Five steps to engaging online with your customers' conversations
In the last number of years, the hospitality industry has witnessed an explosion of customer-generated content. Ask any average person what they think the highest-trafficked sites in travel are and you will generally get a list of high profile third party hotel booking sites. And of course there are plenty of big brand names dominating booking. But they are not dominating travel. Any ranking of travel sites by traffic will show you that bookings sites are nowhere near the top of the pile, but rather review sites and customer generated comment are the leaders in capturing people's eyeballs online.
What this tells us is that booking is the end point of a process, and that this process is increasingly dominated by online research. Potential customers want to explore, to read and to be informed before they eventually settle on the target for booking.
Yet a cursory look at some of the dominant online players in hotel reviews reveals the fact that hotels are still not engaging with this. Time and again we see review after review by guests online with no response or input from hotels. As a hotel, think about what this means to your potential customers: if a customer stood in the lobby and either complained or praised your staff or hotel, would you let them stand there without even acknowledging their presence? At the very least it would be rude, but more likely it would result in you losing that customer for life, as well as anybody that he might talk to. Your repeat custom would suffer rapidly.
The startling absense of hotels from the online conversation is very visually highlighted in Bookassist's recent launch of an iPhone mobile hotel app platform. Customer reviews that have been automatically collected by the booking system for hotels over the past number of years are displayed as a key feature of the iPhone app, and are represented by conversation "bubbles" coming from the customers. Yet many hotels have never used the system's opportunity to respond, leading to the iPhone app's review display looking like an unanswered conversation of one-sided bubbles, which of course is exactly what it is. Where hotels have responded, such as that shown in the image, the positive impact on the potential customer browsing the reviews is clear - this hotel cares, this hotel takes me seriously, this hotel fosters customer relations.
Hotels, make it a resolution now to engage online with your customers in 2010. You need to put interaction with your potential online customers to center stage and not just treat it as an inconvenience. There is no hiding online and there's no point hoping it will all go away.
1. Set Google Alerts on your hotel name and variations of it so you can instantly see if someone is referring to you online. Make sure someone in your organisation has clear ownership of monitoring this.
2. Register with the major online review sites such as TripAdvisor and, again, make sure that someone in your organisation has ownership of the reading and responding process.
3. Get on Twitter, monitor Twitter for comments about your hotel, and assign that task to someone in your organisation as a primary role, not just something to do when they find a minute here and there.
4. Remember it is a conversation - you must respond to positive as well as negative comments just as you would if the person was standing in front of you. Refusing to make eye contact or ignoring the person talking to you gets you nowhere in real life, and if anything makes matters significantly worse. It is exactly the same online - except that this time the whole world is gauging your refusal to interact and what it might mean for them as a potential customer.
5. Get proactive, not just reactive. Conversation is a two-way street so instead of just responding, get out there and have your say first. Get online and tell people about new developments in your hotel, tell people about events, ask your guests their opinions. Use blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other approaches to get your name and your opinions out there. Remember, all of these have the added advantage of being found in the search engines when someone is looking for information about you.