Guest Post By Christopher Schyma, Vice President, Hospitality and Travel, 7… News that Hilton Worldwide, the world’s biggest hotel chain, has announced a new ‘predictive chat’ booking service on its websites is a reminder that booking rooms directly from corporate websites is a growing, if perhaps unexpected, trend and one that can benefit both customers and hotels alike.
The move is part of Hilton’s marketing campaign ‘Stop Clicking Around’ which, in turn, is part of a much bigger movement by the hospitality industry to circumvent OTAs (Online Travel Agents).
After enjoying years of significant growth, the industry is now having to deal with tougher times, and many brands are looking to not only claw back the commission that would otherwise go to OTAs, but also introduce price incentives and personalised, value-add services for customers who book through them directly.
And today’s personalised service no longer means just passively reacting to requests from customers, but actively anticipating them and suggesting additional improvements that could make their stay even better.
This very tailored service that builds on the customer’s previous experience and preferences is the key differentiator. OTAs may appear to offer a cheaper and more convenient service initially but, once the booking has been made, responsibility for the guest’s experience is handed over to the hotel and the OTA’s involvement comes to an abrupt end.
And this is where the risk of a guest’s journey becoming a disjointed and uneven affair may become more pronounced. The guest’s ‘ideal experience’ may end up as being very far from that and, in turn, may mean no repeat bookings.
But with thousands of hotels and millions of guests around the world, how can hoteliers customise the experience for every single guest? How can they provide an experience so exceptional that guests see the advantages of booking directly through that hotel every time?
The solution is the Digital Concierge – a service only made possible by the advent of data analytics. This has given hoteliers the ability to anticipate and proactively meet the needs of customers in advance; an ability that also gives them a distinct competitive advantage.
For most hotels, data remains an underused and under-appreciated asset. They may capture loyalty information about guests, but few make use of it in any great depth and even fewer take follow up action.
Analysts Forrester are calling the combination of predictive analytics with customer engagement ‘predictive apps’ and they are predicting an era that will take digital disruption to its most logical and necessary extreme: a world of hyper-individualised experiences. Predictive apps leverage big data predictive analytics to provide the right functionality and the right content on the right device at just the right moment for the right person — an individual person, not a target, niche, or segment.
So what is a Digital Concierge?
The Digital Concierge is a conversational, digitally-powered and intelligent messaging experience embedded into a hotel’s native app that provides contextual assistance to guests – contextual in this case meaning knowing what room they are in, how long they are booked for, their previously-expressed preferences and so on.
So whether the guest has a query about room availability, room rates and selection, special requests such as extra pillows, a fan in the room, booking a taxi, late checkout or post-stay queries such as tracing missing items or totting up loyalty points, the digital concierge is always there and always ready to provide an informed, not just a standard generic, answer because they have all the data about that guest at their fingertips.
Human or Machine – You Decide
Of course, not every guest interaction needs to be with a real human being. Virtual agent technology can be seamlessly integrated into the digital concierge to deliver a personalised self-serve experience at scale.
In fact, there are many cases where letting a guest ‘self-serve’ is the guest’s preferred support method.
For example, a guest may want to confirm the date of their stay or the check in time and if they can use their smart phone, tablet or desktop to engage with a virtual, non-human, agent, then it may be a quicker and more straightforward experience.
By simply touching the screen or clicking on a few buttons, they may get the answer more easily than if they had to call a human agent, wait for the call to be answered and then have the information read out to them over the phone.
By using the virtual agent as a filter for more frequently asked questions, the company is able to free up human customer agents, as well as the on-site concierge, to deal exclusively with more complex problems that benefit from human assistance.
The on-site concierge then becomes an escalation point within the digital concierge eradicating 20-30% of questions that would normally be sent over to the concierge.
A virtual agent gives guests the option to find information themselves but also switch to an agent-assisted interaction when they feel they need to chat and all of this takes place in one official thread of conversation.
Throughout the entire ‘on-screen’ virtual agent process, there is a ‘Chat Now’ button option that users can press to switch to a human being if they wish to so they are never left to navigate the system completely on their own.
The Power of Knowledge
Of course, the system is only as smart as the information that is fed into it and the strength of the digital concierge is its ability to pull out all the data, from every possible source, to provide the best answer. In order to do this, it draws from three main sources:
1)“Off-line” brand knowledge: This is the long list of policies, procedures, terms and conditions and brand information, and any other static information about your company that has been laid down in advance. This is pro-actively uploaded into the system and used as the foundation for the information database.
2)Guest Customer Relationship Management (CRM) history/data: This is the detailed information that the company has accrued on each individual guest: where they’ve stayed, how long they’ve stayed, how many loyalty points they’ve accumulated, and even what customisations they’ve requested in the past. This information is how the digital concierge tailors the conversation to a guest’s unique needs and brings it up to speed on their past interactions so that customers don’t have to repeat themselves.
3)“In the moment” knowledge: This is the information captured from the app page itself – which app pages the customer has recently visited or what questions they’ve typed into the search bar are examples of in-the-moment-knowledge that gives an insight into what the customer is trying to accomplish. This information is used to identify the intent of the customer inquiry. So if a customer asks, “Does this hotel allow pets?” the digital concierge uses this “in the moment” knowledge to know exactly which property “this hotel” is and provide an informed answer.
For hoteliers, this means reducing customer care costs and freeing up the on-site concierge’s time so that they can be front and centre, engaging with guests, and only dealing with the really hard problems that make the best use of their expertise. For customers, it means a quicker and smoother (self)service when they need it, but backed up by a human being if necessary and a single authoritative source of information about their past preferences and transactions.
All in all, it’s a Win-Win for everyone and a trend that’s sure to grow in the coming years.
About Christopher Schyma, Vice President, Hospitality and Travel, 7
Christopher Schyma has been with 7 since 2013 and has more than 10 years of experience in the Retail, Hospitality and Consumer Goods industries. As a change-agent who works at pace, Christopher’s experience in digital transformation has already helped leading retail and hospitality brands “shift the dial” through customer experience initiatives, delivering more favourable outcomes for both the business and their customers.
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