If the hospitality industry has staked its reputation on one thing, and one thing alone, that thing is excellent customer service.
“The hospitality and travel industries live and die by their ability to provide excellent customer service and earn loyal guests,” says Gadi Shamia, CEO and Co-Founder, Replicant. “But it’s never been more challenging to provide excellent customer service.”
John Smallwood, President, Travel Outlook, couldn’t agree more.
“When a customer calls your reservation line, they expect to be immediately put in contact with a helpful and knowledgeable hotel representative that can quickly book their stay,” he explains. “However, when your reservation department falls victim to labor shortages, calls get dropped, customers are forced to follow cyclical call bot patterns, guests are frustrated, and sales leads fail to convert.”
While a massive contributing factor to faltering customer service, labor shortages aren’t the only reason.
Call volumes have become wildly unpredictable, and COVID-19 has created all new expectations and anxieties among travelers, Shamia says.
“On top of that, traditional contact center strategies are no longer viable,” Shamia adds. “Legacy technologies like IVRs and customer self-service strategies don’t go far enough to satisfy frustrated travelers and business process outsourcing comes with a slew of training, cost and cultural challenges.”
So, what’s a hotelier to do?
Consider Contact Center Automation
Contact Center Automation pairs automation technologies with artificial intelligence and are purpose-built for contact centers. They leverage conversational AI and easy-to-navigate platforms, and often include built-in telephony, CRM integrations and advanced analytics. In fact, Shamia says that many solutions on the market boast customer satisfaction scores that match or outpace those of human agents.
For example, Replicant’s Contact Center Automation platform allows companies to automate 85% of common customer service requests. This means that customers are serviced in most cases without needing to wait on hold or speak with a human agent.
“Most customers still want to resolve their issues over the phone in the travel/hospitality industry,” Shamia notes. “Our Thinking Machine speaks like a human and is able to answer multi-intent questions without delays or latency. Plus it can recognize different languages, dialects and accents which enables it to service customers across regions and demographics.”
However, that does not mean that these technologies are meant to replace live agents. Instead, they’re really meant to automate Tier-1 customer service requests “while empowering agents to focus on more complex and nuanced customer challenges,” Shamia explains.
Creating a better use of employee time is something that any company in any industry can get behind. Consider the healthcare/insurance industry. An independent third-party administrator of self-funded employer medical plans was proud of its superior customer service: Every caller was supported by a live representative, says John Ward, Chief Technology Officer, IntelePeer. But 75% of calls were transactional, meaning only 25% required a live agent.
After realizing this, the company put into place a customized Communications Platform as a Service (CPaaS) to offer callers 24/7 access to information and complete common processes, while allowing callers that needed to speak to a live agent more immediate access. The company was even able to create a workflow builder that allowed callers to either solve their own issues or escalate them to the best agent based on location, product used or issue type, Ward explains.
“The addition of AI and natural language processing that now supports many languages enables a better customer interaction, irrespective of whether through a friendly bot or the voice of a well-informed contact center agent,” Ward adds. “With personalized communication foundational to businesses, the ability to provide targeted, relevant information via the channels customers most frequently use (whether phone, text or email) will likely be essential for any consumer-facing industry, especially those like hospitality and travel in recovery mode.”
Some brands, however, might be concerned about customer adoption – thinking that automation technology will somehow blemish the customer service experience.
“It’s worth noting that 80% of customers would rather talk with a natural-sounding, human-like machine that responds quickly and accurately, than wait on hold for 15 minutes,” Shamia says.
Consider a Virtual Hotel Agent
Just as call centers are often tasked with answering the same questions over and over again, front desk agents deal with repetitious calls as well. Travel Outlook is one company that has created a solution for this problem. It recently debuted an innovative AI-powered voice bot – Bella – for the hospitality industry. This virtual hotel agent was designed specifically to help hotels immediately address staffing issues and reduce fixed labor expenses. Using a human voice specifically chosen by the hotel brand, Bella can answer most of the calls that would be handled by front desk agents.
Using social media, chat forums and movie dialogue, Bella learns from billions of casual human conversations to understand human inflections and multi-turn queries. This approach means Bella understands callers no matter what they say, when they say it, or how they speak, in any language. Callers can interrupt, digress and even change subjects without causing an issue for the virtual agent.
Bella can also replace mechanical IVR answer points for the hotel. Rather than hearing, “Press one for reservations”, the caller hears, in a pleasant voice, “Thank you for calling our hotel. How can I help?” Then, Bella will answer many of the questions asked without any involvement from hotel staff, always offering an immediate transfer-to-human option.
“As the foundation of computer learning, AI is able to receive, analyze and optimize a tremendous amount of data and use it to make smarter and faster decisions than humans,” Smallwood notes. “As labor shortages continue to plague the hospitality industry, hoteliers must adopt AI to better serve the needs of their guests.”
Consider a Chatbot
While chatbots have been in use by many within the hospitality industry for quite some time, they continue to be a useful solution for streamlining customer service and delivering smooth B2C interactions. Perhaps one newer use case for chatbots is during the booking process.
For instance, Quicktext offers a virtual assistant that handles customer requests through the chat features of a website, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, Google My Business Chat, etc. For hotels, this makes a huge difference in the amount of bookings they can receive.
“Before, customers had to go to a website and click on the booking button, but with Quicktext customers can be engaged much more easily while browsing social media platforms,” says Benjamin Devisme, Chief Evangelist Officer, Quicktext. “Customers get instant precise answers to more than 200 topics and when the customer is ready to book, they are redirected via a deeplink to the end of the hotel booking engine to complete the reservation.”
What makes a solution like Quicktext useful and unique is the amount of information it proactively collects from guests.
“Every interaction is engineered to capture as much customer data as possible to fuel sales processes via the hotel booking engine, emailing solution, call center outbound calls, and CRM marketing campaigns, Devisme notes.
So, if a customer doesn’t end up booking a hotel reservation, the customer data collected by the chatbot enables a proactive follow up via automated emails or phone calls from the call center.
Zafiro Hotels implemented Quicktext and found that within five months the chatbot had held more than 3,600 conversations and solved 80 percent of them without needing any human support. It also helped increase direct sales by 11%.
Chatbots and other automation solutions allow hoteliers to “empower guests to self-serve for routine needs – room and dining reservations, updating a profile, even checking out – while freeing up internal staff to handle more complex queries,” adds Matt Edic, Chief Experience Officer, IntelePeer. “Conversational AI solutions, like virtual assistants or chatbots, improve employee productivity and the overall customer experience.”