Solving the Guest Experience with Technology and Humanity
Updated: Jul 2
I’ll be bold and just say it. Technology without humanity cannot resolve the Guest Expectation vs Guest Experience gap that so many businesses are facing today. Technology is a tool. It’s just a tool. But in the hands of compassionate people who feel inspired, empowered, and encouraged by their leaders to guests happy, great technology can give them wings to fly.
There’s so much to think about when exploring the relationship between Humans and Technology in delivering great experiences to our guests, I asked a fellow Customer Experience Strategist, Larry Leung of Transformidy, to join me for a conversation.
I invite you to both listen and read the post below. The post is inspired by the conversation, but not at all the same as the audio podcast, which you can also subscribe to on Apple, Spotify, Audible, or anywhere you enjoy listening to podcasts.
We have seen a lessening in hospitality in both full-contact and contact-free experiences.
During our conversation, Larry shared that he recently had an especially contactless experience at a hotel, and felt that he really missed the personalized hospitality and enriching experiences one expects at a hotel. If hotels lose that human hospitality, how can we differentiate the experience of a hotel vs a vacation rental?
I on the other hand had several travel experiences with hotels and airlines, and there have been excruciating issues with incorrect text communications, frustrating website experiences, and no one picking up the phone to help.
Are you one of many hospitality leaders that feel the human touch is such a key value of the hospitality industry? I fully agree. But if we believe in the importance of the human touch, we must also be committed to making the human connection feel more personal.
It is hard for me to remember the last time a hotel Guest Service Agent said: “Welcome to our Hotel” on arrival. Instead, they are focused on the transaction. Hotels say, “Checking in? Name please?” Restaurant hosts say, Do you have a reservation? How many people in your party?
I’ve had several high-contact experiences at the front desk this past year, but despite the good and capable people there, I still felt I was missing the welcome, the personalized hospitality, and enriching experiences I have come to expect. These were definitely not issues of the staff themselves; they were terrific people! It's simply the case that with recent circumstances, and even before, our industry has not been prioritizing encouraging, training, inspiring, and empowering our staff to deliver our vision of what a great guest experience should be like.
Just like staff, technology also needs to be nurtured and empowered, aka programmed, to deliver warm welcomes, thoughtful and generous communications, and listening skills that would inspire trust, a sense of ease, and the five-star reviews that come with making guests feel cared for.
Even my beloved JetBlue can get it wrong:
At JetBlue, travelers used to have to check in at the desk if they had a pet, so we were used to skipping the kiosk. Actually, we also just preferred checking in at the desk unless the line was long because we sometimes had tech issues at the kiosk. But this time after waiting in line, the person said that it was no longer an option to go to the kiosk. We had to go back to the kiosk! We were shocked. Sure enough, we had massive challenges at the kiosk. An agent came to help us and she got the same error messages we did. She told us we had to go back to the end of a now very long line. After a significant wait, another agent approached us near the front of the line and said she would try again for us. It didn’t work. In the end, we had to get checked in by the same person who refused us due to policy 45 minutes earlier.
What’s the moral of this story?
Don’t put policy over people. Instead of having a single, quick and positive interaction with a staff member, despite everyone trying to do their best and doing what they were trained to do, we now had an unnecessarily frustrating experience for no good reason. It was not only frustrating to us but to the employees who wasted their precious time, all for the sake of policy. A better thing to do was to take care of us on the spot and let us know the options we would have to check in with the new system when traveling with our pet.
Don’t force-feed technology on your guests. If they prefer personal interaction with a human over a machine, they may have legitimate reasons, so be accessible for that. Remember that people can have issues with reading the screen or talking on the phone due to declining vision, hearing age, or other challenges. Being inclusive and respectful of your customers means being accessible via a variety of contact points that the guest can choose from to best serve their needs.
If we don’t treat customers the way they want to be treated, we risk losing them to businesses that are more guest-centric.
Ensure the team knows how to fully leverage the tools that they already have.
Most hotels today are only using a fraction of the capability of the technology they already have. Find ways to encourage your team to fully explore the capability of the technology they already have. A great place to start is to leverage vendors to possibly review how you are using their system and what you could be doing to get the most value and provide the most benefit from the system.
Divide and Conquer, but then SHARE
Breaking information silos doesn’t everyone has the same level of expertise. You can designate one or two champions for each system within your hotel tech stack. Champions can designate an hour each week or two to take a deep dive into the system. This will allow them to be a resource for the rest of the team. But the rest of the team should be learning as well. So each week, they all can exchange information. Each champion can take time to share weekly at the morning huddle or another time something helpful or relevant for the other members. This way, everyone learns the way the whole system works, but not everyone has to read every manual, watch every video, or attend every webinar.
The beauty of this approach is to everyone has confidence that people are the masters of the tech and when we understand how the systems work, we can think creatively about how to use those systems to address the real-life problems that come up every day.
