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Article by Daniel E. Craig

Will Technology Replace Customer Service in Hotels?

Reknown 26 June 2017
On recent travels, I've noticed an increasing number of hotels using digital technology to interact with guests. Hotels have used technology for decades, of course, but the latest wave brings it out of the back-of-house and into the hands of guests.The question is, do travelers want these options? And are they using them?According to a Cognizant survey, over half of U.S. travelers want more automation in hotels. This includes using their mobile device to check in (54%), open their door (50%), communicate with staff (49%), and check out (57%). The numbers were significantly higher for frequent business travelers. (Phocuswright, 2016.)But humans are strange creatures. Just because we say we want something doesn't mean we will use it. And by many accounts adoption of guest-facing technology has been slow.Digital Check-inTake check-in kiosks, for example. Several years ago, big-box hotels began installing lobby kiosks at a frenzied rate, gleefully anticipating huge savings in labor costs. Then guests more or less ignored them.A 2016 Market Force survey found that only 3 percent of U.S. consumers checked in online, 2 percent used an app, and a mere 1 percent used a self-service kiosk. The vast majority--93 percent--checked in with reception.Why the resistance? No doubt our perception has been soured by airport kiosks, which may make check-in less labor-intensive for airlines but make it more onerous for passengers.More than anything, however, I think that consumers are reluctant to give up one of the last bastions of good customer service: hotels.While other businesses make it increasingly difficult to reach a human being in customer service, obliging us to wait in line or on hold, navigate voice systems, fill out online forms and converse with chatbots, hotels make it as easy as picking up the phone or walking up to the front desk. Hotel employees are so approachable they practically encourage complaints.Now that so much of the trip-planning process is digital and self-directed, it's no wonder that travelers rush into the arms of employees the moment they arrive at a hotel.And yet so often, upon approaching hotel employees, I encounter not a smiling, eager face but a lowered head. Travelers may be resistant to technology in hotels, but employees can't seem to unglue their eyes from their computers and electronic devices.And what are the first words out of the front desk agent's mouth? "Credit card and ID, please."I expect this type of greeting from a kiosk, not a hotel employee. If staff can't deliver the fundamentals of hospitality--eye contact, a warm welcome, a smile, intuitive service, the ability to go off script--they might as well be replaced by computers and kiosks.And then there's the waiting. Today the check-in process is no more efficient than when I was a front desk clerk almost (gasp) thirty years ago. How can travelers be expected to check themselves in efficiently when hotel staff still can't?Many hotels now offer digital check-in, but is it any more efficient? After checking in online to a New York hotel, I still had to go through all the usual procedures at the front desk, and the special requests I had submitted were either missed or disregarded. It made me wonder why I had bothered.Labor is expensive, so it's understandable that hotels look for ways to automate certain tasks. But technology is expensive too--especially when it irritates guests.Clear Benefits, Choice and ConvenienceIf hotels want guests to adopt self-serve technology, they must offer clear benefits, such as saving time or gaining access to special offers and services. The technology should be simple, user-friendly and efficient. And it must work.It also helps to offer benefits that were not previously available. A great example is the pre-arrival email, which invites guests to start planning their stay in advance, providing links to restaurants, activities and onsite services. The message is automated, but it feels personalized and makes you feel like hotel staff are anticipating your arrival.Previously, hotel employees didn't call up guests and offer to help plan their stay. Here technology is enhancing, not detracting from, the guest experience.Luxury is about choice and convenience. Guests should have the option of serving themselves or having an employee serve them.Digital CommunicationsMany hotels now have mobile apps that allow guests to book a room, check in, open their door, order services and check out using their phone. Hotels love having an app because they can control the content and track guests' activity and preferences.But it's hard to get people to download a new app, much less use it. We can presume that the big brands have had more success due to scalability and loyalty program tie-ins, but we don't really know because they don't release hard numbers. It's easy to boast a 50% increase in