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 be looking 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, and if your company is really up on innovations, they might have even seen 3-D floor plans. The research callers have done 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! Had you surveyed marketing professionals in the VR 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 already can see that online.
Yet being in the mystery shopping business, when I call most VR companies their agents seem to have what I call a “website search support” paradigm; these agents perform as if they were in a “tech support” department that exists to help people search availability. In other words, they approach their job as if it was 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 the “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 it is a good idea to use their surname to error on the side of being too formal.)
Likewise, later in the call (after you have connected with the caller) it is definitely a good idea to secure a caller’s email address so that you can follow-up non-booked inquiries by sending an email to recap what was discussed, and also good to ask for a phone number to follow-up “Just to see if you have any questions or what else we can do on our end to help you plan your vacation.”
Yet 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.
Guests (and customers in general) these days are looking for genuine authentic connections. This seems to be the hottest topic at recent lodging industry conferences. For example at the recent Southern Lodging Summit that was held in Memphis in August, 2015, several executives were quoted in HotelNewsNow.com in an article entitled “Hotels Embrace The Age Of Authenticity”:
“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 HotelNewsNow 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:
- Encourage your agents to begin calls first and foremost by listening to the caller’s opening remarks and by paraphrasing and restating whatever they are saying, 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.
- Next, train agents to 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 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, asking “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’re 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?” or “Exactly how far of a walk is it to the beach?” (Maybe the party includes an elderly grandparent or very young children.)
- Similarly, help them understand how important a vacation is to the person planning it and the various special occasions people are looking to celebrate. How does it feel to be planning the last summer vacation before a teenager heads off to college? Or the first trip with a newborn baby? Or the first time coming back to visit without bringing grandpa this year? Understanding always fosters empathy.
- Personal recommendations, suggestions and endorsements. 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.
By Douglas Kennedy, President, Kennedy Training Network
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Hollywood, FL 33020
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