Definitely Doug 4/8/22: How Was Your Stay?

4.8.2022
by Doug Rice
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My previous column was the first in a series of three focusing on tools that collect, analyze, and act upon guest feedback. The initial installment covered online reputation management (ORM), which matters at the very first step of the sales funnel – where potential guests are qualifying hotels, typically using Google, Tripadvisor or an online travel agent (OTA). This second segment addresses guest satisfaction survey (GSS) software, which can work in tandem with ORM and is offered by many of the same vendors. For branded hotels, however, GSS is often separate because the tools are usually selected by the brand, whereas ORM software is mostly left to the discretion of the owner or manager.

If you already have a GSS tool, this week’s article should help you use it more effectively. If you don’t, then it can help you understand why you might want one, what to look for, and how to use it. The final installment in two weeks will close the loop, providing details on how to operationalize the feedback you get from both GSS and ORM to improve overall performance and customer satisfaction, tying guest feedback to your customer database.

While guest surveys are today’s focus, it’s worth noting that guests are not the only audience that matters. Many hotels and brands will find value in surveying employees, hotel owners, meeting planners, corporate accounts, and even suppliers. Some of the tools can be easily adapted for these audiences, but that is a topic for another day.

I spoke with several companies offering GSS tools, collecting their thoughts on best practices and key considerations in evaluating them. I’m aware of more than 80 companies offering products in the category, far too many to speak with them all. Many of these are lightweight add-ons to other software, so I focused on several that sell GSS (or GSS/ORM combinations) as primary or significant products. For small to medium chains and independent hotels, these included Dailypoint, D-EDGE’s Sentinel product, GuestRevu, Medallia’s Medallia Go product, Revinate, Shiji’s ReviewPro, and Xperium. Medallia also has an enterprise product that is used by major brands; Qualtrics, which also competes in the enterprise space, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Much of the information presented here was gathered in interviews for the earlier ORM article, as all but one of the companies listed above offer both ORM and GSS tools. My thanks to the executives from these companies who shared their knowledge and expertise.

Collecting Guest Feedback

Guests love to provide feedback to hotels. Whereas many industries struggle to get response rates of a few percent on emailed surveys, a 20% response rate is not unusual for hotels, and one vendor said that in their experience, most hotels should be able to get to 30%.

Timing is a key driver of response. You can survey guests when they book, before they arrive, during their stay, or afterwards. But if you want feedback on the booking process, don’t wait until after the stay – the guest likely won’t remember much about it, if they were even involved at all. Surveys need to be relevant to the guest’s recent interactions with you – and they need to be short. You might be able to get responses from the same guest at several points in the process if you only ask one or two questions each time, while saving a more detailed survey for after checkout. But no survey should take more than about five minutes to complete, and shorter is better. You cannot ask everything you would like in a five-minute survey, so avoid the temptation – instead, use a tool that can customize the questions presented to each guest, perhaps covering certain hotel features that they told you they used, and/or randomizing from among a larger selection of general questions.

Formal surveys are often sent as a link via email, text, or messaging app. But informal surveys are often used to capture in-the-moment reactions with pop-up questions that may appear on a website, in a mobile app, in a chat session with a human or a chatbot, or from scanning a QR code. These should be limited to one or two questions that can be answered very quickly. You can provide the option for deeper feedback via freeform text, as in “Is there anything we can do to improve your stay?” But if you ask, you need to be prepared to act on (or at least respond to) the requests. Increasingly, hotels are incorporating these into chatbot tools that support various messaging platforms (hotel mobile app, SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat). Both Medallia and Revinate have recently acquired chatbot products to enable tighter product integration.

The better chatbots can not only ask how your stay is going but can also use artificial intelligence to detect specific issues or negative sentiments in your responses, potentially enabling service recovery before it’s too late. Be aware that while the chatbot may be agnostic as to the messaging platform used, the platforms themselves can have limitations. For example, the popular messaging app WhatsApp, used by many guests in some parts of the world, enforces restrictions on businesses sending messages more than 24 hours after the customer’s last response – meaning that it may not be as useful for post-stay surveys, for which the survey and/or reminders may need to go out later.

