Voice is dead! Telephone calls to book hotel reservations are a thing of the past – ancient history.
Prior to the pandemic, voice reservation calls were slowing in number very, very gradually. The pandemic changed that. In fact, several things happened at once. First, COVID-19 prompted a massive increase in calls to hotels, hotel call centers and third-party call centers that handle reservation calls. Initially these were related to cancellations, then to new bookings.
Second, the business – for hotels that still had business – became solely leisure travelers. These guests had questions – lots of them – and answers weren’t available on the hotel, brand or OTA websites. Third, these potential guests wanted reassurance that they were making a sensible, safe decision in picking this hotel. And they wanted that reassurance from a live human being.
Call answerers – reservation agents at hotels, hotel brand call centers and outsource call centers – all faced the same challenges. There were fewer staff to answer calls, more information gaps and frequently changing conditions and restrictions, along with general uncertainty.
Hotel reservation call centers strive to meet industry-standard service levels – to answer 80% of calls within 30 seconds, and to have less than 5% abandoned calls (hang-ups). Under the difficult pandemic circumstances, these standards were tough to maintain.
Initially, many call centers performed far below their goals. Callers sat on hold for extended periods; some calls went unanswered. The situation was even worse in many on-property reservation offices. Sometimes the security guard in a closed hotel was answering calls.
Over time, performance improved in most operations. Reservation agents who worked in call centers or in hotel reservation offices received the equipment and system access necessary to handle calls from a home office. COVID-related health and safety information was collected and made available to them, along with answers to these new guests’ leisure-oriented questions. And call volumes soared.
These callers were risking their health, their safety and their valuable time in hope of enjoying a wonderful hotel and travel experience. They appreciated human contact. And the reservation agents they spoke with were able to reassure them, find the best accommodation match for them and, in some cases, to upsell them.
The Short-Term Scenario The short-term outlook is fairly good. Telephone calls were a constant source of reservations over the last decade. This shows no likelihood of changing. Beyond that, for the foreseeable future, leisure travelers will form a high portion of a hotel’s business. They will continue to call, looking for answers to questions not addressed elsewhere. And they will want a human to provide reassurance of the hotel’s suitability.
Additionally, we can expect answering performance at call centers to return to industry standard levels. Call volumes will become more predictable and more and more home-based reservation agents will settle into their remote roles.
The picture isn’t as immediately bright for on-property reservation call handling. Occupancy fluctuations, revenue concerns – and even more significant, the loss of staff and inability to recruit replacements – has hit reservations just as it has impacted every other aspect of a property.
Often call answering isn’t a hotel staffer’s top priority; helping a checked-in guest is. And sometimes hotel management doesn’t know how well – or poorly – the reservation office is functioning. Many are unaware that their telephone system can create reports detailing call handling performance. These are similar to the reports used in hotel call centers. They show how quickly calls are answered and how many callers hang up before speaking to a person (and then likely make a reservation elsewhere).
Change in the Air The longer-term view calls for change. Call handling, including hotel reservation calls, is in the early stages of a significant transformation. This shift will result in a greater and great percentage of calls handled by artificial intelligence-equipped chatbots. This technology is revolutionizing call handling, with constantly improving capabilities to:
- Understand the human voice and interpret questions.
- Instantly mine databases to find answers to those questions.
- Present those answers in a human-sounding voice.
We’ve all experienced early-generation chatbots – sometimes with success and delight, sometimes with frustration and anger. The reality is that chatbots aren’t going away, and that they are improving. They’ll never be able to answer every question, but they will be, as a friend described them, like traffic cops. They can answer simple questions and route the others on to human reservation agents for expert handling.
Yes, telephone calls, and voice reservations, will be a significant portion of hotel booking for at least the next decade. But change is coming in the technology that supports them.