christmas menu to the table!! What is that about?!

Giving the Christmas menu to a customer on the 3rd February does not make my life as a consumer difficult – it just makes me wonder if the people running that business are actually awake! What is far worse is when companies do things that intentionally or unintentionally make my life more difficult. It makes absolutely NO SENSE to make a customer’s life more difficult – to highlight this, I want to share two case studies with you:

Case Study 1 – Marriott Hotels

Marriott Logo

At the beginning of January, a very good friend of mine brought a story to my attention that almost made me fall off my chair. A story that is almost so unbelievable, that I feel it is essential for others to learn from it. Marriott Hotels is a business that I have interacted with in the past. A well-known and respected global chain of hotels, it has always served up good experiences for me personally. So when I heard that this seemingly respectable business was trying to INTENTIONALLY block guests from using their own personal wi-fi access in their hotels, I was astounded. Yes – you read that right – Marriott Hotels wanted to prevent guests from using their personal wi-fi in Marriott Hotels. If you do not believe me, have a read of this article in Huffington Post.

In Marriott’s defence, they claim that they had a legitimate reason for taking this action. In a statement they stated the following:

“To set the record straight it has never been nor will it ever be Marriott’s policy to limit our guests’ ability to access the Internet by all available means,” Marriott said in the statement. “The question at hand is what measures a network operator can take to detect and contain rogue and imposter Wi-Fi hotspots used in our meeting and conference spaces that pose a security threat.”

Whether we believe them or not (and many will be highly dubious of their motivation), the action that Marriott was trying to take would intentionally make customers lives more difficult. Why on earth would you want to do that?! If you were faced with the choice of selecting a hotel for a meeting or a conference where wi-fi was completely free (either provided by the hotel or for you to use your own personal wi-fi), or a hotel who intentionally blocked you from using your own wi-fi so you had to pay to use theirs – which hotel would you choose?!

Fortunately, the Federal Communications Commission in the US have prevented Marriott Hotels from being able to execute their intended action. The FCC said simply that it was a ‘bad idea’ – you can read about it here. Thank goodness they did. Marriott Hotels insist they thought they were doing the right thing – can they honestly say that if they put themselves in their customers shoes that they would have wanted to be on the receiving end of an idea like that?!

Case Study 2 – Debenhams

My second case study is a story of my own – one that also will make you ‘tut’ vigorously at your computer screens. As one of the UKs largest department stores, most British citizens have visited a Debenhams over the years. In my home town of Chester, we now have two Debenhams stores within ten miles of each other – one in the city centre and one in an out-of-town retail park. A couple of weeks ago, my wife purchased a number of items at Debenhams in the centre of Chester. Like many people, she does not always try clothes on in store – she prefers to do that at home.

Having tried everything on, Naomi decided that she would take some of the items back. At the weekend, one of our three children had to be dropped off at the cinema for a party. As the cinema is on the same retail park as the other Debenhams store, Naomi decided to take the clothes back there at the same time – it would make life much EASIER as parking is free and she could ‘kill two birds with one stone’.

You can probably guess that it was not quite as easy as she expected. When Naomi approached the cash desk to hand the clothes back, she really did not expect the response she received. ‘Sorry’, said the Debenhams employee, ‘we cannot accept these items back at this store’. Before I tell you why, have a look at the receipt that Naomi handed to the sales assistant:

Debenhams Receipt

There is nothing on that receipt to suggest that Naomi would not be able to take any of the items back. The reason why the sales assistant said that she could not take one of the items back was because the item was sold by a concession – the concession in question is Warehouse. Debenhams in Cheshire Oaks does not have a Warehouse concession – the sales assistant was therefore advising that Naomi would only be able to take the item back to a Debenhams that does – in either Chester or Liverpool. Unbelievable!!!! Naomi’s transaction was with DEBENHAMS – not Warehouse. It quite clearly says DEBENHAMS at the top of the receipt. Concession or not – it is not of the customers concern. This ridiculous ‘process’ or ‘policy’ can only cause confusion and unnecessary effort for the customer. It can only make the customers life more difficult, To return an item purchased in DEBENHAMS had now become a whole lot more complicated.

It makes no sense at all. It is quite frankly madness. All of Naomi’s items were bought from concessions – she must therefore be one of many customers who have been faced with the same problem. If a Debenhams director had experienced what Naomi did, would they be happy with the outcome?

