Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Changing rooms

My work takes me a lot to two sorts of places – universities and budget hotels. There’s a lot the latter can learn from the former.

We had guests last weekend (bear with me – I’ll show relevance, as Perry Mason used to say) which meant a fair amount of quilt-cover changing. Or quilt wrestling – it isn’t a quick and easy job. But I saw something in one of the UK’s premier budget hotel company’s rooms which gave me pause for thought. Their quilt covers have two design features unlike those we use at home.

One end is simply open – no press-studs, no buttons, no toggles. It’s just a big bag for the quilt. And at the other end (and this is sheer genius, I think), the seam is left open for about six inches, just where it meets the top, and just where your hands can go to make changing the quilt cover a really easy job.

More useful knowledge about quilts
What’s happening here is that the hotel has thought about what you need in a quilt. Clearly, as the guest, I wanted clean and warm. Call me picky, but they’re non-negotiables when it comes to quilts as far as I’m concerned. You also want, perhaps, a quilt that goes with the rest of the room d├ęcor –it makes the place seem more stylish. Not an essential, but a nice to have. So that’s some big ticks as far as the guest experience goes: warm, clean, stylish.

From the hotel management’s point of view, they also want rooms to be cleaned quickly: fewer staff keeps the costs down, and it’s a very competitive market. So, they’ve clearly looked at what takes time in servicing a room, and worked out how to make it a bit quicker. It doesn’t detract from the guest experience (it’s a budget hotel: I’ve already done some trade-offs in my head, and know that I’m not staying in a four-star place). It helps them deliver the value which their guests want. And it makes the cleaner’s job easier, which is also good.

Taking a step backwards, what the hotel have done is think very clearly and carefully about what their value proposition is – why people stay in the hotels. And that’s something like a decent room at a good price. So they know that they need to meet (and exceed) basic expectations; but they also know that they need to keep the cost down: frills are undesirable.

And then they’ve clearly involved their staff in thinking about how to make it better – I’ll bet you that the ideas for the quilt changing improvements didn’t come from management sitting round a table, but from the people who clean the rooms taking part in a lean process review.

So how does this affect universities?

Well, all universities are engaged to some extent in price competition, some more clearly than others. What value is delivered to the student for their fees? Of course, the main value comes in the learning and the recognition of success through a degree award; but there’s also a value in the experience (or why would universities be building better halls of residence, and 4G sports pitches and the like?). By identifying what the value proposition is; by understanding what the student expects as a minimum and what the delighters are; and by thinking about how to deliver this as efficiently as possible, universities put themselves in the best position to attract students and have the capacity to invest in academic activity.

It isn’t comfortable language for a university, but if done properly it can help universities be better for their students without losing their soul. We might need a new language (marketing jargon goes down very badly in an academic environment) but the practice will remain valuable.

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