I had an experience over the weekend that brought into focus one of the most important laws of branding.  I frequently talk and blog, and always advise clients, about the importance of understanding that absolutely everything they do - in one way or another - contributes to either building or eroding their brand.  My admonitions about this were made manifest on Friday night.


I took something of a trek this weekend.  I drove 13 hours, attended an event, and then headed to the hotel for some very much needed rest.  I made my reservation earlier in the week through Priceline.com.  I had used them a time or two in the past and definitely appreciate the savings they can provide.  Despite the reservation, when I got there the hotel had no space; there wasn’t a room for me.  After all that I had gone through that day (getting up at 2 AM, driving almost 900 miles, etc.), at around midnight - totally exhausted in every way - and in an unfamiliar city - I was without a place to lay my head.  


I called Priceline’s toll free customer service number and it took me about 15 minutes to maneuver through the unusually circuitous - perpetually looped - automated system before I got to a live human being.  She then had to transfer me to another person - which took another 20 minutes of waiting.  That person was kind enough, but then it took another 30+ minutes to find another hotel nearby and confirm they had space etc.  When I got to the new hotel 20 minutes later, apparently, despite making the verbal confirmation of my reservation, Priceline hadn’t sent the electronic notice with which the new hotel could actually register me.  So, I had to wait another 30 minutes or so in the lobby.  By now, this is after 1:30 AM.  Priceline was failing me over and over again.


So, as a brand strategist who thinks about these kinds of things all the time, what does this mean?  

Consumer “crises” like this are unique opportunities for brands.  Of course scrambling to solve live problems can be stressful and even have negative financial consequences for companies in the short term.  That said, they can also be enormous opportunities to ‘lock in’ brand preference, basically, forever.  Most are so used to sub optimal service that a company even feigning to bend over backwards to help them can be quite meaningful.  If done right, the consumer is satisfied and generates a huge pool of equity for the brand.  On the other hand, if done wrong you can pretty much forget about earning any more of that consumer’s business.   The issue of social media makes this even more critical for companies to get this right.  There are both huge upsides and downsides to having motivated consumers talking about you.  For sure you’d love for them to be excited about you with their friends!


Let’s take a step back for a moment.  A brand is, essentially, a relationship: one between a product/service and their consumers.  And - as we all know - every relationship is held together by trust.  When a brand does something out of character, it damages the integrity of the relationship and - depending on how severe - consumers just stop buying and go elsewhere.  In the case of Priceline, if consumers can’t trust that the reservations that they make online will be honored by the hotels themselves, then they won’t use that service - whatever the potential discounts available.  It just won’t be worth it.  It is simply too stressful and too much of a pain to end up high and dry without a hotel room on the road.


Another important nuance to this is that Priceline operates in a travel category where the notion of great customer service is fairly de rigueur.  Everyone has high expectations and its very easy to do damage to a brand without having a strong customer service orientation.   If there are problems with reservations, Priceline just flat out has to fix them - super fast, easy, and with the greatest of care.  If someone gets bumped from a one star $35 a night hotel and the only thing available is a penthouse suite at the Ritz, then guess where Priceline has to put them?  


In the midst of all of this, I tweeted to Priceline of my troubles and, shockingly, five days later have yet to hear from them.  By comparison, when bumped from flights, I have tweeted airlines and they  have almost instantly responded with help.  (Curiously, @Priceline.complaints retweeted and followed me immediately!)  

At the end of the day, Priceline is killing their brand with dismissive and uncaring behavior like this.  At least in my case (and the fellow abused Priceline consumers on Twitter)  they are communicating a clear lack of interest in their consumers that can only compromise their brand equity and business.  

  • Why isn’t there an emergency line staffed with people whose job it is to quickly and efficiently solve problems like this?   If the problem isn’t that big, then fantastic - all you need is one person.

  • If not that, in the first menu when calling - why isn’t there a prompt for travel emergencies that immediately gets you to a live person empowered to help you?  

  • Why aren’t they more aggressively policing their partner hotels to ensure that a reservation is a reservation?  

  • Why aren’t they using social media to connect with and care for their consumers?  Why are they seemingly just giving up on social media and allowing complaint groups to co opt their consumers?  


Back to the original issue, what is all of this saying about the Priceline brand?  What message is it delivering?  Theirs is a service business.  There are some pretty strong best practices established out there.  I could take a 10 year old pair of jeans back to Nordstrom and they’d give me a new pair.  The Ritz Carlton is renowned for how its treats it guests.  Virgin understands the power of the over-all brand experience and customer support within that.  It is truly perplexing why Priceline is falling short in this way.   All I can say is I hope they are at least aware of the problem (how could they not?) and are ardently working behind the scenes to resolve this issue  . . . before they go the way of People Express or Woolworth.  I can only hope their new CEO will have this as a major focal point of his/her leadership.


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Tags: ad, advertising, branding, customer, priceline, service, support


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