Will Technology Replace Customer Service in Hotels?

By Daniel E. Craig, Founder, Reknown

On recent travels, I’ve noticed an increasing number of hotels using digital technology to interact with guests. Hotels have used technology for decades, of course, but the latest wave brings it out of the back-of-house and into the hands of guests.

The question is, do travelers want these options? And are they using them?

According to a Cognizant survey, over half of U.S. travelers want more automation in hotels. This includes using their mobile device to check in (54%), open their door (50%), communicate with staff (49%), and check out (57%). The numbers were significantly higher for frequent business travelers. (Phocuswright, 2016.)

But humans are strange creatures. Just because we say we want something doesn’t mean we will use it. And by many accounts adoption of guest-facing technology has been slow.

Digital Check-in
Take check-in kiosks, for example. Several years ago, big-box hotels began installing lobby kiosks at a frenzied rate, gleefully anticipating huge savings in labor costs. Then guests more or less ignored them.

A 2016 Market Force survey found that only 3 percent of U.S. consumers checked in online, 2 percent used an app, and a mere 1 percent used a self-service kiosk. The vast majority—93 percent—checked in with reception.

Why the resistance? No doubt our perception has been soured by airport kiosks, which may make check-in less labor-intensive for airlines but make it more onerous for passengers.

More than anything, however, I think that consumers are reluctant to give up one of the last bastions of good customer service: hotels.

While other businesses make it increasingly difficult to reach a human being in customer service, obliging us to wait in line or on hold, navigate voice systems, fill out online forms and converse with chatbots, hotels make it as easy as picking up the phone or walking up to the front desk. Hotel employees are so approachable they practically encourage complaints.

Now that so much of the trip-planning process is digital and self-directed, it’s no wonder that travelers rush into the arms of employees the moment they arrive at a hotel.

And yet so often, upon approaching hotel employees, I encounter not a smiling, eager face but a lowered head. Travelers may be resistant to technology in hotels, but employees can’t seem to unglue their eyes from their computers and electronic devices.

And what are the first words out of the front desk agent’s mouth? “Credit card and ID, please.”

I expect this type of greeting from a kiosk, not a hotel employee. If staff can’t deliver the fundamentals of hospitality—eye contact, a warm welcome, a smile, intuitive service, the ability to go off script—they might as well be replaced by computers and kiosks. 

And then there’s the waiting. Today the check-in process is no more efficient than when I was a front desk clerk almost (gasp) thirty years ago. How can travelers be expected to check themselves in efficiently when hotel staff still can’t?

Many hotels now offer digital check-in, but is it any more efficient? After checking in online to a New York hotel, I still had to go through all the usual procedures at the front desk, and the special requests I had submitted were either missed or disregarded. It made me wonder why I had bothered.

Labor is expensive, so it’s understandable that hotels look for ways to automate certain tasks. But technology is expensive too—especially when it irritates guests.

Clear Benefits, Choice and Convenience
If hotels want guests to adopt self-serve technology, they must offer clear benefits, such as saving time or gaining access to special offers and services. The technology should be simple, user-friendly and efficient. And it must work.

It also helps to offer benefits that were not previously available. A great example is the pre-arrival email, which invites guests to start planning their stay in advance, providing links to restaurants, activities and onsite services. The message is automated, but it feels personalized and makes you feel like hotel staff are anticipating your arrival.

Previously, hotel employees didn’t call up guests and offer to help plan their stay. Here technology is enhancing, not detracting from, the guest experience.

Luxury is about choice and convenience. Guests should have the option of serving themselves or having an employee serve them.

Digital Communications
Many hotels now have mobile apps that allow guests to book a room, check in, open their door, order services and check out using their phone. Hotels love having an app because they can control the content and track guests’ activity and preferences.

But it’s hard to get people to download a new app, much less use it. We can presume that the big brands have had more success due to scalability and loyalty program tie-ins, but we don’t really know because they don’t release hard numbers. It’s easy to boast a 50% increase in downloads when you started with 100.

Some hotels interact with travelers on popular chat apps like WhatsApp, Messenger and WeChat. But many people are reluctant to open private channels to businesses, and hotels aren’t keen to rely on third-party apps to communicate with their guests.

Social media is often touted as a customer service channel, but why would travelers use Twitter or Facebook to request extra towels or complain about breakfast unless they want an audience and don’t mind not knowing when—or if—the hotel will respond?

For now, text messaging seems to be the simplest solution for digital communications. There is no app to download, messages are received instantaneously, and the only personal information travelers give away is their cell number.

After checking in to a Dallas hotel, I received the following text: “Good afternoon, Mr. Craig. Welcome to the [Hotel]. If we can assist with anything, anytime, simply text us. How is your room? Andrew J.”

Impressive. But when I texted back a request the response was, “Can I have your room number please.” So hotels are still working out the kinks.

