“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking…” or “Hi everyone, my name’s John and I’ll be flying your plane today…”

The way you engage with your customers reflects your brand. The way these two pilots communicate with their passengers reflects the ambience, image, or impression that their airlines want to create. Passengers will theoretically be attracted by the style they prefer. You can make up your own mind which carrier you’d prefer to fly with in this example – and personally I’m not sure John’s old enough to be flying anything more complex than a kite – but there’s a problem to this philosophy. When you reach out overtly to one set of customers, you run the risk of alienating the others.

On a plane, the traditional expectation is the formal greeting from the captain. You hear the reassuring voice of the consummate professional, guaranteed to get you there safely. Thirty years of flawless service and never so much as spilled his coffee. On the other hand, while some passengers might prefer John – and we’re probably talking about millennials – a fair few will be muttering under their breath for him to put his fancy smartphone down and keep his eyes on the sky. John may be cool and customer-friendly, but he’s also annoying. Can his airline really attract enough cool passengers to offset the loss of those who are driven away?

Hoteliers may recognize the dilemma. Can you really afford to limit your broader appeal by promoting a particular image which attracts a narrower demographic? One idea illustrates the problem quite nicely. I was recently asked my opinion about the idea of placing iPads in guestrooms so that customers could use them to interact with the hotel, using them to order room service, check their account, and so forth. On the face of it, this would represent a service upgrade while making the hotel appear trendy and tech-savvy. In practice I’d rather have John in the room than an iPad.

It’s the kind of innovation that some guests would undoubtedly love, but just stop for a moment to imagine my dad’s reaction if he had to use an iPad to order himself a cup of tea. “What’s this? What am I supposed to do? Where do I press? It’s all gone blank. How do I turn it on again? It’s upside down. Now then, I’ll order some tea. Do you want tea as well? Well I’ve ordered it now, how do I cancel it? It’s all gone Chinese, how do I get it back in English?” I think he’d solve the problem by staying somewhere else.

So maybe it would be easier if guests could just use their own phones, came the next suggestion, and that way they’d avoid the problem of unfamiliar technology. All they’d have to do is download the hotel app…

There’s a generational problem here. My son will happily download the entire internet just to find out what it does. My dad still writes phone numbers on pieces of paper and then tapes them to the back of his phone in case he needs to call someone. I could probably figure out what to do but it would be quicker just to walk downstairs to the kitchen, ask a real person for a cup of tea, and carry it back upstairs. But I have one American colleague who’d be really upset if he was asked to download something to his phone, partly because he has valid privacy concerns, and partly because he genuinely believes the US Government is actively spying on him through the light fittings.  

The best idea is probably to offer the app, or the iPad, but don’t make it compulsory. Millennials can have a screen to play with so they’ll think you’re cool, and the rest of us can have proper service so we’ll continue to stay with you. The secret lies in trying not to annoy guests with innovation because people don’t necessarily like change, especially when they feel they have no choice in the matter.

One smart way to achieve this lies in the way you use social media to promote your brand, because the different generations have quite different online habits. While Facebook is used widely across all ages, for example, Instagram is not. Statistics suggest most over-50s have barely heard of Instagram, although they are unique in actually using Google Plus. So if you want to put iPads in your rooms you could segregate the audience by telling people about it using Snapchat, because that’s where the millennials are hanging out. They’ll get the message and think it’s great, while my dad will be none the wiser. And if he does find an iPad in his room the chances are he’ll just assume it’s some kind of designer tea tray and it won’t bother him in the slightest.