Making life difficult for your customers just does not make sense. It can only lead to anger, disappointment and resentment. It can only lead to customers not wanting to transact with you again the future. Making life more difficult for your customers will have a fundamental effect on the emotional component of their experience – it is what they will remember. Negative memories can only lead to lost business.

Thankfully, Marriott Hotels were blocked from doing something that almost defies belief – however the simple fact they thought it was a good idea has completely changed my perception of their brand – and not in a good way. What Debenhams did has made me question whether it is ever worth shopping there again – I cannot be bothered with the hassle. I want to be confident that I can trust and rely on a business to help make my life as easy as possible – I cannot rely on them to do that. I hope both companies read and learn from this post. I hope that others ensure that if they do not already know what makes their customers lives difficult, they find out pretty quick – failure to do so could be fatal!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Ian Golding, CCXP
A highly influential freelance CX consultant, Ian advises leading companies on CX strategy, measurement, improvement and employee advocacy techniques and solutions. Ian has worked globally across multiple industries including retail, financial services, logistics, manufacturing, telecoms and pharmaceuticals deploying CX tools and methodologies. An internationally renowned speaker and blogger on the subject of CX, Ian was also the first to become a CCXP (Certified Customer Experience Professional) Authorised Resource & Training Provider.


  1. Hello Ian,
    Ok. If i understand you, then your argument goes like this:

    1. Customers have high expectations. Customer crave-demand speed, simplicity, consistency, and responsiveness to their needs. Being so demanding customers are no longer prepared to tolerate experiences that fail to meet their expectations.

    2. The folks running Marriott, at the very least, are clueless. At the very least they are making life harder for their customers. And as such at risk of losing business. Why? Their customers will go and use another hotel instead.

    3. Debenhams has made it hard for Naomi to return the clothes she purchased. There must be many other customers just like Naomi. They must also be annoyed-upset. And as such at risk of leaving Debenhams and choosing to shop with another retailer.

    So I ask you why is it that the FCC intervened? Because some customers complained. Right? But why was it necessary for the FCC to intervene. According to your theory of business, customers would be so annoyed by not having their needs met that they would have left Marriott for another hotel chain providing free wifi. The mass exodus of customers would have led to Marriott’s management changing its policy. Or Marriott would be out of business. So, back to my question, why did it take an FCC ruling to get Marriott to change? Because the customers did not leave Marriott. And had no intention of leaving Marriott. So they complained to the FCC to get a Marriott to change its policy.

    Onward to Debenhams. I take your assertions at face value: lots of disaffected customers due to having to return their purchases to the store that they bought them from. Hello! Have you noticed that Debenhams is not in the news: there are no angry customers picketing outside DEbenhams, nor a tsunami of tweets. Nor has Debenhams had to close down stores because the customers have stopped shopping.

    Summing up: It occurs to me that in the Customer-Centric / Customer Experience circle reason has taken flight and religion has taken over – completely. If even 20% of the nonsense that Customer Experience (customer-centric) folks speak were true then businesses would be bleeding revenues, failing to meet profit expectations, and the management would be kicked out – like at Tesco’s.

    The reality? Almost every business is doing well enough by doing well enough for most customers most of the time. And this works well enough for customers at the level of behaviour – irrespective of what they say. Complaining is a favourite human past time in modern society. It is like going to the movies. Then the movie is over, and folks go back to life as usual.

    I wish to disagree with me then fine – that is your right. I only ask that you do not give me your opinions or quote Customer orthodoxy. I ask instead that you deal with reality. You know the ‘stuff’ that is there whether you believe in it or not.

    All the best

  2. Many thanks for taking the time to read this and respond as eloquently as you always do Maz. However, I must make it clear that I deal only in reality – that is what I have been doing as a CX practitioner for my whole career and now as an independent specialist.

    The reality (as you put it) with Marriott is that the effect of their decision to block WiFi had not been fully felt by customers before the FCC stepped in, I guarantee that if the FCC had not intervened, ultimately global customer perception of their brand would have been significantly and irreparably damaged by a decision that was not made with the customer in mind. The reality (there is that word again) is that there is always a lag between a company choosing to do something and the customer feeling the effect of that decision. Fortunately for Marriott, their ‘bad decision’ as the FCC put it has saved them from a far greater problem a little way down the line (although the very fact that it has been reported so overtly will have damaged their credibility).

