In 2007, Dr. James Oldroyd’s Lead Response Management Study found that agents who responded to a lead within five minutes of the inquiry submission were 100 times more likely to make a successful contact, and the lead was twenty-one times more likely to enter the sales process than if the agent had responded thirty minutes after the submission. Success rates further declined sharply when the response time lengthened from minutes to hours to days. These statistics have held steady over the past 11 years, and responding to a lead within five minutes is still a gold standard in the sales world.
Vacation rental guest leads are no different, and if you feel like guest impatience has gotten worse lately, you’re not imagining it. A 2017 YouGov study that Fetch Media commissioned found that 40 percent of UK and US consumers say they are more impatient than they were five years ago. It’s only going to get tougher from here—over half of 18- to 24-year-olds answered the same way.
It should come as no surprise because seemingly everything around us is increasingly designed for instant gratification: Netflix on-demand streaming, Amazon Prime and same-day delivery, digital voice assistants, Seamless and other food delivery services, subscriptions for everything from meals to wardrobes to cleaning supplies, or chatbots. Heck, some companies are built with bot-based assistants at their core, such as Trim and Cleo.
When it comes to general customer service needs, what customers say are acceptable response times varies by channel. The Social Habit research found that of the respondents “who have ever attempted to contact a brand, product, or company through social media for customer support, 32 percent expect a response within 30 minutes. Further, 42 percent expect a response within 60 minutes,” writes founder Jay Baer for Convince & Convert.
A Kissmetrics study found that 50 percent of respondents who submit their question via email expect a reply within a day. But given Oldroyd’s study and the ultra-competitive nature of the vacation rental industry, these “acceptable” response times don’t cut it.
“Nowadays a ‘real time’ response is not just a nice feature—it’s an expectation,” wrote Paul Comaroto in Glip’s blog post “How to Ace Customer Service in the Age of Immediacy.” “For many issues, there are plenty of fast and easy ways to access what we’re looking for, from a quick online search to AI, chatbots, and other automated responses. The point is speed, not nuanced customer service and niceties.”
Expediency is a nonnegotiable, especially for prebooking questions but also the in-home, I-can’t-work-the-toaster ones, as guests’ experiences during their stay are part of the sales process for future reservations. Property managers have no choice but to keep up on both sides to compete with each other and maintain a huge upper hand against the OTAs.
The Downside of Autoresponders
Autoresponders have helped alleviate some of this pressure, particularly with a first quick response. Many companies leave autoresponders at the “We’ve received your message and will respond to you as quickly as possible” default reply. Others may process the request or question through support software that routes the inquiry to the most appropriate person or department, sometimes pushing out status updates to the customer along the path to resolution. Some companies employ a chatbot to help with initial triage of a question and provide an immediate answer when possible.
These tactics are good for letting customers know they’ve been heard, but they do not meet the golden target of five minutes for a human response. Too often they are simply a stopgap between a question and its answer, akin to calling and being put on hold for hours at a time. The benefits of a quick first response are negated if it takes an unacceptably long time to get the answer, and the risk that the lead will abandon the company for its competitors increases dangerously with each minute that passes.
So, too, are automation and autoresponders ineffective when they attempt to find a solution and fail, such as the sites or chat tools that ask customers a series of questions to suggest an irrelevant FAQ article before connecting them with humans. Of course, even the best systems won’t be 100 percent accurate, but to improve overall service rather than add frustration, these must be deployed with extreme care and be better at finding answers than the customer is. I have yet to find a tool like this that supplies the answer I needed. That’s why I’m trying to connect to a live person—after all, I’ve already done the search myself and didn’t find the answer.
“Once the customer isn’t getting the answers he or she wants, the next step is to speak to a human being. And often, that customer is now frustrated not just with the problem but also with the time and effort it’s taking to find the solution,” wrote Comaroto.
Speed to the Right Answer to the Right Question
The key is that not only is speed important but also speed to the right answer to the right question is the ultimate objective: instant gratification. Speed and quality are not independent of each other. In fact, improving one by nature improves the other. The higher quality your support tools are, the faster a guest can get the answer he or she needs. The faster guests can get solutions, the higher quality the service is to them.
When property managers take a hard look at lead response times, conversion rates, and customer satisfaction data, and find a pattern of slow or ineffective service, it does not mean that all guests should call in for every question and that property managers should put all staff eggs in the call center basket. It may simply mean the tech + people + operations equation needs some rebalancing. Improvements will depend on what’s causing the problem.
