Bridging Today's Technologies to Customer Service Needs

By Mark Ricketts President & Chief Operating Officer, McNeill Hotels | September 17, 2017

One is tempted to call them our phantom guests. With today's technologies, a guest can make a reservation, sign in and, perhaps, check out without talking to or being seen by someone at the front desk. Timed right, a guest may not even interact with maintenance or housekeeping.

We are starting to confront realities like this in an industry grounded on deep human interaction and the personal touch. We pride ourselves on being good listeners, both verbal and nonverbal. We are rewarded for anticipating and responding to the needs of others. The "guest we don't see" is just one example of how modern communications, our own human resources systems, marketing or transaction technologies continue to transform what it means to be a hotelier.

The challenges abound. They include how to interact with that guest that we never see on check-in. How do we know that their needs are being met? How do we satisfy our own human needs, as hoteliers, to interact with others? At the same time, our brand partners, ownership and the competition are pressing us to deploy ever-more complex technology. How do we avoid getting "lost in the numbers" with the steady streams of data we receive daily? Whether it's room pricing, housekeeping inventory and preventive maintenance, or property reviews on social media or OTA web sites, we are expected to master and make positive use of these information and communication technologies.

Thinking more about technology. In some cases, technology has been transformational, creating functionality that did not previously exist. Examples include computer-controlled climate and security systems, entertainment-on-demand streaming, Internet-based reservation systems or the modern revenue management systems with access to tremendous amounts of occupancy and pricing data. These are clearly game-changers.

However, in other cases, technology is revising and possibly improving activities that have always been part of our hotel DNA. We always have welcomed guests and chatted them up, particularly at the front desk. "Thanks for staying here." "How long do you plan on staying?" "Will you be visiting any special attractions?" "How can we make your visit more enjoyable?" Today, we are doing the same things, although it may be in the form of an email or text to confirm a reservation; mark guest arrival; or check in with the guest during the stay. Instead of tracking the preferences of frequent guests (loyalty program) with pencil and paper, in a notebook in a drawer at the front desk, we have a digital version.

The modes may have changed, but the functions are the same. Our task is to master these newer modes of interaction so that they are efficient, yet cordial and personal. We are also being scored by how well we respond to exchanges that can be tracked and quantified, including by brand partners, which increases the stakes. This means we must be patient and sensible even as we are being graded for our technology performance. At the same time, we must guard against overstepping common sense and formal guidelines with respect to guest privacy. Just because we can "look something up," doesn't mean we should; or we don't have to say everything we know. While a younger generation might not be alarmed with how much we know about them, older guests might not be as appreciative of our guest intelligence. We must exercise caution in our zeal to help out. Examples include matching up a guest against their Facebook or LinkedIn page or looking up where they stayed previously.

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Coming up in April 2019...

Guest Service: A Culture of YES

In a recent global consumers report, 97% of the participants said that customer service is a major factor in their loyalty to a brand, and 76% said they view customer service as the true test of how much a company values them. And since there is no industry more reliant on customer satisfaction than the hotel industry, managers must be unrelenting in their determination to hire, train and empower the very best people, and to create a culture of exceptional customer service within their organization. Of course, this begins with hiring the right people. There are people who are naturally service-oriented; people who are warm, empathetic, enthusiastic, pleasant, thoughtful and optimistic; people who take pride in their ability to solve problems for the hotel guests they are serving. Then, those same employees must be empowered to solve problems using their own judgment, without having to track down a manager to do it. This is how seamless problem solving and conflict resolution are achieved in guest service. This willingness to empower employees is part of creating a Culture of Yes within an organization.  The goal is to create an environment in which everyone is striving to say “Yes”, rather than figuring out ways to say, “No”. It is essential that this attitude be instilled in all frontline, customer-facing, employees. Finally, in order to ensure that the hotel can generate a consistent level of performance across a wide variety of situations, management must also put in place well-defined systems and standards, and then educate their employees about them. Every employee must be aware of and responsible for every standard that applies in their department. The April issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some leading hotels are doing to cultivate and manage guest satisfaction in their operations.