    On to Debenhams. Expecting customers to form picket lines as a result of experiencing unacceptable experiences is really quite ridiculous. I do acknowledge that Debenhams is not currently closing stores as a result of the experience I highlighted in my post. However, the point I am making is that my wife experienced a completely unacceptable experience with this particular company. Unless companies are able to understand that unacceptable experiences exist and do something about it – customers will not form picket lines…..they will just walk away. Debenhams Christmas trading figures were not very positive. In fact, if you read this article in the Guardian, they are facing a number of very real challenges – – unless they address issues like those experienced by Naomi, their challenges will only get greater – to the point where their very presence on the high street may come in to question.

    You are absolutely right in saying that these are my opinions – they are indeed – opinions based on twenty years of helping organisations understand the reality of continuously improving what they do to be genuinely customer centric and to achieve sustainable growth. You are obviously also perfectly entitled to disagree with them – this debate is very healthy.

  3. Ian, the Marriott case was quite interesting. I read the FCC petition ( and the company uses contorted logic to explain why blocking is a good thing for guest security and access. Avoiding discussing the one thing that was probably behind this — money!

    I stayed at a Marriott property recently and the WiFi service was terrible. Very slow and disconnected a lot. So I pulled out my smartphone, created a hotspot, and connected my laptop. Perfect.

    Consumers will always try to find a way that is easier and/or cheaper. And businesses, left to their own money-hungry devices, will try to lock customers in and prevent that.

    I like Marriott, but as is the case with most premium hotels, they usually charge extra for things like WiFi and parking. So I find myself staying at other hotels more often, that offer a nice room with free WiFi and breakfast for a good price.

    However, Marriott appears to be doing quite well, despite the dustup over hotspot blocking and other complaints. So in general I agree with Maz on this one. This annoyance is good fodder for the media, but has little impact on their business — for now.

    But Maz, you’ve written about how Tesco fell out of favor with its customers. That didn’t happen in one incident or even in one year. It was a series of things over time that eventually motivated customers to seek other options. Now that Tesco’s business is in trouble, they are acting.

    Surely there is a middle ground between acting like “the sky is falling” after every customer complaint, and the other extreme of doing nothing until the damage is so deep it’s hard to reverse.

  4. Hello Bob and Ian,

    Welcome to the conversation Bob. Let’s take Tesco. What undid Tesco? It was the global recession that started back in 2008. As it did not just come and blow over, enough folks felt the effect and started to actually look at what they were buying: quality and price. This put pressure on all the supermarket operators. The upper end retailers introduced value priced ranges – sacrificing margins. Lower end retailers such as Aldi, Lidl suddenly got a look in and enough customers (including the middle classes) found them to be just fine. Tesco’s management just kept carrying on. Why? Tesco prices was underpinned by relatively high margins for the grocery sector. And thus Tesco bled customers. It took a global recession that practically (as lived-experienced) is still not over in the UK.

    Ian you might not know this but you are talking with a guy that has a degree in Applied Physics and qualified as a chartered accountant. Why do I share this? As a result of my training I have a pretty gut level grasp of fact v theory v opinion. I set you a challenge and it occurs to me that what you have done is given me opinion – again. Let’s look at this matter differently:

    1. Do you agree that survey after survey shows that customers are dissatisfied with the majority of businesses? That customer satisfaction levels are stagnant or falling?

    2. Do you further agree that survey after survey report that some 80%+ of customers say they have left or would leave a supplier after one bad experience?

    I am confident that you agree. Why? Because these are the kind of stats and arguments you have made in previous posts. OK. Now please explain to me how it is that the almost every single business is doing just fine: customers continue to shop, companies continue to make sufficient revenues, and profits. The only ‘thing’ that gets cut is the employees – including those who directly serve customers – and replaced by one form or another of self-service.

    Let’s deal with this through numbers. Name the companies that have gone bust? Name me companies other than Ryanair and Tesco that are struggling because they have leaked customers like a sieve?

    Bob, I pose the same challenge/invitation to you: name me the companies that have gone bust or hit really difficult times because they are not delivering a great experience – and remember to make sure CX only include non-product related interactions.

    I look forward to reading that which you share. Perhaps you will unconcealed that which has been concealed from me. I am always open to learning. And will be the first one to say “I was wrong” if you can show me through facts+figures that indeed I am mistaken.


