The cost of traffic acquisition is constantly increasing. Even so, 98% of the visitors you attract still leave without a purchase. Does paying so much for traffic and converting so little make you sick? This article will show you how to conquer the conversational space in hotels. And, how you can keep visitors on your website, long enough for them to book with you.
Successfully integrating the use of instant messaging, AI and chatbots is easier said than done. The conversational space is still terra incognita for most hoteliers.
This article will:
1 – Help clarify how you could leverage this new kind of marketing to increase sales.
2 – Introduce the main actors in this ecosystem. This will help you identify your real needs and get your strategy off the ground.
Understanding the scope of action: How can mobile get you halfway to the moon?
Your customers have moved to a mobile-first mindset. What people do on their mobile influences their behavior and expectations even on other devices such as PC. Mobile is not a smaller version of a computer. In fact, mobile features such as instant messaging are becoming huge on PC. This takes the form of live chats or chatbots. These have become part of general customer expectations. Of course, chats have existed for 20 years. However, it’s only very recently that they have become a must-have for e-commerce. Just as web DNA was search, mobile DNA is interaction. This transition calls for redesigning your online sales process according to 3 essential principles. These are – interactivity, personalization, and continuity.
1- Interactivity: Written, and soon vocal interaction is becoming the normal way to access information. Instant communication systems were massively adopted with the advent of mobile. There is a challenge to occupy and conquer the conversational space in hotels. This is where customers spend so much time every day. How are you going to make all your content fit a mobile screen? The answer is – not by making things smaller.
Fun fact 1: Reception of instant messages stimulates the nucleus accumbens. This is associated with the reward system of our brain. It’s also associated with orgasms (that send us to the moon). Now instant messaging with hotels rarely gets your customers to climax. However, it stimulates their brain in a much more intense and engaging way than search.
Fun fact 2: Most of the information customers request on chat is on your website somewhere. Yet customers ask for it anyway. Our brain is the fruit of our evolution. It is much more sensitive to the contrasts and dynamic elements of our environment than to static information. And also, we’re lazy.
2- Personalization: Your customers are in a hyper-choice environment. For any of their desires, there are a myriad comparable options. Your property is only one of them. The preference for your product is not so much based on its intrinsic quality as much as on the perception your customer has of it. Everyone has wonderful hotels with beautiful photos but if what’s important for your client is to find a hotel that is pet or family friendly, then that’s what is relevant. You have to show it as soon as possible to maximize engagement and make choosing you a no-brainer.
According to Psychologist B.J. Fogg, any Action = Motivation + Ability + Trigger. If you want customers to take action you should lower the barriers in terms of how motivated your customer should be in order to access the info and how much you can support them in the booking process. While the “book now” button is great for highly motivated customers, instant communication and a proactive attitude on the hotel side are the best triggers I can think of to engage the 98% of regular people that end up on your website and that you let slip through.
3-Continuity: Information is accessible anywhere and at any time. So we tend to reduce our propensity to plan. Plan B is only 3 screen taps away. Customer ownership has become a very competitive space. According to Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott: We are in an absolute war for who owns the customer. If your customers book with Booking, and once at your property interact more with TripAdvisor and Google than with you, what is left for you to market?
OTAs will always have better technology than you and big data is an impossible dream for most hotel groups. We already said that today you only get the highly motivated customers and need to lower your barriers to entry. In addition, you can use common sense and determine what matters to your customers and reach them at key moments of their journey. One example among many: Customers spending the weekend at your property have a stressful time on Saturday evenings because they already feel that they are at the end of their trip and they will soon be back to their pre-weekend life. At this moment it is your sacred duty to text them a solution that will allow them to make the most of their Sunday at a fair price.
We all think we are customer centric but are we though? Most hotel websites leave the customer alone and wait passively for him to have the good sense to book. Current websites are built to fit the product they advertise while they should be made to fit the customer they are trying to attract. Allowing interaction is a good first step. Usually, airlines are a couple of years ahead of hospitality in terms of e-commerce readiness. Let’s have a look at what Emirates is doing. There is a lot to improve but I have no doubt that they are moving in the right direction and I hope it gives you the confidence to shift your e-commerce strategy from product to customer centricity.
A conversation is a personalized and continuous interaction in which both the customer and the hotel play a proactive role. Some hotels implement initiatives of live chat, in-stay communication etc. but these steps often remain at the margin of the hotel e-commerce strategy.
Understanding the ecosystem: is there life on Mars?
Much like distribution tools were alien to hospitality 20 years ago, communication tools started a massive invasion in the last few years. It is going so fast that is can be difficult to know exactly what is available on the market and what could be useful for you. Let’s have a quick market overview.
Channel managers of communications / Omni-channel communication tools: As there are channel managers for distribution, there are products that centralize instant communications like Liveperson, Zendesk or iAdvize. These tools are often generic so the burden of adapting the tool to your specific business needs rests entirely on you. These tools do really well in highly concentrated industries where it is difficult to build specialized SaaS solutions.
