The Hole in the Donuts

Jan 06, 2017


On a recent stay at a nationwide hotel chain, I was waiting in the restaurant for a colleague to check in and meet me for dinner. When he arrived, he handed over an envelope with my name written on it. I opened the note, and learned that the hotel manager wanted to thank me for my 100th stay at this chain with a personalized welcome accompanied by a box of donuts and a bottle of wine.

This might have gone down on my top 10 list of personalization examples except for the fact that the note and gifts were delivered to my colleague’s room instead of mine. As we reviewed the possible reasons for any confusion, we knocked them off one by one. Our names are not similar. We didn’t book using a similar email address. I didn’t ask for a room change, or indicate that I was traveling with a colleague. We didn’t make our reservations together, or even on the same day. As far as we can tell, it was a completely random chance that the items intended for me ended up with someone I knew.

In almost any other scenario (where a personal touch is mistakenly given to the wrong customer), two things would typically have happened. First, this hotel chain would have wasted a very big opportunity to make a valued customer feel valued. 100 stays at a hotel chain is a pretty big deal, and a personal acknowledgment of that loyalty would have gone a long way toward retaining that guest for another 100 stays. Although that customer was not directly harmed by the error, they are left “neutral” after a stay that should have made a positive difference. Second, another guest would have received an unexpected surprise that they knew was an error. As much as they may have enjoyed the donuts and wine, my guess is they wouldn’t feel better about the hotel chain afterward.

What many companies don’t realize is that these types of mistakes often hurt their customer relationships. In a recent survey of US consumers, 75% of respondents said they would rather receive no personalization than incorrect personalization. In my story above, this mistake was particularly painful because it was such a high-touch interaction. They talked to me when I checked in without even hinting at my stay milestone, which makes me think they had no access to my stay history. So who, then, actually coordinated the surprise? And why wasn’t it coordinated across touchpoints and employees?

In my experience, there are a handful of things you can do to avoid the pitfalls of personalization gone wrong:


Usually there are a few high-stakes interactions that are critical to get right (e.g., 100th stay milestones or customers who are experiencing a service outage)—survey customers and analyze their behaviors to determine the areas where personalization will actually make a difference.


Once you know what matters, spend extra time to make sure those interactions are working as intended before you move on to the next round of personalization.


There seems to be a mad rush to personalize every interaction, in all channels. When you put too much pressure on teams to make personalization a reality, mistakes can get made—or even baked directly into automated programs that can go unnoticed for months.

In case you’re wondering about the end to my story… I’ve forgiven my trusty hotel chain, at least in part because my colleague was nice enough to bring the donuts to share. I have to say, I do love a good donut.