DEAL MAKERS/DEAL BREAKERS – FACTORS HOTELS MULL AS THEY CONSIDER TECHNOLOGY PURCHASES
FACTORS HOTELS MULL AS THEY CONSIDER TECHNOLOGY PURCHASES
There is no question that functionality and price are key considerations for hotel management as they approach technology buying decisions. But there are other, sometimes less obvious, issues at play as well. Vendor strengths (or weaknesses) in several pivotal areas can decide which supplier is finally selected. Some of these attributes are hard and relatively simple to detail and reach a conclusion on, while others are softer, requiring subjective (but no less important) judgment.
Here’s a list of the decision issues for hotels to consider, and for vendors to aim to meet successfully.
1.- INSTALLATION EASE AND SUPPORT
Plug and play is a myth. Hotel systems—from clock radios on up—require some set-up effort. The goal in evaluating vendor and system choices is to accurately understand the effort that will be needed to implement each of those choices under consideration. The preparatory time that hotel staff will need to expend, the likelihood of success on the first attempt, the clarity of the implementation process guidance, the extent of support from the vendor (including the knowledgeability and competence of their staff) and the experience of previous customers all merit close examination.
2.- PRODUCT USABILITY
How easy is it to learn to use this product? How easy is it to use it day to day? In a world of systems and user screens that leave us overwhelmed, the beginning point for functions may be challenging to find and the steps necessary for completion less than fully obvious. The importance of a clear, intuitive design is paramount.
Today’s hotel staff members do not have the time or the patience to read extensive training manuals. Reviewing a one-page introduction, watching a five-minute online video or listening to a short podcast is about all we can expect from them. And with our industry’s staff turnover, those options need to perform well again and again.
When looking at system options, the new usability benchmark is Google—no training required, obvious steps in the usage process, its extreme usability reminds us to aim high in our expectations for brief and effective training options, and clear and intuitive system processes.
3.- STAFF ATTITUDE AND CORPORATE CULTURE
Attitude matters, especially if problems develop. In considering a vendor and their product, ask some tough questions, such as: does this vendor really want our business? Does its staff convey a sense of enthusiasm? Do their words and actions suggest expertise with its products? Are they seriously interested in our needs and do they communicate enthusiasm that they can fulfill them? Do they listen to us, and are they hearing what we say? Are they professionals who we feel we can trust or are they merely being polite and hoping for their sales commission? The answers to these questions with respect to the vendor’s executives, implementation staff and account management team, as well as their sales team, can significantly influence our final decision.
While talking to the vendors and hearing the stories that others in the industry tell about them, do you conclude that their ethics, their performance commitment, their communication style, and their sense of urgency meet yours, that they match your needs and expectations in these key areas? Answering these questions requires subjective assessments. It questions your impressions, draws on your vendor experiences, and taps your gut instincts. The conclusions may be less than fully firm but impressions and instincts must be given credence on these issues.
They deal with fundamental performance areas that will be important in both the short term and the long run.
4.- FINANCIAL AND PERSONNEL STABILITY
When hotels buy technology, it is expected to perform and to be supported by its vendor for an appreciable period of time. In this industry, we keep systems for seven, 12, even 15 years (or longer). With every technology purchase or service contract approval, we would do well to ask ourselves, given what we know about this vendor’s past performance, apparent financial condition and quality of leadership, do they appear likely to still be open and operating in a decade? This is an important question. Loss of service and support, leading to the need to replace systems or find a new service provider, is expensive, inconvenient and disruptive.
And if the vendor appears financially stable and the company’s prospects appear positive, the next issue is the longevity of its staff. Has there been a pattern of high staff turnover with the vendor organization in the recent past? Or are the staff long-timers who, barring unforeseen developments, are likely to remain—continuing important relationships and delivering the competent service that a company wants and needs?
5.- EASE OF AND COMMITMENT TO INTEGRATION WITH OTHER HOTEL SYSTEMS
Fewer and fewer of the items bought for hotels—especially those related to technology or technology services—are truly standalone. Door locks, televisions, minibars or point-of-sale terminals are more and more often referred to as systems and increasingly interface with each other and with other systems for monitoring, reporting or charge posting. The interfacing capabilities of a product today are important. Equally at issue is the vendor’s provisions to expand interface capabilities in the future.
A useful indicator of a vendor’s commitment to interfacing—now and in the future—is its position on HTNG specifications. An association of hotel companies and vendors committed to prompting and supporting the use of industry-wide interoperability specifications Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG) is now the hotel industry’s pacesetter for effective systems interfacing. Adoption or avoidance of HTNG specifications is a useful indicator of vendor commitment in this key area.
6.- CUSTOMER SUPPORT EFFECTIVENESS
Every product, technology or service comes with the promise of user support. The issue is its availability when needed, its presence in preferred formats, and its effectiveness in determining the problem and then promptly delivering a useful response. Online FAQs, e-mail support or live telephone dialogue are a few of the support options. The effectiveness of each of them ultimately depends on highly knowledgeable vendor staff—experts in both the hotel business and their products—to swiftly deliver the solutions that the users need.
Reviewing online support resources, learning the hours of support availability (and any extra fees that may apply), and determining the lodging industry experience of the support staff combine to help indicate the strengths—or potential shortcomings—in the vendor’s user support program.
7.- CONTINUOUS, CLIENT-GUIDED PRODUCT INNOVATION
Of the leading systems in many product lines, new capabilities are regularly added in response to changing marketplace needs and opportunities. In approaching buying decisions on complex systems, hotel staff do well to ask: what is each vendor’s product enhancement record; what factors (including input from its current user base) determine and prioritize additions to the product enhancement roadmap; what enhancements are on that roadmap for the next 18 months (and do those upgrades match your priorities); and, is there sufficient budget and qualified staff to accomplish the enhancement plan?
In areas of guest service, guest recognition, revenue management and electronic distribution, the operational landscape is evolving continuously. The systems used by hotels in these and other areas must do so as well.
8.- OTHER USERS’ OPINIONS
The contradiction is interesting. On the one hand, hotel staff are remarkably willing to share experiences and assessment of systems and services with fellow hoteliers. They set competitive issues aside and share honest, often blunt opinions. On the other hand, too often hotel staff, after diligently examining the merits of a product or service, skip the step of checking references. Even user contacts supplied by the vendor may share a different and influential perspective from what has been heard so far in the evaluation. Too often overlooked as uncomfortable, intrusive or unnecessary, reference checks can be the final confirmation of a wise decision, or a signal to continue the evaluation.
Will it do the job? That is the central question, but it is not the only question that should be asked. Ease of implementation and use, enthusiasm of the vendor and skill of their staff, development plans and sensitivity to user input, likelihood of the vendor’s long-term existence, and opinions of other users are all areas to be queried if the best-informed and most successful buying decision is to be made.