Here’s what hotel brands are doing to maximize their voice sales channels, and what they can be doing better.
With revenue per available room and occupancy at historic lows, hotel brands should be focused on capturing whatever business is still out there. Group business has been devastated, and corporate travel has slowed to a trickle, which means the transient channel has the most potential upside.
Certainly, website direct and online travel agencies are key channels for capturing transient demand, what brands are doing to maximize “voice” contribution (which I have often referred to as the forgotten distribution channel)?
Although call volume is down significantly, it makes sense that many of those who are venturing back out are more likely to call with specific questions about what’s open nearby, the status of tourism attractions or simply for reassurances that only a live human voice can provide. Plus, with all the media coverage about how COVID-19 has impacted the hospitality industry, there are also plenty of “deal-seekers” calling to ask about discounts or specials. Finally, those who are traveling may call with questions about cleaning protocols during the pandemic, especially with all brands advertising their extra attention to cleaning.
As my frequent HNN readers know, I have often addressed the brands handling of the voice channel, so I decided to replicate a survey which I first conducted for an HNN article in 2014.
At that time, most hotel companies were attempting to steal-back market share from OTAs by offering some version of a “book direct with brand.com” program. My conclusion was that despite all the ad campaigns, most brands had overlooked voice and most of the major hotel brands tested were set up for “order taking,” not “order making.” Based on the results of my most recent survey, little has changed despite how desperately hotels need the business during this pandemic.
Survey results by criteria
Asked “discovery” questions (14% / 4 of 28)
Credit was given when agents asked any guests for more than their location, dates of travel and loyalty membership (for example, questions relating to purpose of travel and familiarity with the hotel or brand). Hilton performed exceptionally well, as three of four agents asked multiple discovery questions. Discovery questions help agents connect with callers and encourage a more conversational (versus transactional) service style, plus agents can better-sell the experience and not just quote a rate.
Sold hotel benefits (7% / 2 of 28)
For this, we were simply looking for the agent to offer any details whatsoever about the hotel itself or about the brand differentiators. With all of our inquiries being for moderate, mid-scale brands within the portfolio, obvious examples would be to mention amenities such as the complimentary breakfast (even if offerings are temporarily scaled-down), complimentary internet or a convenient location. The only two agents who mentioned such details were both at Hilton, which also tied for the highest overall total score (61%).
Described the room (25% / 7 of 28)
Here we required agents just to offer any minimal descriptions of the room, beyond stating the number of beds or name of the room category.
Quoted more than one room category (25% / 7 of 28)
Agents simply had to mention more than one room type. In most cases, the agents listed only the minimum category, perhaps assuming that callers are only looking for the lowest price.
Asked for the sale (86% / 24 of 28) and when declined, created urgency or removed barriers to booking now (64% - 18 of 28)
Hotel brands consistently scored well at asking for the sale; most scored 100%, with the lowest score being 50% for only one brand. When we politely offered mild resistance, the majority of agents did push by explaining their cancellation policy; most also created urgency by mentioning that rates and availability could change. Only one brand scored a zero of four attempts at the “second close;” coincidentally it was the same brand that scored the lowest at the initial attempt to close the sale, and also the brand that had the lowest overall score of 25%.
Satisfactory explanation of COVID-19 cleaning (64% / 18 of 28)
We asked a final question such as “My (wife/husband) is really concerned about the virus situation. We read online something about your (name of brand cleaning program). Can you tell me anything about that?” Credit was given if agents were able to state at least three components of the program, including but not limited to availability of hand sanitizer, extra attention to room cleaning, mask requirements, capacity restrictions (elevators, dining) and/or special F&B safety precautions.
- About a quarter of the time agents simply read a prepared statement similar to what we had seen online, which while thorough, did not sound personally reassuring.
- A few agents were completely unprepared. Some of the worst responses were:
- “Sorry, I don’t know anything about that.”
- “Oh, yes, we clean the rooms from time to time.”
- “Oh yes, information about that program is listed at our website.”
- Some agents were obviously trying hard to reassure us but were fumbling with their explanations.
- “It means for example that all the rooms are well-sanitized. If someone has the virus in that room it is isolated.”
- “We were housing the doctors and nurses who were treating the COVID patients at some of our hotels, but they have all checked out now and those rooms were cleaned.”
- “That means that after check-out rooms are left vacant for 24 to 72 hours before we clean them.” When I asked if this was the case with all hotel rooms, he said yes. (The agent forgot a key detail listed at the brand website which is “when possible.”)
- Two agents did very well. An agent at Hyatt mentioned that he often stays at hotels and is amazed at how clean they are, and that they are doing even more now. A Best Western agent stated that her sister had recently traveled to several BW hotels and felt very safe while there.
Feedback on website visits
Our sole purpose of visiting the websites was to find the central reservations number, which often proved to be difficult.
- IHG: The only brand that made it easy to find its 800 number, which is listed at the top of the website on both desktop and mobile visits.
- Hyatt: No 800 number listed the home page of either desktop or mobile websites. However, after clicking links it can be found.
- Hilton: On both the desktop and mobile website, a phone number is posted at the bottom of the page. However, it is a vanity number (1800-Hiltons). Wherever vanity numbers are displayed, the actual numbers should also be disclosed for convenience.
- Marriott: No 800 number listed the home page of either desktop or mobile websites. However, after clicking links it can be found.
- Best Western: No reservations number listed on either desktop or mobile websites, but on both versions there is a link to “Customer Service,” which includes a link to reservations, where a phone number is displayed.
- Choice: On the desktop website, the hotel reservations number is listed at the bottom left corner of the page. On the mobile version clicking on the menu in the upper-left corner and scrolling to the bottom of the list yields the hotel reservations number.
- Wyndham: On desktop, the reservations number can be found in the lower-left corner. On mobile, a link at the bottom of the page for “Reservations” opens a menu, where the 800 number was displayed.
Finally, without embarrassing any brands, here are a few other observations.
- During a call for Orlando, Florida, one agent started reading a list of names of hotels in Orlando, so I let him continue on until he got to the 10th property. It would have been better to ask if I was looking for a particular location or brand.
- One agent at Hyatt did a fantastic job by not only asking questions about the purpose of my trip, as only 7% of the agents surveyed did, but then by personally recommending two different hotels.
- One Choice agent ended with the best and most personalized statement, which was said in a super-friendly tone: “Thanks for calling, and I hope you have a nice Sunday.”
In summary, our experiences point to opportunities for all hotel brands to re-focus their attention on “voice” as a distribution channel. Leaders must recognize the interplay between voice and online channels, as often those who book online have first called with questions. I often hear from our many brand contacts that “voice contribution” has been declining over the years, but this experiences makes me wonder if perhaps voice bookings have declined because our industry has neglected this channel and allowed the caller experience to deteriorate.
Doug Kennedy is president of the Kennedy Training Network, Inc. Contact him at email@example.com.
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