Looking at the macro level, Ventana Research reported that the top customer service challenge is communication channels managed as silos. Vacation rental management is a prime environment for this to occur. Marketing handles social media messages, reviews, and comments; guest services or reservations take incoming calls, emails, and chat requests; maintenance and housekeeping receive requests and complaints in the field. Without a centralized system for managing all this, things can easily fall through the cracks. Shoring up these systems is a good place to start improving response speed and quality.
Reduce Stress on the System with Self-Service
A major benefit of successful self-service options is keeping non-sales inquiries from clogging sales channels. However, you should not design self-service support with your company’s efficiency in mind. Build it with guest satisfaction and convenience as the foundation, prioritizing both speed and effectiveness for them.
B2C self-service support takes the form of an FAQ section on a website, interactive voice response phone trees, messenger bots, or other tools that funnel a user to an answer without human intervention. The information they typically provide, however, only goes so far. “Do you have pet-friendly homes?” “Should I get travel insurance?” “Where is the nearest grocery store?” Sure, these FAQs are legitimate, but asking reservationists, housekeepers, and maintenance techs what else they answer on a regular basis can reveal a much deeper well of questions that can be answered with self-service tools.
In addition to building a helpful self-service information library, property managers will benefit from ensuring that guests who prefer to get help this way can do so—quickly and from a mobile device. Chances are guests and potential guests will be looking for information from a smartphone. Kissmetrics reported that 75 percent of customers ages 35 to 44 and 77 percent of those 18 to 25 use their mobile devices for customer support at least once a month. The company also reported the top challenges consumers encountered when doing so:
- Incorrect displays or difficult navigation (90 percent)
- Unhelpful search results (75 percent)
- Slow load times (40 percent)
The mission here is to refine your system’s user-friendliness with a focus on mobile and easy navigation until most questions can be answered in two to three steps.
You can also leverage tech to prevent excess service volume by anticipating guests’ needs before they ask—send pre-arrival emails and social media to distribute area guides, how-to’s, checklists, and so on. Data dives may also reveal FAQs for specific homes or groups of properties. For example, if a condo complex has a tricky gate, or homes with a certain TV provider frequently have guests calling for help with channel listings, use targeted emails to just these guests with pertinent information.
Low-tech, in-home options can be ideal, too. For example, small signs above each sink and toilet informing guests of the delicacy of that neighborhood’s plumbing and septic systems and kindly asking them not to flush or drain food, paper towels, or other toiletries can cut down on calls for clogged toilets or worse.
The more effective self-service and preemptive support are for guests, the more efficient property managers’ overall customer response can be.
Make Five-Minute Agent Response Possible
Even with the most robust self-service tools and perfect automation, people will always need to talk to people. Kissmetrics found that 79 percent of customers still prefer to call when they need help, followed by 33 percent by email, and 12 percent by web chat.
Getting to a five-minute lead response time can feel like a herculean task, particularly when strapped for time, money, staff, or all the above.
An InsideSales study found that the most common barriers to address include the following:
- Poor distribution of sales leads based on geography and “fairness”
- Retrieval of leads from a CRM database daily, rather than continuously
- Sales reps focus on generating their own leads rather than reacting quickly to demonstrated customer interest
Streamlining all pieces of the lead response process can help free up the necessary time agents need to provide solutions and get to the next lead faster. In addition to correcting the above problems if they exist, other strategies include these:
- Studying incoming requests to see when and where people need to talk to a live person, and then schedule staff accordingly.
- Giving reservationists a quick-reference information library to cut and paste (and personalize!) natural human responses to common questions in email and chat.
- Automating CRM to instantly direct inbound leads to reservation staff; it’s even better if they can be directed to the first available person.
- Outsourcing lead response during off hours or during the times reservations or guest services staff will be busy, such as the July 4th check-in weekend.
- Assigning agents to channels based on strengths. For example, some agents may be better able to juggle multiple chat conversations than others, so put them on the live chat front lines rather than on the phones.
Responding to leads and requests in near-real time is no longer optional. Property managers can avoid being left in the dust in the race against each other and the OTAs with persistent, incremental steps toward the five-minute golden window. How will your team be first off the line?
Really good info and not to be overlooked. We’ve actually seen that this is one of the biggest logistical challenges with managers, due to a lot of the reasons you mentioned. After Hurricane Michael, one client had a significant volume of communication happening in FB Messenger and social channels. And once the dust settled, it turned out to be a net positive with tons of great feedback, encouraging reviews made public by guests regarding their ease of communication, etc
And let’s be honest: this is one of a few areas where, if done correctly, can really differentiate a VR brand from the large OTA/national brands. A quick response, from a local voice, with solutions or answers to their questions just further drives home the unique strengths that PMs have that are very hard for the huge brands to replicate. Great article!