Digital self-service will be the key to customer support success in 2022

by Sandrine Zechbauer

As we near the end of 2021, it’s clear that the hospitality industry is already making a major comeback. In fact, a McKinsey survey reveals traveling to be the second-most-desired activity among respondents currently. With controllable COVID-19 cases and rising vaccination rates, this surge will likely carry into the new year. But travel brands shouldn’t celebrate just yet. With rising demand for a “seamless” customer experience at the touch of a button, accompanied by leaner customer service teams, how will the hospitality industry rise above? Embracing digital self-service is the ticket to success.

What is digital self-service and how can your brand implement it?
Self-service tools provide a way for customers to get their questions answered without needing to interact with a brand directly. Not only is it more efficient and cost-effective, but it’s preferred by most consumers. 81% of customers will attempt to resolve an inquiry on their own before reaching out to a representative. But of course, this isn’t new to the travel industry. Self-service kiosks at airports have been around for more than 15 years. Hotels rapidly followed suit with their own self-service check-in pods requiring little to no interaction with the hotel staff. So, what is new?

When it comes to self-service systems, both hotels and airlines have traditionally focused on the very short ‘pre-trip’ window. You could find self-service tools when arriving at the airport, or in a hotel lobby. However, newer digital self-service tools address the post-purchase timeframe, usually the several months leading up to a trip, where the need for customer service support is just as prevalent. Online communities, knowledge bases, AI-powered messaging and mobile apps all lead to faster pre-trip resolutions and, in turn, satisfy the demand for a swift customer experience.

4 self-service strategies to exceed traveler expectations
Traveler standards are higher than ever before. Not only do consumers want their questions answered in a shorter amount of time, but they are also increasingly looking for ways to get an answer themselves. In fact, 45% of customers report they’re more likely to use self-service tools today than before the pandemic. Dive into digital self-service in 2022 by considering the following strategies:

1. Create a brand community to tackle common queries
Online brand communities provide a way for consumers to resolve their questions on an interactive platform without needing to pick up the phone. Communities also dominate search engine result pages. All consumers start their customer service journey with a Google search and getting in front of them right off the bat is vital. When it comes to hotels and airlines, nothing is more powerful than online communities. Most of the world’s best-known travel brands have avid followers, most of them loyal customers. They know the tips, the hacks, the property details, answers to frequent flyers questions, and where the best tacos are. Chances are, they have already created their own community outside of your platform. Having a look at the members and the popularity of flyertalk, it’s a mystery as to why more travel brands have not invested in online communities to leverage and monetize the travelers’ knowledge.

To take your digital self-service to the next level, once a user lands on your community page, you can add a bot to boost efficiency and optimize their experience. Research has shown that digital community bots mitigate community bounce rates (which are typically around 40%) by guiding users to the right place and prevent data pollution by answering redundant questions.

2. Utilize AI-enabled chatbots that answer repetitive questions
Travel-related customer service inquiries are often more time-sensitive than most. AI chatbots allow agents to spend less time answering the same common questions, such as: ‘From what time can I check-in?’ or ‘Which terminal does my flight land in?’ and more time helping travelers with more complex inquiries, like cancellation and rebooking. AI tools can also pick up on customer sentiment and intent and facilitate queue prioritization for timely matters. Hotels in particular are facing the challenge of providing personal interactions without the need for human touch. In fact, 60% of consumers now prefer to check-in via an app versus in-person. Luckily, technology now allows AI chatbots to provide more empathetic, human-like responses and gauge suggested responses. AI-based messaging accompanied with the right digital customer engagement platform is the key to a seamless experience.

3. Send timely, outbound SMS messages to reduce friction and inbound inquiry volume
Consumers are not only continuing to make purchases via a mobile device, but they’re using it to enhance their overall travel experience. When it comes to messaging, is there still a place for SMS in the age of Whatsapp and Messenger? The data seems to tell us there is.

One-way SMS messages have a 90% open rate within three minutes of being received, which means reaching your guests has never been easier. There is also one major advantage to continuing to invest in SMS messaging: it doesn’t require roaming data, which is extremely valuable for overseas guests who might not have mobile data turned on. SMS remains the best channel to reach travelers in record time. For instance, sending welcome messages to guests via SMS is an excellent way to secure loyalty and make guests feel valued. In addition, your brand can employ two-way messaging to facilitate seamless mobile guest requests such as room service, dining reservations or other add-on services.

4. Leverage CX insights to provide a single view of all customer communications
Given the digital transformation the hospitality industry is experiencing, it’s vital to use a customer experience (CX) insights platform to track customer challenges and overall sentiment, especially regarding new property launches, room refurbished or the service at a particular location. By understanding what questions are consistently coming up with travelers, hospitality brands can update their digital self-service options to provide clarity and stop the questions before they come up. However, tracking and analyzing critical CX data is often strenuous for any business, given the multitude of digital channels that exist. And even more for travel brands, who operate in multiple countries at once and often subcontract the customer service to third-party vendors, making the quality control even harder to measure. By seamlessly integrating all conversations into one unified platform and reducing the volume of inquiries from the start, hospitality brands can optimize their customer service strategy for 2022 and beyond.

Ring in the new year with world-class digital self-service
As 2021 comes to a close, consumers are leaning more and more towards digital customer service offerings. Investing in digital self-service for 2022 will take your guest experience to the next level all while tackling daunting call volumes and agent shortages. There’s nothing better than a happy guest, and a polished digital self-service strategy will drive long-term customer loyalty in a highly competitive industry.

Sandrine Zechbauer is director, EMEA marketing for Khoros.

This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.