Industry Update
Opinion Article 9 February 2017

Customer Service is the 'New Marketing'

By DJ Vallauri, Founder, President & CEO - Lodging Interactive

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According to Ritz-Carlton's own customer service policy: "Ritz-Carlton Hotel has a policy that any employee can spend up to $2000 a day (without requiring any authorization from management) to solve the need or concern of any of their customers. On his way to Hawaii to deliver an important presentation, a businessman realized he had accidentally left his portable computer at a Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta. His presentation was stored on the computer. He placed a frantic call to the hotel and was routed to housekeeping. They had found his computer. Please send by Federal Express, he requested. I absolutely need it tomorrow morning for my presentation. Imagine his surprise when Mary from housekeeping showed up in Hawaii early the next morning to hand deliver his computer. Mary was quoted as saying, this was too important to trust FedX with, so I decided to deliver it myself!" (source: helpscout.net)

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Clearly when you think of exceptional hotel customer service, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company sets the bar. I've traveled all over the world and have stayed in many luxury properties such as Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons. To be honest, all the rooms are very well appointed and luxurious. The facilities are top notch. But the Ritz-Carlton properties have an extra level of something I'll call "customer service pixie dust" that separates them from all the other luxury hotels. In my mind the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has successfully used customer service as a marketing differentiator within the hospitality luxury market place. Frankly they have set themselves apart. And I will add that their clientele have no problem paying the extra money to stay in a place where they know they will receive superior customer service.

But let's step back for a moment to consider where customer service between your hotel and guests actually begins. Is it when the new guest arrives at your front desk or is it when the guest checks into their room? Better yet, does customer service begin the moment someone begins to engage with your brand or property? In my opinion customer service begins the moment someone visits your hotel website and begins to engage with your property online. From that initial moment a potential guest is starting to formulate a vision that creates a feeling of excitement, anticipation or disappointment and is either enticed or let down based on what they are seeing and experiencing on your website.

In today's very fast-paced world where we are all connected nearly 24 seven it's important to realize that we are in the hospitality business and not in the artificial intelligence and robotic business as some have come to believe. The hotel business, frankly like any other business, is about creating relationships, human-to-human, and it's your job as a hotel operator to humanize your hotel and your brand in order to gain the highest level of customer service as perceived by your guest. So how exactly do you accomplish this and where does it begin?

I am a firm believer that every hotel website should have a push-to-chat function enabled. As consumers we have all used live chat functions on websites as we've dealt with them for the last 10 years. Yet as a hotel industry we have yet to see the proliferation of live chat customer service via hotel websites. Yes, there are some hotel websites that are live chat enabled however they are in the minority. In fact, we researched over 2500 hotels in North America and found that less than one half of 1% of the hotels have live chat enabled on their websites. That's an extraordinary number of 12 hotels out of 2500 ready to support customer service via live chat. This is a sad reflection on hotel operators and, as an industry, we can do way better than this. What excites me about live chat is that there is no learning curve from a customer's perspective. As I mentioned, we have all been using live chat for the last 10 years. Certainly you may have used live chat yourself when contacting your local bank or cable company. I find that I'm often able to receive faster and more precise customer support service when I utilize live chat versus calling an 800 number and being routed through an endless array of interactive voice response prompts.

When you further consider that the majority of hotel websites are in self service mode, meaning the potential hotel guests are expected to fend for themselves in seeking out information they need on your website, your hotel has a tremendous opportunity to differentiate and grab market share by simply implementing a live chat human-to-human real-time engagement widget on your website.

Now I have no doubt that you have read about all these fancy new technologies that utilize artificial intelligence to reply to consumers via a messaging app or a chat application. There's a lot of venture capital money chasing these applications and this is part of the reason the frenzy is so intense. At this point in time artificial intelligence chat applications, chatbots, are really technologies that are looking for a problem to solve. I am a firm believer that technology ultimately improves customer engagement for hotels but we should never look for problems to solve with technology but rather we should use technologies to solve problems. The industry seems to be chasing a problem that doesn't exist with this artificial intelligence consumer engagement technology.

