Managing Voice Reservations Operations in an Economic Downturn

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April 07, 2020
Reservations
John Burns - john@burns-htc.com
AngeloTiveron- Angelo.Tiveron@cloud5.com

Editor’s Note: The Spring 2020 issue was published prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. While some of the information is dated we published the articles in their entirety as the industry was showing great progress prior to the outbreak. We can learn from these articles and examples as we prepare for future disruptions.
 

If you believe the pundits, there’s an economic downturn ahead. Will it be tomorrow, next month, next year? No one can say for sure, but the economic boom period we’re in today – the longest since the Great Depression – will inevitably come to an end. What will that mean to your hotel business and how will you react? Now is the time to prepare. 

Whether you operate a 500-seat hotel brand contact center or a 5-seat on-property reservation office, a recession forces operational adjustments. It also offers interesting opportunities. This article will identify some adjustments to consider for voice reservations during a downturn, and opportunities to embrace. A recession poses numerous challenges to hotel companies and individual properties alike. In addition to handling calls and electronic communication proficiently, the voice reservation program’s goals in this environment are to:

1. Sustain revenue production
2. Control expenses
3. Retain staff
4. Collect marketplace intelligence

If you’re running a lean, efficient operation with the proper focus on employee and customer satisfaction, changes in the economic climate should come as a ripple, not a tsunami. When a downturn looms, it’s time to refocus on the basics and capitalize on your strengths. This checklist of “do’s and don’ts” for economic challenges can help you achieve your voice booking goals.


SUSTAIN REVENUE PRODUCTION

Calls and reservation requests will decline in a downturn. Your challenge will be to convert every contact into a booking. Since the contact center is in direct communication with the traveler (or their agent), staff can gauge the level of interest and what it will require to win the booking. 
  • Don’t reduce investment in skills training for your agents. It’s more important than ever that they have the tools to convert customer engagements into revenue, especially if call volume is decreasing.
  • Up-skill all reservation agents on best-practice sales techniques – use the caller’s name, listen attentively, be engaged, ask questions. Have them role-play these conversations until they’re comfortable and confident. Monitor and coach to ensure ongoing use of these techniques.
  • Set a fallback (i.e. lowest possible) rate for each night. Give it a name, like “local incentive.” Let reservation agents offer and confirm it if they are in danger of losing the sale.
  • Consider allowing selected sales agents to make outbound calls offering past guests special incentives to return, or making reservations for soon-to-arrive guests at on-property facilities and services.
  • Adapt these techniques for use in email and social media channel communication

CONTROL EXPENSES

A decline in inbound calls and other communications naturally leads to a review of staffing hours. But can you reduce coverage and maintain performance metrics like speed-to-answer, abandoned call rate guidelines, etc.? Possible expense control actions include:
  • Continually review and assess staffing levels and expenses in relation to your budget/ forecast and performance metrics.
  • Make necessary adjustments on an ongoing basis. Implement voluntary or even mandatory overtime to offset staff reductions. This avoids added training and benefit costs associated with new employees.
  • Scrutinize all expenses not directly related to customer and employee satisfaction.
  • Let qualified agents work from home. While this arrangement isn’t suited for every business, it can reduce your cost footprint, increase coverage hours and provide a contingency in case there’s a disruption of on-site operations. 

RETAIN STAFF

In a slowdown our most valuable asset – call center staff – is too often the first expense to be cut. Despite months or years of training, system and product knowledge development, and strong performance and tenure, they’re let go. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but you can take preventive actions: 
  • Recognize that you need to focus and rely on your front-line agents more than ever Increase management and support staff visibility on the floor. It’s important that they know you’re working together as one team to face the changing environment and the consequences that come with reducing costs and boosting revenue.
  • Maintain employee engagement, team meetings and 1-1 feedback. You won’t gain any additional productivity from your staff if they’re always under siege in a prolonged “all hands-on-deck” environment.
  • Evaluate each staff member – who’s the best revenue producer? Who has potential for promotion? Who has special skills? Who’s cross-trained? In other words, who do you most want to keep on staff?
  • Ask your staff if they’d be willing to work reduced hours or fewer shifts/days in order to help retain fellow staffers rather than lay them off.
  • Consider other jobs that reservation operations staffers could do, like social media monitoring and chat response. 

COLLECT MARKETPLACE INTELLIGENCE

Corporate marketing staff talk with market researchers or consultants. Property managers talk with sales staff and department heads. But reservation sales agents speak directly with the people most essential to success – your guests. Short of the front desk at check-in, a telephone call is the only chance you get to talk directly with a prospective or confirmed guest

Take advantage of your access to the primary data that comes from your callers. It will help educate agents and fine-tune your product, pricing and selling strategies.

Leverage telephone conversations for the unique opportunity to understand guest attitudes to your brand or property. What, especially in difficult economic times, do they like about you (you can promote this more broadly). Where could you improve? Are your rates competitive? How can you help them say yes to your lodging? What are your competitors saying or doing that impresses (or discourages) guests? Are they empowered to make decisions that can lock in the reservation? Here are some intelligencerelated action items:
  • Develop questions for agents to ask – maybe a new one each week. Summarize responses and deliver them to marketing and sales.
  • Implement a weekly process for summarizing, discussing and distributing caller feedback. Do you need to adjust sales dialogue? Are callers mentioning issues that could (and should) be corrected? Are they mentioning competitor initiatives that you should examine and possibly copy? Is caller feedback reaching both senior corporate marketing and sales staff and property managers? 

Finally, place your top priority on employee participation and engagement. Explain your challenges and responses to them. Seek their comments and suggestions. Agents will often surprise you with their innovative, thoughtful and practical solutions. Your agents are part of the solution. At the end of the day they’re a link to your guests that can help ensure booking stability in any economic environment.

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