Just as Apple used mobile technology to redefine the notion of customer service in retail, and Uber used mobile technology to transform the meaning of customer service in transportation, mobile technology can similarly improve the provision of customer service in hospitality.
This article originally appeared on Hotel Speak on 1/13/2016.
For some luxury hoteliers, the idea of mobile technology in hospitality is fraught.
When customer service is understood as face-to-face interaction, the introduction of mobile technology is seen as an ill-suited replacement, an encroach on the time-honored traditions of hospitality.
And when construed as such, there is also research that backs up these misgivings. A recent study by the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration shows that using automation - in this case self-serve check-in technology - as a replacement for in-person customer service “can impede development of employee-guest rapport and lead to lower service evaluations.”
Yet, we would like to offer another definition for customer service, one for which mobile technology is far more compatible. Instead of defining customer service as face to face interaction, we posit it’s simply about choice. In this vein, offering guests the choice of mobile technology is just good customer service.
Indeed, as the Cornell report’s authors concede, guests do actually prefer automated check-in technology when the staff is nearby.
The answer then, is not mobile technology as a substitute for your hotel staff, but rather as a most valuable complement - enhancing the ability for your staff to further service their guests.
Just as Apple used mobile technology to redefine the notion of customer service in retail (check-out anywhere without waiting in line), and Uber used mobile technology to transform the meaning of customer service in transportation (pre-paid travel at the push of a button), mobile technology can similarly improve the provision of customer service in hospitality.
Implementing mobile technology at your hotel doesn’t mean changing the fundamentals of hospitality. Instead it lets you continue to deliver exceptional service, but now with more efficiency.
As we discuss below, mobile technology helps leverage your staff to provide better customer service in four important ways: through mobility, through automation, by breaking down barriers and by giving control to your guests.
Mobile technology is, just as the name suggests, mobile. When the desktop system was the de facto computing device it made sense to give your staff desktop computers and place them both behind a desk in your hotel lobby.
But just as hardware has shifted from fixed to mobile, your staff can shift from fixed in place to mobile as well. Giving your staff tablets and other mobile devices means they’re able to provide services to your guests from not just behind a desk, but from anywhere and everywhere on property. So-called “desk extension” software and apps take advantage of this new paradigm and return the essential element of mobility back to hospitality.
In addition to extending the reach of your staff on-site, mobile technology also lets staff and guests interact off-site. Guests can use your hotel’s mobile services, like Guest apps and hotel text messaging, on their own mobile devices to converse with the hotel when they’re off-property, as well as both before and after their stay. The result is increased guest satisfaction, loyalty and revenue.
Every day, your staff complete many of the same routine tasks: checking people in and out, handover reporting, night audit batch, and room assignments and mini bar tracking, just to name a few.
While these tasks are all essential for the day to day operation of the hotel, they take up time your staff could be spending with your guests providing more memorable customer service experiences. By using technology to automate check-in, for example, a front desk staff member is now able to greet the guest the moment they enter the hotel as well as service more immediate requests (including, of course, check-in, if the guest prefers not to do it themselves).
Another way to use technology for automation is in the mobile delivery of service, such as the mobile delivery of newspapers. Offering newspaper delivery via mobile devices not only removes the need for staff to hand-deliver the newspaper every morning, but may improve the overall guest experience by providing a wider variety of newspapers and magazines - and in more languages - than traditionally available.
Augmentation by automation also extends behind the scenes, where much staff time is spent in dispatching requests between and within departments. When staff submit guest requests into a cross-department, integrated management tool it means requests don’t have to be repeated multiple times, followed up on, or lost in the shuffle between shifts. The time your staff saves by not being on the phone or radio-ing between departments is more time your staff can spend interacting with guests and providing the kinds of high-touch guest experiences that cannot be automated. As Matthew Upchurch, CEO of luxury travel company Virtuoso, likes to say, “Automate the predictable, so you can humanize the exceptional.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Technology can augment your staff by helping to break down common barriers to customer service, such as language translation. For hotels, language barriers provide unique challenges to customer service. Even the most multilingual of staff can’t hope to meet the ‘round the clock needs of each and every guests without a technological assist.
David Topolewski, CEO of Qooco points to the impact technology can have on improving customer service in staff language training via mobile learning. He writes, “It is impossible to separate language with service, and a high level of proficiency is needed especially when dealing with tired, jet-lagged and hungry guests… Today, smartphones have become so sophisticated and ubiquitous that they offer one of the most efficient means of training for large numbers of employees anywhere, anytime, allowing learning to be conducted during a lunch break, or on the way to work.” And mobile training, he adds, “has been proven to provide better results than traditional classroom-based learning.”
Technology can also provide a valuable stopgap when mobile training isn’t an option or doesn’t suffice. Translation tools can provide real-time sentence-based language translation between guests and staff, as well as between the staff themselves, and instantly augment the proficiencies of your staff to elevate the customer service they provide.
Giving Control to Guests
Increasing mobile device penetration amongst travelers and attendant changes in travel behavior and preferences are well documented. Earlier this year, Marriott VP Matthew Carroll credited the increasingly connected traveler and the corresponding shift in guest expectations for the addition of a mobile request feature to the hotel chain’s mobile app. Explained Carroll: “Some 75% of people travel with one or more devices and the percentage is higher for younger travelers. We know today’s travelers want a mobile experience built around their changing needs and desire to communicate on their terms.”
Studies confirm the desire for travelers to retain greater control of their stay through mobile. A 2015 survey from The Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University, for example, asked participants how interested they would be in using their mobile devices to do things that may not be currently available via mobile at their hotel. The researchers found guests generally wanted greater automation of a wide variety of procedures and interactions, such as, (in descending order), receiving a notification on their device when their room is ready, requesting hotel amenities, checking in and out of the hotel, and ordering room service. Participants were also interested in looking at more information about their hotels, including upgrading a room before checking in, requesting reservations for on- and off-site restaurants, or having the valet retrieve the car.
Offering on-demand services to your guests via mobile doesn’t replace the customer service traditionally provided by your staff, but instead satisfies an expanded definition of customer service now grounded by the conveniences of the instant gratification economy. When Fashion’s Collective founder Elizabeth Cannon writes about the falling customer service standards of the world’s most luxurious fashion brands, she could just as well be commenting on the state of customer service today in hospitality. Says Cannon: “No one in luxury really likes to discuss customer service because the assumption is always that, as a luxury brand, there is an innate high degree of service.” She continues, “The problem is not that luxury has neglected service, rather [luxury brands] have neglected the fact convenience is a measure of service and that customers now expect convenience across a multitude of experiences. After all, time is the biggest luxury of all in our modern world. As customers, we seek experiences that make us feel we are using the commodity of time in the ways possible.” She concludes, “The expectation of a luxury customer will be that a premium brand will at least meet the new standards, if not exceed them.”
If customer service is about meeting the needs of your guest, then giving control to your guests via mobile request provides a baseline of customer service that your guests have come to expect from their everyday lives. Your staff’s expertise in customer service then becomes a most valuable complement to these mobile tools, by providing guests with the kind of superior customer service experiences guests don’t experience in their day-to-day.