Definitely Doug 4/22/22: Using Feedback to Improve Guest Satisfaction

4.22.2022
by Doug Rice
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There are three main reasons why hotels solicit feedback from guests. The first is simply to get a “report card” of how your hotel is doing vs. competitors or other hotels in the same brand or management group. This is interesting information and may help make or break someone’s management career, but otherwise is not very actionable. The second is to identify ways to channel capital funds or operating expenses to projects that will have the greatest impact on overall guest satisfaction and, through it, revenue and profit. The last is to get insights into what specific guests liked or disliked about your hotel so that their next-stay experience will be better, increasing their preference for your hotel.

This week’s article concludes a three-part series on collecting and using guest feedback to improve guest satisfaction. The first installment addressed feedback provided by online reviews. The second part focused on guest satisfaction surveys. This third segment, which is meant to be read in tandem with the first two, ties it together by connecting feedback to individual customers and market segments. This will allow you to use it to identify actions that will improve guest satisfaction.

The techniques described here cannot usually be implemented in any one system. They require coordination across multiple systems or modules: customer relationship management (CRM) systems, property management systems (PMS), online reputation management (ORM) systems, guest satisfaction survey (GSS) systems, and possibly work order management systems and guest texting solutions (chatbots). Some CRM solutions offer ORM and GSS modules, which can reduce the complexity of cross-system coordination but rarely eliminates it. Such solutions may be a good choice if you have control over all three systems. It may, however, be impractical if your brand mandates specific solutions for one or two of them but doesn’t cover all three.

Any evaluation of solutions must consider whether they can work with your other systems to produce the desired result. I emphasize those last four words because many vendors will say “we have an interface with x.” An interface implies that some data can move between two systems, but not whether the data that you need can be moved, and at the relevant point in time. The devil is in the details and few or no other hotels may have your exact combination of systems and operational needs. If you can find another hotel with the same systems, see if what they have will meet your needs. Otherwise, you need to map out the use cases that are critical to you, verify what data needs to move from one system to another, when it needs to move, and what the receiving system needs to do with it, and then get commitments from the vendors in writing that they can send, receive, and act on the data as required. Many projects like this fail because the hotel made assumptions about an interface that turned out to be wishful thinking.

The importance of interfaces and data exchange for managing and acting on guest feedback has become much more evident in recent years. One vendor I spoke with that offers GSS and ORM tools and that integrates with other CRMs said that just a few years ago, integrations came up “at step five” of the sales process, as an afterthought. Today they are raised at the first point of contact because they are understood to be critical.

In researching this article, I benefited from expertise provided by senior managers at several companies that have products in one or more of the CRM, ORM, and GSS categories, including Cendyn, dailypoint, D-EDGE, GuestRevu, Medallia, Revinate, Shiji, and Xperium. I thank them for sharing their valuable perspectives. While there are several hundred companies that provide one or more of these products in the market, I chose these both because I find their products credible, and because they are representative of a broad range of capabilities in the market.

The Role of the PMS and the CRM

In this article I will assume that the hotel has both a PMS to manage in-house guests, room assignments, folios, and the like, and a separate CRM to manage customer profiles, data, and history. Some hotels use CRM functionality that is built into their PMS – and that works too, although the functionality is usually more limited. If that’s the case for you, just replace CRM with the guest profile portion of your PMS as you read. Most PMSs and CRMs support the management of email campaigns, so if you have one of each, you will typically designate one of them to handle guest communications, including satisfaction surveys and review solicitations. These are typically sent at specific times relative to a guest booking and stay (usually after, but sometimes before or during) and therefore need accurate information on bookings, check-ins, and check-outs. This information is always available in the PMS; it is usually replicated to some degree into the CRM, but sometimes with a time lag. What matters is that the system that is sending them have information that is accurate and up-to-the-minute.

While the principal focus of this article is guest feedback, it is important to note that many hotels also want to collect feedback from other customers, such as meeting planners. The same systems might be usable for other customers, but this may require coordination with other systems, such as sales and catering, and is beyond the scope of today’s column.