By some accounts, chatbots are the next big thing in customer service. Maybe for businesses whose relationships with customers are primarily transactional, but hotels are experiential. A hotel stay is charged with anticipation and emotion, especially for leisure travelers. A bit of hand-holding is required, and it’s hard to automate such conversations.

And if you have a complaint, do you want it handled by a chatbot or a manager? Computers may have artificial intelligence, but humans have emotional intelligence.

Guestroom Technology
Guestrooms are a natural place for automation because no employees are present; guests have no choice but to do things for themselves.

The challenge is that travelers expect guestroom technology to be as current as the technology at home, and yet at home we have weeks or months to figure it out, and even then many of us can perform only the most basic functions. Why spend an hour or more learning how to work the television when you’re only in house for a night or two? Personally, I keep pressing buttons until something works.

At a hotel in San Francisco, everything in my room was controlled from a touchscreen computer next to my bed—temperature, lighting and entertainment. How cool. Except I couldn’t get it to work, nor could the employee I called for assistance.

Some hotels focus too much on investing in the latest technology when their money would be better spent on staff training and property upgrades.

The best way to compel travelers to adopt technology? Leave them to their own devices. That’s not to say abandon them, I mean make technology compatible with their smartphones, tablets, laptops and preferred apps like Netflix, Hulu and Spotify.

As more people become accustomed to using voice-activated assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant at home, they will expect them in hotel rooms too. Soon hotel guests may be able to bark out orders like “Turn up the music!”, “Bring me a cheeseburger!” and “Come get my bags!” from the bed or bathtub.

Digital Checkout
Hotels have offered remote checkout for years, but I’m never confident the bill will be accurate or emailed to me as promised, so I usually line up at the front desk.

On the day of my checkout from a Las Vegas hotel, I received a copy of my bill by email with an offer of a late checkout for $20. It’s a great example of how digital technology can simultaneously benefit both travelers and hotels. I got the convenience of a late checkout without having to plead with the front desk, and the hotel received a bump in revenue.

Another example is the post-stay survey. Previously, hotel managers didn’t call up guests to ask how their stay was. Now they send an email. Guests can easily vent frustrations and sing praises, and managers receive instant feedback on how to improve.

Blending Technology with Guest Service
Digital technology won’t fully replace hotel employees anytime soon, but there’s no question that the two will increasingly work in tandem.

Guest-facing technology works best in hotels when an employee is readily available to guide and support the user. Essentially, customer service facilitates technology, and technology facilitates customer service.

A perfect example is the Airbnb app. As an Airbnb guest, you may never meet your host, yet through the app you feel as though your host is available to you throughout your stay.

For hotels, the great differentiator is the physical presence of employees. But as technology enables travelers to perform more transactions for themselves, the frequency and duration of interactions between guests and employees will decrease. This makes these touch points even more important than ever.

Hotel owners and managers are wise to invest in digital technology, but at the same time they need to ensure that employees are there for guests when they need them and trained to excel in the human side of hospitality.

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3 Responses to “Will Technology Replace Customer Service in Hotels?”

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  1. 100% agree with you.
    Technology needs to help your hard-working trained employee spend more time to do what they do best: take care of their guests!
    One important part of the Guest Journey not to be forgotten: the Pre-Arrival part. Where most opportunities lie: guests’ interests/preferences, upgrade possibilities, expectation management. Don’t let a 3rd party website control this crucial step!

  2. guest says:

    Accidentally found this article.

    As a guest in a hotel I want to deal with people. I want these people to be nice, helpful people, and I don’t want a button to push. Sadly, some people don’t always care to perform at their best, even in five-star hotels, but I still rather deal with that, than a computer. When I get automated help lines on the phone, I always ask for a real person. I always go to the cashier, not the automated one. Automation doesn’t make things better. Computers have not made our lives easier and have cost many people their jobs. I know that businesses want to get rid as many humans as possible, but they should know, many of us, won’t be staying at their hotels.

    By the way, the last time I was at a five-star hotel, the computer generated so many errors throughout my stay I had to keep going to a human to fix it. The check out through the TV was still wrong, very wrong. I had to deal with a human to undo the same mistakes and charges. Oh, it was also the last time I will stay at that hotel brand.

  3. If the app is designed to help and not replace human, interaction that will work. If there’s an app that will serve as one of the service options, technology can enhance customer service by supporting /freeing the frontline employees from the likes of tedious check in/check out during busy season then they have more quality interaction with the guests.

    Mind you, it is still early days, the millennials are maturing to dominate the market. They are tech driven … the technologies out there for the hotels are still very raw (with glitches) and for the customers it will take time to get adjusted to the whole transformation of services. I remember when facebook started it is so basic!

    My team is developing an application that will aid the hotels to deliver Five Star service, this app is geared towards efficiency of services. Not just an app for the guests but also for hotel staff.

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