Customer Service is the 'New Marketing'

By DJ Vallauri Founder and CEO, Lodging Interactive | January 22, 2017

According to Ritz-Carlton's own customer service policy: "Ritz-Carlton Hotel has a policy that any employee can spend up to $2000 a day (without requiring any authorization from management) to solve the need or concern of any of their customers. On his way to Hawaii to deliver an important presentation, a businessman realized he had accidentally left his portable computer at a Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta. His presentation was stored on the computer. He placed a frantic call to the hotel and was routed to housekeeping. They had found his computer. Please send by Federal Express, he requested. I absolutely need it tomorrow morning for my presentation. Imagine his surprise when Mary from housekeeping showed up in Hawaii early the next morning to hand deliver his computer. Mary was quoted as saying, this was too important to trust FedX with, so I decided to deliver it myself!" (source: helpscout.net )

Clearly when you think of exceptional hotel customer service, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company sets the bar. I've traveled all over the world and have stayed in many luxury properties such as Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons. To be honest, all the rooms are very well appointed and luxurious. The facilities are top notch. But the Ritz-Carlton properties have an extra level of something I'll call "customer service pixie dust" that separates them from all the other luxury hotels. In my mind the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has successfully used customer service as a marketing differentiator within the hospitality luxury market place. Frankly they have set themselves apart. And I will add that their clientele have no problem paying the extra money to stay in a place where they know they will receive superior customer service.

But let's step back for a moment to consider where customer service between your hotel and guests actually begins. Is it when the new guest arrives at your front desk or is it when the guest checks into their room? Better yet, does customer service begin the moment someone begins to engage with your brand or property? In my opinion customer service begins the moment someone visits your hotel website and begins to engage with your property online. From that initial moment a potential guest is starting to formulate a vision that creates a feeling of excitement, anticipation or disappointment and is either enticed or let down based on what they are seeing and experiencing on your website.

In today's very fast-paced world where we are all connected nearly 24 seven it's important to realize that we are in the hospitality business and not in the artificial intelligence and robotic business as some have come to believe. The hotel business, frankly like any other business, is about creating relationships, human-to-human, and it's your job as a hotel operator to humanize your hotel and your brand in order to gain the highest level of customer service as perceived by your guest. So how exactly do you accomplish this and where does it begin?

I am a firm believer that every hotel website should have a push-to-chat function enabled. As consumers we have all used live chat functions on websites as we've dealt with them for the last 10 years. Yet as a hotel industry we have yet to see the proliferation of live chat customer service via hotel websites. Yes, there are some hotel websites that are live chat enabled however they are in the minority. In fact, we researched over 2500 hotels in North America and found that less than one half of 1% of the hotels have live chat enabled on their websites. That's an extraordinary number of 12 hotels out of 2500 ready to support customer service via live chat. This is a sad reflection on hotel operators and, as an industry, we can do way better than this. What excites me about live chat is that there is no learning curve from a customer's perspective. As I mentioned, we have all been using live chat for the last 10 years. Certainly you may have used live chat yourself when contacting your local bank or cable company. I find that I'm often able to receive faster and more precise customer support service when I utilize live chat versus calling an 800 number and being routed through an endless array of interactive voice response prompts.

When you further consider that the majority of hotel websites are in self service mode, meaning the potential hotel guests are expected to fend for themselves in seeking out information they need on your website, your hotel has a tremendous opportunity to differentiate and grab market share by simply implementing a live chat human-to-human real-time engagement widget on your website.

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Coming up in February 2019...

Social Media: Getting Personal

There Social media platforms have revolutionized the hotel industry. Popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Tumblr now account for 2.3 billion active users, and this phenomenon has forever transformed how businesses interact with consumers. Given that social media allows for two-way communication between businesses and consumers, the emphasis of any marketing strategy must be to positively and personally engage the customer, and there are innumerable ways to accomplish that goal. One popular strategy is to encourage hotel guests to create their own personal content - typically videos and photos -which can be shared via their personal social media networks, reaching a sizeable audience. In addition, geo-locational tags and brand hashtags can be embedded in such posts which allow them to be found via metadata searches, substantially enlarging their scope. Influencer marketing is another prevalent social media strategy. Some hotels are paying popular social media stars and bloggers to endorse their brand on social media platforms. These kinds of endorsements generally elicit a strong response because the influencers are perceived as being trustworthy by their followers, and because an influencer's followers are likely to share similar psychographic and demographic traits. Travel review sites have also become vitally important in reputation management. Travelers consistently use social media to express pleasure or frustration about their guest experiences, so it is essential that every review be attended to personally. Assuming the responsibility to address and correct customer service concerns quickly is a way to mitigate complaints and to build brand loyalty. Plus, whether reviews are favorable or unfavorable, they are a vital source of information to managers about a hotel's operational performance.  The February Hotel Business Review will document what some hotels are doing to effectively incorporate social media strategies into their businesses.