By Doug Kennedy –When it comes to information, the balance of power has shifted to the caller’s side of the equation. In the not so distant past, those planning a vacation had very little information. Some only had the name and 800 number of the rental company they got from the phone book or a small advertisement. Others might have looked at a thumbnail picture and a few bulleted features listed in the company’s “annual planner” directory. Alternatively, today’s callers are armed with a seemingly infinite amount of information prior to dialing our phone numbers. Many have read online guest reviews specific to the rental home they are interested in. Most have viewed numerous photographs. Some have even taken virtual tours. If your company is really up on innovations, they might have even seen 3-D floor plans. The research callers have conducted often results in them knowing more about a specific rental home than the reservations agent who fields their call! Yet, still they call our 800 numbers!
If we surveyed marketing professionals in the vacation industry in the early 2000s, when everyone was rushing to put everything online, and asked them whether they believed people would still be calling in to book in the year 2015, most would have answered, “no.” This begs the question: Why do they still call? With most vacation rental companies offering online booking systems, one thing is for sure, they are not calling to find what is available. They can already see that online.
Being in the mystery shopping business, when I call vacation rental companies most agents seem to have what I call a “website search support” paradigm. These agents perform as if they were in a technical support department that exists to help people search availability. In other words, they approach their job as if they were supposed to help callers find a list of homes that are available for their requested dates. As I often exclaim to my participants, “THEY DON’T NEED US FOR THAT!”
Still other agents have been trained by well-intentioned marketing executives to approach their job as if they worked in a “marketing data collection” department. These agents start off a call by asking right up front for contact information such as a full name, a phone number (even though it likely displays in caller ID), and an email.
It is certainly a good idea to ask for a caller’s name so that it can be used to personalize the call; however, it should be up to the caller to self-identify by their first or last name. If a full name is given, then use their surname to err on the side of being too formal. Likewise, after you have connected with the caller, secure the caller’s email address to follow up on non-booked inquiries by sending an email to recap what was discussed. It is also important to ask for a phone number for a follow-up call, “Just to see if you have any questions or what else we can do on our end to help you plan your vacation.”
When agents are trained to ask too many of these “marketing data collection” questions up front before building rapport, it sets the tone for a “transactional” as opposed to “conversational” interaction.
Today, guests and customers are looking for genuine authentic connections. This seems to be the hottest topic at recent lodging industry conferences. For example, at the Southern Lodging Summit held in Memphis in August 2015, several executives shared their ideas in the article “Hoteliers Embrace the Age of Authenticity” in HotelNewsNow.com: “There’s no question the authenticity of an experience is what drives guests…,” said Robert Cole, President and COO of Atlanta-based Hospitality Ventures Management Group. “Guests are demanding authentic experiences in locations where they’re staying,” added Michael Tall, President and COO of Charlestowne Hotels. “In terms of uniqueness and authenticity … it’s about pulling back the magic curtain of operations…,” said Dana Shefsky, Director of Digital Product Innovation for Hilton Worldwide.
Perhaps, Jordan Bartells, who is GM of the Hotel Indigo Pittsburg East Liberty, said it best in his quote from a HotelNewsNow.com article on July 6 of this year, “Our goal is to make things less of a transaction and more of an interaction. …You can almost tell when people are going through the motions. Engaging the guest is the most important part.”
Therefore, the best approach circa 2016 is for reservations agents to use an engaging, customer-focused, and conversational sales style. Here are some training tips for agents:
- Begin calls by listening to the caller’s opening remarks. This can be done by paraphrasing and restating whatever they are saying and adding a hint of enthusiasm about their plans. This shows the caller that you “get it” and makes them feel that they are special, not just another squeaky voice coming through the earpiece. For the agent, it might be the third family reunion call in a row, but for the caller, the first time they are reconnecting with relatives in many years.
- Use an investigative questioning process. Some callers are “call gushers” who spew out their whole story right up front. Others need a little more prompting to reveal their details. Here are some examples:
- “Do you have a property in mind or are you looking for help in selecting?”
- If they do not have any property in mind, ask, “Are you looking for something more upscale or a traditional accommodation?”
- “As I’m checking availability, what questions can I answer for you about the location or amenities?”
- “Is there something special you are looking for that I’ve not mentioned yet?”
- Conduct guest empathy training. Hold a discussion about the various types of “guest stories” being lived out every day on the other side of the front doors. Often those who work in a reservations position have not yet lived out the same experiences as those they are speaking with. Help them understand why callers ask seemingly “annoying” and “clueless” questions such as: “How many steps are there between floors?” “Exactly how far of a walk is it to the beach?” Maybe the party includes an elderly grandparent or very young children.
- Understand how important a vacation is to the person planning it. Recognize the various special occasions people are looking to celebrate. This can be accomplished by asking how it feels to be planning a vacation for the last summer vacation before a teenager heads off to college, the first trip with a newborn baby, or the first time coming back to visit without bringing grandpa this year. Understanding always fosters empathy.
- Offer personal recommendations, suggestions, and endorsements. This should be done only after an agent has connected with the caller and investigated “the story” behind their call.
These techniques help reassure the caller that they are making a good choice.
Doug Kennedy is President of the Kennedy Training Network, Inc. a leading provider of customized training programs and telephone mystery shopping services for the lodging and hospitality industry. Doug continues to be a fixture on the industry’s conference circuit for hotel companies, brands and associations, as he been for over two decades. Since 1996, Doug’s monthly hotel industry training articles have been published worldwide, making him one of the most widely read hotel industry training writers. Visit KTN at www.kennedytrainingnetwork.com or email him directly. firstname.lastname@example.org