As hotels slowly reopen in parts of the U.S., it’s time to question the future role of hotel call centers. Here Travel Outlook’s CEO John Smallwood and its Vice President Operations Brett Puffenberger share their views about the challenges that hotel-based call centers are facing today and in the coming months (and, perhaps, years). In addition to its unique use of world-class call center technology, Travel Outlook is the only call center certified by Kennedy Training Network, which is widely considered to be the hotel industry’s best source for sales training and guest service excellence. John created the Travel Outlook concept in 2006 after more than twenty years’ experience in owning hotels and hospitality management. Brett designs and operates the company’s virtual agent systems and monitors their connections to hotel inventories.
Can you talk about the challenges that hotel-based call centers are facing today?
John: A major issue for hotels that are starting to reopen is having enough on-property staff to field incoming calls. A lot of hotels still have employees on furlough, and many have sadly had to let people go. In these situations, a limited number of front desk agents are being asked to attend to a queue of guests and answer booking inquiries over the phone. This is a serious burden that needs a viable solution.
Brett: I think this is why outsourcing is a really attractive option right now. Outsourcing the call center gives hotels the ability to maximize bookings over the phone while the front desk staff get to focus one hundred percent on the needs of on-property guests.
What’s to stop a hotel setting up their own remote switchboard, using their own staff to remotely answer calls?
John: Well, it comes with a lot of complications. You need to give your staff the right training and the right technology so they can answer calls from home in a slick and professional manner. And let’s remember those work-from-home realities we’re all dealing with — like the kids bounding into the room where you’re working, or the dog barking in the background.
Maybe these kinds of interruptions can be laughed off, but if your own staff are trying to complete a guest booking and sound professional in this environment, well that’s a challenging situation.
Brett: Setting up operative contact center telephony with the right reporting structure is expensive and time-consuming, and, when being used effectively, requires ongoing attention and management.
In the past, some hotels may have been put off by the cost of using an outsourced call center. Given that hotels need to be more cautious than ever about their bottom lines, why is outsourcing now a good option?
John: There’s no doubt that hotels need to be mindful of their expenditures. But they also need to maximize bookings. A remote hotel call center offers a way for hotels to answer every incoming call, and then convert those calls into paying guests. We know that every missed call represents a potential lost booking, which can have a serious impact on booking revenue. Which is clearly far from ideal in these lean times.
Brett: The other thing to say is that a remote hotel call center can be entirely focused on the conversation. They’re not being swamped by all the other demands that on-property staff are facing, and this kind of extra attention can prove crucial — whether it’s reassuring an older guest about your hotel’s rigorous cleaning policies. or letting a family know about the child-friendly local attractions that are still open in your destination.
How can a remote call center agent understand the nature of the hospitality industry and attend to the specific needs of hotel guests?
John: I understand this concern. But it’s important to say that hospitality call center agents are specifically trained to speak the language of hotels, and they know exactly how to sell a property’s unique benefits and features.
Brett: And the other thing to consider is that if a potential guest calls up and speaks to a stressed-out front desk agent who’s too busy to answer all their questions, that’s a lose-lose situation. That potential guest has a poor customer experience, and maybe doesn’t book, and the front desk agent maybe feels like they’re not able to do a good job.
John: That’s actually a really good point that deserves more attention. If a front desk agent at your hotel feels overwhelmed and that they can’t do their job effectively, that’s undoubtedly going to impact their morale. And morale is something we really need to keep up right now.
Finally, what do you think about the prospect of outsourcing as a long-term solution for hotels?
John: Well, it’s definitely something that warrants serious thought. The future feels incredibly uncertain, and until we get back to some form of normal, hotels need a solution that can weather any storm. To me, that makes outsourcing a potentially long-term solution.
Brett: I agree. If we see a resurgence of COVID-19 further down the line, a team of remote call agents can carry on regardless. They’re already in place and able to give a hotel a reliable and seamless level of customer service. That’s the kind of reassurance that I think has enormous value in the new world we’re living in.