Leveraging Online Reviews for Competitive Intelligence

By Peter O'Connor Academic Director, Institute de Management Hotelier Int. | February 09, 2020

The growth of the Internet as a consumer search and shopping medium has greatly increased transparency. User reviews, be they on dedicated review sites such as TripAdvisor.com, on Online Travel Agency sites such as Expedia or Booking.com, or simply built right into a property's Google listing, have become incredibly powerful in terms of influencing the customer as to where, and where not, to book.

Over nine out of ten Internet users now proactively consult peer-generated user reviews before committing to making a hotel booking, with the vast majority claiming that what they see there has an incredible influence on whether they eventually purchase. Nearly the same number now claim to trust online user reviews more than they do personal recommendations, making the proactive management of what's being said about your property in the online review space absolute essential for future success.

But the value of reviews lies not just in terms of the marketing message they send to the marketplace but in the competitive intelligence they can provide if only you choose to look.  Reviews, both your own as well as those of your competitors, contain a wealth of valuable information that you can leverage to better understand your customers, your own and your competitors' performance and by extension your relative competitive advantage. 

Properly analysed, user reviews serve as an incredible source of free market research, giving you, on a real-time and continual basis, deep and meaningful insights (both positive and negative) into what is important to customers in your marketplace.

Analyzing these insights can help you to identify recurrent themes at your own and competing hotels, which you can subsequently use to better understand guest expectations; improve the customer experience; as well as compete more effectively for new business.  While online reputation management is, by its very nature, carried out in the online space, remember that the only sure-fire way to get more positive reviews is to actually improve your product offering and delight your guests.

Systematically analyzing online review feedback gives you access to a rich source of data to help you to better understand guests' expectations and experiences and, better inform operational decisions. In fact, you should think of user reviews as a type of competitive intelligence that allows you to get a better understand of your market and then use this enhanced insight to adjust your service offering so that it fits better with customer needs and expectations.

At a simplistic level you can start by simply examining your own performance, but as we will see the best insights come from benchmarking this against that of your peers, be they sister hotels or competitors. Remember that every review, whether scathing or glowing, is a golden opportunity to better understand your property from the guest's perspective.

While we as managers may think that we know our hotel inside out and intimately understand why guests stay with us, in many cases, there is usually a disconnect between we believe is important and what actually matters to the guest. The most effective way to get to know what your guests value most is by paying attention to what they're saying about you online.

In particular, paying close attention to user reviews can help bridge this knowledge gap. Deeply and systematically analyzing what guests say about us in user reviews allows us to get inside their minds, giving us the opportunity to view the hotel through their eyes, allowing us discover what are the most critical issues in our operations from the guest's point of view, as well as identify strengths or weaknesses that otherwise might have remained invisible.

And thus while a one-line, highly favorable, user review might give you a temporary high, in practice it doesn't really help you much. The real value lies in deeply examining your negative reviews. From these, you can glean valuable insights into how customers actually perceive your property and what issues you need to prioritize to improve your operations. Customers who post negative reviews are thus very important, not least because they have taken the time to tell you what is wrong, something that the vast majority of unhappy customers never do.

Even if it's not objective or not said in a very nice way, there is usually at least a kernel of truth in each and every negative review.   By taking the time to draft a review, guests are shining a light on the aspects of your operations and customer experience that are important to them, as well as highlighting the areas where the hotel is doing well, and where it needs to improve.

Thus, paying close attention to the content of user reviews can help identify the issues most bothersome to your guests, and it is imperative that such valuable feedback does not go to waste. While occasionally negative reviews can be the result of anomalies, in general they are a sign of a real and underlying problem that needs to be addressed. Thus, taking these insights and using them to improve operations should, therefore, be a priority.

For that reason, an increasing number of hotels are examining user reviews into their morning management meetings. By discussing the detailed content of reviews openly and honestly, management becomes more aware of the issues most importance to guests and should over time be able to identify critical areas that need improvement, based not on hearsay but on what actual customers appreciate or dislike about the property.

The key here is to be systematic and look for commonalities in the reviews. Are there themes that keep reoccurring? Are guests consistently praising or complaining about a particular aspect of their stay? If so, how can you use this insight to make improvements?  For example, complaints about noise from the corridors being vacuumed early in the morning might lead to a change in housekeeping procedures to prevent this from reoccurring.  Or if reviews frequently mention stained linens, it may be time to replace the sheets or review your laundry service to ensure that all linens are fresh.

