The Chesapeake Point of View

Know Your Customer: Identifying Key Tools In Expanding Business From Guests

Know Your Customer: Identifying Key Tools In Expanding Business From Guests

August 26, 2013

There is plenty of discussion in the hotel industry about managerial strategies and best practices, the value of great service and training, and the importance of a motivated and talented sales team. While those conversations are instructive, they are also incomplete. What often goes missing in those discussions is the how: how do you translate those philosophies and initiatives into more business. A hotel that consistently delivers great service will almost inevitably see more traffic, but a hotel that understands how to leverage that service into more bookings will always have an advantage.
The key to realizing that missing step is both suspiciously simple and surprisingly complex: know your customer. While that may seem like Business 101, understanding who is staying in your hotel is the essential first step in a chain of events that enables proactive and engaged managers to expand business in dramatic fashion. Knowing your customer means understanding your customer: why they are staying in your hotel, how they booked and what their service preferences and priorities are. When done correctly, customer engagement, information gathering and response enables you to make any operational or infrastructure changes that need to be made, and provide invaluable leads that will help you capture more business.
What follows are the key strategies, tools and techniques you can use at the hotel level to gather and leverage information about your guests.

Make a First Impression
First impressions are lasting impressions. With that in mind, many successful hotels maintain a “Lobby Ambassador” program or some kind of similar initiative. Whether it is in the morning or the afternoon, the GM (or at least a senior sales manager) is there in a coat and tie to help greet guests, speed up the check-in process and boost the level of service provided to arriving guests. This is not only an opportunity to provide a smile and a handshake and create a favorable impression in the customers’ minds, it is also a valuable chance to gather information about your guests. Where are they from? What are they in town for? Is there anything you can do for them? Casual interactions like these can lead to future bookings and provide the service staff and sales team with essential information about how to make your guests’ stay more comfortable and convenient. This kind of program also works during checkout. Hotel professionals always seem to be casually asking, “How was your stay?” but this should not be a rhetorical exercise. Treat it as a chance to gather important information, mitigate or eliminate a bad impression, or put an exclamation point on a great experience. In addition to Lobby Ambassador programs, another tactic is a quick call up to a guest’s room in the first five to ten minutes after arrival to make sure they are settled in and to find out if they need anything. Most hotel brands are working on their first impressions even before the guests arrive for their stay, sending pre-arrival emails with weather forecasts, opportunities for affordable upgrades, and soliciting special service requests.

Understand the Power of the Front Desk
The hotel lobby is the key social hub for guest interaction and information gathering, so hiring the right people to staff the front desk is critical. Professionals with sunny dis
positions and ready smiles are good fits of course, but to really excel, these employees must know how to get the right information from guests. Engaging in a conversation with them and asking questions like How did you hear about us? Why did you choose us? Is this your first time staying with us? How did you book? or How did you hear about us? is not just making idle chitchat or pleasant conversation, it is data mining. When done correctly, it provides a valuable starting point for sales prospects for future business and alerts the sales team as to when, how and if they need to follow up. This process can also establish personal preferences enabling the hotel to provide a more personal level of service for that guest in the future.

Know Exactly Who is Staying With You
Many successful hotel management professionals print out regular arrival reports with detailed information about who is arriving, what company they are from and what rate codes they booked under. This information is a potential gold mine, allowing the sales team to review, target and respond to guests who are with companies that the hotel can build or expand business with, and can sometimes facilitate personal connections and engagement with key guests. The GM may elect to reach out by leaving a personal note in a guest’s room, buying them breakfast, or simply engaging them in conversation about the hospitality needs of their company in the future. Keep in mind that knowing your customer in this way allows you to stay locked in to your client base and subtle market changes. Are there opportunities to exploit regarding your weekday or weekend guest?
Use Rate Plans and Booking Information
Use the information about who is booking under what rate plan and who is using certain OTAs to enhance your understanding of who is in the hotel. Maintaining clearly-defined market segments that are rigidly tracked is the key: too many management companies lump categories together and miss opportunities to glean important insights. Be aware that some guests may book under different rate codes—someone booking under a leisure rate code might actually be there on business, for example—and parsing that information can be helpful. Highlighting reservations for your sales team to help them understand how first-time guests found your hotel can also be enormously important for future strategic marketing and advertising resource deployment. One of the single most substantive and effective things that any manger can do is to accurately track which guests are employees of which companies, and subsequently follow up to solicit feedback and hopefully generate more business from those firms.

Go the Extra Mile
Special events and activities can have an outsized ROI when it comes to gathering information and making an impression on guests. A reception for frequent guests, for example, gives the GM or sales leader a chance to mingle with these VIPs. Listening is underrated and underappreciated when it comes to hotel management: many guests do not bring up what is wrong with their stay, they simply do not come back, or they will post an unfavorable review online. Talking through a bad experience and addressing the situation before that happens is obviously advantageous. A visible and engaged staff presence goes a long way to determine if a guest characterizes the hotel as “friendly” and it is not particularly hard to earn that reputation. Going the extra mile can be a small gesture, such as stocking a guest’s favorite brand of vodka—a move that I have personally seen used to great effect to help win over a guest and make them a hotel regular. Communicating online is also important. Most successful GMs make a point to respond to negative (and positive) reviews personally online, and to monitor any emerging trends in guest impressions. Also, do not forget to leverage your brand tools when appropriate: be willing to give guests bonus points, upgrade them, or elevate their loyalty status. Such a move can overcome “brand inertia” by removing obstacles and adding incentives—perhaps helping a business traveler who may be staying elsewhere out of brand loyalty switch to your hotel.

Take Action on Insights
So how do you use and respond to the information you’ve gathered? Adjust your operations accordingly and be willing to upgrade if necessary. For example, if you find that you have more business travelers than you thought, it might be a good idea to open the restaurant a half hour earlier. Are your business guests asking for a better fitness facility? Increase the size of the room and make equipment upgrades. These are the things that let a segment of your business know you are listening. Details matter: do not book a business traveler next to a block of rooms with a raucous high school volleyball team (some brands have actually designated special “quiet floors” with strategic booking practices and limited housekeeping to avoid disturbances).

Appreciate the Value of Engagement
While the conclusions reached here are not earth-shattering—this is Service 101—it is the elbow grease required to gather and use information that makes all the difference. There is also an inherent synergy here: you are simultaneously gathering information and improving customer service. Mining your current customers also means securing more of their business (or their company’s business), while improving your public profile with more positive reviews on sites like TripAdvisor. This cascade of positive impact can yield a measurable ROI: hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in just one sub-segment of guests at a hotel is very possible. Such a responsive guest-focused policy of engagement and information gathering also has another benefit: it helps you to evolve as a hotel, to stay in touch with important trends, and to identify them early and get out in front. In other words, when you know your customers, you not only know where you need to be today, but also where you need to go in the future.