Companies like Amazon and Zappos have built business empires by enticing customers to serve themselves. So why do so many companies fail to entice their own employees to use self-service travel portals?
Because they ignore a few well-honed rules of self-service – rules that online travel agencies, airline and hotel websites and other successful online vendors know well, says Micah Solomon, author of the new book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service (Amacom, May 2012).
Solomon’s book highlights strategies to help companies win the service race. Service is more than being nice, he said. Service is a key element in shaping customer – or business traveler – behavior.
Rule #1: Let them choose
Solomon’s first rule for successful self-service? Give customers a choice.
It’s no accident that road warriors book direct with vendors. Travel vendors have an enormous stake in luring customers to self-service, said Solomon, a customer service, hospitality and marketing strategist and speaker.
But travel departments try to mandate self-service. Bad idea.
The trouble with mandates
“One major hotel chain is trying hard to force customers into self-service check-in,” Solomon told Travel Market Report. “That rubs me the wrong way. Being checked in by a trained hospitality professional is part of my experience as a guest.
“Now I’m the first to admit that I’m happy that those kiosks are there, because check-in lines are sometimes ridiculously long. But I want to make that choice.
“To the extent that self-service feels like a choice, I’m anxious to do it to save time. To the extent that it feels like I’m being pressured, that’s when I say no.”
Travel Market Report asked Solomon to explain how corporate travel managers can improve traveler compliance by heeding the principles of successful self-service.
What does improving customer service have to do with shaping corporate traveler behavior?
Solomon: Managing travel is all about managing traveler behavior. People resist mandates and find ways around the rules. Managing behavior is about enticing people to do the right thing and making it easier to do the right thing than to go off in another direction.
Give your travelers a choice. Then make it so easy and so attractive that self-service with the preferred supplier is the obvious choice.
If your people are booking outside your preferred channel, you should be asking why. What about those alternative sites is so much more appealing than your booking engine? Employee behavior will change once you make your channel the obvious choice.
Airlines don’t give you much choice when checking in except a kiosk, but most passengers seem to accept self-service. What did airlines do right?
Solomon: Usability is a well-tested science, and the airlines followed almost all of the science.
You can check in online or at the airport. You can identify yourself with your name, your reservation number, your credit card, your passport, your frequently flier card. You can enter your flight information yourself or you can let the computer find it.
The kiosks tell you clearly what the next step is and make it easy to follow the process. They even remind you to take both your boarding pass and your receipt.
Airlines don’t do everything right, but they get the important points.
And they usually have humans on site to help when something doesn’t go right. Self-service should always have an obvious escape to a well-trained human problem solver.
Is there a secret to successful self-service?
Solomon: The secret of great self-service is the same as the secret of great in-person service: Anticipate customer needs and meet them before the customer even thinks about it.
If you want your travelers to use your booking system and not book direct with a hotel, your service has to beat the hotel self-service res system.
Remember the early days of Amazon.com? When they started out, Internet buying was new and customers were a little unsure. They were answering millions of calls just to confirm orders.
Those calls went away when Amazon brought in automated confirmations. Marriott brought that instant automated response to hotel bookings and reset customer expectations.
If your booking engine doesn’t meet that standard, the hotel is winning the race to shape your traveler’s buying behavior.
How do you anticipate customer needs?
Solomon: Think like a top-line hotel. When Apple decided to set up its Apple Store channel, they sent managers to Ritz-Carlton for training. The hotel model came up because when Apple asked its employees about their best customer service experiences, it was always a great hotel, usually Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton.
Ritz-Carlton taught Apple managers to be anticipatory, to greet people properly. It taught them to hire based on personality, because the Apple Store was designed as a person-to-person experience. You can teach technology skills, but personality comes with the person.
How does that play out in business travel?
Solomon: Steve Jobs used to say that the desired customer experience has to come before the technology is developed or chosen. What is the experience you want your customers, your travelers, to have? Once you have the experience, you can select software and platforms that support the experience.
I didn’t realize that until I got a pair of Bose headphones and kept killing the batteries. I finally realized there was an on/off switch.
Ever since the first iPod, Jobs insisted that there not be an on/off button. The device anticipates that you won’t use it all the time, so it pays attention and turns itself off. Bose hasn’t reached that level.
If your travel program can anticipate your travelers’ needs at the Apple level, your road warriors will be happy to do things your way because you’re making their travel lives so much easier.