It's a good thing Jayne Holland didn't skip the guest survey after a recent stay at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta. When the property solicited her opinion through a comment card in her suite, she didn't hold back.
"I found a wet towel and someone's hairbrush under the bed," she recalls. "I noted it on the survey."
A Four Seasons representative replied quickly. Holland, who works for a nonprofit organisation in the Bahamas, sent photos to back up her claim. The hotel offered an apology - and a free night's stay.
Since then, she says, "I fill out almost every survey I receive."
Sound advice. Contrary to popular opinion that completed guest surveys are dumped directly into the large circular file, our feedback can make a difference. And that's true now more than ever. In an age when any negative guest experience is one click away from becoming a viral phenomenon, guest surveys can be the last line of defense against a social-media disaster.
"More companies are relying on guest surveys as a way to make significant improvements to the guest experience," says Susan Ganeshan, the chief marketing officer of Clarabridge, a customer-experience consultancy that specialises in the travel industry.
These companies see the polls as a way to not only to spot customer-service problems but also to build a better customer experience. As a bonus, they may also prevent guests from taking their complaints to social media, which can severely damage a brand's reputation.
"Guest surveys have absolutely changed the way we do business," says Ron Tarson, general manager of the Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta. Not only does the property promptly respond to any question or comment on its surveys, he says, it also changes the way it operates based on the information it receives.
For example, he says, after fielding questions from guests about its green initiatives, the hotel created a free on-site, behind-the-scenes look at the hotel's sustainability efforts. It also reorganised its management staff to respond faster after getting complaints about lengthy check-in times. And it added a new, eight-mile outdoor bike fitness program when guests said that they preferred to exercise outside of the gym.
At the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California, all 517 rooms are stocked with comment cards, which query guests on the quality of food, staff, service, the casino experience and their hotel stay.
Guests submit about 100 handwritten surveys a month, and they're assigned a high priority. "Each and every one is read by at least two human beings," says Thomas Mueller, vice president of hotel operations.
"Two casino managers handle assessing whether corrective or congratulatory action, or further investigation into a matter, should be taken as a result of the surveys' content."
Best Western Hotels & Resorts receives about 1.5 million surveys every year, and made major changes to its brand based on them, says Ron Pohl, Best Western's senior vice president and chief operating officer. They include a new "Build Your Own Breakfast" program which offers healthier, customisable breakfast options, and a mobile-first booking site.
Customers are catching on. When Oceana slid a comment card under Richard Wong's cabin door halfway through a recent cruise, he promptly complied.
"I was pleasantly surprised to receive personal thanks from the hotel manager who told me that the surveys are sent to every department on the ship and reviewed in detail," says Wong, who works for the federal government in the District. "Later, we received a card inviting us to sit at the captain's table for dinner. I guess attention to detail counts."
Patricia Lenhart recently rented a car in Las Vegas and was asked to complete a comment card.
"I complained that I was charged for a second driver when only my husband was driving," says Lenhart, who works for a government agency in Hayward, California. "I also complained about the long wait in line." She received a prompt apology and a refund of the extra fee.
What to make of all this? Guest surveys are more important than ever. Companies like them not only because they allow them to avoid the echo chamber of social media and the review sites, but also because they can use them to improve their products. And guests prefer them because they often don't have to pick up the phone after their trip to complain. Problems get fixed fast.
So the next time you check into a hotel, board a cruise ship or rent a car, look for a comment card. If you don't see one, ask for one. You might be glad you did.