In addition to providing real-time customer service via live chat through your website, customer service is also expected through your social media channels. And it's not just about Facebook. It's also about Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social media platforms where potential and past guests can engage with your hotel and others. Your hotel needs to keep a keen eye on comments made before and after guests arrive at your property.

So here is where the customer service concept as a marketing advantage for your property comes into play. Because social media engagement between your hotel and potential and past guests is conducted in public, out in the open, others can clearly see and judge you on how well you are engaging with your past and future guests. In fact they can see how you are humanizing your hotel and providing human-to-human engagement conversations. This is where you can set your property apart from your competitive marketplace by being on top of every single engagement opportunity there is to be had via your social media platforms. Whereas in the past you may have considered social media platforms as new direct booking channels for your hotel, you can now consider your social media channels as your customer service marketing advantage within your competitive set. In fact Live Chat your website and social media channels provide your hotel with a tremendous marketing opportunity, almost an unfair advantage within your marketplace.

Today's new mobile technologies coupled with super-fast Internet bandwidth connected to mobile devices, has empowered consumers like never before. And with the plethora of messaging and chat applications available to consumers and hotels, there's never been a better time for hotels to create their customer service marketing advantages via consumer real-time engagement. The successful hotel operators today are the ones who understand how consumers wants to be communicated to and on which technology and application platforms; and this is exactly where a customer service competitive advantage can be created for your property.

Consumers today expect stellar customer service regardless of whether they are engaging with your brand or your property both off and online. Within the competitive marketplace in which we all operate there is no excuse for your hotel to not deliver on consumer expectations. The market will make you pay for your customer service omissions in the way of lost business opportunities and lost room nights. And when you consider that consumers will often pay (sometimes more) for great customer service, there is no excuse for not investing in the proper tools and services to be able to deliver great customer service even before the guest arrives on your property. Once the guest arrives, well, then it's up to you and your team to step up and to show the guest that they indeed made the right decision in staying with you in the first place.

DJ Vallauri, Founder & President of Lodging Interactive, has been proactive and successful in all his social media initiatives over the last five years through CoMMingle. DJ saw the void of participation on social media from individual hotel properties and in 2010 CoMMingle was born.Through his insightful projections, CoMMingle has become a successful division of Lodging Interactive solely dedicated to social media marketing, social customer service and reputation management for the Hospitality Industry. Every industry's social media needs are different and DJ understands the needs and challenges faced by hotels. Mr. Vallauri can be contacted at 877-291-4411 ext 704 | Lodging or [email protected] Please visit http://LodgingInteractive.com for more information. Extended Bio...

DJ Vallauri

DJ Vallauri is the founder and president of Lodging Interactive. Headquartered in Parsippany, NJ, Lodging Interactive is a full-service digital marketing agency exclusively servicing the hospitality industry for more than a decade. The company provides a portfolio of effective hotel Internet marketing services to hundreds of hotels, resorts, ownership properties, spas and restaurants.

    More from DJ Vallauri

    About Lodging Interactive

    Headquartered in Parsippany, NJ, Lodging Interactive is a full-service digital marketing, social media engagement and reputation management agency exclusively servicing the hospitality industry. The Company provides cost-effective Internet marketing services to hundreds of branded and independent properties as well as management companies, restaurants, and spas.

    commingle:engage, the Company's social media and reputation management division, has established itself as the largest provider of reputation management services for the hospitality industry, handling over 200,000 guest review responses annually.

    Lodging Interactive is an HSMAI Adrian Award winner and has won awards from the International Academy of Visual Arts, Interactive Media Awards, Horizon Interactive Awards, Web Marketing Association, Academy of Interactive & Visual Arts, and Travel Weekly's Magellan Awards have recognized Lodging Interactive as an industry leader.

    The Company's Founder & CEO, DJ Vallauri, formerly served on the Board of Directors of HSMAI's New York Chapter and is a Forbes.com Agency Council contributor. For more information, please contact [email protected], +1 877 291 4411 or visit the company's website.

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