By Doug Kennedy

As I often say in my conference presentations and training sessions, voice reservations is the forgotten distribution channel, at least at most hotels these days. Too many marketing and distribution execs buy-in to stereotypes such as “Millennials only book online and never want to talk with humans…” and “The only ones who still call are elderly and don’t know how to work a computer…”

On the surface, the numbers might even support this as web booking continue to grow while voice bookings decline. However, many of those who book online started out by first calling the hotel; others call after booking but prior to arrival. Therefore, there is an “interplay” between voice and online channels.

This is especially true for “non-standardized” lodging industry segments such as resorts, independents, boutiques and non-traditional lodging such as vacation rentals and condo-hotels. In short, the longer the stay, the higher the rates being paid, the more complicated the travel plans are, and most importantly, the more “emotionally invested” the guest is in those travel plans, the more likely they are to call prior to or following booking online.

Sure, there are certain segments of the lodging industry for which voice is dropping, such as mid-market and focused service, but even at those hotels there is revenue “gold” still to be “mined” from the calls that still come in to the front desk.

Smart revenue and distribution managers know well that voice is still not only a viable channel, but also a wonderful tool for increasing ADR, because a well-trained colleague can upsell higher-rated accommodations and rate options. They also know that voice is a tool for converting those who shop on OTA’s into booking directly, thus reducing the costs of customer acquisition.

Yet aside from the opportunity to increase revenue and encourage direct bookings, another great reason to listen-in is that today, the phone call is an increasingly rare opportunity to make a human connection with our guests and thus create a positive impression. Are your frontline colleagues maximizing that opportunity? Or do they sound annoyed and give the impression that the phone call is an interruption?

Yes, there is more information online than ever before, but when a guest makes the effort to call it is usually because they are confused by online reviews, overwhelmed with choices (room types, rate plans), or because they have special travel needs. Somehow the online tools have failed them. For evidence, go ask your reservations or front desk colleagues how often they get asked this question: “Hello, where are you? Are you actually at the hotel?”

For better or for worse, whomever is answering calls at your hotel right now is the face of your “brand” for their whole shift.

If you are still reading this far in, perhaps you are wondering “How can I listen in?” Here are some options for getting in the game right now:

– Chances are that your existing phone system has a “listen-in” feature built in. These have been standard in hotel phone systems for decades now as they allowed a supervisor to train a new agent and/or for them to listen-in on an escalation call before it is handed over. It takes time, as you have to wait between calls for the next one, but it is a good starting place if you have never done it.

– Check with your 800 service provider. Many offer options for recording all incoming 800 calls (with a pre-announce of course.)

– If you literally have no way to listen to real calls, try having a telephone mystery shopping company place some inquiry calls. (Email me directly and I’ll have our KTN team provide a free mystery shopping call report right away to get you in the game.)

Now, if you are really serious about maximizing the sales opportunities with the voice channel, you should check out the call and lead tracking systems that have emerged in recent years. No only do these systems record calls and track the types of calls received, but they also allow agents to turn the call into a lead to follow-up on pro-actively by sending an email after the conversation and to trace the lead for additional follow-up if still needed to close it. If you are unfamiliar with this concept then mail me directly for details [email protected].

Finally, if you do listen-in to calls, here are some training tips that you will likely want to share with your team to help them “up their game.”

  • Rather than just answering questions, engage callers with questions of your own, especially this one: “As I’m checking rates for those dates, what questions can I answer for you about the location or amenities and services?”
  • Rather than quoting rates for those who are checking online while on the phone, say “May I ask if you are looking online now? What website are you at?” Then add “We always have the best rates here directly. I can secure that for you right now directly into our reservations system and make a note of these special requests.”
  • Rather than just reconfirming reservations for those who booked online, ask them if they had a chance to see the upgraded rooms / suites / packages. Then offer to cover the options. Since so many OTA guests are booking “Flexible / cancellable” rates, a smart agent can often convince the caller to cancel costly OTA booking and book a better room directly.