If you follow me on social media you might already know I am out $277 because of a transaction through hotels.com. I have little to no hope of getting the money back, and so I have been thinking about what I can learn from the experience.

Mistakes happen

The short version of the hotels.com story is I was told before finalizing my booking it would cost $145 (with taxes). When I got the confirmation two minutes after finalizing the transaction I found out I was charged $277 (with taxes & fees).

I want to be clear about something. I do not believe hotels.com is in the business of ripping people off. No one at hotels.com gets up in the morning wondering how many of their customers they can cheat out of some money. If I believed that were true this would be a very different post.

What I believe is hotels.com made a mistake. I don’t know what that mistake is, or how it manifested. However, I am 100% confident in what I saw on screen just before finalizing this booking and believe an error occurred on my transaction.

No one is perfect. No software is perfect. No company is perfect. Mistakes happen and what makes the difference is how people and companies respond to a mistake. If you want to understand the leadership mindset and culture of a company pay attention to what happens when there are problems.

In the case of hotels.com I questioned the error with a call centre employee. I explained what happened in hopes we’d find a middle ground at the very least. I was simply told the fees are all outlined in the fine print. I admitted to the staff member I did not read the fine print. I also pointed out it’s not legal or ethical to bury fees in the fine print so I doubt that is their standard practice.

After going in circles for several minutes, I sensed I had this person cornered as she could only go back to the standard answer of the fees being in the fine print. There was no offer of cancelling, or any other action that would resolve this problem. It was simply my fault for not having read the fine print, and I was stuck paying the $277.

I do take 100% responsibility for not reading the fine print. I admit I rarely read it, and I doubt this experience will change that. No excuses or justification for why I don’t. So, I definitely share in responsibility for creating this problem.

That said, what does their handling of my problem say about the leadership mindset and culture of hotels.com? I’m willing to bet my experience reflects the nature of their leadership mindset and culture.

A new Conway’s law?

In the world of software, a computer programmer put forward an adage now referred to as Conway’s law, which says:

“organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” — M. Conway

As an example, we used to bank with one of Canada’s biggest and oldest banks. Their online services were fragmented and challenging to use. I had to maintain six logins to manage all my accounts. You could transfer money between some accounts, and only make payments with other accounts. It was confusing and complex to figure out how to manage our money with their systems.

I believe we’d find the organizational structure and objectives of the bank can be seen in the reflection of my experience. The bank’s focus is likely on achieving departmental objectives rather than delivering products and services to customers. 

Perhaps there’s a new law to consider (assuming someone else hasn’t already put this out there):

“The customer experience (including products and services) will be constrained by the leadership mindset and culture of your organization.”

  • If your customers are being blamed for problems, there’s a good chance you have an internal culture of blame.
  • If you point to process in the name of assigning ownership of problems, then there’s a good chance it’s happening internally too.
  • If you are not building trusting relationships with your customers, then there’s a good chance the same is true with your staff.

Artifacts like contracts, process and fine print are important and meant to protect you. However, not one of them will ensure your future as an organization. Growth and improvement are not possible when problems are approached with mindsets like blame and justifications.

How a strong leadership mindset impacts customer experience

Last year we switched banks to Libro Credit Union. The experience has been generally exceptional, and when I go into the bank the staff still know my first name (they greet me every time I walk in).

When we first switched to Libro we had a comedy of problems with their Visa. The whole situation became very frustrating to the point we were thinking of cutting up the Visa’s and going with another credit card. As one final step, I submitted a complaint and plea for help in resolving this.

Shortly after submitting my comments I received a call from Stephen Bolton, the CEO of Libro. Stephen was apologetic and took ownership for bringing resolution to the problems. No blame, no excuses, no fine print or anything else to try and avoid the problems. Instead, all I felt was a genuine belief in wanting to be in a relationship with his customer (i.e. me). I had no further problems with our Visas from that day forward.

I believe my customer experience with Libro is likely a reflection of their leadership mindset and culture. It seems Libro is focused on a collective and common goal: To work together to deliver the best end to end customer experience possible.

Leaders create the conditions to allow others to succeed. This means always looking for ways to improve the environment in which your followers are working. When you create such an environment, they will naturally look after your customers. 

If you’re a leader you may want to look at how your customers experience your products and services. In particular, how do your customers experience your organization when things go wrong? When you look at this with openness and curiousity you will likely see the true nature of your leadership mindset and culture.


“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” — Wayne Dyer

Building Great Teams

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