What you don’t want to have is knowledge silos. Knowledge silos create a terrible experience for guests and for staff members. If there is anything we have learned from these last few years is that our associates feel more loyal to companies who invest time in their growth and continuous learning. People feel more connected to companies when they feel they are being prepared to rise to the occasion when promotions become available. As they learn, they can use their expertise to suggest creative solutions to problems as they arise. Even with the best corporate culture, people can leave and it is always in the best interest of a company when multiple people have already been familiarized and prepped to step into other positions.
Train System to Deliver Enriching Experiences as an extension of the team, no matter the level of contact.
Robotic transactions do not make delightful experiences and they don’t inspire loyalty and five-star reviews. So don’t settle for your tech or your team to communicate with guests in a robotic, transactional way.
The great news is that with the right level of encouragement and support, your team may find that sharing their love our your hotel, your unique offerings, and your locale to be one of the most fulfilling parts of their job. Who doesn’t want to be a hospitality hero, making travelers’ dreams come true? Educate your team on how to deliver enriching experiences to guests. Demonstrate to them how they can turn transactions into memorable connections that will keep them coming back and sharing their experiences with their friends.
You can then take that very human spirit of hospitality and enriching communication, and program your tech to deliver communications to your guests with that same welcoming, caring voice. Program your system to provide that little bit extra, as if they were speaking to a human. And always give the guest the option to connect to a real human if we were not able to give them the information they needed.
Train the Team and Train the System to Tell the Story of What Makes This Special:
Last year I stayed in a hotel that is part of one of my favorite hotel brands. When I hadn’t received information on any of the nice perks I have come to expect with the chain including some complimentary refreshments, I feared that free coffee was going to be another victim of “shrinkflation”, another lessening of the guest experience after COVID. So I texted, “Where can I get coffee?” and wondered if I would get a human answer or a robot. The Human answer I got said, Good morning! You can get coffee in the Restaurant.”
She didn't do anything wrong at all, but the message was a disappointment.
Now, I felt sure that as there was no mention of free coffee or any other refreshments or even the location of the restaurant, I hung my head and said a final farewell to another lovely amenity that bit the dust, the last vestige of what once was that company’s brand standard.
I told my husband I would go buy a coffee in the neighborhood. My husband encouraged me to go to the restaurant instead and to my surprise, I found that the coffee was still free. It was simply the lack of complete and thoughtful communication by the guest service agent that led to a disappointing moment.
Had I not entered the restaurant, I might have walked away thinking the brand had failed to keep a brand standard. But all that really happened is they stopped training their team to talk about what makes a stay with them special.
This really got me thinking. Perhaps there’s a benefit to programming the ideal response into a chatbox, rather than leaving everything completely up to each employee’s level of skill, confidence, or energy at the moment a question is asked. Surely a well-formed automated response would show all the caring and excitement of the person who composed it, even it in the end it was delivered with a bit of technology.
But why choose human or tech? Why not the capture the spirit of a beautiful, warm, and comprehensive answer and then let it become a point of education for our team members AND be programmed into our systems?
Larry suggested that the training should not only be for the benefit of the guest, but also the business. Instead of just saying that we are delighted to offer you complimentary coffee and teas from this hour to this hour. Talk about the story of the coffee, fair trade, organic, local, private blend, etc. Are you giving away fresh baked cookies in the lobby to give a little wow and welcome to your guests? Why not talk about the pastry chef, and the other wonderful desserts and unique flavor sensations available in the restaurant? Every question or transaction is an opportunity to deliver a little bit more helpful information that will enrich your guests’ experience. It will give them more enjoyment and more to talk about when their friends asked them about their trip.
So don’t settle for the repackaged responses that your tech may come with.
Be sure to encourage your team and program your tech to deliver hospitality with all those special touches that elevate guest satisfaction and the revenues along with it.
Take it for a test drive:
It took me 2.5 hours to check-in online this week on Silver Airways (that’s a bigger story for another day), and when I was queued up at the airport, everyone else had their own stories of how many issues there were with the process. The wrong codes were sent to us leaving everyone advised that they can’t find the reservation. It offered to find the reservation by departure city, but our city was not on the drop-down list, and the nagging alert Document needed, turned out to be their way of asking us to identify our gender. YIKES! And then there was no one to answer or even return our calls.
Please. If you want travelers to like you, before you expose your customers to your technology, make sure lots of time has been spent by your team and trusted friends to test drive the systems. Is the system making you feel cared for, appreciated, and respected? It is easier, faster, and more convenient? Or do you feel like this system was designed to test your patience?
Make Human Intervention Easier to Achieve:
I don’t know anyone who loves calling a hotel (or any business) and getting an automated phone call system. You know the drill…press 1 for sales, 2 for accounting, 3 for reservations, etc, but it is frustrating to wait through 8 options only to find none of them is the one you are looking for.
Perhaps even worse is waiting on hold for someone and either getting disconnected or transferred back to the system, just to go through it all again.
If you really care about your customers, always allow for people to choose a human contact easily, such as pressing “0” at any time to speak to a person who is well versed at how to get people to the right department, and pass the guest over with care and respect. Once, after not being able to take care of something online, I had to speak to 8 different people over 3 days to get something accomplished. Being forced to explain the situation over and over, verify my identity every time, and never able to return to the same person for follow-up, well, as you can imagine, it was absolutely excruciating.
