Keep customers happy: block the primrose path

Calvin SunThe end of August draws near, and with it comes the time to finish packing to send our first daughter to college. Move-in day is this weekend, and we are planning to stay over for at least one night. We have a reservation, but out of curiosity, a few days ago I thought I'd check to see what other accommodations are available.

I signed onto Travelocity, and specified hotels for State College PA for the dates August 23 to 24. Twenty-two hotel listings appeared. Half of them had the following message:

We are sorry, there are no rooms available at this hotel for the dates selected. You may search other dates to find availability.

"No problem," I said to myself, "I'll just check out the remaining ones." All of these listings had a message stating the starting room rate or range of rates. Well, I clicked on the first of those remaining listings, thinking I was going to be able to reserve a room, and guess what: they were sold out as well. On the next screen, I saw the same message that I did for the first group of hotels:

We are sorry, there are no rooms available at this hotel for the dates selected. You may search other dates to find availability.

In other words, I was "led down the primrose path." I understand and appreciate how the bottom half listings were "up front" about their availability, telling me on that first screen that they were unavailable. I felt annoyance, though, that other listings implied they had availability, only to tell me otherwise once I clicked to enter deeper into the web site.

I've run into similar examples with other web sites. A university in Washington, D.C. has a link on their admissions Web page that's labeled "financial information sheet." However, when you click on that link, and open the form, you are told that this form is only for applicants from countries other than the U.S. Another favorite irritant: those links that say "contact us." I click on that link, expecting to see a page with phone and fax numbers, mailing addresses and e-mail addresses. Instead, clicking the link brings up my client e-mail, and opens a new message for me.

What's the key point here? Understand the importance of setting and managing expectations of your customers. Don't give them one expectation and then confront them with a reality that clashes with that expectation. Doing so leads to irritation and dissatisfaction.

How could the earlier examples have been handled differently? In the Travelocity case, why not have consistent messages, so that a sold-out situation is displayed on the very first screen? In the case of the admissions form, how about labeling the link, telling uses that the link is only for foreign applicants? In the last case, how about renaming the link from "Contact us" to "E-mail us"?

Keep your customers happy: block that primrose path.