Leading a reservation call center for Kaiser Realty on the Alabama Gulf Coast for nearly 25 years—through 9/11, several devastating hurricanes, the oil spill of 2010, red tide, and even shark attack scares—was anything but dull and boring. Sometimes we jokingly changed our department name from the Reservation Department to the Cancellation Department.
Most companies offer their staff customer service and reservation sales training, but what happens when this department becomes the actual voice of your company during crisis situations?
The most important thing I can offer from my experience is that communication from the executive leadership needs to be proactive and precise.
I would say to you that, first, make them <your team> feel secure. Make sure that they are ok and that their families are ok. In most instances, the reservation team—even in today’s world where many of the reservations are being generated and confirmed online and through OTAs—will take the brunt of the distress calls from homeowners, guests, and even your vendors.
Why? Because they are there. Guests, homeowners, vendors, and even the other employees know that these individuals will answer the phones. Even if you have sent emails, texts, and have posted on your websites and owner/guest portals not to tie up the reservation lines, they will still call your 800 number or direct phone number and press that all-important “to speak to a live representative” button. These are the people that you depend on to never let a call go unanswered after hours, during weekends, and on holidays; and generally, these are some of the lower-paid people in your organization as well.
One thing that you figure out early on when you are working as a vacation rental reservation agent, is that you are doing something really important. You are helping families and friends form life-long memories. If you don’t figure this out, you probably don’t stay in the job very long.
Managing a department of anywhere from about 10 to 14 full-time reservation agents, our average tenure of the staff was 7 years. We were a true team and a force to be reckoned with. A lot of our guests, like your guests, booked the same large home, same week, year after year. We knew them. We knew their families, and we knew what that one week of the year meant to them. And they knew us.
When we did face something like a hurricane or the oil spill, a lot of the calls coming in were from guests and owners checking on us and checking on the state of the union.
What is your state of the union?
How will you handle cancellations or postponements? Is your policy a blanket policy or on a case-by-case basis? Have you communicated it to every person in your organization, especially those that will answer the phone calls? Does your staff feel like they can articulate the company policy while still showing empathy and compassion, or are they overwhelmed by the call volume and the hopeless feeling of not really knowing how they should answer questions?
And more importantly, do you have their back? Would you be willing to sit down in the cubicle next to them and answer a few calls to show your support and appreciation for what they are going through and doing for the company?
A lot of you know that Amy Hinote, the founder of VRM Intel, and I worked together at Kaiser, she as Director of Marketing and I as Director of Reservations and Group Sales. Amy had the sheer pleasure of starting at the company directly on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. The marketing series campaign, “The Calm after the Storm” that followed our company’s messaging throughout the back-to-back hurricane recovery was one of the best I’ve ever seen. But the biggest transformation for my staff—and them truly feeling their worth—was that Amy came into our reservation department, and she got to know each individual on that team, including me, and why we did what we did, day in and day out, and she showed her appreciation. She tells me this is what made her fall in love with this industry, these people and their need to not just satisfy the customer, but their need to solidify the customer in every way. We formed a bond between reservation sales and marketing that helped propel the company to even further greatness.
The coronavirus will pass, like most other crises have passed. While this event is unprecedented, many of you have unique experiences you can lean on to get through this. What you choose to do during this chaotic, scary time will help determine what your business looks like now, during, and after the storm. Your most precious commodity is most likely your people. Take care of them, talk to them, empower them, and they’ll take care of the rest.
Over three decades in the industry, you learn a few lessons—like that every company should have an emergency plan that can work for any emergency. Here are a few considerations:
- Lay out a game plan as if you might not get back to normal for a while with ownership of each task, from every department, and add times to follow up with staff on a regular basis. Include a daily company briefing—where each employee can log in or call in from anywhere and hear the same message of what’s going on.
- Make provisions immediately for employees that can’t (due to childcare, elderly parents, weakened immune systems, physically challenged, etc.) be part of the plan and make sure they don’t feel threatened or left out because of that.
- Provide clear and concise messaging about your policy to the reservations team, even if it is not good news. If you are offering rebooking or credit for future stays, and no cash refunds, make sure they know that your policy is firm.
- Write an official company policy statement that your agents can read if a conversation gets heated.
- Schedule executive leaders that can be reached during all shifts for extenuating circumstances or to make an executive decision.
- Communicate, communicate, and over-communicate.
- Make sure that every person on the team feels confident in his/her ability to do the job and offer solutions to any obstacle.
- Say “thank you” and “please”often—even when you are paying someone to do a job. Our jobs shouldn’t be our life. Our jobs help us have a life.
- It is much more costly to find and train a new employee than to work with situations of your current staff.
- No one is the blame for this, and no one is exempt.
- Be kind even when you have to be firm.
- We make money, money doesn’t make us.
Sadly it seems like many companies are outsourcing or using remote employees to take reservations that don’t have the support of working in a team environment. Maintaining a consistent response becomes more difficult and the relationship that the guests had developed with that “local” agent is no longer a factor. We understand that our business is going through massive transitions, unfortunately we’re losing what made planning that vacation a part of the fun of the entire experience and handling a crisis becomes a more complex challenge. Especially if it’s a local crisis, Covid, being a uniquely worldwide phenomenon makes a standard response easier to compose and maintain but if it comes to a hurricane that affects a few certain areas, getting a response tailored to that area becomes more problematic. Asking someone that may not even be in this country to give you a “state of the state” of the area can be supremely difficult and frustrating for our guests. Then it becomes who is your “director of first impressions”? Great article Connie, it was a pleasure watching your team in action!
Well said Connie. Those were challenging times when we all used websites and digital communication tools like social media and email marketing to keep people informed. We’ve implemented emergency strategies too often since then.
Crafting just the right message requires listening to your front line. Connie and her team, just like your teams, know what owners and guests are asking. Be a united front, provide direction. Be compassionate and calming.
Be kind to the Directors of First Impressions, Maintenance Workers, Housekeepers; we need them as they know the true status of your properties and they make the travel experience a positive memory for guests and owners.
I look forward to traveling again soon!
To be fair, the “Calm after the Storm” creative came from Tim Dozier at Hummingbird Creative in Mobile, AL. And they nailed it! We used elements from that campaign for the next several years. Connie, you were a star in this role, and every agent who worked under you knows it. I loved our “sales and marketing” department, and I continue to learn so much from you. I’m so incredibly grateful to be working with you again. You’re amazing.
I love this CONNIE! You are awesome, and as a relative newbie to the industry, I am honored to have met you at VRMIntel Dram last August. Your words and encouragement here are super helpful to further guide our path going forward. Thank you for writing this, and thanks Amy for sharing it!! As we hunker down, we are dreaming of ours guests’ future vacations, supporting our communities, our owners meeting their future goals, and most of all, our wonderful TEAM getting to the other side of this challenge with grace! Thanks!!