Survey Methodology

It’s very easy to create a survey – but very difficult to create a good survey. There is well established science on how to design surveys to get specific answers, and both science and art to wording questions to get the desired response without bias. There is simply no reason to spend good money on a survey tool and then ask poorly designed questions that will yield misleading or unusable data. Hotels often ignore the expertise available from many vendors, however. Many simply borrow a competitor’s survey, which may be both poorly designed and focused on metrics that may be relevant to the competitor but not to them. Or the hotel may design its own questions, but without the experience and training of a market research professional, they are likely to harvest misleading or totally erroneous information.

Surveys should be created by trained market research professionals, working closely with hotel management. The better survey providers have such professionals on staff, and while they can provide you with a standard template for a survey, it’s well worth engaging with them for some customization. What questions should be asked, how they should be presented, to whom, and when are highly dependent on both your typical guest, the services offered by the hotel, and known challenges that impact guest satisfaction – and any or all of these may be quite different from those of competing hotels. What may work perfectly for one hotel may be totally inappropriate for the one next door. And if your survey needs to be presented in multiple languages, make sure the vendor’s team can support the ones you need (with something more than Google Translate). Subtle differences in translation can change the context, and guest responses, significantly.

In designing surveys, it’s important to distinguish between the goals of scoring performance and gathering feedback; while both are important, these objectives use very different methodologies. Scoring provides quantitative measures that can help you track performance over time or across properties or departments, but often provides little insight into why guests were (or were not) happy. Feedback needs to be more open-ended. Scoring tells you whether a guest found their room less than comfortable; feedback is what can help you narrow down the cause, which might be noise, mattress quality, bathroom design, or something else. Both have their place, but if you are going to ask for open-ended feedback, you need to be prepared to review it and, where appropriate, respond. Some experts recommend asking only scoring questions in a survey, but then offering an option at the end to leave a review, which can then be analyzed using ORM tools for sentiment (see previous column).

It can be tempting to use scores to measure staff performance. But don’t overemphasize this; several vendors had war stories of hotel staff gaming the system. A front desk colleague telling a guest to “please rate us a 9 or a 10 on the survey, or I’ll get fired” can elicit enough sympathy to bias the results whether or not it’s true (it might in fact be a bonus to be paid out if the hotel achieves certain targets). It’s okay to let ratings influence staff incentives or disciplinary actions, but the connection should be subtle and based on longer term trends, not something that invites staff to try to influence the ratings.

Surveys should be short. You will get more responses if you tell the guest up front that the survey will take only two or three minutes, and if it in fact does only take that long. Five minutes should be the absolute limit to get through the required questions (any freeform questions or opportunity to post a review should be optional, as these can add significant time). If you need to ask more questions than you can within the time limit, then select a random subset of questions for each survey, or if your tool supports it, let the guest choose which of several areas they would like to provide more feedback on, for example the spa experience, the fine-dining restaurant, room service, or the fitness facilities.

Many surveys start with a single question, designed to capture a Net Promoter Score (NPS), a popular measure of customer loyalty. This question is usually worded something like “How likely are you to recommend this brand to a friend or colleague?” NPS can be useful to rank the comparative performance of specific properties within a brand, where the survey methodology and questions are controlled and consistent.  NPS is less useful for competitive comparisons because competitors may not share their scores and even if they do, differences in the survey approach or response rates may bias the results. And NPS scores are not actionable: a high score does not tell you what you are doing right, and a low score provides no clues as to what you need to work on.

Most hotel surveys ask about your satisfaction with various elements of your stay, such as the room, the service, the facilities, or food and beverage. They may drill down further, for example to the cleanliness of the room, the furnishings, or the quality of the bed. This approach can collect a lot of opinions about your hotel, but it misses a critical question, which is how much do guests care about each of the things you asked them to rate? A low rating can tell you that people didn’t like your gift shop, but not how much they cared or even whether they saw or visited it. Many market researchers recommend the use of two-part questions (rating and importance) so that you can identify and prioritize issues where performance is subpar and where it’s important to the guest.

If you have a flexible survey tool, you can use it to test potential changes inexpensively. For example, if you are seeing low ratings for the bed quality and want to see if a new mattress can fix the problem, you can buy a few of them and deploy them in specific rooms, then test whether survey respondents who stayed in those rooms saw an improvement (this requires certain linkages between your GSS software and your Property Management System or PMS, which I will cover in the next article in this series). This can help avoid spending money on a property-wide upgrade that may not leave guests happier.

