Definitely Doug 2/21/2020: Beyond the Walkie-Talkie

by Doug Rice

Beyond the Walkie-Talkie

Hotels always talk about how focused they are on guest satisfaction. But studies such as the ACSI Travel Report consistently show hotels coming in way below even banks and limited-service restaurants in guest satisfaction, and just barely above airlines and gas stations. And it’s getting worse: 2019 showed a 1.3% drop over 2018. Net promoter scores for most major hotel brands are lowest for millennials and Generation X, which does not bode well for the future. A 2016 study by Revenue Strategy Summit showed that poor service delivery accounted for 56% of negative trip reviews.

Across thousands of hotel nights over the years, it’s been my own experience that the biggest issue is not the problems that occur, but the difficulties in getting the staff organized to fix them. It’s often more of a hassle to report a problem than simply to live with it. In one hotel just last week, I had a sink drain plug that couldn’t be raised to drain the sink, a bathroom fan that wouldn’t turn off, and a shower that wouldn’t stop dripping, Rather than asking the hotel to fix them, I pulled the plug out of the drain, and shut the bathroom door so I wouldn’t hear the drips or the fan. Getting things like this fixed can take hours, and the resolution is often to move the guest a different room, which is a hassle. So guests don’t report the problems they can live with. As a result, the problems aren’t discovered or fixed, and the next guest has the same issue.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Why is it getting worse? In most cases, it’s because what used to be addressed with two devices - a telephone used by the guest and a walkie-talkie used by the staff, are now handled with multiple communication methods from the guest (phone, text, app chat, bedside tablets, voice requests via Alexa-type devices), and dispatched to staff through multiple systems or offline logbooks in different ways (housekeeping, engineering, room service, bell desk, valet, shuttle, concierge, spa, minibar, front desk, room reservations, restaurant reservations, complaints/service recovery, and others).

Ideally you would like any guest request, no matter how it comes in, to be handled in the same way: dispatched to the most qualified available staff member, actioned promptly, and resolved, with relevant communication to the guest throughout. And if it isn’t getting resolved, an escalation process should kick in, regardless of which system or person “has the ball.” Throughout the resolution cycle, all staff should have full visibility of the request and its history, as well as prior requests from the same guest. Nothing is more annoying to a guest than having to repeat the entire history of an unresolved issue because the staff can’t see what’s happened or what’s been done (or not). And if the associate can’t see that in fact someone is just about to resolve the request, they may dispatch someone else, duplicating the effort and potentially annoying the guest. One time when I requested extra towels late one evening, I had to call back twice because they didn’t arrive for two hours. I then got three separate deliveries of towels, two of them after my family and I had gone to sleep.

So let’s talk about the technology solutions. Work order management systems have been around for many years. Most of them are used only by a limited set of staff and/or for particular types of requests. This can be fine for a hotel that only gets the types of requests its system is designed to handle. But the process breaks down for any requests it can’t, and this can quickly lead to unhappy guests. It’s therefore critical to make sure that every type of request the hotel gets can be handled. Work order management systems may be integrated with some subset of the operational systems offered by the same vendor, such as housekeeping, engineering, or preventive maintenance; most also are able to exchange basic information with the property management system (PMS).  Logbooks may also be integrated, and other support provided for functions like lost-and-found, bell services, shuttle buses, and valet parking. Higher end systems, such as those offered by Amadeus (HotSOS) and Knowcross, can do many of these things, but may be seen by some hotels as too heavy or expensive. Integration with the many systems that the guest may use (website, app, tablet, text, social messaging, voice) is generally possible, but each one can add costs. Key service functions like room service and concierge are rarely if ever integrated, even though they may be very common sources of guest requests in many hotels.

I looked at several providers that offer operational support software, trying to understand how they could both improve operating efficiency and improve the guest experience through better execution against guest requests and issues. One key part of operating efficiency is housekeeping, which I covered in a prior column. There are important aspects of both operational efficiency and guest satisfaction that are built into the better housekeeping systems, but since they were covered in that column, I’ll avoid repeating them here.

Is operational support software the same as work order management? While there is overlap, I believe they are different. Work order management is often done within a single department, or a defined subset of departments, and is focused on getting a task to someone who can do it. Operational support software may also handle work orders, but it is more about helping the hotel deliver on daily operations and guest requests in an efficient and effective way. If a guest calls the concierge for dinner reservations and then remembers she needs additional hangers, the concierge should be able to take and enter that request and have it sent to a room attendant, rather than having to call the housekeeping department. And when the guest calls back for a spa appointment, the concierge should be able to see that the hangers were in fact delivered. It is this simple cross-department coordination – across ALL departments – that good operational support software will deliver. If front line service staff like the concierge, room service, and the spa aren’t in the loop and using the same software, then you aren’t optimizing the entire operation, just a part of it.