However, the hotel industry is very fragmented, leaving plenty of room for specialists that go the extra mile and make the effort to adapt to the constraints of this niche market which are essentially of 2 natures:
1. The existence of industry-specific communication channels. You receive messages on your Live Chat, Facebook, SMS but also via Booking, Expedia, Airbnb whose management must be centralized to be effective and optimize the human effort required to manage guest communications.
2. Logistics: A hotel operates with a PMS not always based in the cloud and a staff that is not always available. To what length does your provider go to understand your daily operations and to give you a solution that would seamlessly integrate into your hotel environment? Avoid providers whose only solution is to give you one more webpage to log in every morning.
Failing to master these constraints will make it very complicated for hotels to make any communication tool stick with their staff. Different companies have developed specialized solutions like ReviewPro, TrustYou, Zingle or Quicktext, but these are not equivalent so it is important to see several.
We are now entering the world of AI
Unless your hotel or group is chronically over-staffed and never has employee turnover, you need to:
1. Automate recurrent interactions
2. Control the need for human resources
This is to ensure maximum quality of service with minimum investment.
The communications channel managers sometimes offer bot framework services. For example, LivePerson is connected to IBM Watson. Simply put, Watson is the intelligence and the framework allows you to capitalize on this intelligence to build your own bot without being a developer. Other bot frameworks exist like Microsoft Bot Framework, Dialogflow or Chatfuel.
All bot frameworks have their pros and cons so be careful before choosing one. They also have a limit in the complexity they can support, and building a hotel bot becomes complex very fast because of 1-the variety of questions customers ask, 2-the number of languages you need to support and 3-connecting it to hotel systems (Booking Engine, CRM etc.) In general, technical directors of large groups are tempted to build their own chatbot and realize later that:
- Even if there is no code involved, it takes a lot of time to put in place and the results are often mediocre.
- The architecture of a bot shouldn’t come from your imagination. It should emerge from real conversations with real people that you have gathered (see article only the paranoid (hoteliers) survive). Before launching our chatbot we had to accumulate and crunch 2 years of regular live chat interactions between hotels and customers.
Natural Language Understanding (NLU) systems
A group I know was in a dilemma between LivePerson and IBM Watson. Both solutions are amazing. However, none was adapted to the group goals and IT development capacity. It’s up to the director of sales and marketing to keep things realistic and goal oriented. Hotels aren’t tech startups. Whenever there is a SaaS solution available that covers over 80% of their need, they should go for it. This is way better than reinventing the wheel and failing at it over and over again.
Bot frameworks are the Ikea of chatbots. And NLU systems like IBM Watson or Microsoft LUIS are the rough planks you can use to create your own furniture design. These systems are trained to recognize the intentions of customers in natural language. What’s great is that you can teach your NLU system whatever you want as long as you have enough user-generated content (conversations). So, you have to be prepared to let it work imperfectly and disappoint customers for quite some time. In addition, you need a specialized developer to manage this kind of system without too many guidelines.
Working with the NLU system and creating your own framework can make sense for huge corporations. It is, however, not advisable for any hotel group because you can’t afford to disappoint. The cost is huge and if you jump in there you’re in for a long ride before you see any ROI, if ever. By the time your homemade chatbot is in place, the industry will probably have moved to the next thing. Most instant communication projects have failed because the team wanted to reinvent the wheel. In the end, they have underestimated the complexity required to obtain a usable result in terms of e-commerce. Perhaps it is Dr. Frankenstein’s syndrome: the fantasy of creating a virtual person. Or, simply because a conversation from the outside looks so simple, right?
Conversational solutions in SaaS mode
On the one hand, we have manual communication tools that consume human resources we don’t have. On the other, we quickly fall into very complex and expensive automated systems that we can’t afford.
Fortunately, the hospitality industry is sufficiently fragmented to allow the existence of SaaS solutions that simply meet your essential needs without requiring much investment. These solutions are specialized in setting up and supporting conversational strategies for hotels. A SaaS solution is supposed to be ready for use almost immediately. So, you skip the reinvention of the wheel. The points to consider when choosing the solution that suits you best:
- Capabilities in terms of connected communication channels.
- Capabilities of artificial intelligence must be clearly stated (languages, the field of competence etc.), documented and cover most of your expectations. If +90% of your needs are covered by an existing solution it is more than satisfactory. There will be no need to go into complicated developments. An absolute fit exists only rarely and unicorns only exist in your imagination.
- The user interface must be excellent because what is not practical will not be used. In addition, a SaaS product that has a bad interface probably has a source code that is just as poor.
- The interface has the technical ability to connect to your systems. I propose to discover in images what hoteliers can build with a SaaS solution like Quicktext: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRwImPq1BUg&feature=youtu.be
Here is a map of the conversational universe I was able to explore. I positioned the solutions on 2 axes: – focus on hospitality and – features available on each system.