Failure to Communicate

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March 01, 2013
Mobile
Jon Inge

Guest self-service apps are immensely appealing, but communication failures – technical and human – can completely undermine their promises.


In a world where many hotel brands are often perceived as interchangeable, each one strives to stand out by offering a memorably higher and more personal level of service. Guest self-service apps are a fast-growing way to achieve this, leveraging a traveler’s fascination with mobile apps and desire for personal control of his or her itinerary. Starting as straightforward portable booking engines, these apps quickly added dining, spa, golf and other activities both pre-arrival and during the stay.
 
These apps allow guests to order extra towels, wake-up calls, room service, bell service or anything else they wish, all without having to call and speak with anyone. Ascension, Intelity, Runtriz, Tiare and Incentient all have established customer bases, and new examples such as Monscierge come to market all the time.  Most are offered in downloadable form to guests’ phones or tablets, or pre-loaded on guestroom tablets, and their appealing designs encourage guests to explore and book additional hotel services and activities. Hotels like the additional revenue and can see potential savings from fewer staff to answer guest queries and requests.

It’s a win-win for everyone – when it works. However, as with so much of modern automation, it relies on a flawless communications infrastructure to deliver the promised service, and if the technology falls down, the property must ensure that it has rock-solid manual procedures in place to recover.

This challenge was highlighted recently by an article in the Wall Street Journal covering a reporter’s use of one hotel brand’s app during a stay. According to the article, when it worked the app was brilliant, allowing her to pre-order room service, extra pillows and a daily newspaper before arrival. 

But problems were lurking.

After receiving a confusing mix of response messages saying both that the requests had been submitted and that errors had occurred, it wasn’t entirely a surprise to find out at check-in that the pillow and newspaper requests hadn’t come through. That’s annoying but to some extent understandable – we all experience spotty cellphone signal coverage in the real world that makes us wonder if our messages are received – and the front desk agent took note of the requests manually.

But after this technical communications snag, the hotel dropped the ball on its staff communications. Although the room service order was delivered on time and as requested, neither the pillows nor the newspapers showed up despite the manual confirmation of the requests.  There were some minor challenges with the app itself too, or perhaps with its interface to other systems; a wake-up call request with a snooze alarm 10 minutes later (a single request in the app) went through as two separate calls, leading the hotel to call back to confirm what was needed. The app also required two separate requests to be made to check out and to request an emailed folio. Once again the WSJ reporter received one submitted and one error message for each request, and once again found that neither was received.

These may seem like minor challenges and only one person’s experience, but they highlight some significant challenges for hotels looking to use these apps. First, mobile apps rely totally on satisfactory cellphone or Wi-Fi communications. Many encounter dead spots in the outside world, but if a hotel is going to offer these apps for guest use on property, it must provide seamless coverage, both within the guestroom and in all public areas. This isn’t easy or inexpensive.

Next, if the app has enough uncertainty that a request was received to generate an error message, there’s no way it should also be able to send a received message for the same request. Computers operate on the binary system; either something happened, or it didn’t. Whether the fault lies within the app or with its interface to a sub-system designated to fulfill the request, a confirmation message shouldn’t go back to the guest unless it’s absolutely confirmed all the way through.

The user interface design continues to be an art as much as a science, but it should always aim to require the minimum number of steps for a user to perform all common tasks.

Lastly, if the guest finds that a self-service request wasn’t received and the hotel agent makes a manual note of the request, there is absolutely no excuse for it not being fulfilled. The guest has already been let down once by the hotel’s system; being let down by its staff as well will kill any credibility of personal service.
Technology allows for amazing detail and flexibility in tracking guests’ preferences and requests and in linking different systems, but it isn’t infallible.?A technological failure to communicate must not lead to a human one if the guest expectations the hotel has worked so hard to build aren’t to be undermined.? 

Jon Inge is an independent consultant specializing in technology at the property level. He can be reached at jon@joninge.com or at (206) 546-0966.

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