The ideal operational software doesn’t need to do very much, but what it does need to do isn’t easy. It should be capable of taking a request anywhere: from a staff member dealing with a guest in person, by phone, via SMS or another texting platform, or via an app; from a chatbot like the ones covered in an earlier blog; from an in-room tablet; from service buttons inside a guest room (like make up room or butler call); from a visual interface on a phone or TV; from a hotel staff member who discovers an issue; or from another system that may detect a maintenance situation requiring attention.

Once the system has the request, it should be able to dispatch it to the right department or (better) directly to staff who are currently on call (which means knowing real-time shift staffing). It should ensure that they see it and acknowledge it, and raise an alarm if it isn’t accepted quickly, or if it remains unresolved after some amount of time. It should maintain a history of all the interactions regarding a specific issue as well as other issues for the same guest (including at least summaries of prior stays, because sometimes history matters). It should make this easily visible to any staff who might need to deal with the resolution and/or the guest.

Lastly, it should close the loop with the guest as often as needed throughout the resolution process. Depending on the situation, it might inform the guest which associate is working on the request and when they expect to complete it. It should communicate any delays promptly. It should inform the guest when it thinks the task has been completed, to ensure that he is now satisfied. It may even survey the guest for feedback after the fact. If the guest submitted the original request via SMS or Facebook Messenger, the status updates should come back the same way. The guest wants one conversation, not four or five.

The reason none of this is easy is that many of the existing systems that handle work orders within a department have their own internal logic, may be unable to share information about tasks in queue or in process with other systems, and may not be able to report resolution of a task back to another system. So while a communications platform may be able to interface with a particular departmental system to deliver a request, it may be more in the nature of “throwing it over the wall and hoping someone catches it” than a closed loop that tracks and ensures task completion. This is a major point of failure.

Indeed, very few of the systems that manage departmental operations are capable of sharing all (or sometimes any) of the necessary information with third-party systems. Yet without such sharing, there is no way that the hotel can have a coordinated view across departments of how a request is being handled. There are two options for getting there: either a single system can do it all, or a communication platform can handle all the messaging and tracking, with departmental systems accepting messages and fully participating in the platform’s request-tracking-and-resolution model. Without one of these approaches, at least SOME guest requests will fall between the cracks without the hotel management ever being aware – until the guest complains that their request was not fulfilled.

How big an issue is this? It depends on the types of guest requests the hotel gets, and the degree to which the different departments are automated (and how many different vendors are involved). An 80-room limited service roadside hotel where most requests are either for housekeeping or engineering, and where operations may be heavily paper-based, is very different from a five-star resort that has third-party solutions for room service, concierge, spa, and other services.

This week I will highlight some companies that are worth a look for operational service and work-order management software. There are a lot of new and better options now than just a few years ago, and I expect improvements to continue. Today, there is no system that I think really comes close to addressing the full problem, and I’m not specifically recommending any of these, but several are moving in the right direction. In evaluating solutions, there are some questions to consider.

First, does the solution allow work requests to be entered in all the relevant ways? What will it take to connect your website and/or app chats, or your in-room tablets or voice assistants if you use them? If you need to integrate with an existing housekeeping or maintenance system, can requests generated by those systems (or their users) enter the workflow easily?

Second, how are requests dispatched? Do you need languages to be translated due to multilingual staff, and does the solution provide that? Can pictures be attached to requests, for example to show a maintenance issue more precisely? Are requests routed to the right department by a human, by artificial intelligence, or some other way? To the extent a human needs to be involved, do you have the resources to be able to do this promptly? A text or chat request from an in-house or arriving guest needs to be responded to in just a few minutes to avoid dissatisfaction; if you can’t do this, it may be better to not offer that option. If the requests are sent to a housekeeping, maintenance, or other system, what interfaces are required?  Or do the staff simply carry the work order app in addition to the one for their own department? It’s never ideal to have staff using two systems, but sometimes it is the best option. If you have to do this, it’s critical to make sure that staff are trained to know what needs to be done in one system, the other, or both.

