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  • Nick Hague and Paul Hague

What do the Swan Inn, Miller Howe and a Korean shipbuilder have in common?

Around 10,000 to 20,000 companies go bankrupt each year in the UK. One in five new businesses fail in the first year. Is the reason for these failures poor pricing? Probably not. Is the reason poor marketing? Maybe, but maybe not. And why is a pub called the Swan Inn, in a remote village called Kettleshulme, nearly always full when pubs 20 miles away in the centre of Stockport and Manchester are failing by the day?


The answer is customer experience. Great customer experience is made up of high expectations for a product that is fully delivered. It is made up of good value for money that is appreciated and service that cannot be faulted. These and other elements of the hospitality product add up to what we know as "customer experience". To some it is a mystery why one pub or restaurant does well and another does not. They can't put the finger on the reason because it is a collection of things – sometimes small and sometimes not easily identifiable. The French call it "je ne sais quoi".


Organisations that defy the odds and succeed where others fail almost always provide exceptional customer experience. Of course the product has to be right and the price must be appropriate. But a good product and price are par for the course. You would expect nothing less. It usually is the dedication to pleasing the customer that makes the difference.


Some years ago a ship building company in the UK commissioned market research to find out why it was losing business to Asian competitors. The researchers visited companies that spent millions with shipbuilders overseas. During one of the visits the CEO of the company that had chosen a Korean shipbuilder brought out of his draw two folders. One was a very slim folder and the other was inches thick. He pointed to the heavier folder and said:


"This is the bid we went with. Why? It was thorough to the point of being obsessive. We couldn't fail to be impressed by their dedication and attention to detail. We knew that if we placed the business with them, it would be delivered to spec, on time and at the agreed price".


Yes, the hefty presentation came from the Korean shipbuilder.


So it is in the world of customer experience. Very often great customer experience is the sum of a host of small things that aren't always visible. This leaves the competitors scratching their heads as to why what seems like a very similar operation is much more successful.


In 1971 John Tovey bought a hotel and restaurant on the side of Windermere in the Lake District. It was called Miller Howe. John Tovey was obsessive about the food and the service. When you arrived at the hotel you were greeted by someone who magically knew your name and welcomed you as if this was your second home. The food was superb and the experience faultless. You couldn't wait to make another visit and you certainly told your friends. Kit Chapman, author of "Great British Chefs" summed it up:


"Eating at Miller Howe was like spending an evening at the theatre. Guests were called into dinner, the lights went down, you enjoyed the wonderful view over Lake Windermere and you were served a wonderful, no choice menu. The only choice came at pudding, It was a show."


In 2021 the hotel was sold for £2.85 million.


We should take note of the Swan and Miller Howe. They know how to set the stage for their customers. Other businesses may operate in different ways but they all have one thing in common – they treat their business as a stage and are meticulous in delivering a brilliant show every day, in every way. The Korean shipbuilder isn’t in the entertainment business but it is in the business of selling trust and it did it with immense attention to detail. The world’s a stage and although business performances will differ, they all have to leave their audiences wanting more.

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