By Larry and Adam Mogelonsky
While we all await the dissemination of a COVID-19 vaccine throughout the first half of 2021, budgets will remain tight while reservations will be slim. With fewer staffers available to manage inquiries, you still need to ensure that service delivery is never compromised for the guests you have, while at the same time ensuring a smooth ramp-up as we transition out of this pandemic. Plus, in our current climate of lower occupancies, you cannot afford a bad review tarnishing your online reputation.
Compounding this is the need for contactless communications. Traveler behavior has all but permanently changed and going forward most of your correspondence with guests will happen digitally via branded messaging apps, email or texting platforms like WhatsApp. Together, these factors make a very compelling case for implementing a hotel messaging platform, particularly one that has a chatbot function to handle basic queries.
To get an expert in on the conversation, we connected with Michael Kessler, CEO of ReviewPro, to learn about where this tech niche is headed. “It goes without saying that your prebooked guests or any casual shoppers would prefer their requests be answered in as timely a manner as possible,” said Kessler. “For this, a continuously learning AI can seriously help. In fact, these tools are already widespread; you’ve probably communicated with an AI in the past, whether you were conscious of it or not.”
Indeed, roughly nine out of ten questions posed to hotels can be succinctly addressed with a preprogrammed response. Where are you located? What amenities does your resort have? Is your restaurant open? These types of asks can all be outsourced to a chatbot – also, one that can instantly translate the answers into a user’s native language – so that your live agents can focus on handling the more complex requests.
Better and speedier guest service along with the potential for cost savings are what these platforms can provide. But it’s a mature market and there are quite a few vendors who can meet your needs.
The challenge then is selecting the right one that can best augment service delivery and offer some tools for shaping the future of your hotel. To help you better determine what makes for a guest messaging platform with a robust feature set, here are some functions to look for as you reevaluate your tech stack in the coming months.
1. Hospitality specialization. It’s easy for any vendor to simply say that their solution works for hotels, but our industry comes with so many nuanced issues that you really need a platform that is purpose-built for just us and has mobile responsiveness. With that in mind, your chosen platform should have a flexible configuration that can streamline the interdepartmental coordination that has traditionally caused service delivery hiccups in the past. As well, the ability to customize the user interface can go a long way to subtly reinforcing your brand and giving guests peace of mind that their needs are being managed attentively.
2. App agnosticism. The customer is always right, which in this case means that you shouldn’t try to get guests to only use your own branded app, but that you are flexible to talk with them through whichever medium they prefer. A solid messaging platform must integrate with a myriad of other solutions such as SMS, WhatsApp, WeChat and others, while still bringing conversation threads onto one centralized system for your team to evaluate then disseminate your follow-up back out via the medium your guest is using.
3. OTA and other third-party integrations. Building on the previous point, one problem that needs to be addressed in 2021 is not letting requests made on OTAs go unanswered. Make a good impression by having your guest service via the OTAs fully reflect the attentiveness that users on your own native apps would receive. If you want to convert these customers to book direct, you have to bring on a platform that can easily connect to these third-party websites and house all the specific conversation flows within your own data ecosystem for any staff member to reference, analyze customer sentiments or ‘tag in’ as needed.
4. PMS and booking engine integrations. The flip side of the OTA coin is integrating with the PMS, CRM or directly with the booking engine so that any customer interactions can be tied to a specific reservation or guest profile. This gives the hotel full visibility on the request to better anticipate next steps, upsell, offer additional services or accurately logging complaints for the most appropriate recovery action. It also creates a positive feedback loop that enhances sales from the hotel’s brand.com. As a basic example here, a two-way PMS connection can tell you if someone is a transient or group guest, where the response to the same question could be entirely different for both individuals. Next, integrating with a hotel’s CRM or case management system allows you to process then convert any intentions built within normal human conversations into specific follow-up actions to improve the onsite experience.
5. Analytics. We live in a data-driven world, and rightfully so because there’s so much we can do to increase team performance and revenues by continually tweaking our operations to better fit with changing guest expectations. By having a smart analytics tool, you can examine what types of questions are most commonly asked to determine the most effective responses or what times of day the most inquiries are coming in as well as benchmark performance against a few key indicators. For example, if most of your maintenance requests are initiated between the hours of 5pm and 9pm then how should you adjust your staffing in the engineering department? And, of course, data greatly helps with segmentation insofar as finding those unique guest psychographics to offer truly personalized offers, packages and onsite experiences.
6. Escalation. Even with a machine learning component, you will nevertheless need to migrate many requests to a live agent, especially in error recovery situations. Thus, a robust chatbot for the decade ahead must come with a strong foundation of natural language processing (NLP) to drive sentiment analysis as well as customizable escalation parameters to determine when and how to bump a conversation up to your intake team, all so that service is never endangered. With any escalation, a case should be automatically created and assigned to the right department, be it room service orders, housekeeping matters or maintenance issues, all with timescales and full manager visibility to provide accountability and set employee performance markers.
7. Automating outbound communications. If 2021 is anything like 2020, then you know that operating protocols may need to quickly change in response to new mandates for PPE or COVID-19 safety. The onsite experience will thus be better if your guests know what to expect and automating these updates via programmed outbound messages means your teams are not burdened with manual repetition. Secondly, having the ability to send out mass messages can create opportunities for additional revenue capture. While cross-selling and upselling have been mentioned before, what’s critical in today’s leisure-dominant travel landscape is that you optimize TRevPAR (total revenue) by encouraging guests to utilize more of your onsite amenities or to opt for a stay suite in lieu of a standard room. Sales messages of this sort will be more impactful and more profitable if they are designed according to segmentations and specified stages in the customer journey, both of which can be better discerned via a platform that keeps a detailed log of conversation flows.
With any luck, 2021 will not only signal a sharp return to 2019 levels of occupancy and revenues, but also a year that will help set you up for seamless and cost-effective operations management for the rest of the decade. Take this time to see what technologies you can implement to ensure your team isn’t overwhelmed once guests start returning.