On a business flight last year, I read a story about the Kimpton hotel chain, which acquires older properties, then refurbishes and re-brands them. The result is a collection of independent hotels with a reputation for personalized service and customer loyalty, a reputation I had an opportunity to experience firsthand when, by coincidence, I checked into one of its properties later that day.

HOW, NOT WHAT One key to Kimpton's success is its customer-preference database, in which my personal data is now firmly ensconced. Kimpton's data-gathering methods are nothing special; the key is in how Kimpton staff use them.

Take the post-stay survey I filled out, for example. First, because the survey is handled via e-mail, Kimpton receives feedback very quickly, and all Kimpton managers are trained to read each e-mail survey on the day it arrives. If it contains a complaint, the manager sends a reply to the guest, explaining what corrective action has been taken.

SIDE INTEREST Kimpton also asks questions — about hobbies, favorite magazines, and shopping preferences, for instance — that it uses to personalize the hotel experience. If a guest expresses a taste for jazz music, for example, the next time she books a room, the housekeeper will turn on and tune the clock radio to a local jazz station. That guest will hear jazz when she enters her room whether she's staying at the Helix Hotel in Washington, D.C., or the Hotel Monaco in Denver.

CLOSER LOOK Another method Kimpton uses to learn about its customers is also the simplest: Kimpton trains its employees to be close observers. All staff — whether it's a housekeeper or the concierge, a bell hop or a desk clerk — pay attention to what guests say and do while staying at the hotel, and they add that information to the guest's profile. If a guest inquires about local wine bars, the next time he stays at any Kimpton property, he will find an assortment of materials on local wine-tasting opportunities. Depending on whether he qualifies for Kimpton's loyalty rewards, he may even find a complimentary bottle of wine in his room.

MAKE IT PERSONAL To those of you who are rolling your eyes because you already use customer surveys, I'm betting the questions you ask are always focused on your company and on the remodeling project. You want to know what the customer liked best, what gave them the most trouble, what was most surprising, and so on.

These are good questions, and the answers are essential to improving performance and customer satisfaction. But they're not personal at all, and so they lack the power to make an emotional connection with the customer.

You could fill this gap in personal knowledge of your customer if your employees were as good at observation as Kimpton staff are. Because you work in people's homes, you have a unique opportunity to make close observations without intruding on anyone's privacy. You can easily determine what the homeowners like to read, what kind of music they prefer, how they treat their pets, whether they are gadget-averse or gadget-obsessed, and on and on. Armed with this kind of information, you can take the remodeling experience beyond tolerable and make it personal and unique to each individual.

Sal Alfano, Editorial Director