Ö.In Fact, Not Even the Majority
|By Don Farrell, May 2005
As the founder and chairman of Signature Worldwide, a company dedicated to helping hospitality clients create legendary experiences for their guests, I keep a close eye on all of the different customer service channels. Lately, Iíve been watching the Internet sales channel with great interest.
We need to set the record straight. There are a lot of stories circulating that make the claim that the Internet has finally overtaken other sales channels as the preferred method of making hotel reservations. While this may be accurate from some angles, it certainly doesnít tell the whole story.
Itís true, the Internet age is upon us and you should absolutely be engaged in a strategy that caters to consumers who prefer this medium. What we have found in our ongoing relationships with thousands of hotels is that the Web contribution has finally taken over the toll free CRO requests with many reporting as much as 51 percent Web-based reservations to 49 percent phone reservations.
However, our clients tell us that 50 percent of the consumers who check the Web for reservation availability and options also call the hotel property directly to make sure that the hotelís value proposition is indeed as good as the Web site promises, that the rate truly is the best available and finally, that the hotel really did receive the reservation - and recorded it correctly.
Close to 70 percent of reservations for most hotels in the United States are still made directly to the hotel location, compared with the 30 percent that is now split between toll free CRO requests and Internet reservations. We attribute this to the reasons above and to the simple fact that most hotels are not and should not be regarded as a commodity. We are in the service business and true levels of service are hard to communicate through a computer screen. The consumer relies on your hotel front desk and reservation agents to communicate your hotelís true value. Hotels that drive the greatest reservation conversions are the ones that communicate the right value to the right guest.
So donít disconnect your toll-free numbers or send your front desk and reservations agents home just yet. The Internet has opened up a world of opportunity for hotels that recognize it as an additional way for consumers to communicate with you, not a replacement for consumer preferred sales channels. And success, both online and off, requires that your front desk and reservations staff are at the top of their sales and service game.
The Internet has truly changed the way we do business. By providing more information and the ability to compare prices and benefits, it has also created a savvy and more demanding customer. From a reservations standpoint, this means you need to look at how all of your channels work together, and provide consistent service for each. Customers expect the same seamless experience no matter how they reach you Ė online, through a call center or by phoning your hotel directly. When one method fails to meet their needs, theyíll often move on to the next method or hotel. You canít afford not to have a well-trained front desk or telephone staff ready to jump in when the online booking process falls short or a customer has a specific question that the Web site canít answer. Your customers count on your reservations team to be equally knowledgeable about all of your channels.
We all know customers have different needs at different points in time. So if youíre going to add the Internet as a sales channel, you must make sure youíre ready and waiting for your customers with the same great service youíve always provided through your call center or reservations desk.
By providing your guests with multiple, integrated, and service-oriented options, youíre letting them know that, no matter what channel they use, their needs will be met. Youíve now created loyal customers across channels, and continued to differentiate your brand in a crowded marketplace.
Take a lesson from the retail industry. A few short years ago, retailers raced to the Web to make sure they werenít missing out on the billions of dollars experts predicted consumers would spend online. But many of these retailers missed a few things. They didnít realize that, while people appreciate the speed and convenience of the Internet, they still crave personal attention when they want it. Many traditional retailers feared their online sales might cannibalize their in-store revenues so they kept channels separate. A consumer requesting an in-store clerkís help with a Web site issue was met with a blank stare. Or a purchase made online couldnít be returned to the store down the street. This disconnect left consumers alienated and confused about brands.
In short, your human capital is still your greatest asset. And now more than ever, itís critical that your sales and service teams are well trained and knowledgeable. Start assuming the Internet means a reduced need for real, live reservations staff and you will certainly lose business to your competition. Instead, recognize that this opportunity means an increased need for exceptional sales and service teams -- they will be the glue that holds your sales channels together.
Not long ago, I was presenting at a hotel conference. Before my presentation, another "expert" from the industry announced that Web-based reservations had surpassed phone in reservations for the first time. As I turned to see the audienceís reaction, I could see that some agreed and some were startled. I sat down next to one of the audience members who still had a pained expression on his face and asked him what was wrong. He whispered that he was going to have to go back to his hotel to reduce his staff and increase his Web presence because he was only getting 2 percent reservation contribution from the Web. I asked him to hold that thought. In my presentation I set the record straight that those numbers reflect call centers and not the consumer who calls hotels directly. Immediately, I sensed relief Ė and the audience had a better understanding that they should embrace all sales channel avenues and not rush out to abandon preferred methods of making these reservations in lieu of the Web.
The next time you read an article that
claims that the Web has just reached another milestone of replacing people
consider the source Ė those that track Internet usage and have a focused
interest in that channel will only be reporting on that angle. Of course,
people who are in the business of customer service and human interaction
continue to make sure the human element is not lost. Your job as the hotelier
is to keep abreast of whatís happening in the industry, be flexible enough
to make adjustments and create a well-integrated sales and service staff
that provides legendary customer service -- no matter how your guests choose
to do business with you.