This is how loyal customers become formerly loyal customers.
If issues like this were happening to your customers, would you be made aware of it? What process do you have to learn about it? Are you rewarding your staff members for reporting customer pain points?
Who is in charge of finding opportunities to modify protocols and processes to alleviate customer and associate frustration? Does that person know that they are in charge of identifying pain points and causes as well as implementing and monitoring solutions? Does that person have the authority to implement changes?
These may sound like funny questions, but I am very serious. I think many people think that their hands are tied, by owners, management companies, brands, and other entities. They may not know that not only do they have the authority to continually hone the guest experience, but they have the responsibility to seek out pain points and lead the team as they implement continuous improvement.
How about Humans and Technology working together?
Here’s a story to illustrate this point. My husband and I recently moved into a new home. We set up all our new accounts for utilities and put everything on auto-pay because we never want to be late. Imagine our shock when we got the first letter from the electric company saying that they were going to cut off our electricity if we didn’t pay within two days. We went online and everything was set up perfectly for auto pay the previous month. When we called the customer service person said that when we initiated the account online, there was already a balance. That’s why autopay didn’t work. It’s a glitch in their system.
So I suggested that she share the details of this issue with the team leader in charge of improvements so that they can fix it. Alternatively, they can at least inform visitors on the website when setting up auto-pay, that there is a problem. Perhaps let a red flag go up to say, WAIT! In order to finalize auto-pay, please pay the balance first. You always have two options, inform or fix, and either way, it is not a big imposition on the guest.
But to start your relationship with a customer by sending a letter saying we will cut your power is an AWFUL customer experience. Still, the agent was shocked that we were suggesting such a strange request as to report the glitch that is well known to her team to management.
Surely management is already aware of the problem, as it happens all the time. But how can leadership be aware if no one thinks it’s their job to tell them? Did we invite them to tell us?
Imagine how many customers this has happened to! So my husband says to the agent, again, since this is a frequent problem for your customers, and delays your company getting paid, can you please inform the people who are in charge of the customer experience what a terrible situation this was? We didn’t even get a call. We got a letter in the mail saying we were going to have our power cut off. What if we had been out of town this week, and you shut down our power. Please tell your boss. Maybe you’ll get a big bonus or a raise for your great idea to fix this problem. Don’t you wish companies gave bonuses for drawing attention to the daily problems that customers face?
After the call, I told my husband that I love how he thinks. Yes, employees SHOULD get a bonus for reporting friction points. But sadly, rewarding for reporting problems is rare. More likely, employees get judged positively for getting people off the phone quickly so they may move on to the next customer. This is such a huge missed opportunity.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is, why not have people and tech work together? Why not let our people use their voice, creativity, and passion for hospitality to make tech work better for customers. That would make both the guest and employee experience better and make customers more satisfied and loyal.
It’s 2022: No one should have to wait in a long line to check-in. If they do wait in line and you send them away to get something and come back, they certainly should not have to go to the back of the line again. That’s not treating your customers with respect.
Are your humans consistently delivering the SPARKLE?
When you do have human interaction, are your team member adding their special spark of hospitality to your guests? I am sorry to say that while I always feel I encounter great people at every hotel I stay at, I rarely see the spirit of hospitality on arrival. Checking in is just a transaction. Hospitality only seems to emerge when and if I need some extra help. So just because you took care to hire a team of people that are eager to please, doesn’t mean hospitality leaders are off the hook for training and culture. You need to continually demonstrate, encourage and celebrate the behaviors you want guests to rave about.
Here’s a true story that demonstrates that perfectly. I recently went to a new restaurant that opened in my neighborhood. I had heard good things so we were excited. When we arrived, I was disappointed to feel that they were not as excited to welcome us to their new place as expected. It was all deadpan faces and purely transactional. Do you have a reservation? Name, please? Please follow me. They were very well staffed. It all went smoothly. I did not see any chaos or stress. I’m sure everyone was a perfectly lovely person, but they were simply not trained and encouraged to take make the moment of arrival a time for warm welcoming that creates loyalty and elevates the guest experience.
When we left, however, it was a completely different experience! From the moment we rose from the table to when we reached the door, the owner, the manager, the chefs, and the wait staff all seemed to take a moment to look us in the eye with a great smile and said that you for coming, see you again soon, and other very gracious farewells. It was truly a wow moment.
So what was the difference between humdrum arrival and the amazing departure experience? It wasn’t the staff. It was a blind spot of leadership. They trained one thing spectacularly and forgot about the other equally important moments completely.
Do you have a blind spot?
Is there a transaction that is being overlooked as an opportunity to raise the value of your guest experience? Design a wow moment with your human team. Then look to see how you can express those same moments of heartfelt hospitality by plugging them into your tech interactions.
If you would like help with increasing your revenue by finding and solving your gaps in the guest experience, Larry and I are here for you!
I’m offering a complimentary reputation assessment to any hospitality leader who would like me to examine their reviews and propose some step-by-step recommendations on how to get started on a reputation cultivation program.
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Have a wonderful week!