  5. Maz, I have never been one to argue that non-product/pricing “experiences” are the only thing that matters. To the contrary. So, I’m not sure why you are challenging me.

    One turnaround story I find very interesting is Best Western. in the mid-1990s they fell on hard times with numerous problems. Inconsistent quality and poor service just to name two.

    With new leadership, training, an improved customer listening program and — most important a change in the culture to actual fix problems, they dramatically improved their customer satisfaction scores, improved their brand perception and yes, financials.

    There are plenty of examples of companies that provide poor experiences (define it any way you want, including products) and still prosper due to lock in, aggressive marketing/sales, or customer inertia. Until a competitor comes along to challenge, the company can look fabulous to its shareholder and have poor customer relationship. That pretty much is the state of the banking, telecom and cable industries.

    There are also plenty of well-worn examples — and you have provided some of them — of companies that differentiate based on a better value proposition, be products (Apple), experiences (Starbucks) or pricing (Ryanair). Labeling all of these customer experience stories makes no sense to me personally, but that apparently puts me at odds with the CX community, where CX = everything.

    Customer experience, customer-centricity, CRM, whatever,… these are not the only things that determine whether a company will succeed or fail. And in my recent survey of business leaders, they seem to understand this: 90% disagreed with the statement “customer-centricity is the only thing needed to have a successful business.”

    So let me challenge you: If nothing works, why are you in the “customer” business? Apparently it is just a waste of time, no?

  6. Maz – I am always keen to encourage constructive debate, but I am not quite sure what your motivations are here. Should the fact that you are an applied Physicist and Chartered Accountant bear any relevance to the topic at hand?

    Please allow me to remind you of the following company names:

    Woolworths; Comet; Land of Leather; Borders; JJB Sports; Zavvi; HMV; MFI; Jessops; Focus DIY; Habitat; Threshers; Dreams; Clinton Cards; Peacocks; Past Times; Barratts; Phones4U; TJ Hughes; Ethel Austin; Oddbins; Adams (childrenswear); Allied Carpets; I could go on…… and bear in mind that I am only quoting names of UK companies who have either entered administration or ceased to exist altogether in the last five years.

    Yes these failures occurred during a financial crisis. However, the crisis only served to push companies over the edge – companies who were already teetering at the top of a cliff. In almost all cases, these brands had lost touch with the evolving needs of their customers and the world around them. Failing to adapt their propositions resulted in customers voting with their feet – the predominant reason why a business ultimately will cease to exist.

    Companies struggle to survive on a regular basis – again this is largely down to the fact that their product, service or experience is no longer aligned to the needs of their customers. Look at Nokia, Kodak, Radio Shack – this is not just a UK phenomena.

    In fact I would like to remind you of the most clear cut example of all – JC Penney. In 2011, as the new CEO of one of the largest department stores in the US, Ron Johnson (once of Apple) made a number of strategic decisions without the benefit of either employee or customer insight. Johnson decided to change the established logo, change the pricing policy (including the halting of sales and the elimination of coupons). He also changed the layout of the stores. A very traditional business with an extremely loyal customer base, the decisions were catastrophic. This is an excerpt from his profile on Wikipedia:

    Many initiatives that made the Apple Store successful, for instance the “thought that people would show up in stores because they were fun places to hang out, and that they would buy things listed at full-but-fair price” did not work for the J.C. Penney brand and ended up alienating its aging customers who were used to heavy discounting. By eliminating the thrill of pursuing markdowns, the “fair and square every day” pricing strategy disenfranchised JC Penney’s traditional customer base.Johnson himself was said “to have a disdain for JC Penney’s traditional customer base. When shoppers weren’t reacting positively to the disappearance of coupons and sales, Johnson didn’t blame the new policies. Instead, he offered the assessment that customers needed to be “educated” as to how the new pricing strategy worked. He also likened the coupons beloved by so many core shoppers as drugs that customers needed to be weaned off.”

    By the time he was fired in 2013, JC Penney had lost over $4 billion during Johnson’s tenure. Having fired him, they launched a nationwide TV advertising campaign apologising to customers and ‘begging’ them to come back.

