By using computers and machines to handle tasks normally performed by human employees, automation promises to help businesses improve productivity and save costs.
In the last two decades advances in artificial intelligence, natural language processing and speech recognition have brought automation to a whole new level.
But does automation have a place in hospitality, an industry built on human-to-human interactions? While it may be a long way off before we see robots cleaning rooms or serving tables, one major area of growth in automation today is communications.
One of today’s fastest-growing means of communication is messaging.
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According to Statistica, as of January 2019 there were 1.5 billion users of WhatsApp, 1.3 billion users of Facebook Messenger and 1.08 billion users of WeChat. And that doesn’t include SMS, web chat and dozens of other messaging applications.
The popularity of messaging has created a culture of instant gratification.
In the past, people were content to receive a response to a business enquiry within days or weeks; today, expectations have been reduced to hours or even minutes.
The trend creates challenges for hotel staff, who already juggle multiple touchpoints with guests.
To keep up with expectations, hoteliers are learning to embrace certain forms of automated messaging. Along the way, they’re discovering new ways to increase efficiency, streamline operations and elevate guest service.
For hoteliers, a major point of resistance to embracing the messaging trend is the fear of setting up expectations the hotel cannot meet.
What if a travel shopper sends a question by web chat and doesn’t hear back? Or a guest texts for extra towels and staff are too busy to respond?
Many hoteliers prefer to rely on tried and trusted channels like the telephone and email. Consumers, however, are showing a strong preference for messaging channels.
A simple solution is auto-reply. If employees are tied up when an inquiry comes in, the guest receives an instant reply with an estimated response time.
The guest can relax and focus on other activities while the request goes into a queue to be handled by the first available employee.
After check-in, communication between hotels and staff tends to drop off. If a guest has an issue, staff often don’t find out until they read about it in a negative online review.
With a messaging platform, at check-in staff can invite the guest to contact the hotel for assistance using the messaging channel of their choice.
Part-way through the stay, the guest receives a short, automated survey to see how the stay is going, and any issues are flagged for follow-up by staff while the guest is still in house.
Employees at a busy hotel may receive hundreds of enquiries from guests every day, but often it’s the same handful of questions:
- How do I get to the hotel?
- How do I sign in to Wi-Fi?
- What time is breakfast?
Answering by telephone can be time-consuming and vulnerable to miscommunication.
With a messaging platform, the employee can simply select the best answer from a digital directory of responses prewritten by management to ensure accuracy, thoroughness and compliance with brand standards.
Perhaps the greatest potential lies in internal communications among employees.
In place of logbooks, forms and verbal exchanges, which are prone to error and miscommunication, task management software can be programmed to automatically create cases based on the type of guest feedback.
Built-in notifications, step-by-step procedures and escalation parameters help to ensure prompt and thorough follow-up.
To overcome language barriers, messaging software can detect the language of an incoming message and either automatically translate it or forward it to a staff member who speaks that language.
This improves communication and productivity.
Assisted automation in feedback responses
Advances in machine learning will soon make it technically possible to automate responses to online reviews and guest surveys. But that’s a risky proposition, especially in the case of negative feedback.
A better solution is assisted automation.
Computer software can use natural language processing to interpret guest comments and a classification algorithm to suggest the most appropriate response from a set of predefined templates.
The employee simply reviews and customizes the response before sending it.
Avoiding the pitfalls
To ensure a smooth transition to automated messaging, setting expectations is important.
Guests should be notified upfront if a message is automated and given the option to speak directly with an employee.
Also important is quick response times. If responses are slow, guests will be less likely to engage.
Executive Roundtable: Tech Heads
Ryanair, Lufthansa Group and DER Touristik Group discuss digital transformation at Phocuswright Europe 2019.
The human touch in hospitality is wonderful, but it can be slow, inconsistent and prone to error.
As consumers grow more accustomed to auto-replies and chatbots in banking, telecom and other areas of life, they will grow to expect them in hotels.
Already, Expedia sends automated in-stay surveys to its customers, and Booking.com’s chatbot responds to 30 percent of customers' questions within five minutes.
By automating select communications and tasks, hotels can free up staff to focus on providing an elevated level of guest service.
As automated messaging grows faster and more reliable in hotels, travelers may soon find it preferable to human interactions.