downloads when you started with 100.Some hotels interact with travelers on popular chat apps like WhatsApp, Messenger and WeChat. But many people are reluctant to open private channels to businesses, and hotels aren't keen to rely on third-party apps to communicate with their guests.Social media is often touted as a customer service channel, but why would travelers use Twitter or Facebook to request extra towels or complain about breakfast unless they want an audience and don't mind not knowing when--or if--the hotel will respond?For now, text messaging seems to be the simplest solution for digital communications. There is no app to download, messages are received instantaneously, and the only personal information travelers give away is their cell number.After checking in to a Dallas hotel, I received the following text: "Good afternoon, Mr. Craig. Welcome to the [Hotel]. If we can assist with anything, anytime, simply text us. How is your room? Andrew J."Impressive. But when I texted back a request the response was, "Can I have your room number please." So hotels are still working out the kinks.By some accounts, chatbots are the next big thing in customer service. Maybe for businesses whose relationships with customers are primarily transactional, but hotels are experiential. A hotel stay is charged with anticipation and emotion, especially for leisure travelers. A bit of hand-holding is required, and it's hard to automate such conversations.And if you have a complaint, do you want it handled by a chatbot or a manager? Computers may have artificial intelligence, but humans have emotional intelligence.Guestroom TechnologyGuestrooms are a natural place for automation because no employees are present; guests have no choice but to do things for themselves.The challenge is that travelers expect guestroom technology to be as current as the technology at home, and yet at home we have weeks or months to figure it out, and even then many of us can perform only the most basic functions. Why spend an hour or more learning how to work the television when you're only in house for a night or two? Personally, I keep pressing buttons until something works.At a hotel in San Francisco, everything in my room was controlled from a touchscreen computer next to my bed--temperature, lighting and entertainment. How cool. Except I couldn't get it to work, nor could the employee I called for assistance.Some hotels focus too much on investing in the latest technology when their money would be better spent on staff training and property upgrades.The best way to compel travelers to adopt technology? Leave them to their own devices. That's not to say abandon them, I mean make technology compatible with their smartphones, tablets, laptops and preferred apps like Netflix, Hulu and Spotify.As more people become accustomed to using voice-activated assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant at home, they will expect them in hotel rooms too. Soon hotel guests may be able to bark out orders like "Turn up the music!", "Bring me a cheeseburger!" and "Come get my bags!" from the bed or bathtub.Digital CheckoutHotels have offered remote checkout for years, but I'm never confident the bill will be accurate or emailed to me as promised, so I usually line up at the front desk.On the day of my checkout from a Las Vegas hotel, I received a copy of my bill by email with an offer of a late checkout for $20. It's a great example of how digital technology can simultaneously benefit both travelers and hotels. I got the convenience of a late checkout without having to plead with the front desk, and the hotel received a bump in revenue.Another example is the post-stay survey. Previously, hotel managers didn't call up guests to ask how their stay was. Now they send an email. Guests can easily vent frustrations and sing praises, and managers receive instant feedback on how to improve.Blending Technology with Guest ServiceDigital technology won't fully replace hotel employees anytime soon, but there's no question that the two will increasingly work in tandem.Guest-facing technology works best in hotels when an employee is readily available to guide and support the user. Essentially, customer service facilitates technology, and technology facilitates customer service.A perfect example is the Airbnb app. As an Airbnb guest, you may never meet your host, yet through the app you feel as though your host is available to you throughout your stay.For hotels, the great differentiator is the physical presence of employees. But as technology enables travelers to perform more transactions for themselves, the frequency and duration of interactions between guests and employees will decrease. This makes these touch points even more important than ever.Hotel owners and managers are wise to invest in digital technology, but at the same time they need to ensure that employees are there for guests when they need them and trained to excel in the human side of hospitality.
Article by Daniel E. Craig

