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Why Are All the Lights in My Hotel Room On? Giving Customers Cognitive Dissonance

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I recently spent two nights at the lovely, high-end Westin hotel in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Around my room I found the now-standard signs that describe how the hotel will save water and energy by not changing sheets and towels. These green messages say to customers figuratively, and often literally, "we care about the environment." So far so good. But when I first entered my room, every lamp and light in the place was on... plus two radios.

The cognitive dissonance of arriving at a room with every light blazing, and then being asked to hang a towel up to save energy, can cause even the most mildly environmentally aware customers some heartburn. But worse, this weird in-room disconnect betrays a corporate, internal conflict as well.

I truly don't mean to pick on Westin; the entire hospitality industry is guilty of similar dissonance. For example, who decided that the now-common "turn down" service was a good thing? Even if everyone wants a nice chocolate on their pillow, does anybody really need to come back to a room with lights ablaze and flat screen TV running? Frankly, the first few times I encountered this bizarre hotel practice, it scared the heck out of me since I thought I was walking into the wrong room. Now I leave the "Do Not Disturb" sign up when I leave. But I digress.

My reaction at the Westin was not just me being an overly watchful green strategy guy. One of my clients at the regular (as in non-sustainability themed) event I was speaking at told me that having to turn off all the lights bothered her as well.

I'm not crying "greenwash" here -- this kind of disconnect is much more subtle. I believe that hotels are basically sincere about the "we care" sheet-and-towel cards around the room. The big hotel chains (Westin is owned by Starwood) have been making strides to reduce their footprints. They all have environmental advocates and executives now. But it seems likely that policies about how to greet customers (leave the lights on) come out of some other part of the company.

Because of that organizational disconnect, the hotel is forcing its customers to face two conflicting messages, one conservation-oriented and one theoretically welcoming, but blatantly wasteful. In the spirit of making my stay comfortable, they've chosen a path that forced me to do some work -- going around to flip everything off -- and annoyed me immediately. Compare this with hotel rooms all over Europe (and a growing number in the U.S., including the Encore/Wynn in Las Vegas of all places) that install master control switches near the door. These handy devices can turn everything in the room off at once or, in their best incarnations, require a hotel keycard to turn anything on.

My point is this: companies need to work these inconsistencies out internally and not make customers wade through them. The number of people who would find the dissonance disconcerting is certainly growing, so the risk of alienating customers is rising as well.

These kinds of inconsistencies are not exclusive to hotels; they crop up everywhere. Consider the rental car companies that automatically "upgrade" you to an SUV, when you've specifically asked for an economy or hybrid car.

But one example from the restaurant industry seems particularly egregious. This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran a chilling article about bluefin tuna, a majestic species driven to near extinction by our ever-rising demand for sushi-grade meat. As part of its campaign to tackle the crisis, the author Paul Greenberg says, Greenpeace has pressured high-profile restauranteurs, particularly the owners and chef of the famous Nobu, to find substitutes. Nobu has continued serving the tuna and responded to the pressure by merely adding what Greenberg describes as a "haiku-esque warning on the menus of its London eateries" which reads:

"Bluefin tuna
Is an environmentally threatened species
Please ask your server for an alternative."

Nobu seems to be saying, "We sort of care about environmental issues and the death of a species our business depends on, but not really enough to do the work for you, our valued customer -- so please make the decision for yourself."

This attempt to "abdicate responsibility" to customers, as Greenpeace's Willie MacKenzie put it, is absurd. It will likely make those customers uncomfortable at best, and really tick them off at worst.

It's inevitable that as organizations navigate the complex world of sustainability, they will experience some internal cognitive dissonance about how they operate. Nobody said it was easy to balance the competing forces of (a) the inertia of how things have always been done, (b) the desire to meet the assumed needs of customers (for, say, welcoming, well-lit rooms), and (c) new pressures and questions about environmental and social performance.

But forcing your customers to confront these choices or, worse, making them do the work themselves, is not a good option.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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