Thirdly, how is the request resolved, and the resolution tracked?  Can it be easily reassigned when needed, either because of conflicting requests on one associate, or because a different department needs to get involved? Is there a positive acknowledgement when someone accepts a request? Can they provide an estimated response time? If multiple staff members can respond but in different time frames, can the system detect this and assign it to the one who can respond most quickly? If a guest wants something done during a certain time interval, can that be scheduled? If responses are handled in a different system such as maintenance, can that system report back to the operational platform? Are additional interfaces required to achieve this? Are there checklists that can be provided to ensure all relevant resolution steps are taken? Can staff document completed items with photos? Is the guest notified of changes in the status, preferably using the same communications method as the request originated? Are there good reports for measuring what’s going wrong at a hotel, and how quickly it’s being fixed? Can you tie good or bad reviews to the service history of the guest during the stay? If relevant, are reports usable for multi-property groups at the corporate level?

Lastly, and perhaps most important, can all staff access the work order system from their mobile device and see what has already been done (if anything) for a guest or a specific request? This is key to solving the communication problem that the walkie-talkie once solved quite well. Every staff member who might deal with a guest needs to know the history of requests and issues the guest has had, and what has been done to fulfill or resolve them.

Few if any hotels will find a system that will do all these things in every situation, at an acceptable cost. So it’s important to think through the tradeoffs based on the most common requests, the systems you already have, the characteristics of your staff and management, and the capabilities and costs of the available solutions.

Smaller, limited- and select-service properties with simpler needs do have some options that will help; many of these are now quite affordable, although they all have limitations. Many but not all of them can scale up to larger or more complex properties as well, although they will get more expensive and cover less of the operation.

Lodgistics handles work orders and preventive maintenance, but isn’t integrated with housekeeping or text input. It does, however, offer built-in language translation. SP Square supports maintenance, inspections, work orders, and various logbooks, and has an AI layer to dispatch many simple requests received in text or voice form without human intervention (the ones it can’t are routed to a human). Quore handles preventive maintenance, housekeeping, lost and found, and other logbooks, includes language translation, and has integrations with Zingle and Whistle for automated dispatch of simple text requests. Hotelkit handles execution of work requests from any department that uses it; it is focused on staff (not guest) communication for things like maintenance and housekeeping requests, and recently introduced a housekeeping module. Nuvola has text messaging, a housekeeping module, preventive maintenance, lost and found, and service recovery and supports input to the guest through an app or Alexa. Amadeus’ HotSOS Mild can operate standalone or in conjunction with the Amadeus housekeeping software, at a lower price point than its full service option. Knowcross has a work order management system that is well integrated with its own housekeeping system but also deals with service recovery.

While these platforms all support basic work-order management, I would categorize the above solutions as primarily ones designed for one or a few departments, that have in varying degrees integrated multiple ways of getting requests and communicating resolutions. Two other systems are closer to full communications platforms, built around optimizing the flow of request from guests to the various staff members and back to the guest, while providing visibility.

Alice is an open hotel operations platform that supports messaging with the guest through text protocols and a white-label app, and offers modules for service delivery, concierge, maintenance, housekeeping, and logbooks. As these modules have been added in recent years, it has gotten closer to providing a full solution, but some of the modules may not meet the needs of specific departments as well as best-of-breed. Alice publishes open APIs that can make it easy to connect other systems, but there is invariably a loss of fidelity because the other systems generally aren’t able to support the full communication flow. A simple example of a towel request, for example, can be dispatched directly to the room attendant, rather than being sent to a third-party housekeeping system where a supervisor may need to assign it manually. Direct assignment reduces staff resources and response time. It can also provide immediate visibility of the resolution status to the guest and other staff.

A much smaller company with a lighter weight product, but still with a focus on good communications, is Zenya. It broadens the domain beyond the walls of the hotel to handle the delivery of marketing messages, such as for upselling; if an upsell is successful (for example, a champagne and flowers package), it can create work orders as needed for fulfillment, and it can collect payment if needed. It integrates email, mobile, Alexa, and in-room tablets. It does not have modules for housekeeping, maintenance, or other departments, however.

Can these systems measurably impact guest satisfaction? Posadas, the largest hotel operator in Mexico and a user of ALICE, thinks so.  Enrique Calderón, Chief Operating Officer has said “ALICE has become a very important part of how we manage our operation. We are now compensating our GM’s based on how well their fulfillment rates are in ALICE, because it has a material impact on our guest satisfaction, and hence our ADR.”

There’s no single answer, but any of the systems listed above can help to improve results. They are evolving fast, and in a positive direction. But it’s time for hotels to focus on helping their staff communicate with guests and with each other, in ways that enable the hotel to provide the kinds of service guests demand!

Douglas Rice

Discover Return On Experience

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