So You Want to Be a Consultant

Reknown 8 June 2017
Having survived and thrived as a consultant for almost ten years, I've learned a few ins and outs. Here's a summary of my top recommendations.Do you have what it takes? Really?Be aware that calling yourself a consultant can raise eyebrows. The consulting profession has a rather sketchy reputation because virtually anyone can claim to be a consultant. The title is often used as a euphemism for unemployed.As a qualified consultant, you should have extensive experience and expertise in a given field. Companies or individuals must be willing to pay for your advice, analysis and problem solving, and you should be able to help them improve their business.Excellent communication skills are critical too. You will need to convey information and ideas clearly and credibly, in writing, in visuals, and in front of groups.Getting startedCreating a clever name and a slick website can be fun, but at the outset your priority should be finding paid work. Besides, your services are likely to evolve over time.When I started out I used my name as my business and built a simple web page. A few years later, after I had established a viable business, I created my company name, Reknown, and invested in a more elaborate (but still simple) website.If possible, keep your day job until you have lined up enough work to pay the bills for six months or more. That means securing solid commitments and contracts. Those clients who promised to follow you when you break out on your own have a way of disappearing.Produce quality contentIt's a classic scenario: you set up shop and then sit back, waiting for the phone to ring. It doesn't. If you want work, you will need to source it, find the right contacts, and ask for it.But there is a workaround. I built my business through content marketing. I write articles on topics of my expertise and publish them on my blog or submit them to trade publications, many of which are starving for good (free) content. Then I sit back and let SEO and social media work their magic.Find your medium, whether it's articles, blog posts, videos or podcasts, and produce high quality, timely, relevant content. Eventually the leads will roll in.Prioritize large projects and long-term relationshipsAny consultant will tell you that landing and executing small, short-term projects can take as much time and effort as large, long-term contracts. Focus on securing big contracts to form a base for your business, and use smaller projects to fill the gaps.I have had the same handful of clients for over five years, and I don't have to write detailed proposals or prove my worth to them. I simply do what they ask, do it well, on time and on budget, and the work keeps flowing.Know when to invest a lot of time in proposalsSome people will make you jump through hoops to secure their business, and then they will go dark, without even the courtesy of informing you they have moved in another direction. It's poor etiquette, but it's a reality of business.Save yourself the outrage, the withering retorts you will never send, the plotting for revenge, and assume you will receive no response after submitting a proposal. That way you will be pleasantly surprised when you do.I stopped putting a lot of effort into proposals a long time ago. I've learned to sniff out the time-wasters, the spineless, the people fishing for free information. I send them an email summarizing my services, quote my highest fees, and move on.Don't undervalue your servicesAs a consultant, you can bill for only so many hours per day and will work many hours that you can't bill for. You have to pay the costs of running your business, and companies will save money by outsourcing to you rather than hiring a full-time employee. So don't be shy about charging your worth.If you're not sure how much to charge, start with a good annual salary for an executive in your field of work, divide the amount by 280 (52 weeks at 40 hours), and add 25%. That should give you a reasonable hourly fee to quote.Personally, I increase and decrease my fees according to how much I want or need the work. It's called dynamic pricing, and lots of businesses do it.When quoting for a project, provide a total fee, a breakdown of estimated hours, and the hourly fee to ensure there are no misunderstandings. Ask new clients to sign an agreement and provide an advance deposit of 25 to 50 percent of fees, and then bill monthly for work performed.If you're invited to speak at a conference, inquire about a speaking fee and travel expenses. Preparing a presentation takes a lot of time, and you're sharing your expertise. As an independent you don't have the luxury of your company paying your way, and it's a safe assumption that you won't get new clients out of the gig.Treat every client like they're the only oneClients are like lovers. They know you're probably seeing other people, but they don't want to hear about them. Treat every client like they're your only one. If you can't make a requested meeting or deadline, propose an alternative, but there's no need to say why.One exception: When prospective clients are dawdling over a proposal, feel free to nudge them into a commitment by mentioning that other suitors are lined up.The advantage of working for yourself is you can pick and choose your relationships. When you love your clients, everything else is easier. Align with people who share your values and recognize your worth.Business is never as bad as it seems or as good as it seemsBe prepared for major ups and downs. When business is slow, the fear and self-doubt can be crushing. Keep busy by creating work that adds value to your business. Go for coffee with other freelancers who can commiserate and provide encouragement.When you feel isolated or lonely, take your laptop to a cafe or shared workspace.When the work is rolling in, resist the urge to hire help. Business tends to ebb and flow, and chances are you'll soon be back to wondering how you'll pay the rent.Instead, keep overhead as low as possible, and maintain a network of trusted freelancers to subcontract to. Personally, I hoard my work, working day and night through the busy times, knowing they won't last.Social networking, or socializing, not working?Social media can be helpful for keeping up on industry news and connecting with others, but I find most activity to be superficial, fleeting, and distracting from meaningful work. Maintain a presence, but know when to shut things down and get to work.When Woody Allen said that 80 percent of life is showing up, he didn't mean to a Twitter chat. Remove your pajamas, drag a comb through your hair, and show up at industry events. Invite people out for coffee or drink, or ask to drop by their office to say hello.Nothing is more effective than face-to-face contact for finding opportunities, understanding what's happening in the field, and building relationships. I learn more from a one-hour lunch with a colleague than from hours of skimming news online.Work smartAs a self-employed person, you have a responsibility to flaunt your freedom on behalf of all nine-to-fivers who can't. Go for a run or yoga session in mid-day. Bring your laptop to the park. Extend your vacation by another week, and do your work by the pool.Find out your most productive time and block it off for your most important work. Schedule meetings, invoicing and administrative work outside of these hours. When you're on a roll, keep rolling. When things aren't flowing, take a break.I get some of my best writing done on weekend mornings. Then I don't feel so guilty when I can't get going on Monday morning.Keep learningLast, remember that your knowledge is your equity. Don't let it go stale. Set aside time every day to keep up on the latest trends, technology and best practices.That way no one will ever question your credibility as a consultant.

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