What are e-commerce chatbots? And why do you need them to sustain your hotel direct booking strategy?
Chatbots and hotel direct bookings have been much discussed in the past few months. This article defines briefly, the key aspects of hotel e-commerce chatbots (customer service and room reservation chatbots). Then, it shows you exactly where most hotels’ direct sales strategy is flawed, and how artificial intelligence can help improve it.
Chats and chatbots
Chats are conversational interfaces (text or voice) where customers can ask their questions and usually expect a quick answer. Most customer queries are repetitive. Giving instant answers, 24/7 often proves very difficult for an already busy hotel staff. So, there is room for automation and that’s where chatbots come into play.
– A chat is an interface through which the conversation happens
– A chatbot is a machine with the ability to answer automatically through a conversational interface. A chatbot can be live on different platforms (Live Chat on the website, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, etc.)
Chatbots and human beings
Chatbots are not human beings. They’re just here to make sure that frequent interactions are dealt with instantly. About 80% of conversations will go very well, while 20% will require human intervention. So do not expect chatbots to take over humans any time soon. Henn na Hotel Maihama Tokyo Bay tried to replace its front desk staff with dinosaur robots.
However, they had to reintroduce humans in 2018, as robots aren’t comparable to humans. They are not here to replace you or your staff. Rather, they are here to increase your reach and ability to deliver better, faster service.
If you have to make a comparison, think of chatbots as a new website format. One that offers a much more interactive and engaging way for customers to get what they need (information, reservation, cancelation and so on). The conversation format is not meant to replace humans. You just need to adapt to mobile first customers. This is because they have adopted conversation and instant messaging as their favorite way to access information. That’s it.
Hotel chatbots and customer service
Time management is a key issue of hospitality. When a customer calls, you have to answer. However, you don’t know if the request is simple or complex, or whether it will bring value to the hotel or not. While you are taking a call and answering about check-in time, you might be missing another call for a group reservation. Or, you might not be paying enough attention to the person waiting in front of you.
Chatbots take the pressure off your shoulders. They will deal with the request automatically. Else, the chatbot will get you all the information you need so that you can get back to your online customer ASAP. Especially since you are focusing on the person standing in front of you at that moment. Now, you can focus on what’s important instead of constantly being hostage to emergencies. Hotel e-commerce is full of flaws. So, there is a big market for anything that could make it even slightly better.
What is wrong with classic hotel e-commerce
Booking.com is the champion of standard reservations. By standard, I mean simple requests such as: “1 person, 2 nights”. If your direct channels are only able to accommodate these kinds of requests, you’re basically a poor substitute of Booking.com. Customers will have very little incentive to book with you, so your conversion rate will be quite low.
Some customers go to your website for a better deal. In such cases, offering a lower or packaged price compared to an OTA (Online Tourism Agency) is a valid way to increase conversion. However, making it all about price is not enough. Many people go to your website because they expect personalized service. I’m not speaking about anything fancy – customers come with their own circumstances and if you want their money you’d better understand their context. Here is a simple example of failure to understand a customer’s context:
In this hotel, the maximum occupancy of 1 room is 3 adults. In the simulation, I tried with 4 and the booking engine returned no result at all. Even when there was plenty of availability. Do you really think for 1 second that a customer will try to understand why it didn’t work? No. And you just lost one perfectly good reservation.
In sales, the ability to listen to your customers is everything. Most hotel websites do not have feedback loops. These could help serve customers better and correct some flaws like this one. In fact, when I called the hotel, they had no idea that their booking engine had returned an error message every time the requested occupancy was higher than the maximum number of adults accepted in one room. And this hotel is not a single property. It is part of a consolidated group with 40 hotels and smart people running them.
No matter how smart or strong you are, if you do not build feedback loops to listen to your customers, you’re leaving money on the table. In this specific case, de facto, you excluded all families from booking a room at your property.
Another issue is that you have many different customers with different contexts – but only 1 website. You’d need several in order to fit your main customer types. Some hotel groups are aware of this and try to overcome this challenge by asking the customer to define his context.
Joie de Vivre Hotels invites customers to define their context so that they can personalize the browsing experience.
Your website is like a library. You have a lot of content and it’s organized. You have at least 4 ways to arrange your library: Alphabetical order, by topic, by the size of the books, random. Maybe, just maybe, your customer is not familiar with the way you organize your content. He doesn’t find the information that is relevant for him at this point in time, and leaves.
Yes, all the information is there on your website. But that doesn’t mean people will find it. Similarly, on mobile. Let’s make things fun. See this hotel for example – open their website from your mobile: https://nolinskiparis.com/. Once again, this hotel is not just a random property, but a 5*-1M€-per-room hotel that is part of a group of luxury establishments.
The first challenge with https://nolinskiparis.com/ is to find out how to minimize the annoying booking engine popup.
The next is to try to find out if you can come with your dog. Then, the check-in time, or the maximum age for children to be welcomed for free. The information is available somewhere, but where? Do you really expect customers to look through every page on your website in search of information? No. Again, the people that run this hotel are very smart. However, the issue is that they built their marketing from the inside out => From them, and their pure awesomeness to the world. Good salespeople, on the other hand, build their speech from the customer’s perspective.
Hotel chatbots help fix e-commerce flaws
Regarding chatbots and hotel direct bookings, some of my customers were able to fix many flaws in their reservation process. They did this by simply reading conversations between hotel customers and their chatbot. All of a sudden, they could listen to their customers. They had a feedback loop so they could detect and correct mistakes very fast, and thus serve customers better.
Problems with customers not finding what they want and booking engines delivering frustrating results are more frequent than we think. However, these queries don’t leave a trace. So, you have no real idea of how much frustration this is generating. Customer service and room booking chatbots are much more transparent. Sometimes, customers can get frustrated over a chatbot too. But this, you will notice, and be able to take action – maybe not instantly, because you’re not firemen, but ASAP which is good enough.
Chatbots can speak. But what’s really revolutionary is that they listen and can have a one-on-one conversation where they deliver the information that each customer needs. All of a sudden, your content is delivered on demand to fit the exact need of each individual customer. As a result, you create greater “engagement” and you can capitalize on it. Once a conversation is started it gives you an opportunity to follow up on it and close the deal.
— Example 1: The conversation went well but for some reason, the customer didn’t book online => Use the time you have saved from not managing the conversation and the info collected by the chatbot to send a follow-up email/SMS/WhatsApp and transform an abandoned cart into a reservation.
— Example 2: The customer has booked. Make the chatbot available and use messaging to improve in-stay customer experience. The possibilities are endless and the only limitation is your imagination.
There are plenty of valid reasons to sit tight and not do anything new, such as implementing a hotel chatbot. You don’t have time, you don’t have the teams or you are managing high stakes every day. And chatbots might cost you time that you could use to focus on the GTA or Booking.com contracts sitting on your desk. These are all chicken and egg questions. The real questions regarding chatbots and hotel direct bookings are:
— Do you value your direct business and are you ready to do what it takes to keep it growing?
— Do you see that the reason why your team never has time is partly because you can’t prioritize tasks and have to deal with everything immediately?
Hotel customer service and reservation chatbots are definitely part of the solution. If you want to see examples of hotel customer service and room reservation chatbots, see how big hospitality brands are using AI today.