Combining Technology and Service to Optimize Customer Experience

2016-01-lift-lineAs my wife and I entered our 40s, we decided that—rather than pursuing all the dreary mid-life crisis stereotypes you see in the movies—we would coordinate a single, joint crisis. No silly cars or cinq à septs. Instead, we were going to learn how to ski. A decade later, we’re devoted powder hounds and consider Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) our home away from home.

So, despite the drama around Vail’s takeover of PCMR*, we were delighted when the massive resort operator announced that it was combining Park City and the adjacent Canyons resort into what is now the largest ski area in the US. With 7,300 acres of skiable terrain, you can now spend the better part of your day skiing from one side of the resort to the other, eating lunch, and skiing back without ever seeing the same trail twice.

As part of their $50 million capital campaign, Vail upgraded a four-person lift named King Con to a six-person version. Four people? Six people? You may not think it makes much of a difference…but King Con was situated in a place that made it a mountain bottleneck and the upgrade represents a 50% increase in lift capacity. It’s an expensive technology investment aimed directly at improving the customer experience. The question is, is it worth it?

If you’ve ever skied, I suspect you will agree that the lift experience is one of the most important elements of overall customer experience for a resort to optimize. Sure, the snow conditions and the terrain itself are key elements of satisfaction, but the weather’s the weather and the hill’s the hill. There are incremental improvements you can achieve through snow-making and trail improvements, but these are aspects of the customer experience that are dictated in no small part by nature. Lifts, on the other hand…well, if you’ve never been in a lift line before, imagine hundreds of people rushing the gate in a boarding scrum at a third-world airport. Now wrap them all in enough layers of outerwear to resemble the Michelin Man and strap unwieldy planks to their feet. A few minutes in line may be no big deal, but when you’ve been shuffling toward that chair for 20 minutes, tempers can start to fray.

Technology Versus Human Investment

This is where lifties come in. Lifties work the lift lines, keeping order and, above all else, making sure that each chair is full of people. And this is where the question of technology versus human investment comes into play. After making their massive investment in new lift technology, Vail also changed the way they engineered their lift lines. They reduced the number of lifties working each line, relying far more heavily—and in many cases, exclusively—on their guests to queue in an orderly manner and fill the chairs to capacity. For anyone who has ever studied the way strangers sit down in a public place, whether it be a bus or a classroom, it’s no news that our species shuns shoulder-to-shoulder contact with strangers.

The result? That high-capacity, ultra-expensive new lift was taking up chairs with two or four or three people at a time. Rarely was a chair full to capacity—and the wait time was no better than it had been the year before, with the old lift. The resort had understaffed the lift, trusting entirely on technology and self-service to drive a better customer experience. Without the commensurate investment in staffing, the technology investment was being squandered.

You can find innumerable instances of this across the business landscape, regardless of industry. We often see this problem in user experience, where companies make expensive, well-intentioned investments in self-service functionality via IVR and web interfaces. Those are great strides forward, but it’s often the inability to opt out of that self-service system and find help from a human being that can turn a promoter into a detractor. (How many of us keep hitting the “0” key on our phone or repeating the word “representative,” louder and more angrily, thinking, this time, surely I will get access to a real human being?)

The Discipline of Listening to Customers

The good news? Vail is disciplined about soliciting customer feedback—and management seems legitimately interested in speaking with its customers. Even before I received (and filled out) my customer sat survey, I had shared my observations with on-mountain staff, who confirmed that they were hearing similar feedback consistently and relaying it to the head of operations. By the end of our trip, the lines were staffed with lifties and the chairs were running at capacity again. A few takeaways emerge:

  • Many companies make technology investments in order to lower long-term operating expenses. That’s a fine goal, but we should always weigh the operating expense reductions against the long-term impact on customer experience. Especially if you’re switching from human interactions to self-service models, it’s wise to look for ways to taper the human investment until you’re assured that your user base has socialized the new technology.
  • Particularly in the early going of any new technology implementation, expect greater demands for service and support, at least temporarily. Your customers are loyal to your brand because they’ve come to expect a particular experience. Usher them gently into the future. A number of tech clients who transitioned from on-premise, shrink-wrapped software to cloud-based models can tell you just how ugly their customer experience numbers looked when they hadn’t prepared sufficient human support to help users migrate their data to the cloud.
  • Stay focused on customer insights and nimble implementation. The voice of the customer is never as critical as the liminal moment when you’re implementing a major transition to new technologies. Retaining share of wallet is always easier than winning new customers, so be prepared to listen carefully to how your customers fare in the brave new world you’ve given them—and invest enough in service to be prepared to adapt. Technology and service, combined to optimize customer experience.

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*Postscript from the annals of really weird business anecdotes. The story of how Vail came to acquire PCMR is one of the strangest you will find. PCMR was run by the Powdr corporation since 1994. Powdr, however, only owned a small parcel of land at the base of the resort. The vast majority of the ski area sat upon a mountain leased from an old mining company, which was subsequently (after an intermediary transaction) acquired by Vail. PCMR had the right to continue renewing 20-year leases on the land for the absurdly low rent of about $155,000 a year until 2051. When the lease renewal came up in 2011, Powdr submitted its renewal…two days late. Management later called this a “clerical error.” (Imagine that performance review: “The good news is, you only made one mistake all year. The bad news…”) The protracted legal battle came to the brink of a scorched earth (scorched snow?) stand-off: Vail owned the vast majority of PCMR’s terrain, but since Powdr owned all the land at the base of the resort, Vail had no way to provide skier access. Conversely, Powdr could provide customers access to a world-class ski village that serviced, essentially, just the bunny hill near the parking lot. After years of threatening each other with mutually assured destruction, Vail finally acquired PCMR in 2014.

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