Similarly, positive comments about the quality of the food in your bar area might identify an issue that you could stress in sales and marketing efforts. By improving on your weak points and accentuating your strengths, you can boost guest satisfaction and reduce the number of complaints that appear in the future.

However, while examining reviews line by line at the individual level is great operationally, even more profound insights can be gained by using appropriate software tools to identify trends across user reviews as a whole. Since review volumes have exploded, most properties should now have a sufficient quantity of reviews to give them a valid sample size for real statistical analysis.

Most online reputation management systems (for example, Revinate, ReviewPro and/or TrustYou among others) now provide sophisticated semantic analysis and pattern recognition facilities which, when linked to review scores, can not only help managers spot positive and negative trends in the data but also pinpoint precisely what issues are driving both satisfaction and dissatisfaction at your property, thus helping to identify the key factors on which to focus so that your efforts have the most impact.

Many of these systems also allow you to benchmark these findings across a competitive set, allowing you both to better evaluate your own performance but more importantly better understand your competition. Such analyses can reveal priceless digital breadcrumbs that savvy hotel marketers can use to drive additional business. By identifying what competitors are getting right and wrong, you can better understand your relative strengths and weaknesses vis-a-vis what is actually important to your target markets. This should allow you to more easily identify areas to prioritize for improvement as well as strengths to promote in your marketing and promotion efforts.

For example, from looking at the meta-analysis of reviews for your marketplace as a whole, you might discover that the variety of sports equipment in leisure centers is a critical issue for frequent business travelers, and that many are unhappy with current offerings by competing properties. Highlighting your superior gym facilities in marketing efforts to this segment would therefore likely pay dividends in terms of driving additional business from this market segment.

In addition, many hotels have found that the quantitative data that you can get from such competitive analyses also typically proves invaluable when trying to justify the necessary capital expenditure to owners.

Thus more systematically analyzing reviews, and using them more strategically as a source of competitive intelligence, can provide you with valuable information source to not only better understand the market, but also provide you with useful, actionable insights that will help you to improve operations and market your businesses more successfully. The range of powerful analytics tools available today helps facilitate this process, but these systems doesn't work on their own.

The critical success factor is being able to take these insights and use them to drive change by enhancing the guest experience, leading to happier guests, more positive reviews, higher online rankings and ultimately more business.

Mr. O'Connor Peter O'Connor is Chaired Professor of Digital Disruption at ESSEC Business School, France. He also serves as Director of the MBA in Hospitality Management (IMHI program. Dr. O'Connor's primary research, teaching and consulting interests focus on the use of technology in the hospitality and tourism sectors. , Dr. O'Connor has published articles in leading academic journals including the Journal of Marketing, Harvard Business Review, Tourism Management, the Cornell Quarterly and the International Journal of Hospitality Management. Dr. O'Connor also works with PhoCusWright Inc. as a senior analyst specializing in the hotel technology space, as well as serving as Editor-at-large of Hotel Analyst Distribution & Technology. Mr. O'Connor can be contacted at 1 3443 3177 or oconnor@essec.fr Please visit http://www.essec.fr for more information. Extended Biography

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Coming up in March 2020...

Human Resources: Confronting a Labor Shortage

With the unemployment rate at its lowest level in decades (3.7%), what has always been a perennial problem for human resource professionals - labor shortage - is now reaching acute levels of concern. It is getting harder to find and recruit qualified applicants. Even finding candidates with the skills to succeed in entry-level positions has become an issue. In addition, employee turnover rates remain extremely high in the hotel industry. As a result of these problems, hotel HR managers are having to rethink their recruitment strategies in order to hire the right talent for the right job. First, hotels have been forced to raise their wages and offer other appealing perks, as a way to attract qualified candidates. Secondly, HR managers are reassessing their interviewing techniques, focusing less on the answers they receive to questions and more on observable behavior. Part of this process includes role-playing during the interview, so that the recruiter can gauge how a candidate works through specific problems and interacts with other team members. Additionally, some HR managers are also creating internal talent pools as a way to address labor shortages. Instead of utilizing department resources to find new hires with specific skills for needed positions, hotels are cultivating talent pools internally and preparing their employees to assume leadership roles whenever the time comes. They are also placing greater emphasis on a company culture that is more performance-based, as a way to curb employee turnover, increase employee satisfaction, and assure higher levels of customer service. Finally, recognizing the importance of employee retention as a way to lessen the impact of a tight labor market, some HR managers are instituting generous reward programs in order to retain their top performers. The March Hotel Business Review will explore what some HR professionals are doing to address these and other issues in their departments.