How the hospitality industry can improve customer engagement

One of the industries hardest hit by COVID-19 has to be the hospitality industry. People postponed vacations, business travel ground to a halt, conferences and conventions went virtual. Car rental companies sold off their fleets, hospitality workers were furloughed and many locations closed permanently.

Things are rebounding, and we can expect airports will again be crowded, rooms hard to find and rental cars disappearing fast. The lodging industry went from famine to feast over the summer, and we can probably expect more of the same over the winter. This presents both a challenge and a fantastic opportunity to engage guests as they return.

The Challenges 

The challenge arises in how hotels can create a great customer experience when there is less direct engagement with guests. Plexiglas shields make trips to the front and concierge desks less comfortable. Fortunately, technology in use before COVID-19 makes it easier for guests to bypass the front desk upon arrival. Smartphone apps allow guests to choose their rooms, request upgrades and even open their room door with digital keys.

However, this redefines the traditional initial interaction with guests at check-in. Post-pandemic travel will likely see more guests embrace this contactless check-in method, especially for higher-end hotels and resorts.

The hospitality industry has always had a somewhat captive audience with guests since they are literally sleeping—and sometimes eating—on the property. However, the industry has traditionally been very mindful about intruding on the guest experience. While hotels always seek feedback about a trip or visit, guests often doesn’t get the opportunity to provide feedback until after they return home. At that point, their passion for the trip has faded. The biggest challenge here is that the guest is now removed from his or her experience, and it’s too late for the hotel or resort to change that guest’s experience. Knowing that the pillows are too hard or that the people upstairs are rearranging furniture at 3 a.m. while the guest is still a guest lets the hotel assist the customer and, in the process, create a happier experience. By asking questions during their stay, hoteliers can overcome the increasing challenge of not engaging with guests directly and still provide a higher level of service during their visit.

Hospitality is far from the only industry to struggle with its customer experience. Even before the pandemic widened the physical separation between customers and staff, most customer-experience programs failed to effectively respond to customer feedback at all, let alone in a timely fashion. According to an April 2021 commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Alchemer, "Smoke and Mirrors: Why Customer Experience Programs Miss Their Mark," 76 percent of respondents said customer feedback is not being effectively addressed in their customer experience programs.

The study found, “Organizations fall victim to process inefficiencies, deprioritized initiatives and a lack of automation that prevents them from acting on the customer data. An altered sense of reality further undermines progress. Many organizations think that, because they’re collecting customer feedback, their voice of the customer program is proceeding as it should—even if they aren’t acting on this data.”

One Possible Solution

This situation can be easily remedied. For example, after a guest arrives at the hotel and settles into his or her room, he or she can receive a text with access to a guest experience guide rather than a traditional survey. Here, the guest is asked a series of questions about his or her immediate needs: 

  • Did you remember all your toiletries? 
  • Is your room the way you like it? 
  • Do you need reservations for breakfast, lunch or dinner? 
  • Do you need a meeting room? 
  • Do you want the concierge to investigate outings? 

Based on the answers to those questions, the lodging company now knows how to improve the guest’s current visit. Immediately after the guest experience guide is submitted, it triggers a request through the system that a housekeeper should bring up a toothbrush and a hypoallergenic pillow. The survey also confirms a dinner reservation and the concierge receives a request to obtain tickets to a concert or show for that guest. In short, providing feedback directly affects the immediate guest experience.

An added benefit to the hospitality provider is that it now has recorded data on the visitor’s preferences, which it can use to improve future visits. This makes it easy to appear proactively customer-centric and very memorable to each customer.

Because the lodging company has earned the guest’s engagement—and proven that it is listening—the company can also ask other questions that otherwise go unanswered. How was the reservation process? How was check-in? By providing value-add for the guest, travelers are more likely to answer a few additional questions that help the company improve the broader experience. This concept could be extended beyond lodging to all aspects of hospitality.

With the further proliferation of technology that enables customers to engage less often face-to-face, it’s harder than ever to provide a great customer experience. CX or VoC programs need to evolve to effectively respond to customer feedback. By focusing on ways to engage and respond to guests during their visit, the hospitality industry can overcome the challenge of socially distanced clientele. Post pandemic, organizations that act on their data collection efforts and build responses into their daily processes will lead the way in driving greater customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Turning Insights into Action

According to “Smoke & Mirrors: Why Customer Experience Programs Miss Their Mark,” most CX leaders believe their organizations are doing a good job of collecting and analyzing feedback, only one in four are incorporating those insights into their decisions and operations. This means that customers do not see the results. Below are three key findings from the report.

  • Set up the program for success. Even though organizations are investing in customer experience programs, they are falling short when it comes to prioritizing feedback to improve their operations. CX must be fully embedded into the systems people use and built out across the company to close significant gaps in performance.
  • Embed feedback into processes. Businesses must focus on three areas where CX programs typically fail: quality, embeddedness and process. Most organizations believe that their CX programs are mature, but in reality, the CX programs are disconnected from key people, processes and technology pillars. As a result, companies don’t act on the feedback they receive—good, bad, or indifferent. Embedding the feedback into the systems people use every day is the key to backing up their perception of excellence with action. In the study, 96 percent of survey respondents reported their organizations experienced negative business impacts due to these challenges.
  • Do more than collect scores. Any feedback your company receives must be analyzed, acted on and integrated into your company’s operations and business processes. However, designing your system so you can act on feedback while it’s being analyzed is how you can put the findings into action. And without immediate action, much of the feedback is essentially useless.

Chris Benham is chief marketing officer at Alchemer.