By Larry Mogelonsky, MBA, P. Eng. (www.hotelmogel.com)
The virus outbreak starting in Wuhan is the gamechanger for 2020 and many years to come. Reservations and occupancies will inevitably return, but the ground has forever shifted and this new normal we are just entering calls for new working – and largely virtual – conditions as well as a hyper-effective team to handle the load in lean times.
My Own Cancellation Story
As everyone is scrambling for new operational efficiencies to do more with less and to do so remotely (for the time being), I am reminded of what I went through to cancel a recent hotel booking for a weeklong stay in NorCal to both celebrate my wife’s birthday with some wine tours in Napa and to visit my younger sister who leased a place for the winter near Monterey.
The story is more or less the same for both properties. The first phone call rings and rings until it goes to voicemail. I call back a bit later and a totally harried front desk agent picks up, heaving breaths and clearly suffering as we all are from the panic as she juggled ten fires at once. It was a rushed call, with her tone abrupt and with several background interruptions in a mere few minutes – not a pleasant experience but totally acceptable under the current conditions.
Then I thought back to the numerous times in helping run a hotel property as an asset manager – times well before this crisis even hit – where staffing the front desk, reservationists and all other members of the intake team became a chore.
In the most salient case, it was a rural property where, during the offseason, calls and bookings were somewhat scant and yet we still had a big fixed payroll to feed lest our experienced team members look for employment elsewhere to make their wages. In a sparse labor market, these specialists are very hard to replace. And all the while, I’m being told by the revenue manager that we have to keep full coverage through to the late evenings and weekends lest we let the casual callers go unanswered and they take their business elsewhere.
These ‘abandoned call’ types of scenarios, where offhand or qualified inquiries don’t come back, represented a clear case where recruiting a call center made perfect sense. But the main fear, though, was always that the outsourced reservationists would never be as knowledgeable about the product as the home team and thus unable to close or upsell.
The New Normal
Now, however, we are confronting an extraordinary situation whereby, due to the urgent need for remote office setups, a hotel’s primary hotline can be unanswered for hours at a time as we look to socially distance ourselves by working from home and only allowing minimal staff onsite. Or that your team is too busy to answer the phone and the customer get with a downbeat voicemail message instead of a preppy live agent.
In a stable market, this means lots of missed opportunities to complete bookings over the phone or to put requests through to other outlets like your restaurant for dining reservations. As per my particular case already mentioned, it likely led to lots of unhappy customers who didn’t end up returning.
But there’s something unique about the fallout from the pandemic as it compels an entire policy change. That is to say, prior to COVID-19, none of us regular folks dreamed this day would come. With the black swan event clearly well within the realm of possibility, if it happens once it can happen again. This means that there may be other future instances where your team must again scatter to their respective abodes to complete work from their home offices.
Given that this may be the new normal of how our business routines are interrupted, the argument for outsourcing the entire reservations becomes all the more apparent as it ensures the phones are always diligently managed while also cutting costs.
The key therein is to address the concern about training, for which I was about to discuss the present scenario with my friend, John Smallwood, the CEO of Travel Outlook Premium Hotel Call Center. As he remarked, “Hotels aren’t widgets. The worry about outsourcing reservations calls to outside general call centers has always been that the person selling your guestrooms one night will be reassigned to a totally different industry the next. What you really need is a call center that’s devoted entirely to hospitality, so that the agents have been trained to speak the language of the hotel world before ever being onboarded with your property’s unique benefits and features.”
Ramping Back Up
While I sympathize wholeheartedly with all those who have suffered from the necessary downsizing measures, these trying times will ultimately lead to us maintaining leaner operations for long after the all clear is given. And just as scaling back was difficult, so too will the corrective expansion.
For this, I am afraid of more such cases like my cancellation story but in reverse where guests are eager to book but the onsite team isn’t back into its groove yet and can’t handle the volume. Or similarly, a front desk agent receives the call but is too rushed or distracted to properly build rapport with the customer over the phone in order to close the sale let alone deal with a complex booking or upsell.
In my mind, this is all the more reason to investigate your outsourcing options now so that you are fully ready when things pick back up. Just because you aren’t dealing with guests on-property doesn’t mean you stop working – use this downtime wisely!