by Dominique Lavigueur and Robert Chiasson
One of the first things taught in a Marketing 101 course is the difference between a product and a service. Unlike a product, a service is intangible. You cannot look under the hood or kick the tires when it comes to purchasing a night’s stay at a B&B. The only way to know if the service offered by the B&B is good is after you have experienced it.
To complicate matters, a service cannot be easily standardized given that it changes according to the service provider, the time of year when the service is delivered, the customer’s familiarity with the service, etc. Not knowing in advance the outcome of a stay at a B&B, and the fact that it is not consistent from one B&B to another, creates a perception of risk in the minds of customers.
The risk can be performance-related, i.e. the innkeeper might fail to provide or fall short of the advertised service quality. It can be financial in that, if the service proves to be unsatisfactory, guests could feel they wasted their money or paid more than it was worth. Financial risk could be exacerbated if they were to cancel the remainder of their stay and have to pay a penalty. Psychological risk relates to guests’ self-esteem and how it could be adversely affected as a result of a service failure. It could manifest itself in the form of anxiety or discomfort during their stay followed by regret for having chosen that particular B&B.
These perceived risks usually stem from a lack of relevant information prior to purchasing a service. Knowing what constitutes «relevant information» could help innkeepers do a better job at alleviating customer concerns. According to a number of studies, when it comes to services, customers seek and rely more on word-of-mouth than on information from commercial sources and they look at the physical facilities for clues to service quality. In other words, marketing efforts focused solely on a fetching web site and brochure may not be sufficient to sway reluctant customers.
Because it is based on first-hand experience, word-of-mouth has the advantage of being fresh and vivid which can significantly reduce risk perception. This means that innkeepers should actively participate in creating positive word-of-mouth through outstanding customer service from the moment of first contact to the time when guests step out the door, an approach referred to in marketing as bookend service. While everyone agrees on the importance of first impressions, few innkeepers realize that special attention given in the last few minutes before departure can influence a customer’s willingness to make a repeat purchase or to recommend the B&B to friends, family and colleagues.
Between these service bookends, customers’ perceptions of quality will be based on four factors:
1. Reliability: the innkeeper performed the expected service dependably, accurately and consistently;
2. Responsiveness: he or she demonstrated a willingness to help guests and promptly solve problems to their satisfaction;
3. Assurance: he or she was courteous, knowledgeable and able to convey trust and confidence;
4. Empathy: he or she provided caring, individualized attention.
By examining the physical facilities, potential customers are looking for evidence of service quality. In other words, the intangible made tangible. Such evidence includes visible signals of the innkeeper’s professionalism including the way he or she acts, talks and even dresses; clear communication of what the service entails; architectural style, décor and amenities in keeping with the benefits promised (romantic getaway, home away from home, etc.); dining facilities, ambiance and menus; cleanliness of the premises; landscaping; on-site leisure activities and equipment; security measures; written service guarantee, etc.
In conclusion, while customers may not be able to ascertain in advance how their stay at a B&B will result, they are able to collect risk-reducing information though word-of-mouth and observe, prior to purchasing a stay, the environment in which the service is carried out. Innkeepers keen on winning over hesitant customers must therefore devote as much attention to the manner in which the service is delivered as to the achievement of the desired result.
Dominique Lavigueur and Robert Chiasson are award-winning hosts of the 5-sun Moka & Pyjama B&B in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. They also teach, write and speak about many facets of innkeeping and operating B&Bs as well as provide consulting services to educational institutions, government agencies and individuals. They can be reached at 1-418-452-1132, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or through their web site at www.moka-pyjama.com.
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