Women enjoying a meal by the pool

The difference between good and great travel and hospitality customer service

CX Best PracticesTravel and Hospitality

What details does a traveler share with their friends, family and colleagues upon returning home from a trip? That the room was adequately furnished? Probably not. That the transportation ran without issue? Unlikely. That the service was sufficient? Doubtful. While these scenarios all make for a satisfactory travel and hospitality experience, they don't translate to rave reviews.

Indeed, there is often a fine line between 'good' and 'great' customer service. The former keeps guests satisfied, while the latter turns them into loyal brand advocates, ready to share their great experiences with anyone who will listen.

Take the example of a hotel guest forgetting their coat in a hotel room closet. A hotel with average customer service might wait for the customer to call and ask to have the coat shipped back home. A hotel with great customer service, meanwhile, would proactively contact the customer and offer to send the coat back.

One may think a higher investment is needed to excel, but according to Scott Berman, principal and industry leader of PwC's Hospitality and Leisure Group, “it doesn't take more resources to provide great customer service." What it does take is well-trained staff with the tools to take it above and beyond. Here are four ways your travel and hospitality brand can elevate the customer experience.

1. Empower your staff to take initiative

Kathleen Reidenbach, chief commercial officer for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, agrees that a great travel industry customer experience starts with employees.

“Kimpton empowers our employees to take leadership and ownership of how they live the brand," Reidenbach says. “We encourage them to think outside the box to make our guests' stays memorable."

For instance, when the mother of a bride contacted Kimpton to let the staff know her daughter had been stood up at her wedding but planned to use her honeymoon reservation at one of Kimpton's New York City hotels anyway, the staff immediately mobilized to create an unconventional non-honeymoon experience for the guest, Reidenbach says.

Imagine how depressing it would have been for the would-be bride to be congratulated on her nuptials when she checked in and then to walk into a honeymoon suite with champagne, roses and chocolate-covered strawberries. Instead, the hotel quickly updated her room to give it a "'we're really sorry, this sucks" vibe with chocolate, wine and comfort food, Reidenbach says. Afterward, the bride shared her story on social media, saying the hotel made her awful situation much better.

2. Learn more about your guests

Great customer service is more than just knowing a guest's name, it's about understanding their likes, dislikes and preferences. Social media offers travel brands a wealth of information regarding who is visiting their destination, what activities they are engaging in and how their vacation is going. Utilizing this information is key to going above and beyond "good" customer service, and making it great.

To hone in on this opportunity, Kimpton uses a social media management and monitoring tool to archive interactions with customers. This provides opportunities to personalize future interactions and create those 'wow' moments, like referring to a guest's dog by name, or providing a sweet treat for a couple celebrating a wedding anniversary. It also provides insights into any past experiences — good or bad — that the guest has had staying on the property. "Digital is the front door to our brand and it's crucial that we get the first impression in the customer journey right," Reidenbach adds.

3. Communicate with guests using their channel of choice

Travel and hospitality brands are increasingly turning to technology to help decrease customer effort and increase personalization. Previously, "good" customer service would be a member of hotel staff swiftly answering a phone call. Nowadays, however, most Millennial customers avoid phone conversations like the plague, preferring to have an exchange over instant message or chat instead.

The key for brands is to be “extremely thoughtful" about how data and technology are used to enhance and improve the guest experience without diluting it, Reidenbach says. For instance, Kimpton offers guests a free texting service that enables them to easily interact with the staff and receive real-time, personalized answers to their questions throughout their stay.

This allows guests to make inquiries at their own convenience, while avoiding a long line at the concierge desk if they're simply looking for a restaurant recommendation or suggested activities. “We've found that people prefer to text over picking up the phone or swinging by the front desk," Reidenbach says. “Not only does it help us resolve issues swiftly, it also gives us an opportunity to just chat with our guests on their terms."

4. Give customers more control

Sometimes travelers are looking for more control over their customer experiences, and an app is a great way to hand guests that power. According to J.D. Power & Associates, guests who download and use a hotel's mobile app are more satisfied and have greater loyalty to that brand. When the Hilton Honors app was first introduced in 2015, guests could only use it to select their room. A year later, Hilton introduced a feature that gave guests access to a digital key with their smartphone, allowing them to completely bypass the front desk at check-in.

Hilton made the app even more useful, later adding room controls that enabled users to turn on and off the lights, adjust the temperature and use the TV in their room, says Josh Weiss, Hilton's vice-president of brand and guest technology. Continuously increasing opportunities for guests to make their travels their own is key to providing a great experience.

“We designed the platform to solve common challenges for our guests and hotel operators," Weiss says. For instance, he says, how often do you get into bed in a hotel only to realize you forgot to turn off the entryway light? You could get out of bed to turn off the light, but then you're likely to stub a toe or hit your shin on your way back to bed. With the app, you can turn off the light from your smartphone, which is most likely being charged right next to your bed on the nightstand, he adds.

The app also allows guests to stream Showtime and Netflix on the hotel TV, and it even lets visitors start a show where they left off at home or on the plane. Eventually the Hilton Honors app will enable guests to request housekeeping services, including setting a preferred time for room cleaning during their stay. “Ultimately anything in a room that is powered, will be controlled through the app," Weiss says.

As travel and hospitality brands increasingly turn to technology to further enhance the customer experience, experts agree that great customer service really boils down to one key element: great employees. In that regard, the biggest benefit of incorporating consumer-facing technology is the time it gives back to your staff to be able to help guests with special requests or resolve any issues that may arise. At the end of the day, it's the employees who make each guest's experience special, says Weiss. Technology just helps.

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