The women gathering in the hotel lobby were obviously going to a really good party. There were two cowgirls and several pirates plus a bee, a princess, Snow White and Tinkerbell. But even Alice in Wonderland couldn’t tear my attention away from the usability-themed drama unfolding outside.
I was staying with my husband in the Travelodge on London City Road, and we were waiting in the lobby for some friends. The entrance is a set of sliding doors. You might assume that these doors open when you approach them. But you’d be wrong. The sliding doors remain closed unless you press a button to the right of the doors. There’s nothing written on the doors to give you a clue about this. The only thing written on them is the word “Welcome”; nice, but only serves to reinforce the user’s idea that these doors will open automatically when you approach.
Our friends were delayed because of problems on the Tube, so we were sitting in the Travelodge lobby near the doors for over half an hour. During that time there was a steady flow of people coming in. We watched the same drama unfolding over and over again: the user would approach the door expecting it to open, slow down as they realised it wasn’t opening immediately and finally stop to stand in front of it. Then they would either remember the button (or spot it for the first time) and press it to open the door. Only one person pressed the button straight away, presumably someone who’d been in and out more than once already.
It was a brilliant piece of accidental user testing and it would prove useful to any hotel chain that cares about usability. So today, when I received an email from Travelodge saying “Let us know what you thought of your stay”, I decided to tell them about it. I clicked the “Rate your stay” link and got a 404 Not Found error. Out of interest, I also clicked the link they provide to let you opt out of future emails. It gave another 404 error.
I thought I’d better tell them about their broken links, but the email said “Please do not respond to this email”, so I couldn’t just press reply. So I went to their website and found the Contact Us section. This doesn’t give any actual contact details, not even the company’s registered address. The first thing you see is a few paragraphs of blurb basically asking, “Do you really need to contact us?”
Before you contact us please check our help section, this has been compiled by putting together all of the questions are customer teams get frequently asked. The answer to your query could be there and may save you time.
The blurb gives you lots of links to bits of the site you might want to visit instead of contacting them, and the left sidebar gives you the smiley face of “Andrea”, who supposedly might be able to help you. But no contact details. Right at the end of the blurb, it says:
If your query is still not answered then please get in touch and let us know.
This contains a link to the “Support Center” [sic] which is the nearest Travelodge gets to giving you any contact details. The “Support Center” is a webform with a big banner at the top of the page from which “Andrea” smiles desperately. In big letters the text advises you to talk to Andrea.
But if you are the kind of crazy fool who still wants to contact Travelodge (the corporate entity) rather than chatting to Andrea (the smiley imaginary lady), it’s time to crank up your browser’s font size and read those tiny questions.
The webform asked for my name and email address. So far, so standard. Then you need to answer the question “What are you contacting us about” [sic] by filling in the Reference Description field. But it’s not a freetext field. It’s a dropdown. There are fourteen options and you don’t get to pick your own. Luckily one of the options - “I have already stayed” - applied to me, although it wasn’t really that relevant to what I wanted to say. (By this point I’d given up worrying about their sliding doors and was more concerned with telling them about their broken links.)
When I’d chosen my option, a second dropdown appeared. This one only had five options:
None of those really cover “I’m trying to tell you about broken links in the feedback email you send to all customers”. So I tried to submit the webform without it. Nothing doing. If you want to submit a webform, you need to pick one of those five options.
That’s right. Travelodge have decided that if you’ve stayed in one of their hotels, there are only five possible reasons you might want to contact them. If you want to contact them about anything else, tough. Go away.
In desperation, I tried the smiling Andrea, in the faint hope that it might be a real person using an instant messaging service. But of course, “asking Andrea” really just involves using a search box to find matches in the FAQs. I typed in “Your feedback email has broken links” and got four “possible matches” to my query, all including the word “email” but none relevant. The only fun thing about this is that when there is no exact match, Andrea shrugs and looks solemn.
If you click “My question is not listed”, you get a webpage suggesting that you “try asking your question in a different way”. How, exactly? “Mother May I the links in your email are broken”? “Simon Says the links in your email are broken”?
There are a few situations in which it’s OK to demand exact wording from someone else. For example, when you’re a lawyer sorting out the details of a tricky contract. Or if you’re an evil character in a fairy tale and you like setting impossible tasks. (I can see why Rumpelstiltskin insisted on people getting his name right.)
But when you’re a budget hotel, it's not acceptable to set such tight limits on what customers are allowed to say to you. Especially if you care enough about feedback to send out unsolicited emails asking for it. If your organisation is really using customer feedback to monitor and improve your service, you’ll give out real contact details. Making customers jump through hoops to talk to you is a sure sign that you don’t really want to listen at all.