A final question is whether to survey guests selectively or comprehensively. Surveying every guest will, with good response rates, generate the most reliable information. But for guests who may stay at the same property frequently, a survey after every stay can seem repetitive and annoying, so some experts recommend sending a survey only after every few stays. This can, however, cause the hotel to miss getting feedback on something specific to a stay for which no survey was sent. You can compensate for this with ad hoc in-stay surveys, for example using a chatbot. Once a chat channel has been established, a quick question like “how is your stay going?” can be used to identify guests who should get a full post-stay survey, or one focused on specific aspects. And if the answer is not good enough, then the bot or a staff member can follow up immediately with “how can we make it better?”

Maximizing Response Rates

Average response rates for well-designed hotel guest surveys are around 20%, but some experts said that they had found that 30% was achievable with the right tools and processes. This means timing each survey, so it is meaningful (right after the booking, stay, or other interaction) and reminding the recipient once or twice if they don’t respond immediately. An incentive such as a sweepstakes or raffle can also help boost response rates, provided that the reward is made in a form that is meaningful to the guest (offering two or three choices can help with this, since few rewards will have universal appeal).

Surveys should be used to gather and post online reviews, as discussed in the prior column. This will constrain some of the survey questions based on the review site selected for posting, as each site has a different set of required questions, such as size of party or reason for travel. Many hotels only ask for a review if the survey rating is high enough, which is ethically questionable but may be tempting if competitors don’t play fair.

There is a big advantage here if the survey tool can post reviews directly to a review site through partnership with the site operator. This avoids the need for the guest to log in to the site, meaning higher volumes of verified reviews. One vendor reports an average 10x increase in reviews for hotels that add this capability. And based on the review site algorithms, more reviews (especially recent ones) generally earn a better popularity ranking for the hotel (such as #3 of 127 hotels in Amarillo), which affects visibility. Direct review posting requires that the survey tool have a collection partnership agreement with the review website, or that it embed a third-party widget that has one.  And if the hotel posts reviews on its own website, the review only needs to be written by the guest once.

Responding to Survey Issues

With online reviews, the experts considered responses by management to be mandatory. However, they were less aligned on the need to respond to surveys. Where the survey is conducted by a third party and this fact is clearly stated on the survey, there may be less expectation on the part of the guest that every comment will elicit a response from the hotel or brand itself. But some comments, as well as some surveys without comments, will still merit follow-up in some form, for example if a senior executive of a key corporate account has a bad stay, management needs to be alerted immediately. If the survey appears to have been sent directly from the hotel or brand rather than from a third party, the expectation will be higher that comments will be directed to the right person and responded to.

The number of comments on surveys can be high, but only if you permit them. For this reason, some experts felt that the best approach was to keep the survey questions purely statistical, and limit freeform comments to ones that can be included in an online review, for which there should already be a response protocol in place. This simplifies the survey for the guest, invites more online reviews, and reduces the burden on hotel staff of responding.

Even with purely statistical questions, some surveys will merit follow-up, for example to clarify why a guest provided a poor rating on something that might have multiple causes. The better tools provide templates that can be used to save time and help overcome writer’s block, but the experts recommended that each response be at least partly personalized to reflect specific issues raised by the guest. This follow-up can be done by email, and ideally from a manager in the appropriate department who can take ownership of fixing any issues. The better survey tools provide a mechanism for queueing specific surveys to the department that should handle the response.

And of course, don’t ignore privacy regulations. In many jurisdictions, you need explicit permission to respond to a guest about a survey; that permission can be requested within the survey itself.

Conclusion

Surveys are a powerful tool for both measuring guest satisfaction and for identifying the issues that are most impactful so that remedial actions can be prioritized. Unfortunately, few hotels know how to design good surveys, or how to manage them well. The tips here can help you get better information.

The final column in this series will close the topic of guest feedback. It will discuss the linkages with the PMS and/or customer database that can be used to both help manage the process, and to utilize feedback to improve the guest’s future stay experience.

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

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