Should a hotel or a company servicing hotels stress automation as much as or more than the human touch? Ever since technology has begun to develop this has been the debate: technology vs. human touch. Finding the right mix is ever more important when it comes to the changing dynamics of purchasing power. While technology is evolving at a pace that couldn’t have been foreseen, we continue to push not only ourselves but also those around us to do more with less. As hotel owners, this translates to increasing guest satisfaction with the same number of associates, or fewer, as the cost of customer acquisition has increased over the last couple of decades. This provides new opportunities for hotel service providers to offer services that in the past have been unattainable or too expensive.
Making a hotel reservation has largely changed, affecting both hotel and guest. The days you would call a hotel to make a reservation are gone nearly as long as the rotary phone, and not many regret that passing. With all kinds of technology at one’s fingertips, it makes a lot of sense to do without human contact. Online’s ever more the way for both guest and hotel to get to where you need – faster and without spelling and billing errors.
Still, the human touch is welcome, particularly once the guest arrives at the property. That touch also is welcome if and when automation doesn’t quite deliver (many sites don’t readily accept coupons or special requests) or you have a question that can’t be answered via online/mobile/app. For companies servicing hotels negotiating product offerings and closing the sales contract deal isn’t something you can do at the push of a button or the swipe of a card.
At the same time, for consumers, automation makes a lot of sense. Much of today’s leisure travel is booked during off hours. For business travel (and leisure) booked during regular hours, the need for multitasking often provides a welcome reprieve, allowing consumers to easily and quickly make the reservation and move on. Likewise, for companies servicing hotels, automation makes business sense. Take service contracts.
Historically, selling these contracts forced companies to rely on a team to sell and market their services, “taking care” of prospects with lengthy meetings and lunches. That could lead to a kind of laziness, as those salespeople banked on low-hanging fruit because it was easier and cheaper. Most of the time, they didn’t go to the hotelier directly, but instead went to management companies or brands to have the most impact. They don’t have to do that anymore. The combination of automation and human touch enables cost-effective, efficient and targeted outreach to all sort of hoteliers, not just the historical low-hanging ones. Now, small companies and one-off hoteliers have a chance to benefit from the same service typically provided to their larger colleagues.
Not that long ago, lengthy contracts required in-person explanations and in-person negotiations, meaning more time and money spent. Today’s companies and consumers are accustomed to how contracts have become matters of “terms and conditions” on a website or email requesting an opt-out or click box functionality. This change, which has become culturally acceptable, is critical. Salespeople and marketers are no longer required to go through the contract verbatim but instead can focus on the value of working together and finalizing how to “go live” and follow-up service levels. The sales and marketing process has gotten easier and faster, as well as more efficient and profitable.
Striking the right balance between automation and hands-on, interpersonal interaction is the trick, and avoiding stress is key as people desire and require various levels of automation and personal touch. The skillful sales and marketing person of today knows how to read people, navigate their preferences and quickly adapt, using the mutually agreed-upon mode of communication to close the deal and keep clients happy. For some, that means lunch, coffee and phone calls. For others, the ticket is email, text or a short bursts via Twitter.
Some customers still like to call the hotel direct, but all too often, they have become accustomed to waiting on the phone for a few minutes before they can push their way through to find anyone, causing stress and a sense of abandonment. Most people now realize that calling requires more time, small talk and patience. We all crave interaction, but at different levels, different times of day and different stages of the business cycle. One automated “gate” may open and you think you’re home, but all too often, you’ve just made it to another level, and pressing “O” doesn’t always get you to a real person, let alone one empowered to immediately address your needs.
Decades ago, you’d call a hotel and real people would answer. If they couldn’t handle your request, you’d be put on hold while they searched for the person who could help and you were accustomed to waiting for the answer. But with labor cutbacks and our waning patience overall, the right person may not be there anymore or it may take longer than we think it should, so it’s almost better to punch the keyboard and go to the right department or press zero and be connected that way. Online, generally, is easier, however, because it’s automated and precise. When the website is easily navigable and offers a chat box where you can talk to a real person, you’re doing really, really well. Chat features provide the ability to obtain the personalized service and continue to multitask. However, an empowered associate must staff the chat box or it, too, will lead to dissatisfaction and abandonment.
There is a lot of buzz about the user interface and user experience and how they drive customer adoption. There are many examples of how that is not entirely true but yes, they do – positively or negatively – make a difference. However, arguably, the good UI/UX combination easily and quickly addresses the customer’s needs and doesn’t necessarily depend on the colors and navigation flow. All too often, there is discussion about how the website/mobile site/app has less attractive colors than a competitor’s. However, it has been shown that if a customer’s needs are easily and/or cost-effectively met, the customer is willing to overlook the aesthetics.
Going 100 percent automated isn’t the complete ticket, but it certainly carries the weight. Consumers appreciate transparency in information and the human touch when the information is either a) not transparent or b) they want an add-on or want to negotiate terms.
While many think failure to post services and prices online drives the customer to call, it actually distances the company from the customer, rather than drawing themc loser. Customers (buyers) in most industries and services are well-informed and by the time they find a person, they are ready for the closing punch, not the “get to know you” small talk or the introductory meeting. They usually already know who you are and what they like or dislike, and they are ready to negotiate, which is why they are on the phone rather than online. Realize when the phone rings now a number of issues could be at play, including a customer who prefers to make small talk, who wants information not easily found online or is ready to negotiate.
Consumers realize that talking to a person requires a wait time and neither the hotel nor the consumer wants to encourage a lot of personal touch points. At the same time, both want to be able to communicate clearly, quickly and with respect on a number of different channels. While the types of touch points continue to change, the touch points are still there. The average number of touch points needed to reach a buying decision remains at 7 currently but that includes retargeting and social media, in addition to typical sales and marketing techniques. No longer does a hotel have to feel obligated to join an expensive organization to receive adequate care and services; the world is shrinking and small businesses are back in the driver’s seat, as these organic-feeling communication modes can be easy and cost-effective.
On the company side, email and digital marketing allow hotels to alert companies to their services and then zero in with real people to close the deal, if necessary. Often, clicking the box of terms and conditions online reduces the necessity for the initial selling and set-up, bypassing human interaction to optimize the property’s revenue drive or profit savings.
This balance in technology and human touch as well as this shift in communication are key to understanding how small businesses can compete and how boutique or independent hotels can receive the same services and product offerings as large, branded hotels. That low-hanging fruit doesn’t hang as low as it used to, benefiting both consumer and hotel.– by Pamela Barnhill