If you are collecting guest feedback using surveys, you will want to enrich your CRM guest profiles with much of that data, both to understand the guest better and to be able to deliver what they want on future stays. If your ORM tags various aspects of reviews (specific hotel services mentioned, positive/negative sentiment, etc.) then these can be recorded along with survey answers to address questions like “what do guests who don’t like our restaurant have in common?” While conceptually simple, the enrichment of CRM profiles with guest-provided data requires an understanding of applicable data privacy regulations. The better CRMs will remove certain types of sensitive data that sometimes finds its way into survey responses, such as credit card, passport numbers, or words that disclose religion, health, or other sensitive information. Hotels should think carefully about whether certain questions might elicit responses that should not be stored, and consider rewording or eliminating them, or simply not save them at all.

While privacy regulations may seem unimportant when recording guest survey data or online reviews, hotels that ignore them can face major fines, and the number of countries and states where this is the case continues to grow. CRMs need to maintain opt-in/opt-out selections and support requirements such as a consumer’s “right to be forgotten.” But it’s also important to train and monitor hotel staff that are expected to make any freeform entries regarding guest preferences or incidents, and to limit the ability to read them to staff who perform relevant roles. While intended to improve the guest’s next stay, they can unwittingly cross the line into sensitive areas such as health and religion.

Even guests themselves sometimes enter sensitive information in reviews or survey comments. “I was upset that the restaurant couldn’t provide a kosher meal” is a legitimate comment on a survey, but because it’s associated with a particular religion, it can run afoul of privacy regulations if shared across certain borders – and might even put the guest at personal risk if they visit sister hotels in certain parts of the world. Extreme caution is particularly warranted for freeform information that may be shared within a brand’s hotels, since many additional privacy regulations can come into play when data crosses international borders. For this reason, many hotel groups keep freeform guest profile information (whether from surveys or entered by staff) specific to each hotel rather than sharing it.

It will come as no surprise to hotels that not all guests are looking for the same experience. Guest profile enrichment can add a lot of value to guest feedback by helping to categorize your customers by geography, demographics, psychographics, behavioral data, booking channel, lead time, past survey responses, traveling companions, and other factors. Some of this data may be available through booking details or survey responses, but most good CRMs also support enrichment with external data from commercial sources. The more you know about each guest, the better you can analyze survey responses and online reviews to understand what guests like.  And where you don’t know a particular guest well but know something about them (such as a zip or postal code, party size, booking lead time, length of stay, booking channel), your market segmentation can help you better predict their probable likes and dislikes.

Why Surveys and Reviews Should be Tied to the Guest

Many hotels send out surveys and monitor online reviews but never tie them back to the specific guest in their CRM. Why is this important?

First, you want to be able to measure satisfaction by market segment and characteristics. Every hotel has target segments it is focused on, and others it views as non-strategic or even actively discourages. A swinging singles resort has a very well-defined target market and probably doesn’t need to pay much attention to bad ratings from an elderly couple who ended up staying there by accident, but will want to closely watch what the 20-somethings think. Most hotels have a sense of key segments, such as business transient and small groups during the week, tourists from a particular country during the summer months, or couples on the weekend. They often know a lot about these segments, but without tying CRM data to GSS and ORM responses, they cannot determine how satisfied each one is, or why. Further, the options for improving satisfaction are more limited: if you know that dissatisfaction with your breakfast is principally expressed by segment that mostly stays on weekend, you might be able to fix it by changing your packaging for that segment or changing the weekend breakfast, rather than upgrading everyone’s breakfast.

Second, you want to be able to see whether guest satisfaction changes based on factors such as booking channel, length of stay, company account, group, room type, floor, or even room number. Tracking responses and reviews by the person enables these analytics. If guests who books via a particular online travel agency (OTA) rate the hotel significantly lower than others, it likely points to an issue related to that OTA, which may be easily addressed – it could be that the description of the hotel is inaccurate, or perhaps there is a connectivity issue that is causing important information to be lost as the reservation is passed from the OTA to the hotel.

Third, you want to be able to manage complaints based on guest value. High-value customers, including both those with historical track records and those with demographics or other data that suggest high value, will look for quick and satisfactory resolution to any issues; in most cases they can easily take their business elsewhere. Low-value customers are on average less demanding and also have less financial impact on the business if they don’t return. Being able to quickly identify and respond to high-value customers who are unhappy helps focus management’s attention on the guests that have the biggest impact on revenue and profitability.