    This is the reality of what could happen if you do not listen to your customers or employees. Just because a company still exists, it does not mean it successful at delivering consistently good customer experiences. The challenge is for business to achieve sustainable growth – all good things come to an end eventually if you do not remain focused on both commercial goals AND customer needs. You can read more about the JC Penney story in this Forbes article…

  7. Hello Bob,
    Let me start this conversation that my invitation to you was not a challenge – to you, to your professionalism, your thinking or your integrity. On the contrary, I find myself finding you to be one of the more thoughtful members of the CX community.

    My invitation to you was based on this sole factor: I know nothing about the USA market place. You do. So I was thinking that you may bring US facts and figures to the table. And thus enrich the conversation.

    Where do I find myself in relation to your latest comment. For the most part I find myself to be in agreement with you. There are a handful of companies that are held up exemplars of a customer-centric approach. And some have effected a turnaround by putting a greater emphasis on their customers: the value propositions, the product itself, the interactions around the product which some call Customer Experience Management. Yet, the vast majority of companies do just fine by using a variety of device to take advantage of customers. They can do this either because they have a monopoly position. Or because they sell a product that customers want.

    Where you and i differ is in this: when you talk Customer Experience you are limiting yourself to customer interaction management: the management of customer interactions touchpoint and interaction channels. When I talk Customer Experience I look at it from a human/experience angle: how a human being (labelled Customer) experiences a company. And I am clear that I experience the following: reputation, marketing communications, website, product, stores…. Which is why I am also clear that there is no such thing as Customer Experience Management. Why? Experience refers to the subjective state of a human being. And given the same situation (product, store, marketing, call-centre..) different customers may experience different experiences.

    Onward to your question. Why am I in the “customer” business? I entered into this business to pay back a karmic debt. In my previous role I had contributed to making the roles of hundreds of my fellow human-beings redundant thus plunging them into precarious financial positions. So I moved into the CRM arena in the hope-expectation of helping create jobs. How? By helping companies to do a better job of getting and retaining customers. Why do I continue? Because I find it more rewarding than other avenues that are open to me.

    Where do I differ from the CX community? Because it occurs to me as the latest management fad or religion. And I find myself allergic to religions. Any movement that suggest that it has access to the recipe for success shows up a big RED light to me. I can see the value of approaching business through the lenses of customer relationships, customer experience, customer loyalty. And I am clear that they are just lenses. Every lens both unconcealed and conceals.

    All the best to you Bob. And my genuine-heartfelt apologies if I have disrespected you in any way.


  8. Ian,

    I thank you for making the time to respond to my invitation/challenge. The choice before me is whether it is worth my time to argue against your position. With due consideration I am choosing not to. Why:

    1. Just about every study shows that one never convinces another (committed to certain point of view) through rational argument. Often the contrary happens: arguing makes the other even more committed to his point of view; and

    2. It will take me too much time-effort to refute your argument.

    What I will do is to take a deeper look at Phones4U. And share what I find through The Customer & Leadership Blog.

    All the best

  9. No offense taken, but sometimes I find myself confused as to what direction you are coming from. Like all good debaters, you can argue a point from any side. 🙂

    I don’t believe in a “theory of everything” when it comes to customer-company relationships, so we are of like minds there. Unfortunately, I see CXM (which is a good idea regardless of how ‘experience’ is designed) as heading in that direction. Trying to be all things to all people is not a good strategy for anything, be it companies, people or buzzwords.

    However, I do have a point of view about what helps and doesn’t, based on 15+ years of research. I don’t pretend it’s the final word, but on the other hand, I’m not just “making s@$%$t up” just for fun.

    You are adept at picking apart others’ theories, yet you advance none of your own. What is your philosophy/strategy/practice about how to improve customer relationships and also improve company performance? Or is it all random?

    Perhaps that’s a good subject for a future blog post. I look forward to reading, and discussing! That’s the point of this community after all.

  10. Maz – it is your prerogative to respond or not to any conversation. It is absolutely right for you to also have your own personal opinion, as it is for me. I am always grateful when anyone gives up their precious time to read and respond to anything I write and for this I am grateful to you.

  11. Bob – It is remiss of me to also thank you for your contribution on this subject!! I completely agree with this point:

    “Surely there is a middle ground between acting like “the sky is falling” after every customer complaint, and the other extreme of doing nothing until the damage is so deep it’s hard to reverse.”

    Failure to listen to your customer will eventually result in he erosion of your business – it could take a month; it could take ten years – but the good times will come to an end eventually – usually when a competitor enters the market and is able to offer your customers a better experience!


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