Updated: May 23
It was just after 2 PM when I arrived in Tarragona, Spain. I had been traveling since early morning, and was absolutely ravenous. “First order of business,” I told myself, readjusting my enormous backpack, “find something to eat.” Sounds straightforward enough, right?
I was soon to discover that, in Spain, the siesta is in full effect between the hours of 2 and 5 PM. Everything, and I mean everything closes down during that time. After half an hour of wandering, backpack and all, in the hot Spanish sun, I finally gave up and found a bench to crash out on near the train station.
So there I was, slumped over on a bench using my backpack as a pillow, when I saw a woman in a giant straw hat walking around with a bag full of baguettes, ostensibly for sale. I quickly flagged her down and, through a combination of Spanglish and pantomime, discovered that the baguettes were, in fact, free: a welcome gift as well as an enticement to come eat an actual meal at the small pensión she ran out of her home nearby. This was the answer to all my prayers in that moment: a free snack, the promise of a hot meal, a safe place to sleep and to leave my things, AND a nice lady who speaks English and Spanish and knows what the heck is going on around here? YES PLEASE.
Was her pensión the nicest place I stayed on that trip? Nope. Not even close. It was an old farmhouse with cracking walls and sparse, faded furniture. There was an extremely graphic depiction of Christ on the cross hanging in my bedroom, and the only blanket was scratchy wool, so I slept in my clothes. Definitely not a place I would have picked based on a photograph.
But in the morning, there was fresh-squeezed orange juice, plus farm-fresh eggs and even homemade chorizo (I was a vegetarian at the time, but it sure did smell delicious and my fellow pensioners raved about it). And on the largely-empty living room wall, she had tacked up a giant map of Tarragona and the surrounding area. On it, she had marked off all her favorite places to visit, with approximate walking time from the pensión, making it easy and fun to go out and enjoy day trips to the beach, historical sites, and so on. Instead of the single night I had intended to spend there, I ended up staying for three wonderful days before heading on to my next stop, Granada.
That savvy señorita had figured out what far too many business owners never master: the art of experience management. She understood that a welcome surprise makes a much greater psychological impact than providing all the usual, expected trappings of hospitality.
As Chip and Dan Heath explain in The Power of Moments, “Customers will forgive [underwhelming aspects of a hospitality experience], as long as some moments are magical. The surprise about great service experiences is that they are mostly forgettable and occasionally remarkable.”
Mostly forgettable, because we expect a certain level of service to be a given. We want to be able to relax and trust that our basic needs will be taken care of. In the case of hospitality, that means the conditions will be sanitary, we’ll get a decent night’s sleep, and our person and our belongings will be safe. As the Heaths put it:
“Think of it as the first stage of a successful customer experience. First, you fill in the pits. That, in turn, frees you up to focus on the second stage: creating moments that will make the experience ‘occasionally remarkable.’ Fill pits, then build peaks. “What’s striking, though, is that many business leaders never pivot to that second stage. Instead, having filled the pits in their service, they scramble to pave the potholes – the minor problems and annoyances. It’s as though the leaders aspire to create a complaint-free service rather than an extraordinary one.” – The Power of Moments
That pensión proprietress in Tarragona knew she couldn’t compete with the chain hotels in terms of amenities or décor. But she also knew she didn’t have to: all she had to do was provide the basics and sprinkle in the occasional remarkable experience. And what’s more remarkable than turning a “pit” into a “peak,” transforming a potentially negative experience into an unexpectedly wonderful one?
Living near the train station, she observed a “pit” frequently experienced by first-time visitors to the area: they get off the train during siesta, and immediately experience disappointment and dejection, unable to get their basic needs met. So she set out to fill that pit by braving the heat each and every afternoon, handing out free bread to weary travelers and escorting them to a place where their needs would be attended to by someone who obviously cares.
And because that simple gesture was so unexpected and so obviously sincere, it flipped the pit into a peak: one of those treasured moments we look back on years later and think, “Now wasn’t that just magical?”
It’s not about the furniture
When my dear mother decided to open a bed and breakfast in our home to help pay off our mortgage, she came to a similar realization. She knew she was never going to be able to transform our 1970’s suburban mountain-side home into a chic boutique hotel, no matter how many matching towels she purchased.
Instead, she focused on leveraging the natural strengths of the space and of herself as a hostess. Rather than painting over the bubble-gum pink walls in my old bedroom, she ran with the theme, calling it “The Pink Room” and purchasing pink sheets, bedclothes, and curtains, plus a lovely antique daybed. The effect was surprisingly uplifting: an homage to one’s inner princess.
There was also a Blue Room, but that’s another story
Likewise, Mom loved to cook, but was unable to officially offer a hot breakfast due to our lack of a commercial kitchen. In fact, even if we had wanted to add a commercial kitchen, to do so would have turned our home into a duplex, which our neighborhood was not zoned for. So she had to get creative.
In her advertising, she could only ever mention a “continental breakfast.” But once guests arrived, she would let them know, with a wink and a smile, that although there would indeed be coffee and muffins available starting at 6:30 am, the family would be having crepes (or omelets, or whatever she thought they might like) at 8, and they were more than welcome to join us.
Rarely did they turn down that offer, and the unexpected lift of being treated as an honorary family member and fed a hot meal for the price of a “continental breakfast” led to rave reviews and such excellent word-of-mouth advertising that she was able to pay off her mortgage even sooner than anticipated.
One such review came from a guest who hailed from Louisiana originally. He wrote:
"Now that's what I call lagniappe! My expectations weren't just exceeded, they were blown off the map."
Lagniappe, for those who aren't familiar with the term, refers to the 13th doughnut (or beignet!) in a baker's dozen, and it means that little something extra you weren't expecting. Added value that surprises and delights.
The key, of course, to creating the lagniappe experience for your customers is to set reasonable expectations in the first place, and then go above and beyond what you promised to do.
In an era when “Experience Management” (or simply “XM”) is becoming one of the hottest buzzwords in business, it’s important to remember that true XM is about more than just taking surveys to find the pits and then filling them in. It’s about getting creative and coming up with new ways to surprise and delight guests that they won’t be expecting.
What pleasant surprises can you come up with for your guests? What sort of elevated experience can you engineer to make sure their stay with you is truly remarkable? I give you full permission to take your focus off of filling potholes and go create some lagniappe magic. It’ll be more fun and more effective. Guaranteed.