Methods for Identifying the Guest

With some guest feedback, identifying the guest is easy, but with others it can be more of a challenge. Surveys emails sent via the CRM or PMS can be connected to a specific guest via use of unique link, and this is essential to enabling the survey responses to be used to enrich the guest profile.

Online reviews are more challenging. One of the reasons to ask guests in surveys if they would like to leave a review is that this makes the review trackable to the individual; you can record the review in your CRM record for the specific guest, along with their survey responses. If you facilitate the posting of the review onto a third-party site like Tripadvisor, Google, Booking.com, or Expedia, you can in most cases tie that specific review to your CRM record even if you don’t keep a copy. There are several ways to do this depending on the site and your vendor’s level of connectivity, but be sure to verify the specifics.

Online reviews can be more difficult to track to specific guests, but it is often possible. With some OTAs, your ORM or GSS provider may be able to give you a booking reference for each review posted for your hotel; this should be usable by your CRM to identify the guest. Reviews posted by guests directly onto sites like Tripadvisor and Google can be harder to identify. Sometimes the contents of the review can be used (as in “I stayed last weekend in room 1602”), or the guest may post under their real name or something similar enough to identify them. This matching process is typically manual and works with only a subset of all reviews. And care should be taken in using information from reviews from likely-but-uncertain matches. If you save the data on the guest profile, do it in a way that staff cannot embarrass the hotel if the match turns out to be incorrect, ideally prompting them to verify information with the guest on their next stay.

Your CRM should enable you to track usernames for sites like Tripadvisor where they are known. With some GSS tools that can post directly to Tripadvisor, it is possible to identify and save their Tripadvisor username, and this can be done manually in the case of direct-posted reviews where the poster can be identified. Once you have a particular guest’s Tripadvisor username in their profile, you can use it to identify future reviews from them as well. Similar approaches work with some but not all other review sites.

Acting on Survey and Review Feedback

No solution will fully automate the feedback loop from surveys and reviews to actions the hotel needs to take to prevent the recurrence of problems or address guest complaints. Options for responding to surveys and reviews were covered in the first two parts of this article; they require at least some manual actions by staff. The better tools can prioritize and simplify the actions but still require human judgment. With very few hotels sufficiently staffed today, this is essential for all but the smallest hotels.

While it is important to respond to every online review, it is neither important nor even desirable to respond to most surveys. But you should respond to those expressing significant complaints or dissatisfaction, or with compliments regarding a particular staff member. Templates can make responses much faster to handle, but few hotels will always be able to respond in a timely way to every piece of feedback that merits a response.

For this reason, your systems should help you to prioritize responses so that you can protect as much revenue as possible whenever resources are limited. Priorities can be based on one or more of several factors, including the guest’s individual value based on prior stays in the hotel or in the brand; their estimated value based on external (e.g. demographic) data in the CRM; whether they fit the profile of a market segment that is strategic to the hotel; whether they have experienced issues on prior stays; the importance of the guest’s corporate, tour operator, or group account (and their position, if significant – e.g. senior corporate executive, meeting planner, group VIP). It is not practical to look up all this information manually for every survey or review, but the right automation tools can do it almost instantly.

Another factor in prioritizing responses is whether a complaining guest is still in-house, as may be the case if the hotel offers in-stay feedback options (such as a mini-survey sent via chatbot). A complaint that is immediately acted upon and rectified both helps to avoid a bad review after the fact; it can often turn a potential detractor into a promoter. But how the response is prioritized, and who should handle it, may still depend on the value of the customer.

Either the feedback management tool or the CRM needs to automate this prioritization based on the content of the feedback and whatever data is available. It should rank-order the surveys and reviews that are most urgent to respond to, and flag them for response, potentially (based on the guest or the problem encountered) by a specific person or position. A bad review from the CEO of a significant corporate account may merit an immediate call from the Director of Sales to the corporate travel planner, for example, while a negative survey from a high-value repeat transient guest should perhaps elicit an email or phone call from the General Manager.

Tools should ideally provide data that could help determine whether compensation should be offered and, if so, provide guidance on the appropriate range. This would consider factors such as the value of the guest, the degree of inconvenience they experienced, and how much the hotel was at fault. A one-time, low-value guest who missed the free breakfast because they were told the wrong hours might merit a simple cash adjustment for the cost of a breakfast purchased elsewhere, while a high-value guest in a room with a broken air conditioner in the Las Vegas summer, especially if there are no other rooms to which they can be moved, might expect and deserve a full refund or even more.

