News & Views

Opinion / Why the lucky pessimist has it good, but not that good

by Dan Southern

I’ve recently been researching innovation in the hotel industry as part of Contagious Magazine's Issue 43 sector focus. For hotels, it turns out that the expectations of their guests count a great deal, as they heavily influence how happy they ultimately are with their experience. Expectations should probably matter more to you too. Here’s why:

Neuroscientists at University College London have conducted research that explores the link between expectations and happiness. They monitored the responses from the brains of participants during a gambling game involving small stakes with varying probabilities of winning. Throughout, the participants were asked ‘how happy are you right now?’

Whilst the results revealed the outcomes themselves to be important, expected performance highly affected happiness levels. A smartphone app, The Great Brain Experiment, was then developed so that 18,000 further people could play but with points rather than pounds. The results were consistent. Participants were happiest when they won but hadn't expected to.

So is the key to happiness and satisfaction to actively lower expectations? As a bare minimum this evidence advocates avoiding promises that can’t be kept (something a fair few brands should probably take heed of).

But there’s more to the picture here, because expectations both fuel happiness levels and shape them. Robb Ruttledge, who led the research, explains: ‘Life is full of expectations – it would be difficult to make good decisions without knowing prior, for example, which restaurant you like better. However, expectations also affect happiness even before we learn the outcome of a decision. If you have plans to meet a friend at your favourite restaurant, those positive expectations may increase your happiness as soon as you make the plan.’ Being excited about the future makes you happy too.

Reputation, experience, expectation.

Any holiday-goer who’s opened the curtains of their hotel room only to find a building site obstructing an ocean view or grimaced at a mouldy shower will tell you that brands that over-promise should face the consequences. But in the hotel industry today, expectations are increasingly likely to be set by online reviews found on the likes of TripAdvisor than a glossy brand brochure. Even luxury hotel brand Four Seasons now places TripAdvisor comments on its own website.

To adapt and remain relevant early in this customer journey, Marriott is now engaging would-be guests about destinations and neighbourhoods through its major new content platform Marriott Traveler. Rather than talking about duvet tog and room service it’s helping guests look forward to their trip by giving them local insights to help them plan.

The lesson for all of us? Understand what types of expectations your customers have, where they’re set and by whom. Then use those insights to improve the experience of your service or product. Identify how you can then supplement those expectations positively through tools and content, to help your customer look forward, without being unrealistic. It’s a question of reputation, experience, and expectation.