It's important to remember that the highest value guests are often less interested in compensation than in simply getting the problem fixed and/or making sure it does not happen again. While it is useful to have the system provide metrics that can help determine an appropriate range of compensation, it’s more important to train the staff who respond to first understand what the guest wants or expects. Throwing compensation at a guest who isn’t going to come back until you have fixed a specific problem is a waste of money, especially if it’s one you don’t plan to fix. Additionally, CRMs should record any compensation offers (and any reaction from the guest, if known), so that compensation to chronic complainers can be managed appropriately.

Sometimes guests provide feedback that should be highlighted on future stays. This may be positive or neutral, as in a guest who tells the receptionist that they always want feather pillows or never want daily housekeeping. Other times it may be to avoid something negative, such as a noisy room, or to provide something extra to make up for a past problem.

Each hotel will differ on how best to manage these kinds of information. Requests like feather pillows or no daily housekeeping might be actioned through a standard field on the guest profile in the PMS. Other situations may call for special notes on the daily arrivals report for every future stay, for example to honor a request for a quiet room, or if a high-value guest wants the automated minibar removed and a mini-fridge stocked with bottled water on every stay, or if an extra pre-arrival housekeeping inspection is needed. A daily arrivals report created by the CRM can help ensure that all relevant information about each guest’s value and any special requirements is highlighted; often the PMS only has summary information about the guest, such as VIP level. Automated creation of guest-specific tasks in a work-order management system can also reduce the need for manual review and assignment.

It can be particularly useful if the front desk (or mobile check-in app) is able to reconfirm to the guest at check-in any specific actions that have been taken based on their prior feedback. This tells the guest that you care about their experience and took their comments seriously; it can be a great builder or reinforcer of loyalty. A PMS and mobile app that can pop up the appropriate message at the right point in time can significantly improve the consistency of delivery, and through it the guest experience; some CRMs can also display guest information or even specific scripts in a “side” window on the same screen as the PMS check-in screen, synchronized to update whenever a new reservation is retrieved. If that is not an option, then consider workarounds, such as assigning a particular VIP code to guests needing special attention, and training front-desk associates to read the reservation notes whenever they see that VIP code.

While much of the process of responding to guest reviews and surveys has to do with keeping each guest happy and wanting to return, CRM analytics allow you to track satisfaction metrics by factors such as market segment, geographic origin, language, advance booking window, demographics, booking channel, arrival time, departure time, or other factors. Some of this data is typically not available to a third-party GSS provider so it can be a major benefit of tying it to a CRM. What does each segment like about the hotel? These are things you will want to change very carefully or not at all. What do they dislike? This identifies potential corrective action items for the future, and also provides important information about their personal preferences that can often be used to improve future stays. It can also highlight patterns that provide clues for corrective actions. For example, if 90% of your negative restaurant reviews come from guests who arrive after 10pm or depart before 7am, perhaps the hours of operation or late-night menu need adjustment, while the operation is just fine during current serving times.

To do this kind of analysis, you will need to record responses to at least some of the survey questions in your CRM, so that each response can be tied to the right customer segment and booking details. Online reviews may also be worth entering, although these may need to be summarized manually. For example, a customer who complains about the morning sun shining too brightly through the window might have a better experience if they are assigned a room with something other than an eastern exposure – something that is both easy and costless to do … but only if you have recorded the dissatisfaction and the action that can prevent it, and if that action is visible and used when room assignments are made.

Conclusion

Hotels that can satisfy the most profitable guests at the least cost are the ones that win the profit game. Customer feedback and the related analytical capabilities are the tools that enable hotels to understand what actions they can take to attract and retain more of the profitable guests. Without knowing this, management will often make major investment decisions based on gut instincts or average ratings that have been influenced too much by less important guests. If you have $200,000 to spend on refurbishment, guest feedback tied to detailed customer data can tell you whether to spend it on the pool, the breakfast, the mattresses, or something else.

Douglas Rice
Email: douglas.rice@hosptech.net
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ricedouglas

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